I’ve found the perfect place to watch the world go by. I’m sitting at a restaurant table on a terrace, running alongside the top of the high sea wall in the medieval coastal town of Korčula. It’s October and it is warm enough to sit outside and enjoy a chilled glass of island white wine. The spreading branches of the pine trees above are keeping both myself and my bottle cool. It’s a tranquil scene. The gin-clear waters of the Adriatic look inviting as they lap against the base of the stone defences, 30ft below. White-sailed yachts glide along the narrow strip of sea channel before the sheer, rocky mountains rising up on the other side, a few kilometres away.
Korčula’s historic walled town is one of the jewels in the Croatian coast’s crown. I knew little about this island idyll before I visited. “We’re a beautiful island in the south of Croatia between Split and Dubrovnik,” Hana Turudić of the island tourist board had told me.
There are fifteen inhabited Croatian islands and many more are without residents. 15,000 people live on this long, thin strip of land in the Adriatic, 29 miles long and 5 miles wide. “We’re very near the mainland,” explained Hana, as she pointed to the high bank of mountains directly in front of us. The range of steep, barren, rocky cliffs rise high above the Dalmatian coast on the other side of the channel. “At the narrowest point, there’s just over a kilometre between us,” she added.
Korčula has been inhabited for centuries and if you’re passionate about the past you’ll enjoy spotting the sites that reveal the presence of former civilisations. “You can visit a villa rustica where the Romans lived, worked and planted olives,” explained the curator of the town’s museum, Marija Hajdić. Archaeologists uncovered that in the Lumbarda area.
The first documented mention of Korčula’s town was in 1,000BC. Then, Korčula would have appeared very different from today’s settlement of tightly-packed limestone buildings circled by high stone walls. “The town we know today was built between the 13th and 16th centuries,” Hana told me. “Walls and towers were constructed although some of those towers are now missing and some of the walls have been reconstructed because they fell into disrepair and were torn down.”
The fortifications were vital because Korčula occupied a strategic position on a hill overlooking the narrow, navigable sea. Back in the 15th century, the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland was part of the Dalmatian Republic, while Korčula was part of the Venetian Republic. The towers kept watch over the busy border and trade route.
The gateway underneath the Revelin Tower offers the most impressive entrance to the Old Town. Groups of singers and musicians often congregate under its portal. Their voices and instruments are amplified by the archway and reverberate around this part of the town.
Once inside, you’ll navigate a series of narrow lanes paved with white, shiny marble slabs. These passages follow a herringbone pattern that was designed to make the most of cooling sea breezes. There are a handful of small squares filled with bars and shops selling local crafts and lots of lavender. These homes were once occupied by wealthy merchants and mariners who would stand on their balconies, looking out across the town.
One famous former resident had a great view. Marco Polo’s home is long gone but you can still climb the tower of a house built on its site in the 16th century. “The town is very proud of Marco Polo,” Marija explained, as we toured the three floors of the museum. “However, we don’t have documents to prove that he was born in the town,” she added.
I must admit, I knew very little about Marco Polo, except that he was an explorer. Hana sensed my lack of knowledge, so she kindly filled me in on the key points. “He shared stories of what he had seen in the East. And he brought paper money to Europe,” she told me. “He also brought back spices and even pasta.” We have a lot to thank Marco for!
I wanted to learn more abut this legendary figure so I visited the Marco Polo Exhibition. It’s set up inside an old building in the town centre, just outside the walls. Inside, you’ll walk through seven different rooms set over two floors. Waxworks in each room portray a scene from the explorer’s travels across Persia, Mongolia and China. It’s a bit like Madame Tussauds. You’re given an audio player with an English commentary on what each display represents.
Korčula’s prime location meant that whoever controlled the island could decide who moved along the busy Adriatic shipping channel. That’s why Empire-building invaders captured the town frequently. The Austro-Hungarian Empire once owned it. The French and even the British have raised their flags above the island, too.
