The table was set with lavender and white pressed linens… and for my birthday, a luscious red rose. July 1st found us on the Croatian island of Korcula, a setting of calm and beauty.
Breakfast on the elegant terrace of Hotel Korcula de la Ville was under a canopy of grape vines offering shade from the already warming Mediterranean sun. A feeling of grand, old-world charm infused the scene and I reflected on the famous guests who have shared this space. Visits from King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, and the prolific English writer Rebecca West.
West in her epic novel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, described the hotel as… ‘Either a converted Venetian palace or built by one accustomed to palaces from birth.’ Her journey through the former Yugoslavian countries, and islands in the early 1940’s, is a somewhat archaic read, yet redolent with descriptions that capture still the essence of the island.
In the weeks prior, we had made our ‘base’ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where our eldest son lives. Planning to return, we set out on a two week journey through the Croatian islands; regrettably not on the steamships of West’s day, but on the region’s extensive network of modern ferries. We had planned very little and I admit that as the days unfolded in unbridled bliss, I came to love the islands of Croatia.
After breakfast that morning, I opened my journal and with my new ‘boyas’ a uniquely styled crayon (originated in Korcula) I shaded the morning scene. The potted olive trees adorning, the palm trees and soft-pink oleanders anchoring, sprays of lavender perfuming. What I could not sketch were the yachts, ferries and colourful fishing boats moored across the narrow boulevard. Nor could I adequately capture the formidable fortress walls that almost seem to buttress the hotel. As I contemplated the morning, it was with a feeling of much gratitude to be welcoming my ‘new year’ in this utopian setting.
We made a late start to my birthday morning as the evening before, our anniversary, had coincided with Korcula’s famed ‘Half New Year’s’ Party. Apparently one of the only places on earth to do so, the town hosted a carnival-like evening with a parade to show off costumes, a band and a DJ that filled the piazzas with music until the wee hours. As the moon illuminated the sea and the flotilla of yachts that had sailed in for the party, we agreed that it could not have been a more joyous and fun anniversary.
Luxuriating now with one last Americano in the rising heat of the morning, we strike up a conversation with our neighbours at the table opposite, and in particular Tanya who grew up on Korcula before taking up residence in Scotland. Tanya enlightens us on life on the island before tourists and sprinkles in some interesting local knowledge.
“I went there to work; it was supposed to be for just a short time.” she explains. “But then I fell in love with a Scotsman.” I look lovingly across the table at my own Scots beau, having no idea that the conversation would soon focus on yet another Scottish native.
“I had an idyllic childhood here, really carefree. Our summers were spent swimming in the sea, fishing and picnicking on the islands. When the street lights came on, we knew it was time to go home.”
As we chat, I learn that Tanya’s father had once owned Hotel Korcula and needless to say, images dance in my mind of what life must have been like for her.
“We came often for pancakes and our birthday parties were held here. And yes, there’s been a lot of famous people who have sailed this way.”
Tanya reveals one of the more intriguing characters who came to be considered one of the island’s locals. The dashing Scottish daredevil, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, part inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, would fall in love with the island.
“His old villa, Palazzo Boschi is just up the street, close to the Cathedral. President Tito made sure he could buy property here. That was unheard of as a foreigner in the ‘60’s,” Tanya tells us.
It seems Maclean had once called Tito a friend, as well as the author Ian Fleming. Maclean gave up a career as a British diplomat to enlist as a private in the army, eventually serving in the SAS, the British special forces. And perhaps this quote by Maclean helped inspire the James Bond character. “To some people, my life might seem one long adventure… blowing up forts in the desert, clandestinely parachuting into guerrilla wars, penetrating forbidden cities deep behind closed frontiers.”
Maclean, born in Cairo to a major in the British Army, was raised in Scotland, India and Italy. After attending Eton and jointing the Foreign Office, he was posted to Paris and Moscow where he’d make journeys by train into the Soviet Union and Central Asia to places few foreigners had ever stepped foot in. Rising through the ranks, he was eventually chosen by Churchill to go to Yugoslavia to build a relationship with Tito, Maclean parachuted into Korcula in the summer of 1943 while it was under German occupation.
The scenes are difficult to contemplate today as we relax on the shady terrace. Tanya added that her father formed a friendship with Ian Fleming’s grandson and I picture the two of them sharing stories right where we now sit.
“My dad was the consummate host. This hotel was his ‘living room’. A lot of famous and interesting people… and many drinks…” “He gave it up at the start of the war.” she said, referring to the 1991-95 Croatian War for Independence. Apparently, all hotels ceased to operate during the war, but that was just the beginning.
