Croatia’s 1,244 Dalmatian Islands

With over 1,000 Croatian islands to explore- many featuring tiny guesthouses and new hiking trails- it’s easy to lose the hordes and find the authentic Adriatic

David Atkinson
26 October 2011

It was my turn to do the washing up.

“Just throw the leftovers to the fish,” said Senko Karuza, who had just prepared a slow-cooked feast of smoked fish soup followed by black-eel stew and fresh polenta. “After all,” he smiled. “It’s organic.”

Not wanting to break with post-prandial tradition, I dutifully walked down to the waterside in Travna Bay and started dunking plates like biscuits into some of the cleanest water in the Adriatic.

Crockery suitably sluiced and scrubbed, I returned to the alfresco dining table to find Senko sharing shots of travarica (herb-infused liquor) and nuggets of native wisdom under a canopy of vines and dried palm leaves.

“I’ve lost all you have, and you have lost all I have,” declared Senko, who returned to Vis after Croatia declared independence in 1991, leaving behind the urbane life of a philosophy professor in the capital Zagreb. He drew pensively on his cigarette. “I wanted to preserve the island’s food tradition but not turn my restaurant into a museum. I’m following Aristotle’s middle path – to find balance in life amid change.”

Croatia is changing: possible EU ascension; a move to replace the native currency, the kuna, with the euro; holiday apartments advancing like an invading army across the islands of the Dalmatian (the region that makes up southern Croatia) archipelago. But, away from the luxury yachts anchored in the harbours and the sun-lounger scramble in the beach resorts, Croatia’s 1,244 islands and islets are still rich with contrasting glimpses of grass-roots culture and rural traditions.

That’s what I had come for. Eschewing an organised tour in favour of slow-travel ferry-hopping, remote walking trails and accommodation in independent, family-run pensions, I spent a week exploring four islands between Split and Dubrovnik. My plan was simple: to turn my back on the islands’ coastlines and head inland in search of Croatia without crowds. That is, as soon as I had finished the washing up.

Under the olive groves

The tiny island of Vis, two hours by ferry from Split, was my first stop. Vis was closed to visitors until 1989 and, even today, it remains one of the more isolated outcrops. The drive to Senko’s restaurant followed the island’s deserted main road, fringed with wild poppies and passing through vineyards of fast-ripening grapes. Senko was waiting with his small boat to take me foraging for lunch. We sailed to a neighbouring cove at Stiniva Bay, where he checked his nets for a fresh catch and pointed out herbs between the pebbles. Everything we ate that day was grown within a few miles of his home. Olives will never taste the same again.

While Vis was rural and tranquil, the island of Brač – my next stop – was bigger, busier and best known for its artisan tradition of working with stone. Brač is the closest island to mainland Split and its abundance of lustrous-white limestone has been the foundation of the island’s economy since the fourth century when Brač stone was first quarried to build Split’s Diocletian’s Palace. Today, the island is still home to some 20 quarries, and the harbour at Pučisća boasts the only surviving stonemason school in Croatia, the Klesarska Škola.

“There will always be families on Brač with stone in their genes. It’s our duty to take care of our artisan heritage and enrich it with new ideas,” explained school director Tonci Vlahovic, leaning casually on a hand-sculpted fountain with a Roman temple design and a £10,000 price tag.

Anyone can drop into the school, where currently 94 students aged 15 to 18 (including one girl) spend up to four years working with iron tools – just as the Romans did. Tonci guided me into the classroom to admire the students’ handiwork, thin clouds of talcum-powder dust pulsing with the rhythmic pounding of iron on stone. “We insist on using hand tools,” he explained. “They have to feel the stone.”

Following an old shepherds’ trail from Pučisća, leading up to the hillside overlooking the harbour, I could feel it too. The non-waymarked trail offered a steady gradient but little shade as I followed a path of loose stone fragments, ancient stone walls providing the demarcation between the olive groves. As I pushed on, I found a solitary white-stone shrine keeping a lonely vigil on the trail and the ramshackle ruins of a shepherd’s cottage, its white-stone chimney still intact.

After a steady climb, I stopped for water at the 13th-century church of St George, weather-sullied but still proud with its copper bell and heavy wooden door. Dragonflies darted playfully around me and hints of lavender wafted by on the breeze. Kiosks of souvenir sellers were hawking their wares in the harbour below but, beneath my walking boots, I could feel the stone on which Brač is founded anchoring me to the past.

That night I checked into a simple but homely guesthouse, a short stroll from the sunset-bathed harbour in the town of Sutivan. Owners Lidija and Josko Ivanovic greeted me with smiles, passing dried figs and a bottle of homemade brandy through the beaded kitchen curtain. As we sat on the terrace, surrounded by potted geraniums and shrouded by a canopy of vines overhead, the evening sun bounced off the whitewashed pizza oven, and the Church of the Ascension of Mary chimed a greeting. We had just met but I already regarded Lidija and Josko as a favourite aunt and uncle; I slept soundly that night like a little boy visiting long-lost relatives.

