Korcula, Croatia – nature, traditions and wines

By the time I got to the island of Korcula, in southern Croatia, I was already used to the extraordinary beauty of the country. I had been to Dubrovnik – called the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ – and also to Kotor and Perast, in neighboring Montenegro. The fullness of their history and the lushness of the nature surrounding those places had left an impression on me.  But I had yet to see a Croatian island.

I kept hearing people talk about the island of Korcula, on the Dalmatia coast of Croatia (Dalmatia is the name given to the country’s longest and most beautiful coast), a two-hour ferry ride north of Dubrovnik. The word exclusive was always uttered when Korcula was mentioned; some assured me that it is ‘the hottest destination in Croatia’, others that it is a paradise for boaters, foodies and wine-lovers.   

That got me curious. I made an Airbnb reservation, said goodbye to Dubrovnik, and boarded the ferry to Korcula. After two hours of a pleasant trip, gliding by many uninhabited islands of the Adriatic (the Adriatic Sea is the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean, the body of water that separates the Italian Peninsula from the Balkan countries), I arrived at the end of the day in a picturesque harbor near a walled town built on a peninsula that protruded into the sea. It was an impressive sight, even after having seen Dubrovnik’s majestic city walls. Korcula is smaller but no less stunning; it is only 900 meters away from the continent, and with 15,000 inhabitants – mostly ethnic Croats – it is the second most populous Adriatic island, after Krk.

The view from my window in Korcula

My Airbnb hosts, Roberto and his wife Dubravka, were waiting for me at the harbor, and waved when they saw me. A friendly Croatian couple in their 40’s, he spoke English very well, so communication was not a problem (most people in Croatia speak English). Roberto went as far as carrying my suitcase up the stairs to the apartment on the third floor that would be my home for five days, an impeccably clean and spacious two bedroom with ample views of the harbor. On the kitchen wall there was a small blackboard with, “Welcome Beatriz,” written in chalk. Fresh fruits and Croatian cookies – courtesy of Dubravka – added a warm note to my welcome to Korcula. 

The Old Town, at a walking distance from my place, is the heart of the island. A very well preserved medieval citadel, it was selected as ‘one of the most beautiful small towns in Europe,’ by CNN Travel. The explorer Marco Polo, the first to open the doors of the Far East to Europe, is said to have been born there, in 1254. Venice disputes the claim, but a registered historical document recounts that Marco Polo was made prisoner in Korcula in 1298 – during the Battle of Curzola, between Venice and Genoa – and that only then he was transferred to Italy, to a prison in Genoa. The people of Korcula use that document to reinforce the idea that – despite what the Italians still say – Marco Polo was indeed born on their island.  

The Land’s Gate, the gateway to the Old Town

By the time Marco Polo was setting sail to Asia, in the 13th century, Korcula was being built following a masterful urban plan using attractive honey-colored stones. Now often referred to as ‘mini Dubrovnik,’ the town was designed on straight lines in a fishbone-like pattern, the creative work of a local builder who was an ingenious urban planner. The result of his plan is now one of the jewels of Croatia’s cultural heritage. 

The plan was simple: to keep the air fresh and the temperatures pleasant even in the hot Croatian summers, when the region basks in intense sunshine the whole day (Croatia has 2,715 hours of sunlight per year, as opposed to London’s 1,410). The builder’s ingenuity paid off: the heat is somehow deflected, and even the effects of the powerful bora wind – common in the Adriatic – are lessened. I didn’t know about this when I first arrived in Korcula, but was surprised nevertheless that the heat never bothered me, despite the thermometers surpassing 80 degrees almost daily. 

The town of Korcula is surrounded by solid 13th-century walls and hugs the coast in a most gracious way. Modern construction is only allowed outside its perimeter, but even the new buildings are kept low and don’t clash with the village’s weathered look – no skyscrapers here, thank you. Palm trees line the streets by the water, with elegant palaces and large houses proudly facing the blue Adriatic. The architecture has clear Venetian influence – Korcula fell to the Republic of Venice in the 15th century and remained under its control for four centuries. 

All streets and alleys end on the Adriatic Sea

There are very good restaurants in Korcula Town. Croatia has been a melting pot of culinary influences for 2,000 years, and the subtlety and variety of its cuisine is astonishing. Filippi, a restaurant that looks out on the harbor, became my favorite hangout, thanks to a gorgeous view of the bay and a light and fresh Mediterranean menu. I delighted in watching the superb Adriatic sunsets and the boats returning to the shore at the end of the day, while waiting to be served. During one of those memorable meals, I overheard a German couple near me say to each other, “The therapeutic effect of art and beauty.” Just like them, I also felt inebriated by the beauty around.

