Marco Polo's birth town
The old town of Korcula sits on a small oval peninsula on the northeastern shores of an island with the same name. The island is one of over a thousand that make up the Dalmatian coastline between Italy and Montenegro so beautiful. The short ferry ride from the mainland gives you enough time to admire the medieval town from the sea. Encased in 14th century walls, the cathedral’s bell tower stands proudly in the centre overlooking churches, palaces and narrow buildings crowned with terracotta roofs.
The “land gate” into the walled citadel is up a flight of stone stairs that replaced the original drawbridge and through Tower Revelin. The views from the top of the tower are worth the climb before strolling up the main street that divides the town exactly in two. The main square sits right in the middle and is dominated by Sveti Marko Cathedral and palaces with Romeo and Juliet balconies. Standing here at dusk, you can not only admire the gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture, you can also watch swallows perform an eerie aerobatic display as they take their last flight of the day.
The narrow lanes that run down from the main street to meet the city walls have been cleverly designed. On the west they run straight, while on the east, they are slightly curved to protect the town from the cold northeasterly winds. Down these terraced streets, you pass doorways leading to apartments and the occasional shop and restaurant before before reaching the Zakrjan promenade. The main section of the promenade sits on top of the eastern sea walls; it is lined with ancient pine trees, bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a glass of locally produced wine and watch spectacular sunsets.
As you stroll further along the promenade, you come to another stone lookout tower. This one, though, is now a trendy bar called Massimo; on the very top, you can have alfresco cocktails. To get to the rooftop bar, you have to climb a steep wooden ladder, wriggle through a trap door; your drinks will arrive, courtesy of a pulley running up the outside of the building. The promenade continues past another medieval tower, or you can walk down to the old harbour, past the Korcula Inn, where you will find a neo-baroque stairway which is the “sea gate” into the old town.
With so many references to Marco Polo on the island, it is not surprising to discover he was born here. You can visit his birthplace, which is now a museum. At the beginning of September, you can watch a re-enactment of his historic battle in the harbour. The town is also famous for a traditional dance called Moreska; dates back to the 12th century. Although once popular all over the Mediterranean, it is now seen only in Korcula.
Outside the city walls, the rest of the island waits to be explored by bike or on foot. The hiking trails are old Napoleonic roads made out of stone and rubble; they lead you through olive fields and vineyards, down onto pebbled beaches where you can swim in the clear blue sea. Fig trees dripping with purple and green fruit follow the paths, impossible to walk past without picking a few. As you march through hamlets nestled on small hills and coves, smiling locals wave and say hello, but for most of the day, you will only hear the crunching of your boots and the happy pounding of your heart.
Beyond Korcula – from not so famous to famous
From Korcula, you can see across to the steep slopes of the Peljesac Penninsula and the 15th century Franciscan monastery perched high on the mountain side. If you take the ferry back across to Orebic, you can hike up to it; the trail is not as difficult as you might think. When you reach the monastery, the first thing you notice are the breathtaking views across to Korcula and its neighbouring islands – surrounded by azure blue. If you can tear yourself away, walk down to the windy town of Viganj and cool off in the sea; watch the kite and wind surfers fly back and forth.
A day trip across to the spectacular island of Mljet is a must. Over 70% of the island is covered by forest; the western half is a protected national park. The park is the perfect place to spend the day walking, cycling or swimming in the pristine waters of its two saltwater tidal lakes. In the middle of the larger lake is a picturesque island, where you can explore the 12th century Benedictine monastery and have a cup of tea with the monks.
Croatia’s most famous city, Dubrovnik, lies only two hours drive south from Oerbic. On your way, you can stop at another 14th century town. Ston is surrounded by 980 meters of fortress walls and towers that rise up to form a triangle on the steep mountain side. The town and surrounding area is famous for its oysters and salt fields that have produced sea salt for centuries.
You will know you’ve arrived in Dubrovnik when you cross a new suspension bridge and pass its busy port filled with cruise liners. The famous UNESCO world heritage site lies on the farthest side of the city. Like Korcula, it sits on a peninsula and is surrounded by impenetrable walls. As you enter through the Pile Gate, you will think you have been transported back in time although in the summer months, you might not be able to see past the thousands of tourists.
Walking down the Stradun, the first thing you notice is how highly polished and almost marble-like the street is from thousands of years of footsteps. Although it’s tempting to follow this main promenade direct to the Orlando Column in the distance, its worthwhile ducking the crowds and exploring the side streets and small courtyards. Before long you find yourself outside the Sponza Palace, City Hall and Rector’s Palace; behind these grand buildings is the old harbour.
From here you can climb the city walls and explore the perimeter of the city 25 meters above everyone else. The walls are six meters thick; it takes about 40 minutes to walk round, longer if you stop to admire the incredible views across the terracotta roofs, or explore one of the many fortresses. As you approach the walls that overlook the sea, keep an eye out for a small bar – Buza – located right on the cliff face. It’s the perfect place to finish your day with a cold beer, and watch the sun go down as the locals dive off the cliffs into the sea below.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with the history and beauty of towns like Korcula and Dubrovnik, but it will be the land in between that will capture your heart. Thankfully, you can enjoy both and spend your days exploring unspoilt islands, swimming in crystal clear lakes and sea before returning to your medieval sanctuary for a plate of oysters and a glass of wine.