When the Italian city-state of Genoa briefly snatched Korčula from Venice, Venetian fighter Marco Polo ended up imprisoned on his home island. “Marco Polo was kept in the ‘Tower of Prisoners’ for three days,” Marija told me. “Inside the Cathedral, you can see weapons and cannonballs used during the siege.”
Marco is still making his mark here. Or should I say the Croatian kuna? There’s a chain of shops raking in cash selling Marco Polo merchandise and souvenirs. There are also plans to open a specialist museum in the future.
The Venetian years had perhaps the greatest impact on the island and you can see the distinctive building style throughout the town. Marija explained that it’s easy to spot those homes because they sport a lion emblem carved into the stonework. This represented the power and strength of the Venetian Republic. “If the lion is holding an open book, then the Republic was at peace,” she said. “If the book is closed, then Venice was at war during the construction period.”
During the Second World War, Italy invaded Korčula and some of the lion carvings were destroyed. “Residents compared the Venetians with the Italians who occupied the islands for two years,” said Marija. “We had 100 days of peace and then in December 1943 the Germans invaded,” she said.
As you wander in and out of the Town’s pedestrian-only walled area, you’ll pass through stone archways underneath chunky, squat towers. They’re all different. The Governor’s Tower looks like a stone version of a child’s sandcastle. “In the 14th century there were eight towers. They were square. They built four more which you can identify because they are circular,” Marija told me.
St Mark’s Cathedral, which is no bigger than many British parish churches, is another well-visited site in the Old Town. It is quite compact, with two main nave areas, at right angles. They had to squeeze the building into a small space within the walls. “The walls are irregular. They started to build it in the 15th century on the site of an older church,” said Marija.
You can climb the thirty-metre high Cathedral bell tower for a few euros. Outside the entrance to the spiral stone staircase, a sign warns that it’s only three metres wide. There’s no space for people to pass each other on the narrow, winding steps, so you have to wait for a green traffic light to give you the go ahead, before you set off. If you dislike heights or suffer from claustrophobia it’s not for you. It’s worth the physical effort for the view over the town’s rooftops, passages and across the waters.
The stone that makes the town so attractive has been highly sought after. It used to be quarried on the island for export. “It’s been used in the parliament buildings in Vienna and Budapest and in Stockholm’s City Hall,” Hana proudly told me.
Islanders were once occupied in another major industry – shipbuilding. Inside the museum, Marija showed me around an exhibition room filled with old black and white photographs of boats being built along the island’s beaches.
The Port 9 Resort, where I stayed, is keeping this boatbuilding craft alive with their children’s activity programme. Resort Director Sanja Matić showed me some small wooden boats that were built by children during the summer. “We have a little school of shipbuilding. They start with a design and, over five days, they learn the names of every part of the boat,” Sanja told me. “They build a boat by hand and then on the last day, we have a festival and they put their boat on the sea.” I could imagine how much fun the kids would have messing in and around the calm waters that lap alongside the resort.
But I decided to spend my morning enjoying more grown-up pursuits. I was booked on one of the wine tours arranged by island tour company Korkyra Info. The town centre roads are quite narrow so our small group was on a minibus. I realised how tight the lanes were when we became stuck! Two minutes into our tour, the driver couldn’t squeeze past a van, which appeared abandoned, partially poking out into the single track running past an abbey. A long toot on the horn brought an angry nun out, who then started to argue with the driver. I wished I could speak Croatian, just so I could have understood the heated exchange!
As our tour headed out of town we stopped at vantage points for photo opportunities. The island’s limestone interior is hilly and some of the land is wooded – filled with conifers, pines, cypress trees and holm oak. It’s also rocky and barren in places, too.
Our guide explained how the island has become drier. The water table has dropped and a former lake has dried up. Its bed is now used as a vineyard. There’s no running water on the island so Korčula has started to desalinate seawater, which isn’t cheap.
Occasionally, you’ll pass fields where rosemary and lavender grows. The main road across the island takes you hundreds of feet above the shoreline. As we looked down, we could see the turquoise coast dotted with anchorages and pebbly bays.
