Exclusive Vis

A two-hour ferry ride from Split, Vis is the furthest island in the Dalmatian archipelago from the Croatian mainland. It is quite small – only 34 square miles – but what it lacks in size, it more than compensates for in beauty, unspoiled nature and history. 

It is also sparsely populated – only 4,000 people live on the island. Until recently, Vis was off-limits, due to its military connections. During World War II, it was used by Allied forces to coordinate operations against the Nazis that occupied parts of Croatia, and from 1950 to 1989 it was a naval base belonging to communist Yugoslavia. Isolated, pristine, and with almost no modern buildings, Vis’ authentic looks and relaxing atmosphere are intact, qualities much appreciated by the sophisticated boating crowd that flocks there every summer. Compared to the other Croatian islands, Vis has a unique cachet. 

Town of Vis

Tourism is new there. It began only in 1991, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Even now, the island is far from being a touristy place; with only one hotel in Komiza and one in Vis town – the two main villages – accommodation is available mainly in private homes and apartments. 

The weather in Vis is glorious. With a Mediterranean climate, it has hot and dry summers and gentle winters, with temperatures never too high or too low. The prestigious Rough Guide travel books listed Vis as one of the Top Five best destinations in Croatia. As soon as I took my first step on this island, I fell under its spell.  

Kut, Vis town

The ferry from Split

I arrived in Vis coming from Split – the main transportation hub of Central Dalmatia – on a Jadrolinija line ferry that serves the island three times a day in the summer. The large vessel docked in Luka, the busy end of Vis’ harbor, where I boarded a local bus to Komiza. The bus passed by fertile fields carpeted in vineyards that produce some of the best Plavac wine in the Adriatic – about 20% of all arable land on Vis is planted with vineyards, and viticulture is still an important economic activity.  

Further down the road, olive and fig trees grew next to native pines. Modest houses scattered among the hills showed signs of human presence, which made me wonder what it would be like to live in such a remote and stunning place. Suddenly, a picturesque bay and harbor town came into full view up ahead, interrupting my daydreaming. As the bus began to descend, I didn’t know what to photograph first, if the gorgeous Bay of Komiza in front of me or the church of Saint Nicholas and the 13th century Benedictine Monastery dominating the view of the Bay, to my left. I had seen pictures of that church before; sitting atop a hill surrounded by vineyards, it is one of the most famous views of Komiza.  

St Nicholas Church and monastery

KOMIZA

Following instructions given to me by my Airbnb hostess, I got off the bus after a 20-minute ride at the first stop in Komiza, marked by an old and rusty sign. A small and lively Croatian lady of about 70 was waiting for me next to the sign and greeted me warmly. Her English was limited and my Croatian nonexistent, but a few minutes later we were arriving at what would be my home in Komiza for a few days, a spacious ground floor apartment in her comfortable house near the center of the village. As I was leaving her place to walk to the harbor, she informed me that there would be another guest arriving on that same day, a former Croatian judge from Split, and that she had already made arrangements for us two to meet. 

I strolled along winding cobblestone alleys going towards the compact center of the village, passing by small produce stands where locals were chatting by the door. The big chain stores common to other Croatian destinations were nowhere in sight – Komiza doesn’t have any . All the shops are small and situated on the ground floor of the same old stone houses where the owners live.  

Komiza waterfront

The harbor, on a deep blue bay, is surrounded by 17th and 18th century houses placed side by side and undisturbed by modern buildings. The area looked very quaint and had a homogeneous look, like a perfect scene from a movie. No wonder the movie Mamma Mia II was shot here, I thought to myself. This place has probably not changed much in the last 300 years. 

I realized then why Komiza is considered one of the most attractive harbors on the Adriatic. The pier stretches about 100 feet into the bay and is lined with colorful vessels of all shapes and sizes. Fishermen were bringing their catch to the shore – probably my dinner later that night – while sightseeing boats were unloading tourists back from the Blue Cave on the nearby island of Bisevo, one of Komiza’s main attractions. The harborside bars were quickly filling up with patrons arriving for happy hour; around the tables on the seaside promenade, children played soccer unattended, while some enjoyed their ice cream cones. As in most Croatian towns, the end of the day in Komiza is time for locals to socialize, before heading home for dinner.  

