27 July 2014

A week in Dalmatia: 2. Korčula

Following an exciting stay in Dubrovnik, the next stop on my eight-day Intrepid tour was the island port of Korčula, another Dalmatian maritime settlement boasting a fine location and a historic setting. But first we had a short journey north from Dubrovnik via minibus. This took us over the impressive city bridge and an hour's drive north around the winding coast to a short pause for lunch at the medieval settlement of Ston. Here we admired from a distance the spectacular mountain overlooking the town, and specifically its distinctive fortifications defending its salt pans, which were a hugely lucrative source of income. Originally more than 7km long, currently 5.5km remains of the 15th century walls. Our next pause for refreshments was in the pleasingly cool wine cellars at Matusko Wines on the outskirts of the village of Potomje, on the 65km-long Pelješac peninsula, a narrow finger of land hugging the Adriatic coast. In a very pleasant wine-tasting stop, we particularly enjoyed Matusko's Pošip whites and its prestigious Dingač reds.

Walls at Ston
Matusko Wines, Potomje
Then it was time for a ride across the narrow 2km straight from the mainland to Korčula itself. (It's pronounced 'Kor-chula', roughly). For centuries the 46km-long island of Korčula was a vibrant part of the Adriatic's trade network, and it passed between numerous different owners. Thanks to its town statute of 1214 the town holds claim to be the first place in the world to have outlawed slavery, and some believe that the famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo was born here, although there's no hard evidence to support this.

A small hired launch took us across in double-quick time, during which time we admired the exploits of two racing windsurfers, who competed to exploit the warm sea breeze. Soon the town appeared in view and we were able to appreciate its beauty from the ideal vantage: from the sea. Perched on a gentle headland rise, the walled town's historic architecture and its nautical heritage are obvious. After docking at the marina and pausing to admire the town walls and the ornamental bridge to the main town gate, which is protected by a proud square tower with crenellated battlements and decorated with a roaring Venetian lion, we entered the town itself.

Windsurfer racing off the mainland
Approaching Korčula from the sea

The gate of Korčula
Old Korčula is compact: a mere 200m from the main gate to the tower at its northern tip. No cars are allowed inside the walls, and there wouldn't be any room for them in any case. Arranged along a central north-south thoroughfare with the St Mark's cathedral square at its heart, Korčula's dwellings are arrayed along herringbone-style side alleys set out cannily to take advantage of the prevailing winds. The alleys on the west side are straight to funnel through the cooling breezes, while the ones on the east side are gently curved to mitigate the effects of the stronger easterly gusts. Around the outside of the old town walls a fine promenade hosts marinas, jetties and plenty of cafe-bars with awnings to shelter customers from the powerful Croatian sunshine.

St Mark's (detail)
The alley I was rooming in
Our first evening was spent in a pleasant restaurant, Adio Mare, near St Mark's, where we sat on the shaded terrace and enjoyed the local fare - particularly the wine. This was rounded off with more drinks in the warm night air on the promenade. It was clearly a straightforward matter to adjust to the Korčula lifestyle! A little before midnight it was finally time to retire to our accommodation for the night, an array of private suites in family homes throughout the town. My host, a Croatian grandmother, spoke only Croatian and German, but this was perfectly sufficient to explain the workings of mein zimmer. (Actually, I had checked in earlier that afternoon - I didn't wake her up at midnight!)

The next morning following breakfast from the busy local supermarket, some of us joined local boat captain Mario on his little motor-launch for a sunny expedition to nearby waters. It was a perfect plan on a day that would reach 33 degrees at its hottest. First stop was the ruins of Majsan on a nearby island, which began their life as a Roman fishing village and later in the 4th century became the site of a monastery that attracted pilgrims as late as the 16th century. Nowadays only the foundations remain to explore, with a cryptic diagram that illustrates a possible layout that's rather a challenge to visualise. Next stop was a stretch of open sea in the channel where Mario anchored the launch and donned scuba fins for a spot of foraging. Soon he emerged from the shallow waters with a selection of sea urchins to sample. I didn't take up the kind offer but most of the others gave the brown, gooey sea urchin paste a try. I did, however, sample Mario's family-made wine, which was rugged and invigorating. Our last stop on the afternoon at sea was the former monastery on the island of Badija, where we enjoyed feeding the tame deer and taking advantage of the cool, clear Adriatic waters. I also took the opportunity to collect some beach glass to add to my collection from Wellington harbour. (For Mario's contact details, see Fish & Fun Korčula). 

Ruins on Majsan
Mario on the lookout for sea urchins
Greedy deer at Badija
Later that afternoon I corrected an omission of my sightseeing in Korčula, making a point of venturing up the cathedral tower in the square to admire the view across the town's red-tiled houses and the craggy cliffs across the strait on the mainland. Then it was time to rendezvous for our big dinner of the trip at the small village of Pupnat about 20 minutes drive into the island's interior. The sleepy village boasts the services of Konoba Mate, a fine, family-run restaurant, where we enjoyed a multi-course meal on the vine-clad outdoor terrace. A fine end to our visit to Korčula! We were only there for a day and a half, but it was a very appealing locale. The next morning we would gather for the earliest of starts for the third part of our journey - to the millionaires' playground of Hvar.

View from the belltower, St Mark's, Korčula
Konoba Mate restaurant, Pupnat
Sunrise over the walls at Korčula
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