I noticed a road sign which suggested some wildlife to look out for. A red triangle sign warned of wild boars. “The wild pigs came around two years ago,” Sanja explained. “There are a lot of them in the forest but there are also a lot of hunters,” she laughed. There’s also mongoose on the loose. “They were brought here two hundred years ago by sailors to catch the mice and snakes. We don’t have any dangerous snakes here, though,” Sanja reassured us.
I’ve been on wine tastings in Australia and New Zealand, where they are slick presentations, often held in fancy visitor centres. When the minibus stopped outside an open-sided concrete garage on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Smokvika, I didn’t know what to expect. Our group walked down the steep concrete drive to the garage, where we found a table carefully laid with stacks of cubed local cheese, olives and bottles of red and white wine.
The light bodied white wine we tried first was Pošip. The grape was first discovered in this part of the island and named after the shape it resembles – the end of a type of pick axe. We also tried a glass of Grk. It means ‘bitter’ in Croatian, which didn’t seem that positive. I think their marketing department needs to change the name! The wine was dry but certainly not unpleasant, as I had feared.
Our second of three wine tasting stops was in a café in Blato. The road into this quiet town was memorable because it looked more like the drive into a French village. We approached the town along a long avenue of lime trees.
Zak Stanis has managed Restaurant Filippi in Korčula town for the last six years. He’s an expert on local wine and he told me that the island’s total wine production is small. It is mostly drunk locally and that explains why you probably haven’t seen Korčula wine on the supermarket shelves at home.
“There are only seven producers. We serve two at the restaurant,” he told me. “Pošip is found within a 100km radius. The grape is similar to Sauvignon and has a beautiful citrus smell.” Zak said. “Grk only grows in one village called Lumbarda. There’s a special microclimate there. The wine has a very mineral taste – full-bodied and very strong.”
Back on the wine tour, a last stop at the Chakula Macaroni and Wine House restaurant, inside the Old Town walls, included a meal where I got to taste Korčula’s special pasta dish. Edita Druskovic of Korkyra Info explained that it is very different to Italian macaroni. “Each batch is handmade,” she told me. “It’s only made from flour and water. They don’t even put salt in it, so it tastes different – a bit like pasta, a bit like gnocchi. It is very hard to make. I have tried!”
The macaroni is usually served with beef. I chose a delicious fish roe sauce that was bright yellow. Korčula is an island that prides itself on its seafood. When the main tourism season ends in late October, many locals get out on the water to harvest seafood. “Every family has a small boat and squid fishing is popular,” Hana said. I asked her how it was usually cooked. “Squid can be prepared in many ways,” she responded. “You can fry it like calamari, you can also grill it or bake it in the oven.”
You’ll also find octopus available in various forms throughout the season. Zak told me that islanders prepare a special octopus dish called Peka. “It is like a casserole,” he explained. “We put it with potatoes and plenty of vegetables. It is very, very nice.” Restaurant Filippi is renowned for their octopus salad. It is grilled and served with cherry tomatoes and courgettes. It was delicious.
As Korčula lies within Croatia’s Dalamatia region, you’ll also find the regional Dalmatian dish as a menu item in many restaurants. “That will be three-year old, smoked ham along with olives, island cheese and marinated anchovies from the bay. It is all local,” said Zak.
I know many places have farmers markets but I found the regular Monday night local produce sale in Korčula’s main square fascinating. I had expected to find the usual items like olive oil, but I was impressed with the large range of foods that I’d not heard of or tasted previously. There were cakes, including the island favourite of klasuni, which is filled with raisins, dried figs, almonds and a reduced wine.
Some tables were laden with bottles of herb-based liqueurs and aperitifs. The subtlety flavoured, rose-infused brandy was delicious. “They use a special type of rose which blooms in May,” said Hana. “You have to catch the roses when they have just opened, early in the morning. They’re then put in sugar and kept in the sunshine for forty days. They add local grape-based brandy,” she said. It smelled fantastic.
