Croatia has successfully boxed its way into contention in the world of Mediterranean tourism heavyweights. Alongside Dubrovnik, the big islands of Hvar, Korcula and Brac welcome 18.5 million visitors each year looking for their own taste of Mediterranean authenticity. In many regards they all deliver, as they have done for many decades since Marshal Tito openly began promoting tourism here in the sixties. However, a solitary few were kept in a foreign tourism exile, simply out of reach until a couple of decades ago.
Sitting in isolation 30 miles off the Croatian mainland, Vis is the remotest of the populated Dalmatians, the archipelago of 1,185 islands that pepper the eastern Adriatic. Sitting on the halfway point between Croatia and Italy, Vis is hard to reach, and its inaccessibility makes it both enticing and exclusive. Those who make the journey are rewarded with an island rich in cultural and culinary delights all steeped in a history of cold war intrigue. Its deeply indented coastline hides stunning beaches, coves and two small cities where life goes as slowly as it has for centuries.
Vis is the place to come if you want ‘pomalo’- the Dalmatian philosophy of doing things slowly, a mantra that has seeped into the island's very soil. A few things have helped keep Vis under the tourism radar. When the rest of the country started to open up to tourism, Vis was kept off limits by the Yugoslav army. There’s still a legacy of 37 abandoned military sites across the island. A reasonable amount of Yugoslav army-issue barbed wire remains, offering that ‘something a little different’ that the all best islands possess. Beyond its turquoise coast the hinterland thrives with scrubland of wild rosemary, capers and sage interspersed with vineyards, olive groves, carob trees and Croatia’s finest citrus. Viticulture using the local grape varieties -, plavac for red and Vis’ own vugava for white is spawning a thriving cottage industry today in renaissance after a phylloxera outbreak decimated local vines in the early part of the 20th century.
Timing is everything, and our arrival into the idyllic port of Kut couldn’t be better executed. An armada of charter boats behind us jostle for the last remaining spots on the quay as we sip on our sundowners enjoying the action. The only other urgency we witness is the skipper’s rush to secure a reservation at the best ‘konoba’ (local for tavern) within a stone’s throw of our gangway. With its origins dating back to the ancient Greek settlement of ‘Issa’, the adjacent main port town of Vis is filled with historical monuments including 17th century houses, remains of a Roman cemetery, and an archaeological museum. In fact, over millennia Vis, or Issa, OR Lissa, has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, English, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, Germans and the Yugoslavs before settling as a part of the newly found Croatia in 1991.
Above the town, the 19th century English Fort St George is an ever-visible landmark. Behind it is a military cemetery, the soldiers entombed beneath hailing from another island, far away. During World War II, when Vis was the only island in the Dalmatians unoccupied by Axis powers, the arrival of British forces now laying here ushered in a period of militarization that was to endure 50 years. By 1944, the British had been joined by 2,000 partisans fighting for independence led by Josep Broz Tito, soon to be known as the "benovolent dictator" From his initial position here on Vis, Marshal Tito would go on to dominate three decades of politics in communist Yugoslavia as well as playing a important role as a diplomat and statesman on the world stage. As for the English, their first occupation of Vis originated in Napoleonic times and left one very curious legacy. Situated by a now abandoned WWII airfield is the oldest cricket club in Europe outside the British Isles. For more that 200 years leather has been striking willow on this remote outpost in the Adriatic.
After a morning dip near the end of the quay, we embark on a day of coastal exploring. The first stop is at a nearby submarine pen, one of many throughout these islands. This one is a monster, at 110 metres long recessed into a narrow headland. We take the dinghy inside to sample the acoustics, and watch the brave take on the 15-metre ledge jump from the top of the outer portal. An afternoon sail along the inhospitable north coast finishes with a tight pass between rocks before rounding a heavily fortified headland on our entrance to the wide bay at Komiža. Lifting a mooring ball just outside the picturesque village, we swim and relax in anticipation of going ashore to explore.
Facing Italy on the islands west coast, charming Komiža town takes pride in being the more elegant of the two mini cities on the island. Once the island’s largest centre, a walk through the small lanes echoes the history of the town back in 16th-18th century. The 700-year-old harbour is still guarded by the impressive 16th century Venetian fort tower. It was here in 1593 a fleet of uniquely local fishing boats call ‘Gajeta Falkuša’ set off in the oldest recorded fishing regatta in history. Crews of 6 under oar and 120 square metres of sail battled the 42-mile course to Palagruža island, in which the victorious gained the rights to the best fishing grounds for the season. The ensuing catch would be dried on rocks before salting and storage in barrels for the return to Komiža. At only 7-8 metres in length one ‘Falkuša’ could carry 8 tonnes of sardines fuelling a fishing industry which at it’s peak sustained 7 local sardine canneries. At its zenith Komiža rivalled mainland Split in size and influence, but modern fishing methods have long seen the decline of these halcyon days and the last cannery lays idle. The ultimate ‘Regata Falkuša’ took place in 1934, and the only original hull now spends her days in the Fisherman’s Museum now occupying that original fort tower. On a refreshing note, fishing still sustains this village with more income originating from the seaborne fleet than the tourism dollar, an unusual trend! These days a number of replica ‘Falkuša’ boats reside on the charming local waterfront, alongside a tasteful mix of local eateries and shops. Tonight, we dine above the promenade with a view over the harbour and the scattering of visitors passing by on their ‘ice-cream’ stroll. It was at one of these local ‘konoba’ the producers of Mamma Mia 2 chose to mimic the original Greek movie set for the sequel. No doubt this will have a profound effect on tourism here in the coming years.
The following morning, Tomi and his crew at VISit military tours pick collect us bright and early. We’re off in a couple of converted Land Rovers to explore the islands more ‘restricted’ past for a few hours. Tomi is originally from Zagreb, but his guides are mostly young locals giving a great insight into the past of the island through stories passed down through generations. We explore bunkers, rocket depots and abandoned warehouses and barracks. Finally, we’re taken for a bit of wine and local produce tasting adjacent to the old WWII airfield, complete with more story telling from both sides. On our return journey, the guides make one last stop to soak up the expansive vista atop Mt Hum, 587m above the bay below. Before us lay Komiža, Biševo and a hazy Italian coastline on the distant horizon. The tour and its taste of local hospitality are definitely a highlight of our trip to Vis.
Back aboard, we choose to skip a visit to the Blue Cave on Biševo after hearing of the long delays and hurried approach to getting people through. We depart Komiža rounding the south coast of the island we’re treated to a veritable smorgasbord of bays and coves to explore. The pick of the crowds is Stiniva, a horseshoe cove with a castle-like entrance only missing its drawbridge. Just wide enough for small dinghies to pass the cove opens into the castles keep – a stunning pebble beach with lush green forest behind. It’s a little over run after being voted European beach of the year recently, however one or two coves further east toward Rukovac we find somewhere equally as delightful and all to ourselves. After yet another swim and a lunch stop, it’s a lazy afternoon sail over a couple of hours to St Klement, our hop-off point for Hvar.
Thank you Vis, for a fascinating couple of days where using a little imagination we can all get a glimpse of that Mediterranean authenticity we came for.