Category Archives: biking

A trip to the island of Žirje

This post recounts the day when I took a trip with my brother on the 31st of July, 2015. We always had a wish to go to Žirje, just to visit it. It’s located about 22 km southwest from the town of Šibenik, and is pretty much only accessible by ferry or a catamaran. They have regular lines all year.

My brother visits me and my family during the summer, so we get to hang out for a while. This time he brought his bike along with him, so we decided to make it a biking trip to Žirje.

The weather didn’t really inspire a lot of hope, it was an almost overcast sky, with raindrops swiveling around occasionally. Still, we went to buy the tickets, stock up for everything and catch the ferry. On the ferry we proceeded to eat some of the food we had bought earlier. This is a pretty scenic ride actually, and it scenically takes almost 2 hours. But hey, in good company, that’s not so bad. You get a little bit out of your routine, and experience something different whilst stuck on the ferry.

It was windy, but fortunately the clouds were letting up and the day it was actually starting to feel like a regular summer day. Žirje is the furthermost island in the Šibenik archipelago, not counting a tiny island Blitvenica that’s technically even farther than Žirje. This wasn’t my first time taking this ferry to the island. I’ve ridden this exact same ferry at least two or three round trips. I was a part of a crew that was led by the city museum to restore parts of an entrance to an old fortress that’s located on the south-eastern side of the island.

Finally we get off the ferry, the last preparations are taking place – it’s time to roll. The island itself is very peaceful as there aren’t that many people around even though the summer tourist season is at its peak. Žirje is populated with people that own houses and live in Šibenik and come to the island during the weekends, a lot of people rent and some people live year-long. There are people outside of the local convenience store that are chugging beers, elderly sitting and chatting. We start biking, first off we have 50 or 60 meters of uphill climb, but this is nothing. The temperature is almost ideal, very few cars around with wind in our hair, we enjoy the island’s serenity.

When I was working on the island the museum rented a small prefab home that is usually used over the summer for tourists. The owner spoke of how they got the home there in one piece on a huge truck that had a crane and simply placed it on the pre-prepared concrete foundations with working power lines, septic disposal, and of course water. We brought our materials on a truck, concrete, lime and sand. We unloaded all of this at the base of the fortress and hired a local man with a 4×4 Ford jeep of some sort. The car was manufactured in the 1940s and was still in working order more or less. The jeep managed to climb the uncomfortably steep rocky path, and it took us about 5-6 trips to get everything near the entrance to the fortress. The path itself was uncomfortable even on foot. Each morning we’d get up, drive to the fortress which was a couple of kilometers away, place some rocks and wait around until 1PM to go back to the house and have lunch that the boss was cooking for us. A pretty sweet deal, and we were getting paid for it too.

We went on to find a beach to take a swim and refresh ourselves. The sea was very warm, and there was absolutely no one around. I’ve not been too many times on a beach that had a body of water that was this clean, translucent, colorful. There were some waves about, and the sea bed was very natural, but this meant very sharp underwater reefs combined with all the perturbations, we had to be careful not to get injured with our bare feet in the lovely sea. After drying up a bit, we changed back to biking clothes and went on to explore the island some more. We had about 6 or 7 ours all in all, so we couldn’t afford to lounge on this wonderful beach for too long. We got on an unpaved road which are plentiful on the island, and are actively maintained by the local population and various civic departments.

After some riding we decided it’s time to head out to the fortress. Unfortunately, the fortress itself is completely unmarked on the island, and isn’t really visible almost right until you’re on top of it. Since I was working there for a couple of weeks, I knew where it was. We were cycling on beautiful unpaved roads, with the occasional stop to have some cooled beer we held in our saddle bags. Since it was hot and we were physically active the beers would really hit the spot. We left the bikes where it was appropriate and went ahead to climb the path that the old 4×4 jeep managed to get through. The path was completely unrecognizable. It’s incredible how much vegetation reclaims the area that was cleared away so we can actually go through with the jeep. It’s a 5 minute walk or so, not too steep. The view from the fortress is incredible. You can see the open sea with Italy on the other side of it. Of course the curvature of the Earth is concealing Italy’s mainland. Since the visibility was perfect, various distant islands were just barely visible. Geeks that we are, we have maps on our LG G2’s (we have the exact same phone) and were trying to figure out exactly what island we were seeing.