“I remember the day of the first sniper attack of Dubrovnik. Those idyllic days were suddenly over…”
Tanya’s voice trails off, as if wanting to leave the subject of the war. This happened time and again throughout our travels and conversations in Croatia. It is still painful and we sensed that people want to move forward, trusting that time will heal the scars. The tragic dimensions of that war added an indelible chapter to Croatia’s rich and storied past.
As big as Malta, this large island just off the southern Dalmatian coast, has been prized by many civilisations. The Illyrians in 1000 BC dwelt here, then in the 6thcentury BC, Greek colonists settled and christened it ‘Black Corfu’ after their homeland to the south. Here, the oldest stone monument in Croatia records that more Greek settlers arrived in the 3rdcentury BC, the two communities living peacefully until the arrival of the Romans. Next in line to conquer the island, they absorbed it into the Roman province of Illyricum. Korcula then spent periods under the Byzantines, Venetians, and sundry others before the Austro-Hungarian Empire enveloped the region. As that empire collapsed, by degrees it fell under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918), the socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, then eventually the independent Croatia.
However, a constant in Korcula’s history and the nearby hill-town of Zrnovo, is its excellent culture of quarrying and stonemasonry. We hear that there is a mysterious connection between the people and the stones of their craft – like living things taking the form of ancient walls, robust towers, medieval churches, monasteries, patrician palaces or delicate carvings. Rebecca West enthused… ‘the thousand-year-old architectural wealth oozes like honey from a honeycomb.’
We spend five halcyon days on the island. There are more evenings of music and much swimming in the pristine, pale emerald waters. We marvel daily at heavily laden orange trees and striking purple-mauve bougainvillaea that drape the walls and shade quiet gardens. We taste wine in nearby Lumbarda; we rent a car to see more of the island’s pleasant villages and dramatic vistas.
Our stroll on the final evening takes us past the cathedral – the pride and the ornament of any town along the Dalmatian coast, not only a measure of their prosperity, but also of their artistic enlightenment. I nod at Fitzroy Maclean’s house along the way, wondering if we’ll catch a glimpse of it in the next James Bond movie, to be set in Croatia.
We also pass the reputed home of the great explorer Marco Polo and those lesser revered urban palaces of noblemen and bishops. Then its along the parapets of the town wall, with its belvedere view out to the narrow channel which once bordered two great maritime powers – the Republics of Venice and Dubrovnik. The channel still plays host to the island’s long shipbuilding tradition.
Through the tangle of narrow lanes, we happily tread on centuries-old polished stone, emerging through the grand chiseled gate of Kopnena Vrata, the Land Gate. I descend the sweeping steps but pause at the bottom when I notice local children with sea shells. It’s been a common sight on the island where just as kids in North America may explore their entrepreneurial skills by selling lemonade, here, sea shells are arranged like jewels on a cardboard box or maybe along a low stone wall.
I peruse the shells and choose two. Admittedly as a kindness to the children, but more as a reminder of this beguiling island.
Back at the Hotel Korcula, I tuck the shells into my bag along with Rebecca West’s weighty novel and daydream of returning. When the tourists leave and the cold bora winds blow this way, this hotel is the only one that remains open during the off season. I easily envision returning then. A little research perhaps… there’s all that Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian history to sink into. A lot of reading… West’s novel will take eons to get through; an ideal diversion while waiting for those warm island evenings to once again grace this golden-hued town. And definitely some writing… what other characters might this island invoke?
Oh, one can daydream of a longer sojourn on Korcula…
One afternoon from Korcula, a water taxi ferried us to the tiny island of Vrnik. Claiming even older quarrying history than Korcula, the island proudly boasts once world-class stonemasons. In the search for solid building stone for their palaces, the ancient Romans discovered the milky sable hues of Vrnik stone and set Christian slaves to work in the quarries. That stone, and the craft of those stonemasons was sought far and wide, sourced for the many grand structures along the Dalmatian coast, including the palaces of Dubrovnik. Vrnik stone, from long abandoned quarries, graces buildings from Stockholm to Budapest, Venice to Istanbul.
It was late afternoon as we joined the locals, jumping hand in hand into the warm, azure waters. We wandered past charming stone cottages, once homes to retired sea captains, these days summer vacation getaways. Now only three people claim the island as their permanent residence.
We dined at the now redundant but recently refurbished school house, the lower floor transformed into the Arts Club, an excellent restaurant close to the water’s edge. As the lazy afternoon unfolded, vacationing locals gathered around simple wooden tables for a glass of local liqueur. A man sauntered over to the small chapel, opening the doors wide to air it out.
