Destinations / JOURNEY
IT WAS AN advertising slogan created in the mid- 2000s by the Croatian Tourist Board and it was every where — billboards, magazines, websites. Whenever I turned on my television during the six years I lived in Belgium, I was lulled into a dreamlike state by images of turquoise water and pearl-white
crescents of sand near 1,000-year-old villages. I was ripe
for the advertiser picking too — a California girl in a rainy
and gray country in need of heat and sun. And it worked.
I’ve visited Croatia many times in search of this halcyon
hallucination. I found it, and much more, 30 miles off
Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, on the minuscule island of Vis.
Vis (pronounced veez) is not in the Mediterranean Sea, but
that’s just semantics. “The Mediterranean” is both a region
and an omnipresent state of mind whose ethos of lighthearted
loafing and wine-fueled lunching fells any inclination to rush.
The nearby Italians might call it far niente, do nothing, but in
Dalmatia it’s called pomalo. Say it a few times under the hot
Adriatic sun and it begins to drip off the tongue like thickened
honey. Appropriately it means slowly, or little by little, and
the idea drains deep into Vis’ rocky red soil, tangling with the
roots of ancient olive trees, grapevines, and families who’ve
been pomalo-ing here for thousands of years.
To call Vis off the beaten path might be hyperbolic, especially during the summer when direct daily car ferries arrive
swollen with beachgoers from Split, Croatia’s ancient port
city on the Adriatic Sea. But despite the easy access, a sense of
remoteness prevails once you’re on the island. This probably
has to do with the island’s history as the hideout of Josip Tito,
the leader of former Yugoslavia who annexed the island for
military use in 1944 and closed it to visitors domestic and foreign. Drive around Vis, and tunnels, caves and even an airstrip,
now overgrown with grapevines, are reminders of the island’s
strategic position as an Allied outpost during World War II.
What remained when Vis reopened to tourism in 1989 was
an unspoiled island of pristine beaches, of which there are so
many you could visit one an hour for an entire day and swear
you’ve landed in heaven each time, along with feeling the seren-
dipitous nostalgia that comes from 45 years of sequestration.
On my first day Miso Poduje, a local resident, historian, and
owner of the funky Paradajz Lost Bistro in Vis Town, walks me
around and recounts a history that feels far too vast for such a
compact place. Founded as Issa in 397 B.C., Vis has welcomed
a parade of past rulers ashore thanks to its strategic position in
the Adriatic, including the Illyrians, Byzantines, Romans, Slavs,
Austrians, French, British and Italians, whose influences resonate in the architecture and artifacts as well as the local dialect.
We wander between white stone houses with rolled red tiled
roofs and down silent Korzo Street, which once bustled with
dozens of businesses. Near the ferry landing we climb around
a weedy Hellenistic cemetery and see remains of a Roman
bath, ancient streets and old city walls. Vis Town is separated
into two parts — Luka and Kut — and as we stroll from one to
the other, Poduje points and talks: a Franciscan monastery
over there; Baroque homes of wealthy nobles there; the house
where one of Croatia’s best known writers, Ranko Marinkovic,
was born, there; and there’s the house that belonged to the
Machiavelli family, whose plot we saw earlier in the town cemetery. He stops to show me a green bushy plant blooming from
the crack between two stones of a wall. It’s a caper bush, stuck
on the white facade like a bow on a birthday present.
Poduje tells me there’s an impressive collection of
ancient amphorae and other antiquities housed in the Vis
Museum, and he makes a phone call.
“Sorry, it’s grape harvest time so there is no one to open,”
he says with a shrug.
It seems most residents of Vis have a vegetable patch or a
square of grapevines to call their own, and I understand why
Vis has the reputation of being a food lover’s destination.
Two roads cut through the center of the island and both con-
nect Vis Town to the historic fishing village of Komiža, just
20 kilometers away at the opposite end of the island; one’s a
straight shot and the other is a winding lollygag through Vis’
gourmet gut, and the one worth exploring.
“The Mediterranean as it once was.”