As we approached the top of Korčula, an idyllic island in Southern Dalmatia, a fellow traveller in my group cried out to herself, “Holy f–k!” She could have been overwhelmed by the beauty of the ever glistening emerald and sapphire waters of Croatia’s Adriatic coast, or the aerial views of sprawling luxe villas below, alluring homes with the sea as their front yards.
But I knew that she was really cursing the never-ending hill we were bicycling up, because I had been repeating those same words to myself for several hundred metres. That day we rode almost 60 kilometres on and up Korčula and it nearly broke me, until the landscape finally tipped in our favour, and our descent began to the town of the same name — a romantic tiny, walled city that was constructed to capture the winds in just the right way to provide natural air conditioning.
Three days earlier 15 of us had boarded the boat Azimut to sail and cycle our way from Trogir, another tiny walled city just north of Split, to Korčula and back visiting a handful of islands and mainland spots on the way.
The draw for Dalmatia is most definitely its islands, which at first glance look the same, but like siblings all have their own quirks and charms. Navigating them solo is doable, but not exactly seamless. Though Croatia is blowing up as a vacation destination, the infrastructure is still catching up with demand. Unless you know what you’re looking for, researching ferry schedules and connections with mainland transport can be an exercise in patience, advanced Google search terminology and half-accurate ramblings from the translation app of your choice.
Still somewhat under the radar for North Americans travellers, tour operators like Pedal & Sea Adventures, based out of Hubbards, N.S, are an ideal entry point to the country — particularly if you’re an active traveller. (If your travel companion isn’t, fear not — Pedal & Sea has a fleet of quality e-bikes that make two-wheeled life on the road a breeze and all rides are optional.) The company offers cycling tours of several spots in Eastern Canada and Europe, including Ireland, Italy and Turkey, but Croatia is its most popular international destination. After a week hopping from island to island, eating far too many Dalmatian delicacies and navigating the land by bike, it’s easy to see why people are opting for the rugged terrain here over more familiar riding conditions.
Our tour took us over Šolta, home to vineyards and olive groves, and Hvar, where a demanding, but not difficult, 20 km afternoon ride (10 km up; 10 km down) was accompanied by the strong, soothing fragrance from abundant lavender fields.
We sailed and then cycled around Vis, the country’s outer most inhabited island (Croatia boasts about 1,000 islands in total). A military base for Josip Broz Tito when the country was part of Yugoslavia, it only opened to tourism in the 1990s. At the pinnacle of our ride that day, I overheard a member of the group saying he did a GPS search of our location and determined that, according to his map, the land mass in our sights to the east had to be Italy — only the Adriatic lay in between. (A Google Maps search post-ride shows a couple of other land masses before Italy, but after riding 33 km and climbing 650 metres, seeing things was entirely understandable.)
Korčula, a valid contender for home of Marco Polo, captivated us, while hilly Brač, the island between Hvar and the mainland, shook off any languid state that clung to our churning legs. As reward, we ended the week with a lap of the trails on Marjan Hill, a park on Split’s waterfront known to locals as the “lungs of the city.”
To accompany our immersion in the landscape, we got a dose of culture each day as well. On Šolta, we met Goran Trvdić, a beekeeper and honey producer who is doing his part to combat the plight of these essential creatures. That night, we saw him at a bar in the town of Stomorska, where along with a handful of other singers, he performed Klappa, the region’s traditional a capella singing. On Vis, we were treated to a classic lunch of peka: meat, seafood and vegetables baked under a bell on an open flame, at Konoba Golub, a restaurant that sits near an old military aircraft runway. And in Split, we had a guided tour of Diocletian’s Palace learning the effects of centuries of disparate rule on architecture.
In between, as our legs turned until an opportunity for an ice cream stop presented itself (why would anyone turn down an ice cream stop?), we absorbed these islands from the ground: zipping through tiny lanes in tiny towns, waving as children counted us and cheered as we rode by, being gifted a bag of dried figs by one man we passed.
To see all of this by bicycle allowed for a closer, more personal look at a country of contrasts — rugged, rocky hills surrounded by gentle waves of pristine water; a culture that revels in simple pleasures but that carries a complex history; a place that makes you curse the heavens one minute then give thanks the next that you’re here to experience it all.