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Below the boat’s bow, the water glows a deep and translucent blue. The anchorchain arcs down into it, through shafts of sunlight, to where the sand is patched with sea-grass. With the press of a switch, I start to winch in the chain. Link by link, it drops into the locker. The boat nudges ahead, the chain swings vertical and the anchor itself rises out of the water, glinting and dripping like a fish. Our boat throttles forward and we head out of the almost-deserted bay of Luka Soline, into the morning light, moving south across an island-dotted sea.

In the Mediterranean, Croatia is matched only by Greece for the number and beauty of its islands; more than a thousand lie off its shores. Some appear like outsize rocks above the horizon. Some are rocks, grasstufted mounds just clearing the water. Others are so large that their ridges and peaks tangle with those of the mainland itself to produce an ambiguity of land and sea. Exploring the coastline is a riddle that can be solved only by taking to the water – either in the Jadrolinija ferries that serve the islands and the coast like buses or, better still, in a sailing boat such as this 36-foot Beneteau, skippered with panache and humour by Zoran Bradic.

Sea skills come as naturally to the people of these shores as horsemanship does to peoples of the steppe. Zoran spent his school holidays bombing around the coast in his dinghy; in his early twenties it took him only a few years to qualify as a charter skipper. For centuries, the rulers of the Adriatic – first the Venetians, followed by the Austrians – relied on the island communities of Dalmatia (now largely in Croatia) to provide them both with fearless mariners and meticulous shipwrights. ‘This is a sailor’s coast,’ wrote the historian Jan Morris. ‘It grows sailors as other lands grow farmers and miners’.

Out of this port-hopping, footloose milieu stepped the most influential traveller in Western history. Most think of Marco Polo as Venetian, but although he set off from the Italian city for his great Asian odyssey, and lived there later in life, evidence points to his origins in a ship-building family from here, the coast of Dalmatia.

All morning I sit on deck, leaning back against the mast, alternately gazing at the islands ahead and reading from The Travels of Marco Polo. I read of his 20 years in the Far East – the magnificence of the court of the Great Khan with his 12,000 nobles and 5,000 elephants – revelling in the sense of marvels that fills every page. Even by the time of his death in 1324, the book had made Marco Polo famous. Not only did it prove hugely popular in the coming centuries, but – more than any other piece of medieval literature – it fuelled that strange urge in Europeans to jump aboard wooden vessels and sail off into the unknown: to discover, to trade, to conquer.

Looking up from the book, I scan the horizon. Astern is the archipelago of the Paklenis, the islands of Brač and Hvar and the small island of Šolta. In the distance, far to the southeast, lies the tip of Korčula – a few days of meandering and sailing ahead of us. It was there that Marco Polo is said to have been born.

By midday, we approach the shore of Vis. Close up, its slopes reveal stripes of vines, limestone terraces and olive groves. The wind is light and the empty sails flop back and forth, so it is under motor that we round the island’s northern shore and enter the harbour of Komiža.

Nowhere better embodies these islands’ restless, maritime spirit than Komiža. With steep slopes rising on three sides, it is as if the small town – outermost of all Croatia’s harbours – has pulled up a high collar against the land and set its face to the open sea. Dozens of little fishing boats rub fenders inside the quay, men wander around with boxes of tackle and in the Ribarski Musej, the fishing museum housed in Komiža’s fortress, is a display of 130 distinct knots. Every year on the Feast of St Michael, the townspeople propitiate the sea spirits by solemnly burning a boat and scattering its ashes on the water.

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