Komiza

Komiza has a certain unpolished look, a bit bohemian and a bit working class, while the town of Vis, on the other side of the island, has long been associated with the nobles and aristocrats that once built palaces there. Both villages suffered a major depopulation in the 20th century, when droves of young locals emigrated to America and Australia for work, and only the elders were left behind. I met a lady in her 70’s who proudly told me that her daughter is a police officer in California. ”I lived in the USA for many years, but came back to Komiza after I retired and lost my husband,” she confided.   

The sea around the island of Vis is rich with fish, especially bluefish (sardine, mackerel, and anchovy). Komiza has been traditionally associated with anchovy fishing and processing, an industry that had its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The reputation of the village’s fishermen is older than that, though: they were already famous around the Adriatic in the 16th century for creating a special type of vessel, the falkusa sailing boats, admired for their high speed and maritime prowess. Now retired from the seas, the falkusas can be seen in the Fishing Museum in Komiza’s Kastel tower. 

Komiza’s harbor

Made of large limestone blocks, the fishermen’s handsome homes by the water were built to be as spacious as possible while occupying the least amount of land, to spare the surrounding fertile fields for agriculture. Back then, people on the upper floors would communicate with those on the fishing boats in the bay, while those on the ground level and the rest of the family worked salting and preserving the fish to be exported.

Those days are mostly gone now. After the success of Mamma Mia II, Komiza went from being a well-kept secret of Croatians to a place known to the outside world and to choosy travelers. Now quaint family homes have been remodeled to be rented out in the summertime, and depending on the size and location, some can fetch up to $800 a night. Less expensive apartments and guesthouses can be found all over the village, but it is a good idea to book early. The only hotel in Komiza – in a plain communist-era building from the days of former Yugoslavia – is said to be average on all accounts, despite a nice location near the beach.

Besides fishing, Komiza is associated with another common feature of the Adriatic: pirates. Both the Mediterranean region as a whole and the Adriatic Sea in particular were infested with them in centuries past. 

Happy hour in Komiza

A reminder of that era is the 16th century Church of Our Lady of the Pirates – first mentioned in documents from 1542 – named after a peculiar local legend. The tale recounts the occasion when pirates came to shore and stole a wooden image of the Madonna from the church, only to be allegedly killed by a storm at sea, soon thereafter. The stolen image is said to have floated back to the shore in front of the church, where it has been adorning the altar ever since. 

I actually got to know the church quite well, after befriending the retired judge my landlady introduced me to, a devout Catholic lady in her mid 50’s. Together we attended two services there – she knew everybody in the congregation – and even a choir rehearsal. I was quite impressed with the heavenly sounds that emanated from their voices and from the church organ; the antique piece is said to be one of the oldest musical instruments in Dalmatia, created in 1670 in the workshop of famed master Stephanus Kolarevich of Krakow, Poland. Choir and acapella singing are strong Croatian traditions, each town has its own groups and they all participate in popular annual competitions. 

Konoba Barba

Komiza is also a seafood paradise. For dinner I would go to Konoba Barba, located on a terrace overlooking the Bay, a place recommended to me by local girls I met at the grocery store. Due to its privileged location, on one special night Konoba Barba provided me with a breathtaking moonlight-on-the-sea spectacle, a magical moment when the moon rising in the sky cast a silver sheen across the water of the bay for as far as the eyes could see. The beauty of that moment will forever be among my fondest memories of Komiza. 

I had lunch at Fabrika, on the waterfront near the Maritime Museum, where delicious “street food” (even fast food in Croatia is fresh) was served, while I enjoyed watching the constant movement of boats on the harbor and benefited from steady Wifi (not always easy to come by on the islands). I would pick a table in the shade, eat my meal slowly, and stay there for a long time afterwards to reply to emails. The friendly waiters didn’t seem to mind, they probably guessed that I would like to stay there forever…

The Blue Cave

One of the main attractions in Komiza – and on the Croatian coast – is the Blue Cave. Called Modra silja in Croatian, it is a small cove on the island of Bisevo, a 15-minute boat ride from the Komiza’s harbor, and it had long been known to fishermen and divers. Tourists only started to come in 1884, when an entrance large enough to allow a boat to enter was formed  by blasting a hole in the rock.