We took our time on the fortress. I was talking about stories the mason was telling me while we were working there. The man did a lot of archaeological excavations in his time, and this wasn’t my first time working with him. Aside from a big wall, only the foundations of the fortress remain, you can make out the rooms. Incredibly, the fortress had plumbing, and even heating. You can see the canals that were running between the rooms. Fascinating stuff, I can picture in my mind the people that are long dead now that had lives, jobs, responsibilities that were walking around this same place. We’re at least 1500 years apart. Who knows how their workday went on in this fortress. They had names, they had girlfriends, some of them were gay, some of them were unhappy, some of them had love problems, while others were just great and most likely all of them stared at one point or another at the same infinitely straight line of the open sea. The history of the fortress is relatively wacky, as it turns out this particular fortress was built and used at the end of the Byzantine power in the early 6th century century. After Justinian’s death, the funding and supply chain stopped and the fortress was abandoned. It’s estimated that the fortress was operational for 15-20 years, and the fact that no soldier graves were found around the fortress seems to support that. The fortress was one of many that was placed around the Adriatic sea to secure trading lines between Italy and Byzantium.

Upon leaving the old abandoned military installation we went to the next abandoned military installation on the island. This one is slightly newer, dating back from the Yugoslav People’s Army. It’s located a couple of kilometers of dirt roads and is on a hill, maybe a hundred meters of elevation or so. We braved the hill without stopping, it was pretty steep but luckily paved so it’s that much easier. We actually encountered a car while going uphill. Funnily, the car had New York license plates. These people were from far away. They were probably visiting their ancestors’ homes, as there was a lot of emigration from the island and in general from these areas to the new world at the turn of the 20th century and later. There was a surprising amount of hikers going around the island, mostly foreign people.

The man I was working with was in the army when the base was actually functional and he was serving here. It had a big ass artillery mounted, and some anti-aircraft guns among other things. This was designated to defend against incoming ships, as it was strategically placed. The cannon even had a pivotal role in our own independence war, it was used to shoot at the incoming tanks that were coming in to the Šibenik bridge threatening to attack Šibenik. These were hairy times, and this guy was here when it all happened. The stories about that war are almost always weird and not objective, but this man wasn’t prone telling bs as much as I could gather. The gun, and all of the equipment were stripped away in the nineties after the war was over. You could see only the protruding wires at places. This hasn’t been functional in some time, vegetation is growing all over the place, slowly reclaiming it. Just like the Byzantine fortress.

We came down from the military base, and went to a road that led to the army barracks. It too is mostly unused, however some people seemed to have establish a place for themselves nearby. The entire walkway between the barracks was completely filled with the stuff that fell from the nearby pine trees. The whole place had a serene quality, the stony floor looked undisturbed for years and years. We took out another beer and a banana, chatted for a while. Suddenly a big dog started barking from the house above. The dog is so used to the solitude, or no one coming near the house that it took some time for him to actually hear us and start barking. This was our cue to leave, apart the incessant barking we were ready to move on. Hunger had started to set in. It was time to find some food, and we were headed back to Muna, that’s where the ferry lands.

After work and after lunch we’d drink some wine and play cards, or listen to music on the computer. The house didn’t have electricity from the grid, but from solar panels. The panels were basically good enough for some light and to charge our phones – if it wasn’t cloudy during the day. I was texting with my girlfriend a lot, and my coworkers made fun of me for it. We played a lot of chess too, and just talked a lot. They called me Vladimir the invincible since the three of them could never beat me at chess. I’m a below average player, I guess they were even worse than that. During the night we’d set out baits for conger eels, 5 or 6 of them. Most of the time we’d catch something, and sometimes nothing. The nights were great, it was so incredibly quiet. There was no light pollution or pollution of any kind in the air. The center of the Milky Way galaxy was clearly visible, the giant disk of stars, dust, planets, black holes was clearly visible in the sky. The vast distance is difficult to comprehend, and I had a first class view of it. You can never really see it in cities or even smaller settlements because of street lighting. I haven’t had a clear view of the Milky Way ever since then.

