Trip Highlight – the Island of Korcula

After looking over at lush Korcula for some 12 years, it was a delight to finally extend my knowledge of the island south of my adopted home of Hvar, which had been hitherto restricted to running around the old town in 20 minutes on a brief ferry stop a decade ago.

After looking over at lush Korcula for some 12 years, it was a delight to finally extend my knowledge of the island south of my adopted home of Hvar, which had been hitherto restricted to running around the old town in 20 minutes on a brief ferry stop a decade ago.

In retrospect it seems crazy that such a major tourist island as Korcula had been on my doorstep for years and I had never ventured forth, and I began to realise as we approached how little I knew about the place. It was the home of Marco Polo, a green island with plenty of tradition, and fabulous sword dances. And it was home to two of the best white wines in Croatia – Posip whose heartland was Cara, and Grk which was restricted to the sandy vineyards of Lumbarda.
One can learn a lot about an island in 24 hours… Especially when the hyper-efficient tourist board directors and local actors of the island’s many legends gave us such an enthusiastic welcome and tour of Korcula’s hidden gems.

After the introductory battle at Gradina on our sunset arrival the previous evening, it was an early start from our hotel in Vela Luka to what was, for me, the most stunning of a collection of stunning settings – the legend of the mermaid in the bay of Istruga bay. Had one not known the location, one would have sworn it was a lake. There is a Croatian word ‘bonaca’ which translates something like ‘mill pond’, to describe the calm waters on a perfect windless Adriatic evening; Istruga was bonaca times five, one of the most spectacular spots I have seen in my time in Dalmatia.

As if the setting was not beautiful enough, a photogenic mermaid appeared before us, the centrepiece of the legend that kick started the day. New arrival Alex Robinson, fresh from his front cover photo on Sunday Times Travel Magazine, got out his camera and model release form. Here was a mermaid model with talent, he declared, as he happily snapped away before exchanging details with the mermaid and mermaid father, who was watching preceedings from a discreet distance on his boat. Will something come of that contact? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is a small example of the enticing possibilities opening with Legends of Croatia, a true journey of discovery and opportunity on so many levels.

After such an idyllic start, it was time to head inland to the timeless village of Smokvica, traditional Dalmatia as it once was, to do the first of a two-set filming of a fairy legend. Lots of donkey action in this one, and I particularly enjoyed the donkey transportation methods at the end of filming, with the donkey supplied by its owner, who does a fine line in donkey tours. Only in Dalmatia.

The legend was simple. Loving husband and wife, husband goes off to the field where he sees a beautiful fair fairy sleeping in the harsh midday sun. Concerned for the fairy’s pale skin, the peasant provides her with shade and then goes about his work in the field. Some time later, the fairy appears with two bags to thank him for his kindness, telling him they were a gift but that on no account should he open them before he gets home. Curiosity overtakes the peasant, who opens them shortly before arriving home, only to find useless leaves in the bags. His wife comes out to find out what he is doing and discovers a few gold coins in the bottom, then berates her husband for not being able to wait until he got home, where the bags would have been filled with gold coins.

The second scene of the legend, with the beautiful fairy girls dancing in the vineyards was a highlight of the trip for me, and it was one more confirmation of the strong sense of community and tradition which seemed to be in evidence all over Korcula during our visit.

Our final pre-lunch legend took us back further in time, several thousand years in fact, to Vela Splija (or Big Cave), one of the most important pre-historic caves in Europe, dating back some 30,000 years, with excavations ongoing by experts from Oxford University.

Another impressive cast of cavemen (and women) of all ages awaited us, putting on an impressive display of life in years gone by in the most authentic of settings. Hunting was good in those days, with deer a favourite prize. After some time, however, times got leaner, and a hunter went out to see what he could find. Seeing a doe, he was about to kill it when it turned into a blonde numph and begged for mercy. The hunter unflinchingly killed the animal, and with it what turned out to be a child of God, whose wrath was such that a devastating flood was sent to the region, wiping out all the cavemen and providing the foundation of the settlement of Vela Luka.

All these legends were both thirst-quenching and appetite-enhancing, and an excellent lunch in Blato was followed by a sweeter legend with the additional bonus of a live demonstration in the oldest house in the village.

The era is Napoleonic, the French soldier a baker by trade. The maidens of Korcula were as beautiful back then as they are today, and a love affair ensued. The harsh realities of war, however, dictated that the affair was brief, and soon the French baker had to move on. His parting gift was a special cake which he prepared for his Korculan love, gifted with the exhortation that she not forget him. Her mispronunciation of the French phrase gives the cake its modern name of Lumblia.

This was the first legend to be prepared in front of us as we were led into the oldest house in Blato for a live demonstration in how to prepare the cake from the house owner, who also happened to be the village cake champion. Lumblia preparation is taken very seriously in the village, with each household seemingly adding a special secret ingredient to their cake. The taste of the finished product was uncannily close to the Hot Cross Bun in England, and I promised to send some to the tourist board of Blato for comparison.

In a region whose wines are dominated by the red Plavac Mali, a relative of Zinfandel, Korcula bucks the trend somewhat. There is plenty of Plavac Mali around of course, but the two wines which make Korcula famous are white – Grk and Posip.

Cara is Posip country, and while the acting of the legend in Cara was excellent, I could not keep my eyes off those Posip vineyards, fields and fields of lush green vines stretching down to the sea. Korcula is proud of its wine tradition, and the local wines are promoted at every turn. It was a little in keeping with the rest of my impressions of the island – a proud tradition which is actively relived and promoted at every opportunity.

No day of legends would be complete without a battle against the Turks, so it was up yet one hill to relive the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Gica in 1571 in another stunning setting overlooking the greenery of this magical isle. Once again the Korculans turned on the style, turning out in immaculate traditional dress in their dozens. The sense of coherent community participation was a striking feature of our visit to Korcula.

The next morning started with a transfer from Vela Luka to the old town of Korcula, which is sometimes described as a mini-Dubrovnik. It was much smaller and infinitely more charming than its bigger and more famous cousin, and morning coffee overlooking the islands and general life in the bay was a pleasant start to the day.

If you did not know Marco Polo was from Korcula before you arrived, it would be impossible to leave the town without that knowledge. His name is EVERYWHERE. I went off in search of a Facebook friend, Ruth from Seba Design, who specialise in fabulous handmade jewellery, and was surprised to find her shop next to the grest man’s home, which had seen better days and the main part of the house was a complete ruin.

An outstanding lunch at Restaurant Kanavelic was complimented by an expert introduction to the wines of Korcula from the resident sommelier. It was a first taste of Grk for the group, a white wine which only grows on the sandy soil of Lumbarda a little further south, but our sommelier insisted that there was also a small amount grown in Smokvica, as well as a bigger quantity under another name in Greece. Most interesting, however, was dessert, as the sommelier served a piece of plain sweet cornbread, then added olive oil and a liberal dose of the Tomic Hektorovich prosek. From bread to dessert – delicious!

Prior to our departure for Mljet, there was just enough time for a tour on the glass-bottomed semi-submarine of the bay in front of Korcula Bay. There were a surprising number of fish, but for me the best views were above the water – Korcula Town is spectacular from any angle.

Apart from its natural beauty, the wealth of tradition and the excellent food and wine, it was the organisation of the tourist boards and the well-attended legends that also set Korcula apart.

It will not be twelve years before my next visit…