The perfect trip: Croatia
A local fisherman, Baldo Kraly is Mljet’s answer to Indiana Jones, though he wouldn’t admit it. Just over 20 years ago, Baldo discovered the foundations of an early Christian church in the undergrowth near his home. Investigations followed, and Baldo’s discovery gave credence to a legend passed down by generations of pious islanders – that Mljet is modern-day Melita, the place named in the Bible as the site of St Paul’s shipwreck on his journey from the Holy Land. The saintly connection has long provoked head scratching within Croatia’s religious establishment. The Vatican accepts Malta as the site of St Paul’s shipwreck, but local theologians have championed Mljet’s case since the 18th century.
Baldo heads to the rocks where he suspects St Paul’s ship may have run aground. We climb into a small fishing boat, and the sound of chirping crickets gives way to the splashing and gulping of the Adriatic beneath the hull. Looking back to land, it’s not hard to see how inviting this virgin island must have seemed after weeks adrift at sea. Shady forests of juniper and Aleppo pine spill down to the shore – trees that lean over the aquamarine-blue waters as if they are about to dive in.
In the event, St Paul would have set sail for Rome soon after arriving on Mljet. It’s a small wonder he didn’t stay forever.
Where to eat
Triton is a rustic tavern filled with nautical paraphernalia in the village of Babino Polje (00 3852 074 5131; open Jun–Sep; mains from £5).
Where to stay
Located in the village of Saplunara on the eastern edge of Mljet, Stermasi offers comfortable, modern apartments set on a hillside overlooking a rocky bay. The adjoining restaurant is among the best on the island – the octopus salad is a triumph (stermasi.hr; apartments from £50).
Dubrovnik: Best for history
Night is drawing in, and a bura – a cool, northerly wind – is blowing through Dubrovnik, dipping down the alleyways of the old city, rattling the laundry lines and threatening to carry pairs of pants and socks over the battlements before setting them adrift on the Adriatic. By degrees, the streets empty of their crowds, and the city’s majesty quietly reveals itself. The creaking of moored boats and the slosh of the tide sounds around the old harbour, while statues of saints, warriors and cherubs glower down on the marble streets, still warm from the day’s sunshine.
Dubrovnik is perhaps the most beautiful town on the Mediterranean – encircled by fortifications, battlements and towers stacked on top of each other with the silliness of a massive sandcastle. Twenty years ago, however, the Yugoslav Army besieged the city, killing almost a hundred civilians and destroying historic buildings in the process. As a Unesco-listed town of little strategic value, Dubrovnik was an unexpected target – as unlikely a scenario as the United Kingdom suddenly splitting up and Wales bombarding the city of Bath.
Two decades on, Dubrovnik closely resembles its former self – the Renaissance city-state once renowned across the Mediterranean for its democratic principles, rich culture and philosophy. Churches, palaces and townhouses that were blown apart by shells have been patched up and restored, and today host concerts and exhibitions. Tourists have returned to the town in droves, but traces of old city life survive: the surge of customers to cafés after Sunday mass; the food stalls that set up shop in the town square on weekday mornings.
Even now however, many locals are reluctant to talk about the siege. Those who do relate the experience with a gritty black humour – you might hear the tale of a parrot that learned to mimic the whistle of an incoming shell, unwittingly sending people diving for cover. But of all accounts of heroism from this time, the story of Đelo Jusic, a man introduced as the ‘Croatian John Lennon’, surely counts among the most remarkable.