I pedalled through the hot pain, unable to tell if it was my legs or my bike-frame that was creaking. My front wheel inched forward and I was surprised the tyres hadn’t melted into a sticky pool on the road. I had expected cooler air and cloudy skies in October, but the Croatian sky was chicory blue and the sun felt like wildfire. Somewhere behind the endless pine forest was a cool breeze whipping off the Adriatic, but it had been hours since I’d felt it.
“Shut up, legs” I muttered, willing them to pass from throbbing to numb. Mark was a dot at the top of the hill, luminous in lycra and blurring like an amoeba through the sweat in my eyes. He sprinted up the hill like he was after the yellow jersey. The cycle from Mlina to Bol across the centre of Brac island was supposed to be moderate, but the rasp in my lungs left me wondering why I’d agreed to take the trip by bike instead of hopping on a tourist boat. I could have had a cold beer in my hand swishing about the deck in an airy skirt. Instead I was running out of lukewarm water wearing a pair of padded shorts that felt weirdly like a nappy. We’d wanted to see the real parts of the islands, the centres, the bits that nobody went to. We wanted to smell them from the bicycle seat. The road we were on smelled like hot tarmac and burnt pine needles.
“Ding ding!” I hoped Mark’s bell meant he had found the lunch stop.
Keep going, keep going, keep going, I whispered in time with the slow rotation of my wheels. Collapsing in a sticky heap at the top I saw salvation: a little village almost hidden in the folds of the hills, a single church spire jutting out like a signpost. The lunch stop.
Buildings surrounding the square were beige stone with green shutters and orange roofs. The cheep of birds and click of our bike wheels were the only sounds. If it wasn’t for the colourful washing hanging from some windows I would have thought the village had been abandoned. We heard the slow slap of slippers on the smoothed cobblestones, announcing the arrival of an old man with a large, drooping moustache and braces holding up sagging trousers. As he approached us his face broke into a grin.
“The shop is closed,” he said, pointing at a cracked Tabac sign. “There is a very nice lunch at the farm up the hill,” the man said. “It’s not far, you can cycle.”
I very much doubt that, I though as I got to my feet, pain shooting back into my knees. The sweat on my forehead had dried into a crust. You could have harvested salt from my pores.
“I will call the cook to let him know you are coming. Fifteen minutes,” the man said.
Mark shook the man’s hand and thanked him.
At the top of the hill a large man in a stripy apron waved us off the road. He guided us to a crumbling old farm, trees growing through the broken roofs of stone buildings and old ploughs rusting in clumps in the yard. A wooden barrel had been turned into a table laden with fresh bread and olive oil. Before we ate, the cook offered us a shot of something that smelled like it might cleanse a wound. It burned my throat. Sunshine broke through the olive trees bathing the yard in warm sepia. I stretched my legs out and let the pleasant hum of the alcohol warm my limbs. The smell of cooking meat floated on the air. A litter of tiny kittens mewed and tumbled over each other, shading under an old cart.
“It was cooked under the bell,” the cook said as he brought our food. “Six hours.”
He placed a platter of tender meat and potatoes that looked like they might melt into the drippings if we didn’t eat them fast enough. A smile touched his sun-crinkled eyes as he also set down a carafe of cold white wine. We ate like we’d been cycling for weeks. The kittens slunk over and mewed until I nudged a bit of meat onto the ground. There was nobody else at the restaurant so he showed us the cracked iron bell that the meat roasted under and told us about the farm’s 800 year history. As he handed us a small jar of honey each “in case of emergencies,” I stretched my legs ready for the final push to Bol.
“Don’t worry,” the cook told us, “it’s all downhill from here.”
We flew down hillside roads with the sun on our backs and bellies full of food. The buzz from the wine made the Adriadic twinkle as we sped into Bol.
Docked in the harbour were two large boats and, as we negotiated the winding lanes and juddered over cobbled alleys we could hear the thud of bass pulsing from the harbour. As we got closer to the harbour the music got louder and little local Tabacs turned into shining modern bars. My legs ached and I was drenched with sweat. Side-on the hill we’d just flown down looked like a mountain, but as we got nearer to the party boats I would have faced a hill ten times the size to get back to the centre of the island.
Above: Mark relaxing on the pier at Bol, probably staring at the party boats.