There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Monday, 28 May 2012

Korčula: Part 5 of The Balkans

 On Monday we took a day trip to Korčula (pronounced Kort-chew-lah), a small town – a sort of mini Dubrovnik – situated on an island of the same name.

 On what was to be the only full day of fine weather in our whole Balkan trip, the bus took us back towards Neum. The island-spotted Dalmatian coast had looked attractive when we arrived; it looked even better in bright sunshine.
 
The island-spotted Dalmation Coast
This time, a few kilometres before the Bosnian border, we turned left onto the Pelješac peninsula. The peninsula runs almost parallel to the coast with the Bay of Ston, a long gently widening inlet between it and the mainland. Like most sheltered coastal waters in the region it is used for the maturing of mussels and oysters.

We paused briefly at the base of the peninsula at a café overlooking a small harbour.


Coffee break overlooking a small harbour
The limestone peninsula is 65km long, 2 or 3km wide and rise to peaks of almost 1000m. We drove along the central valley, its limestone pavements and scars making it look a lot like the Yorkshire Dales. The carpet of vines on the valley floor and the olive trees poking through the cracks in the rock were rather less Dale-like but another century of global warming might even fix that!


Vines on the Pelješac Peninsula

Pelješac is a designated vinogorje (literally ‘wine hill’) and we passed through the ‘cru’ villages of Dingač and Postup before descending to the coast at Orebić, Pelješac’s largest settlement. Orebić sits some three quarters of the way along the peninsula facing the island of Korčula across the narrowest part of the strait.


Approaching Orebić, with Korčula across the strait
Orebić has some 2000 inhabitants though, typically for a seaside town, many of its buildings are second homes. We had no time to see the town, indeed there was barely time for a paddle in the Adriatic before we boarded the boat for the kilometre long crossing to the island.


A paddle in the Adriatic, Orebić
It was a brief but pleasant ride offering us fine views back to the mountainous peninsula. The city of Korčula, the island’s eponymous capital, is just a little larger than Orebić. It sits on the tip of the island which stretches another 40km into the extremely blue Adriatic.


Leaving Orebić
The old town, hunched on its small promontory, was built to impress friendly visitors and deter the unfriendly. Construction outside the walls was forbidden until the 17th century, and even now does not spread far along the coast.


Arriving at Korčula
Our tour provided an hour or more’s employment for a guide, but she offered little information that was not in the guide book and the place is so small it would require a special talent to get lost.

We entered by the Land Gate, the main entrance to the city, and walked up Korčulanskog Statuta (Korčula Statute Street) to St Mark’s Square. The street name refers to the statute drafted in 1214 which guaranteed the island’s autonomy. The statute also prohibited slavery and Korčula claims to be the first place in the world to have outlawed the practice.


The Land Gate, Korčula
The square and St Mark’s Cathedral (built from 1301 onwards) are considerably less grand than their Venetian namesakes, but the same winged lion motif can be found in the masonry.

The square marks the middle of the central thoroughfare. The street plan has a herring-bone pattern with alleys angled off to left and right. Those to the west are straight, allowing cooling summer breezes to penetrate the city, while those to the east have a bend to keep out the cold winter winds from the mountainous mainland. It sounds a good theory, but as we were there on a warm, still day I have no idea how it works in practice.


The alleys of Korčula
The cathedral was covered in scaffolding and closed, but the Bishop’s Palace was an imposing building and the town is a very attractive place to wander around.



The Bishop's Palace, St Mark's Square Korčula

After the guided tour we took our own wander in search of a restaurant. There were plenty to choose from, mostly along the wider road just inside the wall known as the Street of Thoughts, as it is one of the few streets in  Korčula without steps so the walker can address their own thoughts without risk of falling over. We soon found a place with good shade, a pleasing view and mussels on the menu – after passing so many mussel beds we felt duty bound to eat some.

