Sarah Crown finds a world of dazzling colour and seclusion in the Adriatic, where the best rooms with a view are found in the islands' old lighthouses
Friday October 18, 2002
You'd be forgiven for thinking that they've been mixing Persil Colour Care in with the rain around here. Arriving in Split from smeary, waterlogged London, it feels like I am stepping into a different, paintbox-bright universe: the houses are red-roofed and white-walled, the trees sweeping down to the waterline are green as spinach, the sky is as blue as the sea and the sea is as blue as you dreamt it would be.
In terms of singular holiday destinations, it is definitely up there. Croatia's coastline is scattered with islands like breadcrumbs on a duck pond - 1, 185, to be precise. There are lighthouses on 48 of them, and it was to one of these that we were heading. Built between 1818 and 1880 under Austro-Hungarian rule, it was when they were undergoing renovation and automation in the late 1990s that some bright spark recognised the tourist potential of all these empty, absurdly picturesque buildings, purpose-built to command the best views the islands have to offer.
We are planning a three-night stay on Plocica, meaning 'slate', named because of its appearance: low and flat, like a slate rising out of the sea. It's a speck of an island, small enough to spit over with barely room to contain its lighthouse and the colony of white rabbits that live on it. Rather than the fresh salt-and-seaweed smell I was expecting, the whole place smells like a sweetshop thanks to the rosemary bushes, which have taken root on every spare inch of soil. The lighthouse itself is solid as a rock; its white walls and green shutters blending so seamlessly with the rest of the island that it looks as though it has shouldered its way up out of the ground. The rooms are clean, if basic - all electricity is solar-generated, so hot water can be temperamental - but such fripperies are forgotten when you throw open the shutters and soak up the view over the sea to the higher, rockier islands which ring Plocica like a stockade and behind which the sun sets in layers of colour like a particularly expensive sponge cake.
The sense of Crusoe-like seclusion is heightened by the three hours it takes us to sail from the mainland to Plocica. The captain of our motor launch - and Plocica's lighthouse keeper - is Ante, an enormous grizzly bear of a man who alleviates the tedium of the voyage and the vague paranoia that comes over you when everyone around you is speaking a language you don't understand by teaching me my first two words of Croatian: tragedia and catastropha. These are his favourite words, and he uses them at any and all available opportunities over the following days - to describe the inclement weather, the overcooking of a fish, the bottom of a bottle of wine.
Fortunately, he takes a shine to me, as I discover at dinner that night. Via several willing translators and much bashing of ham-sized fist on table, he expresses deeply held convictions on the twin subjects of women who wear high heels and people who don't eat their supper. The one has difficulty negotiating the leap from boat to island (there is no harbour here); the other is rude and has no place at his table. Thankfully I am sensibly shod and the food is fresh and unbelievably good - although if you don't like fish you are in trouble, to be honest. My belief that he is the most terrifying man I have ever met - triggered by stories of him rowing for six hours to tow his broken-down, several-tonne motor boat back to land, and shooting a rare and valuable bird which landed on Plocica with a cry of the Croatian equivalent of "Get off my land!" - is confirmed when he offers me the eyeball of the fish we've just eaten. I balk: he shrugs and munches it himself with every appearance of relish.
The following morning, my hangover is instantly banished by a deep breath of rosemary-scented air and an industrial strength cup of coffee. We set off to visit some of the other islands in the best of weather and the highest of spirits. But it doesn't do to forget about the forces of nature while you're out here. We've been on the sea for an hour or so when we run into one of the electrical storms to which the area is prone. In a matter of moments, the light leeches from the sky, the sea churns up and turns from brilliant blue to the colour of gunmetal, and fingers of lightning begin to twitch down around the bowl of the horizon. When we land on Susac, the full irony of its name - 'dry island' - is made abundantly clear. We scramble up to the lighthouse in the sort of rain that leaves you deaf, dumb and blind and stumble inside to stand coursing with water and squeaking in disbelief.
Once we've wrung out our hair and clothes, we can appreciate the lighthouse's spectacular situation: perched on a rocky bluff on what must be one of the most beautiful islands in the Adriatic. Plocica feels isolated, but Susac is truly an open sea island, utterly deserted apart from the lighthouse keeper and a shepherd who keeps his flock on the southern side, and makes very free with his rakija, a ferocious local brandy. The steep white cliffs, raked by the "bura" (the prevailing north-eastern wind), are counterpointed by the sea and caper bushes, and the colours have a shape and clarity which make this easily my favourite of all the islands we visit.
Everywhere we go we're offered a drink. On Struga it's raw red wine round the kitchen table with the family while we watch their dog giving birth to puppies in the corner. On Korcula we visit a household that has been making wine on the island for over 500 years. In the cool, dark interior of the farmhouse - no longer lived in, but still housing the wine-making equipment - the stones are impregnated with the scent of fermenting grapes. When the wine comes it's served with smoked ham and goat's cheese, courtesy of the family's three goats, which live in the yard outside. I take my cue from Ante, who sips and sups as if there's no tomorrow - or indeed lunchtime.
Wine was brought to Korcula from Greece in 400BC, according to a document discovered on the island 130 years ago which is purported to be the oldest surviving document in the whole of Croatia. Further evidence of Croatia's bibulous heritage continues to appear through the discovery of more and more amphoras from the days of the country's Roman occupation. Such artefacts are considered to be property of the state and, upon discovery, Croatians are obliged to hand them over under pain of a hefty fine. Ante has three in his lighthouse.
Despite its Greek origins, the wine bears the name of a Roman, Lucul, who liked it so much they named it after him. He was into Bacchanalian revels; drink the wine and it's easy to see why. I personally thought it was a bit fizzy, but if it's good enough for a top-flight Roman hedonist, who am I to argue? The tangerine brandy, served next, tastes like marmalade and white spirit, but by this time I am several glasses down and pronounce it "Super!" in my best Croatian before wandering outside to have a chat with the goats.
We lunch in the island's main town, also called Korcula. It's as tumbledown and beautiful as Split, but without the industry or tourists. Down a narrow alley we found a house - more of a staircase with walls around it, really - which purports to be the place where Marco Polo was born. True or not (where did his family live? on the stairs?), who cares? For five kuna (about 36p) you can climb up to the tower at the top and have all to yourself one of the best views of the city: the clutter of rooftops dotted with moss and ivy, roof gardens, washing looping from window to window, down to the sea. Suddenly I'm back where I started, admiring the vivid colours which will form my lasting impression of these islands. And believe me, I'm impressed.Ways to go Sarah Crown flew to Split with Croatian Airlines www.croatiaairlines.hr . A return flight cost approximately £275. A week's accommodation on Plocica in peak season (July-August) costs 1,366 euros (around £850) dropping to 1, 179 euros (£750) in September and 888 euros (£550) off-season. Accommodation is per apartment, and an apartment in the lighthouse can sleep up to six. Transfer from the island of Korcula costs 100 euros (£60) and is charged separately. Tax is not included. For further information and price for the other islands, visitwww.adriatica.net.
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