Sailing in Croatia
The wind has freshened. Blowing hard from the north, it sends us bowling down the coast towards Korčula. In the sun, the surface of the sea flashes with white-capped waves. Every now and then, one breaks at our stern, ramping up the boat and surging us forward. This is sailing at its most exhilarating, and Zoran – standing at the helm, generations of Dalmatian seafarers at his shoulder – grins at the thrill of it.
We approach Korčula with the Pelješac peninsula rising above the mast. High up, the vegetation gives way to karst, pale rock dotted with scrub. In centuries past the dogs that patrolled these heights were said to have been bred to produce spotted coats for camouflage, and were thus named ‘Dalmatian’ after the coast.
The walled town of Korčula guards over this strait. For most of the eight centuries from 1000 AD, it was an outpost of Venetian power . The winged lion of St Mark is carved into its main gate, commemorating the great sea battle when the Venetians defeated the Turks at Lepanto. More obvious is the presence of Korčula’s native celebrity. A brief wander takes me past the Marco Polo Mystique restaurant, the Marco Polo bakery and three branches of the Marco Polo shop, selling plaster-cast models of the great man and leather-cased telescopes. Visitors trot by in Marco Polo T-shirts – ‘I have not told half of what I saw for I knew I would not be believed!’ On the sea front the Dubrovnik ferry is docking, dwarfing the town. Its name written on the bows: Marco Polo.
Graveyards are always a good startingplace for local history and, on the wooded slopes above the town, I find Sveti Luka cemetery. To the sound of sparrow song and cicadas, I read the names of countless Korčulans, peer at cameos of proud, communist-era men and headscarved women, before reaching the 19th-century mausoleum of the Depolo family.
The island’s leading authority on Marco Polo is Dr Zivan Filippi. I meet him in the old town, outside the cathedral of Sveti Marko. He is in his sixties, and he speaks with old-world charm and an easily-shared enthusiasm for his town. Korčula’s claim, he explains, rests mainly on the long-term presence of the Depolo/Polo family. ‘Between the 16th and 20th centuries, records show that there were 712 people named either Depolo or Polo born here.’
Earlier papers, he continues, connect the family – at the time of Marco – with the town’s principal occupation of ship-building. As we walk through the shadowy warren of foot-polished alleys, high-sided and narrow, Zivan ignores the town’s trumpeting of its famous son, all the Marco Polo shops and knick-knacks. He speaks of documents and evidence. He points out the Polo family crest carved into a wall. Even in the Marco Polo tower, a belvedere with spectacular views of the sail-spotted channel below, he is more concerned with a few stones in a yard beside it. ‘The tower is many years later than Marco Polo – but here we have discovered the base of a house from his time. It belonged to the Polo family.’
Korčula has one other dramatic link with the great traveller. That evening, we set sail along the island’s eastern coast. The sun is falling, silhouetting the forested skyline and covering our sails in its yellowy glow. Beyond Korčula town is a series of wooded coves where the Polos and others built the ships that helped keep the Venetian empire afloat. We pass the port of Lumbarda before reaching the eastern tip of Korčula, the headland of Rasžnjić.