I felt slightly guilty to be embarking on an underwater sea-life watching trip after enjoying an excellent octopus salad at Restaurant Filippi! Every hour, a red submarine departs from the town’s stone quay. You’ll see its upper side glide across the harbour on the subsea tour, which lasts 45 minutes.
“You can see the bottom of the sea and many fish swimming in these clear waters around the town,” said Hana, as she encouraged me to book a seat. I walked the gangplank from the quay and climbed down the narrow stairs to the equally constricted space. The semi-sub is narrow – just two seats wide – but the top third of the vessel remains above the surface because it’s skippered from the deck.
I was transfixed by the changing view into the clear waters through the vessel’s large windows. Down below, we saw schools of fish, starfish and sponges. You can see how quickly the seabed drops down in depth away from the shore and the bottom of the town walls. Thankfully I didn’t see octopus!
Back on land, I was going to see some of the island’s unique cultural events. Across this region of Dalamatia, locals are proud of their distinctive form of close-knit harmony singing. It’s called klappa and there are regular performances in Korčula during the peak season. “This accapella singing has spread all across our coast,” said Hana. “There are male, female and mixed groups performing. Tonight you will see the men.”
A more localised entertainment is the moreška sword dance. It is performed twice each week during the summer. The dance was imported from other parts of the Mediterranean but islanders have made it their own. “There are five different sword dances on the island. They are performed in each village. You can’t see this anywhere else in the world. It is now only preserved on the island.”
Hana told me that these dancers need good coordination. “They have to hold the swords and fight with them. It is very dramatic and their music and movement is fast,” she said. The dance is performed around a love story that all locals know. The two groups, one wearing red tunics, kilts and stockings take on their love rivals who wear white. It is a fight for the affection of a girl named Bula. Spoiler alert – the white side always wins.
There’s a museum exhibition about the dances. You can tell which village is performing their dance because each community wears a distinctive costume. And it was good to hear that new generations are continuing this tradition.
If you’d rather get active yourself, then the island offers mountain biking and a large range of walks and hikes. Or you can get on, or under, the Adriatic with Korčula’s windsurfing, sailing and diving schools.
I stayed at the newly refurbished Port 9 Resort. It’s a three-kilometre taxi ride over the hill from the old town. You can also walk there along the coast in under half an hour. The resort is set amongst beautiful pinewoods, sloping down to pool and a waterside dock.
It’s made up of a collection of buildings. Tastefully refurbished Victorian mansions sit near newer, purpose-built apartments. “We have 180 rooms across four buildings,” resort director Sanja told me. “We have family rooms, junior suites, doubles and twin rooms. We also offer apartments that are suitable for families, sleeping up to six people.”
All guests, whether self-catering, full or half board can use the sports, dining and entertainment facilities. As I chatted to Sanja, it was clear that she cares passionately about the accommodation and services offered to visitors. She is also very proud of her island home and its long history. She even revealed that her family is related to Marco Polo. “Before I was married, my name was Depolo,” she smiled.
You’ll hear familiar accents as you wander around the island. Hana told me that more Brits have visited recently. “We have had 70% more British people on the island in the last year, compared with the year before. We have better air connections to Split and Dubrovnik and people can catch the ferries from there,” she said.
Korčula is great for a late autumn break as it’s still sunny and temperatures remain around the mid twenties. Compared to some other Croatian destinations, Korčula is quieter but the island’s restaurants and bars are contemporary, stylish and food is of a very high standard. If you prefer dining to discos, and you’d choose sunset strolls over strobe lights, then Korčula might the perfect choice for you.
I reached Korčula by taking a two-hour flight to Split on the Croatian mainland. Norwegian is one of the low cost airlines offering one-way fares from London Gatwick at around £30, if you book ahead. From Split’s port, the three-hour catamaran ride to Korčula costs around £9 one-way.
You can learn more about the island at VisitKorčula.eu.