The first day on a bicycle tour is always the tester, a short excursion where tour leaders get a read on the group’s makeup. Who are the leisurely bikers, who doesn’t remember to signal when turning, who will be miles ahead of the group. Recovering from a cold that had settled into my lungs, I hoped that first day’s short ride could provide an extra day to recover before the real climbing began.
Because we were in Croatia, specifically Brač and Hvar, two of the Dalmatian Islands, to hillclimb. That was why Dr. K. had chosen this particular destination for a week of active travel. The string of 79 islands in the Adriatic are relatively low altitude if you’re coming from Colorado. Even so, the strikingly beautiful hills, or “Croatian Undulations,” as my friend Diane christened them, are relentless. Not one to while away hours on a beach, Dr. K. said we could marvel at the beauty perched on the seat of a bicycle.
I had expected an exhausting week biking in Croatia.
That first ride on the narrow road up to Dol on the Island of Brač included its own set of “undulations” for a total 6.5 miles. Already, there were more hills than first day rides of past trips we had taken. So it seemed contradictory when Neven, one of our group leaders, introduced me to the Croatian concept of fjaka later that evening.
“Fjaka is Croatia’s way of taking a siesta, except we can do it anytime we want to,” Neven explained.
“Like zoning out?” I asked. The mini-bus we were riding in shuddered, gathering itself for the lurch forward. The bus groaned as it rounded yet another switchback as we returned to Dol, the destination for tonight’s welcome dinner. I looked out the window into the darkening countryside, lulled by the thought that this was one hill we didn’t have to climb again. Check that one off the list.
“You will see,” he said.
Neven, ship captain, seasoned cyclist, man of few words, didn’t explain further. But I wondered. There was the daily schedule of miles to log cycling, and road side stops to see olive oil museums, quaint villages, and stone churches. There was one of the world’s oldest stonecutting schools to tour in Pučisča, there were meals to consume, and there were 19 strangers riding with us to become acquainted with. And with an 8:30 am (sharp) assembly for group instructions each morning — where were we to wedge in this siesta-fjaka?
Fjaka defines the Croatian way of thinking.
As the group spilled out of the bus, Marco, our host for the evening, welcomed us to his family’s castle, a stone villa dating to the 15th century. It had been in his family since 1739. The evening began on the terrace with grappa sipping (walnut, black olive, and an herbal infusion), followed by peka, a meat stew made from lamb, veal, chicken, potatoes, and vegetables sharing a lidded iron pot cooked over an open fire. The dish takes hours to prepare, simmering as the flavors blend, each ingredient contributing the best of itself. The broth is simple and sustaining. Croatian cuisine pulls from family recipes hundreds of years old, from neighboring Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia – formerly Yugoslavia. The recipes reflect the country’s turbulent history, a testament to its many occupiers and conquerors.
After dinner, Marco invited us to visit the upper level of his home. He led us into a dining room with hand-painted walls of peeling Art Nouveau grandeur, graced by an ornate chandelier where intertwined lilies danced, lending their elongated forms to support the electric bulbs.
The chandelier’s flickering light illuminated his ancestors’ faces in portraits hung along the walls. On the table were more faces. Books of family history, photo albums, all were open for we strangers to thumb through.
Fjaka is about making unexpected connections.
In front of me was a book of medicine, its author a woman. I opened it and a stern woman with a hint of a smile stared back at me from the delicate pages, her glasses owlish and polished, her eyes clear.
“Her name was Jenny,” Marco said. “She was my grandmother. She trained in Dresden, Germany to become a doctor and she wrote this book on the practice of medicine.”
I mentioned that my grandmother had trained to be a physician in Vienna during the same period. Here, thousands of miles from Colorado, a faded book in a Croatian village had created an unlikely connection. Here were two grandmothers who had learned the art of medicine in European universities at a time when only a handful of women were doctors. And yet, here in this room were the progeny of two of them.
“Most of what was written 100 years ago about the care and upkeep of the human body is now irrelevant with new scientific discoveries improving diagnoses and treatment methodology,” Marco said. “But anatomy, that’s still 100 percent accurate. Human physiology hasn’t changed.”
Testing the limits of human physiology while absorbing a new culture.
For the rest of that week riding the Dalmatian hills, we tested the limits of human physiology. Beth, one of the group who was soon to move from stranger to definable, likable person, had visited the medical center in Split earlier that first day, concerned that her blurred vision might be something more significant than a smear of sunscreen in her eye. For 460 kuna (a whopping $60), she was given a hall pass to ride for the week, armed with the understanding that with age, our bodies relax and connections loosen. As we all explored the Croatian landscape, the group encouraged one another to keep climbing.
There were strenuous hill climbs on Brač and Hvar, a knife-edged island with vistas plummeting to the sea, where narrow roads swooped and danced. When oxygen was scarce and my legs were shaky, I experienced fjaka when I stopped trying to process what I saw.
The memory of the face from the pages of the old medical text returned often. I saw it while pedaling through Stari Grad Plain, an agricultural landscape systemically divided by ancient stone walls that have been tilled since Ionian Greeks in the 4th century BC. I pondered the history of Croatia while standing on the rain-washed balcony of our hotel in Postira, watching clouds make impressionist paintings on the water’s surface in the harbor. And as I listened to the cadence of laughter while new friends splashed in the waters of the Adriatic during a refreshing break off the saddles, I took a step back from life.
Even while pedaling, there were pockets of fjaka.
It happened after a drenching ride downhill in the rain, when we wrung out our wet outerwear and shared a pizza. And fjaka happened after making the decision to skip the afternoon ride — without guilt.
It happened drifting off to sleep listening to laughter and raucous song from the konoba across the harbor in Postira, and it happened when, awakened at four in the morning by silence, I rose to consider the harbor lights pooling on the water and then returned to bed.
Fjaka was drinking a beer at 11 in the morning at a konoba in Stari Grad, a village dating to the 4th century BC, knowing it was time for coffee, and not caring at all.
Fjaka is peace of mind, taking a break from responsibilities, making an unusual connection, discovering the different. It is also noticing clouds — and not posting that moment on Instagram because it takes too much effort to find your smartphone.
It is the realization that the world isn’t as big as we think it is and people are much the same.
On the cramped trip home, sipping a Bloody Mary in a real glass which the flight attendant gave me for reasons unfathomable, I sat and watched as the plane inched its way west across the Atlantic. And I realized fjaka isn’t something you do. It’s what you make time for in your life every day.
And sometimes, it happens without even thinking about it.