Muna is a very small settlement, it has a shop, a ticket shop for the ferry and houses, a restaurant or two. We sat down at one of the restaurants and ordered coffee for starters and asked them for the wifi password. The prices seemed a bit high, so we decided to try our luck elsewhere. We used the wifi to find information about restaurants on the island. There was a restaurant a couple of kilometers away. The reviews of the place were good so we paid for the coffee and left. The restaurant was somehow farther than we had imagined. I ran into two friends from Šibenik. One of the women has a family house there and they were lounging about. It was unusual for me to bump into anyone I know on this island, but it’s not so far fetched since I know she has a house there, but I wasn’t thinking about her the whole time. At last, we found the restaurant, and it was actually open. I went in, Hrvoje followed me a minute later, he was securing the bikes. A woman was eating something at one of the tables, plenty of room for us. The owner’s son approached me and told me he was sorry, but they’re all full and cant’t really feed us. Hrvoje came in and I told him sarcastically that there’s no room for us, even though there’s no one in the restaurant. He further explained that they had an event later on with many guests. We had an hour and a half until the ferry departs. An older man, obviously the owner came and said we could sit down, but the time frame was unrealistic for them to cook us anything. Oh well, we’ll just get something to eat at the store.

A decision was made to go for another swim in front of the restaurant. We had a lot of time on our hands, and Muna isn’t too far away. The sun was slowly setting, but it was still warm. The sea was at an ideal temperature. We jumped, swam and dove a lot. I really wanted to stay some more, but time was slipping away and the ferry wouldn’t wait for us.

Even though the sea was basically perfect. I’m not sure what it was, but that’s one of the best times I had at a beach. I’ve been to the beach countless times that summer, but that particular time was simply amazing. The unrelenting passage of time forced us to vacate the pier and start our trek towards the ferry. All this island beauty left us really hungry now. We got into the convenience store to get something to eat. Anything to eat, really. The nice ladies at the shop were sympathetic to our cause, but they had no bread to sell us. One of them must have took pity on us, because she gave us a loaf of bread that was reserved for someone else, but they never showed up. Great, we bought some yogurt, some cheese, some salami and went to the ferry. We got on board and ate it. The entire day of cycling on nothing other than a sandwich at the start of the day, a couple of bananas and some beer. We lounged around the outside deck and watched the flickering lights of the settlements nearby Šibenik. The sun was going down fast.

Everything is sort of slower on islands in general, especially this one since it’s so distant. Žirje is basically dead. I don’t think a lot of people live there, and those that do are elderly. This used to be a bustling port, an island with strategic importance and a population to match. The island is now sparsely populated, and apart from the tourism there’s nothing job-wise. The connection to Šibenik is not all that great which surely plays a role.

The ride back was uneventful. The sun has completely gone down and we’re back in town. The bustling streets, the loads of foreigners walking about the streets. It’s summertime in Šibenik, and it really shows. They bring in hard currency and helps the economy, and it can’t hurt to have a lot of foreign people visiting. Tourism always reflects well for local businesses and practices, it promotes a bit of a metropolitan and urban culture to our small town. Šibenik used to be a powerhouse in terms of various industries, economy, tourism etc. Over the decades Šibenik’s influence and power dwindled, Split and Zadar took over as more important towns. The bike ride to home took another 15 minutes or so. We still had energy. We got something to eat when we got home, and got ready to go to a concert. A legendary Zagreb punk band was coming to Šibenik to play. We were very tired by the time the concert started. The music seemed bland and outright annoying, and the light show was killing me.

It was really time to call it a day around midnight. We came to the concert by car which was parked relatively nearby. I bumped into a couple of more friends. Hrvoje was grumbling that I know a lot of people and bump into someone all the time, and accuses me of spending too much time with each one. I always like to chit chat with people I haven’t seen in a while. You catch up fast, but it takes at least a couple of minutes.

I like the fact that Žirje is so unknown, and that pretty much only locals go there. The island is perfect for biking, and it might even be a better idea to rent something there and stay a couple of days to enjoy it fully. There are no discos there, no fancy restaurants, just the island and its many beaches. I definitely recommend everyone to visit the next time they’re in the area!

This is a picture dump with captions from the trip: