“The Mediterranean as it once was.”
As tourism slogans go, this one has always held a special allure for me. Launched by the Croatian tourist board to invigorate its ailing vacation industry after the breakup of Yugoslavia, it’s a motto that has graced billboards and glossy magazine ads for a decade. And this morning, I’ve stepped off the ferry onto an island that embodies the claim better than any other.
Lying 30 miles off the Croatian mainland, Vis is the remotest of the populated Dalmatians, the archipelago of 1,185 islands that pepper the eastern Adriatic like seeds scattered by the sirocco wind. Like many of its neighbors, it has always boasted the raw materials necessary to become a quintessential Mediterranean bolt-hole: miles of pebbled beaches, grape-and-olive agriculture and seafood by the netful. But it was a unique quirk of history that set it on course to fulfill the slogan’s halcyon promise. On the Mediterranean authenticity scale, Vis strikes an exquisite old-school note, the perfect balance between amenity and low-key local charm.
“Now being discovered by intrepid travelers,” one guidebook declares of the island, although “intrepid” seems a rather generous epithet when you consider that, having spent two hours sunbathing on the deck of the Hektorovic, the daily car ferry that connects mainland Split with Vis Town, the island’s main harbor, my girlfriend and I haven’t exactly hacked through virgin rain forest to get here.
On our first afternoon, we do what any intrepid travelers worth their salt would do when embarking on an expedition to Vis: We grab an ice cream and stroll to the beach. Hidden among the pine stands on the bay’s eastern rim, Grandovac beach is an archetypal stretch of the Vis seashore — a crescent of polished white pebbles overhung by pine trees thrumming with cicada song. On an overlooking embankment, a discreet bar purveys cold beer and soporific tunes. The water, this far from the mainland, is cool and clean.
But more, this beach provides a clue as to why we’re not battling for a space for our towels. Behind it is a military cemetery, the soldiers entombed beneath its baked earth hailing from another island, far away. During World War II, when Vis was the only island in the Dalmatians unoccupied by Axis powers, the arrival of the British forces remembered in this poignant graveyard ushered in a period of militarization that was to last for 50 years.
By 1944, the British had been joined by 2,000 partisans fighting for independence under the leadership of Marshal Tito, the “benign dictator” who would go on to dominate three decades of politics in communist Yugoslavia. Under Tito, the island was annexed as a naval outpost because of its strategic position. Military tunnels and installations were dug into the hillsides. Locals lived under a veil of secrecy. Visitors, foreign or domestic, were forbidden.
That era ended in 1989, and since then tourism has alighted on Vis’s rocky shore. The battleships have been replaced by pleasure yachts, while in St. George’s Bay, the more dauntless visitors now dare to dive into the sea from the concrete lintel of what used to be a submarine depot.
But it’s this delayed start — which helped the island sidestep the era of unwieldy concrete development that has indelibly scarred other places in the Med — that cultivated its slower tempo and a remoter feel than that of such nearby holiday hot spots as Hvar and Bol.
We first came here during a Croatian island-hop in 2005, but little seems to have changed since that accidental discovery. Vis Town’s old facades — all white stone quarried on the distant island of Brac — still grace the waterfront. Elderly olive-skinned locals ornament the benches that line the promenade. In the cool of evening, families come out to swim from the wood-slat pontoons that protrude into the bay.
The apartment we return to after our hours by the sea is typical of this contented stasis. We stay in Kut, on the east edge of town in a room that verges right onto the sea, the wall beneath its shuttered windows lapped by the tide. Accommodation on Vis consists almost exclusively of sobes — self-contained apartments like this one, locally owned and rarely more than $100 a night. The one large hotel, Hotel Issa, a whitewashed carbuncle on the harbor’s western peninsula, is incongruous and unloved. With the island’s 1,000 rooms widely dispersed over an area similar in size to that of Manhattan, and with camping prohibited, there’s no overcrowding even in peak season.
“No one on Vis went out looking for tourism; the tourists found us,” explains Drazen Gazija, the owner of our sobe and a former president of the Vis tourist office. “Vis is the place to come if you want pomalo.” ‘“Pomalo” — the Dalmatian philosophy of doing things slowly, little by little — is a spirit that has seeped into the island’s very soil.
A couple of days after our arrival, having recalibrated all systems to Vis speed, we drag ourselves out to do something resembling exploration. From the square by the ferry dock, a regular bus trundles along the seven-mile road that bisects the island from east to west, winding between verdant hillsides and citrus orchards, crisscrossed by a timeworn geometry of stone walls.
Sitting at the neck of a pretty anchorage bobbing with fishing boats is Komiza, the island’s second-largest town. Though it’s smaller than Vis Town, Komiza is where most tourists stay. Outdoor cafes line the quayside, while small, unassuming tour agencies offer day trips to the Blue Cave, an aquamarine grotto punched into the outlying islet of Bisevo, visible from here as a whale-backed rock on the horizon.
Walk away from the town, however, and you start to appreciate why Vis is often named one of the 10 best-preserved islands in the Mediterranean. Turning our backs on the gentle hubbub of the harbor, we circumvent the nearly 2,000-foot hulk of Mount Hum — from whose caves Tito deployed his threadbare bands to make mischief along the German lines — then head south to wander the coast.
Beyond the charming beach of Kamenice, dusty trails weave along cliffs that tumble with lavender and swordlike cactuses. Farther still, arc after arc of pebble bays nibble into a coastal landscape that, but for the unavoidable sight of a few faraway nudists, has probably changed little in 20 million years, since seismic tremors sent the Dalmatian islands bubbling out of the surrounding sea.
The more you explore the island, the more this timeless atmosphere makes the past feel palpable and immediate. For an isolated outpost, Vis has a surprising roll call of past visitors. Starting with the foundation of Issa, the island’s first significant settlement, by Dionysius of Syracuse in 397 B.C., all the Med’s major players — Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines — have passed through this crossroads of empire. The elegant church spires that stand sentinel over Vis bay conjure the era when Venice ruled the Mediterranean, while the island’s Archeological Collection, a jumble of clay amphoras dredged up from shipwrecks and red-figure pottery unearthed from ancient necropolises, now sits in a fortress bequeathed by the Austro-Hungarians.
An especially unexpected vestige of the island’s strategic role in the Napoleonic Wars perseveres in the form of the Sir William Hoste Cricket Club, founded in memory of the matches that British mariners played here in 1811. “A wretched place,” was how the naval captain who initiated those early matches described Vis in a letter home. Nowadays, outsiders tend to be far more effusive.
“I suppose you could say we’ve found our personal paradise on Vis,” says today’s club secretary, Craig Wear, a Yorkshireman who, after many years of itinerant living, finally settled here with his wife, Xania, in 2006. The pair now run active holidays from a four-room guesthouse in Rukavac, on the island’s southeast corner. “The cricket teams that visit us usually tour a new location each year, but they always come back to Vis. It’s impossible to leave this island without wanting to return,” Craig says.
Throughout the island’s history, one common thread has been its reputation as a center of gastronomy. As long ago as the second century B.C., the Alexandrian scholar Athenaeus was extolling the region’s wine: “At Issa . . . wine is made which is superior to every other wine whatever.”
Winemaking using the local grape varieties — vugava for white, plavac for red — remains a thriving cottage industry today. But Vis also boasts the food to accompany it: This is often described as the culinary capital of the Adriatic.
In the evening, we go to one of its seafood standard-bearers. Jastozera, meaning “lobster,” is a beguilingly ramshackle joint where the diners sit on planks set over the sea. Nets and ropes hang from the ceiling, rowboats float in the illuminated water, and the rusted frame of a spinning wheel provides the base for our table. When our large-bellied Italian neighbors order thermidor, a waitress takes up a pole to hoist the restaurant’s eponymous specialty — big blue crustaceans with bolt-cutter pincers — out of the lobster cages that sit directly below us.
Our menu selection is less theatrical but no less appetizing. A waiter comes over with a platter of fish caught that day — dory, turbot, sea bass, bream — and your selection comes back from the kitchen simply presented but cooked to perfection.
This uncomplicated cooking style is rooted in past impoverishment: During the military occupation, as the island’s ancient trading links eroded, locals had no choice but to live off the limited bounty of the surrounding sea. With delectable irony, this unfussy culinary ethos is now considered the pinnacle of sophistication.
At the posher end of the spectrum, restaurants such as Villa Kaliopa, where tables are secluded amid the luxuriant foliage of a 16th-century walled garden, now coax in a transient yacht set who moor up each evening, hungry after a day on the water. (When we return from Komiza on the last bus, Vis Town has adopted the air of a miniature Cannes.) But even here the culinary ethos hints at the same unfussiness that you find at the humblest of homespun konobas, or taverns, with their tables scattered beside the street. You’re unlikely to find any nouvelle cuisine or molecular gastronomy on the menus here; on Vis, it’s about letting ingredients speak for themselves.
Perhaps it’s this wise indifference to glitz and puffery that persuades the kind of A-listers you’d more likely associate with the French Riviera to occasionally weigh anchor here. John Malkovich is reputed to be a regular visitor, and Tom Cruise dropped by in 2005. On our first trip that same year, we saw the tennis star Goran Ivanisevic — arguably Croatia’s most famous living native son — strolling along the promenade without a care in the world. “His mother lives on the other side of the island,” a passing waitress confided. “He comes here to be invisible.”
By day, the marina empties as Vis’s spirit of “pomalo” returns. With our planned trip to the Blue Cave canceled because of choppy waters, we hire some mountain bikes and take to the road. After a lung-busting cycle up the hills above Vis Town, we find ourselves on a road that unfurls onto the island’s central plateau, a rolling arcadia of vineyards spread across undulating acres of yellow sand.
Up and down the crinkle-cut coastline we go: past Rukavac with its twin-bays; Srebrena with its huge, chalk-white pebbles; Stiniva with its horseshoe cove. The latter is a favorite of those Croatian tourist board advertisements, though when we arrive there’s not another soul to share it with.
“The Mediterranean as it once was.” Does anywhere deserve the compliment as much as Vis?
On our final evening, as I sit in the stone courtyard of Pojoda restaurant enjoying a glass of Lipanovic, from a winery that matures its barrels in the military tunnels that previously defined the island, it seems unlikely. For here the island’s martial past has become an advantage, leaving behind an atmosphere just like this wine: pure, unsullied and uniquely Croatian.
Wismayer is a freelance writer based in London. His Web site is www.henrywismayer.com.