Depending on the season, on clear days – between 11 am and 1 pm – rays of sunlight pass through an underwater opening and brighten up the cave with a vibrant blue light that makes objects beneath the water’s surface shine in silver and pink shades. Our boat stayed inside for less than five minutes, but the dance of light was so fantastic that the trip was well worth it. On the way back, the view of Komiza’s harbor from the boat was not too shabby, either.

The Blue Cave

Boat tours to the Blue Cave are available departing from other Croatian locations, but the shortest ride to Bisevo island is from Komiza. Note of caution: on windy days the water on the bay gets choppy and tours are canceled, which is why booking them in advance is not advised. I bought my ticket on the same morning of the tour, after waiting through two days of windy weather. The  Blue Cave quickly becomes overcrowded with visitors in the summer; the best time to visit is in the morning.

Vis Town

The main village and original settlement on the island, the town of Vis feels completely different from Komiza. While Komiza is densely built up around the bay and more crowded, the town of Vis is spread out , lies at the foot of the wide Bay of Saint George and is much quieter. 

End of the day in Vis town

Although it is the administrative and cultural center of the island, the town has a tranquil, relaxed atmosphere, and a subtle, elegant ambiance. Less than 2,000 people live in it, and it never gets touristy – even in the summer. With no nightlife, only one hotel and no campgrounds, its appeal comes from the pristine nature, tranquil nearby beaches, narrow cobblestone alleyways and quaint medieval stone houses. The impressive Renaissance ‘palaces’ on the water, built by noble families in the 17th and 18th centuries, are now open to the public.  

I had a reservation at Pansion Dionis, a 3-star bed and breakfast that faces the center of the village’s seaside promenade. The taxi from Komiza left me in front, while people were getting onto their boats, preparing to venture out onto sea. Across the water, on a peninsula facing the town, lies the picturesque church and Franciscan monastery of St. Jerome, built on the foundations of an ancient Roman theater in the beginning of the 16th century.

Church and monastery of St Jerome

There was no elevator to my tiny room on the third floor. The place was managed by the hostess’ extended family, and her son in law Ivo – a lively, young Croatian – enthusiastically helped me with my luggage. Fluent in English, he later told me that many young people now want to leave Croatia for better work opportunities abroad (mostly in Germany or Scandinavia). “I am thinking of doing that too,” he confessed. “But even if my wife and I move abroad we would always come back to Vis,” he said. “This is home.” 

And what a place to call home! From my room I could see the tiled red roofs of centuries-old low houses facing the bay, and, beyond them, the wide expanse of the Bay of Saint George and the monastery of St. Jerome. Near the hotel, a stairway – featured in the movie Mamma Mia 2 – led to narrow medieval alleyways lined with small, charming boutiques. “This place probably looked the same in the Middle Ages,” I thought. 

View from my room
Breakfast with a view

My breakfast was served every morning on the terrace right in front of Konoba Denis, a bar and restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel. After breakfast I would stop at the Vis Tourist Office everyday, to get information. That is where I learned about the island’s rich history:

Like other Croatian locations, Vis has passed through many phases throughout history. In the year 390 BC, it was a Greek colony called Issa. Later came the Romans, and in 47 BC, Vis became part of the Roman empire. Slavic settlers arrived in the 8th century, but during the Middle Ages Vis – and the rest of the Adriatic islands – was under the control of the Byzantine empire, ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul). Venice annexed Vis for a while, as did France – under Napoleon and briefly – but in 1814 it became part of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

During the Austrian period, Vis was the setting of major naval battles. Among them was the famous Battle of Vis of 1866, between Austria and Italy. They were competing for control of the Adriatic Sea, and Austria emerged the victor. In 1918, after WW1 ended, Vis was Incorporated into the new state of Yugoslavia; in 1991, when communism fell and Croatia broke off from the bloc, Vis became part of an independent Croatia. 

