The sturdy vintner tells me, perhaps a little overcome by his own handiwork, that this small lustrous island off the coast of Croatia is the birthplace of new world wine. We are drinking on the island of Vis, in the cool white-washed interior of a rehabilitated military bunker. This muscular setting was blasted out of the hills by Tito’s forces for protection against a heavy bombardment from the Adriatic that never came. As danger faded, the tunnel was reduced to a local spoil hole, then it was forgotten; a fetid graveyard for rats and strays. My host rediscovered the emplacement decades later while seeking hideouts to smoke marijuana with friends, deciding, when he found it, that this was the place to spend a life making fine Lipanovic wines as his grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him.
I am here as a guest, sailing and exploring around the southern Dalmatian islands with Yachts & Friends aboard a small seaworthy hotel, staffed by both a dashing skipper and an impeccable host. There are no concerns on board about who is cooking in the evening, or indeed, making breakfast. Any traumatic memories of failing scout knot badges at the water’s edge are dispelled by skilled sailors who encourage you to take part, to look the part, and who gracefully accept control again when ones ineptitude surfaces. This is movie sailing. This may even be literature sailing.
That is the compelling offer from these voyages: you concentrate on swimming in crystal waters, exploring ruins, witnessing magical vistas, dining under leafy bowers and adventuring in remarkable places; meanwhile professionals handle the tiresome practicalities. No Fisherman’s Friend here, no scraping barnacles, no Aran sweaters, no seaman’s tobacco, no reverse-parking a luxury yacht into crowded dock, no cooking on the rolling sea, no managing supplies, no years of training and no second mortgage. It’s glorious. Imagine: all the benefits of striding through spray on the front deck in your Sperry Topsiders, dolphins porpoising alongside the vessel as it cruises under blue skies… and none of the drawbacks.
Mr Lipanovic’s unlikely start to his career appears almost predictable in this part of the world: the feeling here is at once turbulently contemporary, reassuringly ancient and almost suspiciously idyllic. In some areas it is something of an untouched paradise, fish and urchins teeming in the palest turquoise waters as the yacht bobs into sheltered coves. Just a few nautical miles away in the celebrity playground of Hvar, the glamorous evening dresses will totter nightly into a neon hubbub. The giant vessels moored at the most prized berths, present bare masts in a phallic competition to touch the pink sky. In the historically much-seized town of Trogir on the mainland coast, the ubiquitous peach-white limestone of its age-old streets, churches and forts, quarried from the southern tips of the Dinaric Alps, warmly recalls the light of countless dawns and sunsets, whether Greek, Roman, Venetian or other. This coastline is the kind of place people go to find something wonderful. Doubtless, several have given up the idea of ever returning to a life without it.
The allure is more than skin deep, of course, but what a skin this area has. Trogir is a Unesco world heritage site because the port has received little else but sympathetic period additions to its layout and buildings since around 1100 AD. Elsewhere in the islands too, the overwhelming weight of heritage and ancestry remains. Architecturally, there is little to indicate that you have not stumbled upon one of the last few unspoiled parts of southern Italy, a fairy-tale remnant from a time before ticket-hawkers, before health and safety, before brochures, before insane traffic.
So many buildings look as though they were conceived and built primarily by proud, generous and artistic citizens; people who held beauty and respect in their very souls, and who were apparently obliged to receive “assistance” from time to time by hung-over or perhaps still-drunk relatives. This is dilapidated chic, perhaps eccentric and patched-up in places, but chic nonetheless. Viewing the city of Split from the marina nearby reveals a blunt contrast: a city that developed as part of socialist Yugoslavia after World War II, Split appears across the water as a dark and squat agglomeration of boxes, built wherever dark and squat boxes would fit, a world away from the lightness and history on the islands.
That lightness and history has not always been paramount, Croatia as a whole, of course, suffered during the war for its independence during the Yugoslav breakup. For instance, Vis was a closed island, disallowed for foreigners or unauthorised visitors as a military base until 1995 and the end of the conflict. Now, however, the circle seems inevitably to have turned, as the oldest military installation on the island has been reclaimed, renovated and repurposed as a museum, art centre and social space, as well as something of a party venue. The fort, overlooking the main harbour, was built by the British navy to control shipping in the Adriatic and named for the King, George III. Its environs, once a notorious drugs den and a dumping ground, have been raised from ruin to resplendence. The ochre earth that once backfilled the lower floor has left a Pompeii level of preservation and a gorgeous stain of colour, while the plants that once overran and colonised are now embraced and a feature of the site.
Back in the tunnels my host concluded his thesis: at the start of the twentieth century Croatia shrugged off feudal Habsburg rule and the country’s land fell to its people, but the land was partitioned to the extent that some families were left unable to sustain themselves. Vis lost much of its population at a stroke as skilled growers and winemakers, his grandparents included, escaped seeking futures in South and Central America, Australasia and South Africa, setting the foundation for an extraordinary promotion to a place in every wine rack. Maybe he is right. It’s nice to imagine that the diaspora from this little island, among the thousands along the glittering Croatian coast, may have spread a little ancient tradition around the modern world.
Entering and leaving somewhere by yacht is a very different experience to that on faster air and road, more regimented transport, for sure. The feeling of moving between landscapes that expand as the past diminishes behind you is compelling. Arriving you notice from afar the milliner clouds propped over hilly islands amongst the glassy blue elsewhere and features evolve from innocuous coloured ripples in the rising land into locations that grow and engulf you in sensation. Gliding out of port these are the features you now know, and ahead is the endless future you don’t. You see more of the world from a yacht. And, if you’re very, very lucky whilst on said yacht, you never ever have to see the galley.
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