“Only open twice a year now,” we’re told, a testament to the dwindling number of parishioners. Where a century before, some six-hundred people worked in the quarries and along the quaysides, there is now only tranquility, some fishing and gentle repose. The once bald rock-faces are now dressed in lush canopies of trees and shrubs; out of sight perhaps, but still a point of pride.
Butterflies on the island of Hvar are dreamy shades; tawny and brown, speckled with tints of lemony yellows. They flit and flutter over the island’s ethereal lavender like heavenly beings. Lavender is profuse on Hvar and if there’s a reason to visit this small island… go for the lavender and stay in Old Town Hvar.
Admittedly, the reputation of Hvar’s old town is more about its glamourous-party side and the catwalk-like promenade where each sun-dress is more gorgeous than the next, where each yacht is more opulent than the last. But that’s not the only story.
We stay just beyond the square, cocooned in the streets that flow naturally up the hillside. The streets are a crisscross of aged chiseled stone – where now restaurants and shops inhabit once stately palaces or simple homes of fishermen and sailors. From our outdoor ‘living room’, we peer out over the town’s rooftops and beyond to the castle. We gaze down at the postage stamp of a church square around which this particular neighbourhood gathers. The small piazza can be a meeting point, a place to pause for the melodic bells, or even to tilt a ladder against the aged wall and take advantage of a caper plant bursting through crevices of stone. The capparis spinose is native to the Mediterranean and as we return to our guest house late one afternoon, the proprietor is plucking from the family caper plant – a simple image, yet evocative of this area.
Like all of Croatia, good food and wine is essential to life. The rich soil, tilled for thousands of years, yields excellent capers, olive and pumpkin oils, oranges and figs… and the wines? Also recommended. And then there’s the lavender!
We decide to cruise the island in a blue convertible VW Beatle that drives like a tractor, but breezes us along the island with a seventies insouciance. We admire vineyards, pastures and small family chapels. We stroll through Stari Grad, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in Europe. Its vibe is more understated and sedate, a much different option to Hvar Old Town.
We drive on, eastwards to the more modest town of Jelsa. Sampling a glass of local wine, I toast my friend back in Zagreb who entreated me to visit the town of his youth. Our walk around the harbour is swiftly abandoned as the siren call of the town’s rocky strand lures us to the water’s edge…in Croatia it’s natural to simply slip into the embrace of the sea, joining locals who swim with ritual passion. The chatter of half a dozen languages ripples over the water as people splash and glide in the arc of the little bay. We join them for a while, blissful and contented, cooling ourselves in the height of the noon sun.
Yet the true purpose for our cruise is to visit the island’s prolific lavender fields. For sale throughout the island, lavander is bottled or pouched in soaps and sachets. I’m pleased to buy a delicate hand stitched pouch from a local, Anna, who informs me that by mid-July, it’s harvest time and ‘have I seen the fields’ she asks.
In fact we’re on our way and soon, we’re wending our way along a narrow road, clinging to a ridge, dramatic vistas of the sea and the lush forest beyond. Soon it gives way to fields and fields of lavender, the intoxicating scent greeting us as we park the blue beetle. Creeping almost respectfully to the bursts of lavender nestled between rows of Illriyan-period stone walls, the royal-mauve hues are simply spectacular.
Back in old town Hvar cultural life continues to thrive. We enjoy a late glass of Grk on the terrace of one of the oldest surviving theaters in Europe, opened in 1612. It is the ideal spot to watch the sun slowly sink into the placid Adriatic. Now – after the day’s boating, snorkeling and swimming trips – the town square is a swirling mix of locals. Children play football against the town’s pretty church walls, parents chat with neighbours and we travellers find a perch and breathe it all in.
Then an evening stroll along the promenade, ambling past the stately yachts with their lights twinkling against the darkening sky. Hvar is a popular port-of-call in the Adriatic and by this time, we’ve spotted some of the same vessels seemingly on the same route that we are… Split, Korcula, Hvar, Dubrovnik. I keep an eye out for Jon Bon Jovi, and Beyonce who, we hear, are also island hopping.
A few days later, we rent our own small vessel for the day off Cavtat, an ancient summer retreat close to Dubrovnik. Bruce, Ayla and I are exhilarated with our day on the sea. We jump in and swim often, we glide our hands through the water as we put-put along, gazing contentedly out toward the marvellous Croatian coastline. Now this is living… no yacht necessary.
How did Rebecca West put it?
‘In that, and a further bay, we made the boat linger. The green water glittered clean as ice, but gentle. Could we buy some land? Could we build a villa?’
Oh yes, I understand completely…