Meeting Dr Jones

I could have stayed a week on Brač but I had a rendezvous in history-rich Korčula with a modern-day Indiana Jones. The island, a long drive and three ferry crossings away from Brač, is littered with archaeological sites that testify to the waves of invaders that have pillaged it over the centuries – Romans, Croats and Venetians among them. But archeologist Dinko Radic has devoted 25 years of his life to the excavation of a single cave, Vela Špilja, the fruits of which are displayed in the Vela Luka Cultural Centre.

I followed a rough, fledgling trail, climbing through the backstreets from Vela Luka’s bustling harbour towards the hillside of Pinski Rat. The path levelled out after a steep, hot climb, picking a stony way through the olive groves, and past flowering clusters of aromatic rosemary and oregano.

Dinko welcomed me at the cave mouth, no bull-whip or leather jacket in sight, but bristling with enthusiasm. “This cave is El Dorado for archaeologists. It’s like a book with thousands of pages, whereby every page describes one year,” he said, pointing out rock strata from the Paleolithic period to the Bronze Age. After the trail, the cave was deliciously cool, the humid air making my nostrils flare and the green-baize lichen slippy underfoot. “I’ve worked here for 25 years but there are still so many more secrets to uncover,” he added.

Dinko plans to develop six walking trails around the island, based on the key historical sites, to increase awareness of Korčula’s role in documenting Croatian history. The routes are not waymarked yet but they are relatively easy to follow with a map from the local tourist office.

I chose to explore Dinko’s personal favourite, a short trail around the Gradina Peninsula at Korčula’s far north-west, which takes in Roman ruins, a hill fort and, after hugging the harbour initially, leads inland to the simple 16th-century Church of St John. As I stood on the headland, overlooking the island of Gubeša, the sense of complete tranquillity was positively visceral. It was just the ocean, the swirling ghosts of ancient civilisations and me.

That night, over a dinner of gnocchi and meatballs, washed down with a glass of rukatac (the local white wine), the owner of the rustic Pansion Hajduk, Zoran Zec, regaled me with tales of how the different islands have developed their own dialects and personalities with the waves of invaders. When I told him I was planning to double back to the mainland to catch a ferry to Mljet, he threw his arms aloft. “Beautiful island!” he exclaimed. “Beautiful nature!”

Hot on the trail

Zoran wasn’t wrong. Mljet, the smallest and least developed of the four islands I visited, became a national park in 1960; it remains the only one in the Dalmatian Archipelago. Around one-third of the island is within the national park boundaries and numerous species of rare orchids can be found among its Aleppo pine and holm oak forests.

For a sense of perspective, on my first evening I climbed up to the viewpoint at Montokuc, following a well-waymarked trail over loose stones and pine combs from the national park office at Pristaniste. Ilija Strazicic, a 24-year-old national park ranger, was manning the forest fire lookout on the summit, widescreen views of Uvala port to the south-west, the islands of Korčula and Lastovo beyond. When something stirred in the undergrowth, we peered into the maquis scrubland and spotted a mongoose, the animal introduced to the island in the 18th century to clear the snakes.

But I saved the toughest but most rewarding trail of the week until the very last day, setting out from the tiny harbour at Soline to join a long, circular route, waymarked with red and white concentric circles, just beyond the pine forest. The Po Vrsima Trail, one of the lesser-known routes on the island but a favourite with national park rangers, took me into the wild heart of the park.

This was the hottest day so far and the white heat of the midday sun reflected relentlessly from the bleached-white stone as I searched for shade and a place to eat my packed lunch. Fly-feasting spiders, taking their own lunch on a web strung between trees, barred my path. They were the only other living creatures I saw all day, and I gave them space to finish their alfresco feast.

When I emerged from the pine forest onto the single main road across the island, the waymarking wound me back around a loop to take the lower Preko Solina Trail. A tough section of scrambling led me down to a small inlet, where a rough-hewn picnic table offered a moment of respite for a drink of water and blast of sea-spray air. When I trudged back into Soline after six long hours, a bottle of brand-name fizzy drink from the rustic, harbour-side restaurant tasted like the elixir of the gods. I was tired but elated by the sense of discovery.

The drive into Dubrovnik delivered a sudden sucker-punch of city life after the glorious isolation of Mljet. The traffic, the tour groups and the hotels with prices quoted in euros unsettled me at first. At sunrise on my final day in Croatia I decided to follow one last trail, driving up the hill to the village of Bosanka and walking through the scrubland, past olive groves and wild horses, to catch sunrise over the Unesco-listed walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town below.

Beyond the stone walls from the Middle Ages and the glitzy new developments of Lapad Bay, the islands stretched beyond Dubrovnik to a blue-sky infinity. The tranquillity of the rural walking trails, the warmth of the welcome at the rustic pensions and the sense of connecting with local culture had inspired me. I’d even done the washing up. But there’s more to discover.

Four islands down, then. Just 1,240 to go.

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