Pansion Dionis

Most of what we see today has its origin in the merging of three separate bayside villages: Luka, Kut and Gradina, which were unified in the 16th century. Each has a different look and vibe. The Gradina, at the foot of Gradina hill and next to the ferry port, is the oldest part of Vis. That is relatively easy to guess, considering an original Greek wall still standing and the ruins of Roman baths with a floor mosaic being meticulously restored when I visited, in the summer of 2021.

Walking further, I reached the Prirovo peninsula, where the Franciscan church and monastery of St. Jerome – the one I saw from my room – is located. The church facade was made of marble taken from the ruins of the ancient Issa, the original name of Vis. The view of the town from the church was stunning. 

A boaters’ paradise

It was a hot day, and the pebble beach next to St. Jerome’s church was filled with local families. I stopped to get water at an improvised bar under a tent and ended up  watching part of a soccer match that – judging by the enthusiasm of the small crowd gathered in front of the TV set – seemed to be very important for soccer-loving Croatians.  

Most offices and shops are in Luka, at the center of the town’s coastline, near where the ferries dock. Luka is made up of narrow pedestrian alleyways with local government offices and plazas facing the sea. Most of the handsome buildings are in the baroque style and date from the 17th to the 19th centuries. A few palaces with charming balconies add to Luka’s charm. Near them, the Perasti tower, built in 1617 on the port, is a reminder of the time when defense against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire was an issue all over the Adriatic. Back then, the tower was armed with small bronze cannons.

I followed the seaside promenade – always called Riva in Croatia – to walk from Luka to Kut, passing on the way by majestic palm trees and imposing private palaces. Among them were the Gariboldi Palace, built in 1552 as a family country home, the Prdvaric Palace, richly adorned with carved flowers, and the Jaksa Palace, a 17th-century building now owned by the granddaughter of famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. The latter had a gorgeous courtyard with high-ceiling rooms and balconies overlooking the sea, behind its plain facade. During the filming of Mamma Mia 2, the Jaksa mansion served as the residence of actress Amanda Seyfried, who played the lead role in the movie.

Medieval alleyways

Reaching Kut, the last of the original villages at one end of the bay, it was easy to detect the Mediterranean influence in the architecture, a mix of low medieval houses and some more recent reminders of the island’s military era. As the Croatian navy never reclaimed its facilities on Vis after 1991, many of its abandoned buildings are now used as accommodations for tourists. The tunnels, bunkers and a secret submarine base nearby can be visited. 

Protected by a bay of deep, blue water, and with a waterfront lined with small cafes and bars, Kut is compact and charming. It is also the location of four-star Hotel San Giorgio, an elegant old building with ten rooms that opened in 2008 which has since become one of the nicest places to stay in Vis. Its restaurant, Boccadoro, is highly regarded.  

Vis is for romance
Kut seaside promenade

I ventured out of town to visit Smokova beach – considered the best for swimming in Vis – where one can see part of a WW2 bomber wing on the sea floor. Back in town, I enjoyed the Town Museum, which houses an original head of a Greek goddess and vases that date back to the island’s early settlement. I also went to Fort George, a popular spot for cocktails and dining that overlooks the village. From my table there I delighted in a magical sunset with the extra bonus of witnessing the lights around the bay of Vis being lit all at once –  from Luka to Kut – as soon as the sun hid below the horizon. Magical.

I liked to end my days at Bar Tamaris, favored by a lively and sophisticated crowd of boaters – mostly British, German, Italian and French – for happy hour. I would just sit at the same table every day, slowly sipping a drink while watching the boats come back to moor, followed by the dramatic sunsets and the lights of the St. Jerome monastery reflecting on the water. The peacefully slow daily pace of life in Vis made a big impression on me – I never felt so relaxed.  

The Riva

I had a return ticket to Split on an early morning ferry. On the day of my departure, Ivo drove me to the port to help me with my luggage. I was a little sad when we said goodbye, knowing that I would probably never see him or his nice family again. Traveling, for me, is about meeting new people, listening to their stories, witnessing how they live their lives differently, in other parts of the world. In that sense – and in many others – Vis had been a very enriching experience.

When the ferry started to distance itself from the harbor, Ivo waved at me from the port, and I waved back, almost in tears. 

I then realized the only bad thing about Vis: having to leave it. 

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