We ordered bread and a bowl of olives – a very Portuguese way to start a meal – half a litre of white wine (well, it was only lunchtime) and mussels ‘buzzara’, the local speciality, which involves white wine, garlic, herbs and breadcrumbs. And very good it was too. 
Mussels buzzara, Korčula

After lunch we found the builders had gone away and the cathedral was open. It is a solid construction with huge arches and dingy corners. Its prized possessions are two paintings by Tintoretto, Three Saints on the altar and The Annunciation just beside it.



Over the door of St Mark's Cathedral, Korčula
Renaissance masters or not, it had considerably less charm than the nearby 14th century church of Sveti Petar (St Peter), a simple rectangular building with an open-beamed roof.   
Svet Petar, Korčula
A statue of St Peter stands on the altar and wooden statues of the other apostles and evangelists line the walls. Full of expression and detail, they are the work of an unknown 18th century Venetian carver.


Inside Sveti Petar, Korčula

A few paces down the next alley is the house where Marco Polo was born (or not). Most historians would say that he was born sometime in the 1250s probably in Venice, but the people of Korčula know better. They have documents showing that someone of that name was born in the city in 1254 - and Polos still live in Korčula to this day. Further, Marco Polo captained a Venetian galley at the Battle of Korčula in 1298, a naval engagement where the Genoese inflicted a crushing defeat on The Republic of Venice. He was captured and it was during his subsequent imprisonment that he wrote Europe’s first great travel book. It is generally established that he wrote his book in a Genoese prison, but the evidence for the rest of the story is a little thin.


Marco Polo's House, Korčula

Marco Polo is always regarded as a Venetian, and Korčula was ruled by the Republic of Venice for a short while before his birth. Even up to the 19th century it was an Italian town although the inhabitants of the rest of the island were Croats. Today 98% of the island’s residents, including those in the city, describe themselves as Croats.

The entrance fee was not good value for merely climbing the tower of an old house – a few posters do not constitute a museum - but the view from the top was good and we sent the ‘free’ postcard to our daughter.


Looking over to Orebić from Marco Polo's House
Korčula
Next door Marco Polo appears to be operating a gift shop and we made a few purchases to take home.

After a little further perambulation it was time to return to the harbour for the ferry back to Orebić.


Leaving harbour
Korčula

Back on the bus we headed back towards Dubrovnik, stopping first at a winery somewhere on the peninsula’s rocky spine. The cru wines of Dingač and Postup are grown high up, on the steepest slopes, but we drank the more modest wines grown on the valley floor. The locals are very proud of the indigenous Plavać Mali grape and the example we tried was dark and smoky. I have drunk Vranac (in Sarajevo and elsewhere) which is similar and actually rather better – but it seemed wise not mention that. The white was very like the cheap but very acceptable carafe wine we had been drinking locally. They were asking the same price (about £6 a bottle) for each, which seemed expensive for the red and ludicrous for the white.
  
More Pelješac vineyards

We stopped again at Ston on the base of the peninsula, the name referring to the salt that is still harvested from the nearby salt pans. The village of some 500 people has a neat grid pattern but its main claim to fame is its wall and the remaining 5½km stretch can be seen striking off over the hill towards the village of Mali (small) Ston. The wall defended the town and also the borders, and salt supply, of the Republic of Ragusa.



The Great Wall of Ston

Dubrovnik was known as Ragusa until the 20th century, but the republic thrived from 1358 to 1808. It maintained its independence despite pressure from the Venetians to the north and the Ottomans to the south until the whole area became part of Napoleon's Illyria. As peace had now been brought to the region and all city walls were now redundant it was decreed that they should be symbolically breached. Consequently the walls of Ston are not as extensive as they once were and the wall of Korčula is not quite continuous though Dubrovnik defied the ruling. This does not prevent the Croatians claiming the Wall of Ston as being the longest wall in Europe though I remain unconvinced; Hadrian’s Wall may hardly be continuous but it must be a contender.

Like Dubrovnik, Ston has a church of St Blaise, but it is ruined. In this case it was not war that caused the damage but an earthquake; a frequent cause of destruction in this seismically active region.


St Blaise, Ston
From Ston we travelled back along the coast to Dubrovnik.

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