After dinner, while there was still light, I wandered through the town’s intricate grid of narrow stone streets and alleyways. The richl details of the the architecture are attributed to the famed stonemasons and sculptors of Korcula, who were renowned in the past. St Mark’s Cathedral, built in the 15th century, is a testament to those skills. The church faces Trg sv Marka, the central square, and is guarded by two magnificent lions at the front door. Next to it is an imposing bell tower standing at 100 feet tall that is open to visitors. At the top I was rewarded with picture-perfect views of the town’s red roofs, the bay around it and the mountains that run the length of the island’s 29 miles. Behind the church is the house that is said to be Marco Polo’s birthplace, usually open to visitors but closed for repairs when I was in town. 

Filippi, my hangout in Korcula

One thousand years of wine making

People come to Korcula for a number of reasons, and among them is its millenia-old tradition of winemaking. Unlike the rest of Dalmatia (the name given to the longest and most beautiful part of the Croatian coast), known mostly for red wines, Korcula is renowned for quality whites made from native grape varieties. In Lumbarda, an idyllic village by the sea on the eastern side of the island, a grape called Grk thrives on sand and produces a liqueur-like wine that is famous around the world. Its production is small and Grk wine can only be found there, which makes it even more special.

Among the reds, Plavac Mali, cultivated in the interior of the island, is the most popular and well known Croatian wine. But whether red or white, Korcula wines are celebrated for their complexity, low acidity and high alcohol content, all due to long hours of Mediterranean sun shining on the grapes. It is possible to taste the wine: most of the wineries of Korcula offer tastings where it is possible to learn from the makers the history of the wines while letting the taste buds do the rest.  

Mediterranean salad with Blato’s olive oil at Konoba Mirakul

Vela Luka and Blato’s premium olive oil

It took me a two-hour ride on a regular bus from the Korcula Town to get to Vela Luka, on the other end of the island, but the trip was worth it. The bus was full of locals chatting in Croatian (which I don’t speak), and I passed the time admiring the green and hilly interior of the island, which was covered in olive trees and vineyards that sometimes ended abruptly at the sea. 

Vela Luka, the main port on Korcula Island

Passengers disembarked under the midday sun in small, sleepy villages that looked like postcards from another era. Some were so idyllic that I felt the urge to get off the bus and stay. In the village of Pupnat, a small family-run restaurant called Konoba Mate has become a legend in Korcula for its hand-rolled makaruni (a Croatian pasta) paired with fresh local ingredients. From the outside, the place looks nothing special – no flashy decoration, just a simple stone house in a small village. But for all its simplicity, it now attracts international celebrities, including some Hollywood A-listers who – I hear – decided that Korcula is chic. If authenticity is chic, then Korcula definitely is it. 

I spent a wonderful afternoon in Vela Luka, on the west of the island, Korcula’s main port and the starting point for ferries to the continent and other islands. A picturesque village surrounding a deep bay, it is the main harbor for exporting Korcula’s wines and the famed olive oil from the village of Blato, the center of the island’s oil industry. In 2016, Blato’s oil was added to the European Commission’s list of Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) for its high quality and exquisite taste. The island has 1,000 olive farms and no less than ten olive mills. I tried the oil with tomatoes and mozzarella for lunch at the small and unassuming Konoba Mirakul, on the harbor, and it tasted delicious. 

The Moreska dance of Korcula

The Moreska and the Kumpanija

It’s impossible to leave Korcula without hearing a lot about the ancient local sword dances, Moreska and Kumpanija, two of the island’s traditions from the 17th century and its most popular festivals. The Moreska dance only takes place in the town of Korcula, on July 29th every year, as part of a tribute to Saint Theodore, the village’s patron saint. It enacts a medieval legend of a clash between Christians and Moors to free a girl that had been kidnapped by the Muslims. The performance is repeated for tourists on Mondays and Thursdays during the summer. 

The Kumpanija dance is dedicated to Saint Vincenca, and is celebrated with drum music in the villages of Blato, Vela Luka, Smokvica, Cara and Pupnat. In Blato it takes place in front of the main church on April 28th – the saint’s day – and is performed once a week for tourists during the summer season. 

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