What lies beneath: the Croatian island of Vis

Cut off from the world by clear waters, the Croatian island of Vis is full of secret histories, says Frank Partridge

The last pearl of the luminous necklace of nearly 1,200 islands sprinkled along Croatia's Adriatic coast, Vis is intriguingly set apart from the rest. Out of sight from the mainland, it starts to emerge on the western horizon only halfway through the two-hour ferry journey from Split. For much of its modern history this secretive fortress has been out of mind too, as far as outsiders are concerned. Now, nearly 3,000 years after the ancient Greeks declared its grapes to be the finest in the region, the island is at last in a position to reap the harvest.

To the visitor, sailing between the twin promontories that guard the approaches to its wide, deep harbour, Vis announces itself gloriously. The water, clear as a freshly polished mirror, is mid-ocean blue. The shore is fringed by a ramshackle assortment of grey-stone houses and narrow passageways, collectively forming the island's only town. Motorised craft putter across the bay, while a graceful procession of yachts jockey for mooring space. On a spit of land that gives the illusion of being an island, a monastery sits serenely among the cedars, pines and gravestones. Two sets of church bells mark off the hours. First impressions are that Vis resembles any number of picturesque, rustic, slow-paced islands scattered across the seas of southern Europe.

But Vis is not like anywhere else. Far out into the Adriatic within sniping distance of Italy's east coast, the island has been coveted by every major power with strategic interests in the region. And the island is littered with half-submerged clues to its tempestuous past. To unravel the layers, all you need is a working knowledge of European history - and a decent pair of walking boots.

You can do the elementary detective work in and around Vis town, where a small museum and cemetery preserve traces of those wine-loving Greeks, who named the island "Issa". The Romans passed through, of course, leaving behind some first-century baths, with the black and white mosaic floor intact. They, too, enthusiastically cultivated vines, including the island's indigenous white vugovar grape with its earthy, farmyard flavour. There are suggestions of a submerged Graeco-Roman town and a large Roman amphitheatre beneath the 16th-century monastery, but for the moment Vis is content to let them lie in peace.

There is much more to see on one of the natural look-out points above the harbour, where a crumbling 19th-century barracks is steadily being overwhelmed by giant cacti and weeds. Inscribed above the entrance is the familiar but fading outline of the Union flag. This is Fort St George, built by the British after a notable naval victory in 1811, during the Napoleonic Wars, when Captain William Hoste's four frigates routed a much larger Franco-Venetian squadron, and shifted the balance of power in Dalmatia. Hoste was knighted, and a tiny island at the harbour entrance named after him, but his six-year posting to the Adriatic was not to his liking. In a letter home in 1810, he wrote: "We have established a cricket club in this wretched place, and when we do get anchored... it passes away an hour very well."

After vanquishing Napoleon in 1815, the British took away their bats and balls, and the fort was abandoned to the tangles of nature. The British would return more than a century later, but not to the fort. It's a forlorn place these days - a health and safety hazard occasionally colonised by rock fans on long, loud summer nights. West of Vis town, a new road cuts through the hills to the fishing village of Komiza, the island's only other sizeable settlement, which has niftily converted itself into a food and watering stop for passing yacht crews. From the higher ground, particularly near the summit (585m) of Mount Hun, there are glorious views of the distant Dalmatian archipelago. Suddenly it becomes clear how isolated a place this is.

Looking inland, the eye is distracted by a long, flat strip of grass interrupting the neatly chequered vineyards, extensive enough for large aircraft to take off and land. Which is exactly what they did in the last two years of the Second World War, when the Allies combined with Tito's partisans to confront the enemy by air and sea. Halfway between the Italian airbases and Belgrade, Vis became a safe haven for bombers too damaged to complete the journey home. Near the airfield, a collection of farm buildings have been converted into an unusual restaurant - Konoba Roki's - where they make their own wine and slow-bake meat and salted fish in traditional cast iron domes. Here, as on the rest of Vis, the vines and vegetables are totally organic. Who needs chemicals when the soil is rich, the sunshine plentiful, and wild sage, rosemary and curry plants grow like grass?

As lunch is served in the open courtyard, an elderly man appears - chaperoned by his daughter and son-in-law - and politely orders a glass of red in Home Counties English. William Humm, of 43 Royal Marine Commando, was returning to Vis after a break of more than 60 years. In 1944, he and his colleagues spent nine months pulling vines out of the ground to clear the runway, harassing the Germans in motor torpedo boats - and filling the long gaps in between with swimming and games of cricket.

"This island is famous for the game," claims the owner's son, Oliver Roki, "and it will be again in the future." I raise a quizzical eyebrow. A tall waiter appears to serve the drinks, sporting an angry-looking bruise on his forehead.

"Stanko, tell him what happened to you."

"I was hit by a ball during cricket practice."

After lunch, William Humm is taken to the RAF monument near the airfield, and then to the so-called "English cemetery" that overlooks the white-pebbled beach outside Vis town, where British ex-servicemen were allowed to come and pay their respects even when the island was officially closed to foreigners during the Tito years, when it became the secret base of the Yugoslav navy.

My own history tour, meanwhile, leads me to a couple of mountain caves at the top of a daunting 260 steps. Well preserved for visitors, they are said to have been Tito's hiding place as he plotted resistance to the Nazis. Anglophile Oliver, now acting as volunteer guide, is sceptical: "Maybe he visited this place a few times, but he preferred good cigars, nice food and women. It was morale-boosting for the partisans to imagine that their leader was negotiating with the British on behalf of the King of Yugoslavia, but why would a man who had his own personal cook spend any time in a cave?"

Well, it makes a nice story - as does the empty field at the bottom of the hill, returning to seed after a year or two of neglect. This is where the local cricketers would one day like to entertain touring club sides from England. "No one would notice if we formed a football team," says Oliver, "but everyone would want to come here and play cricket." But money is short and serious work is needed. It's something for the future.

Hidden in the long grass beside the field is another evocative symbol of the past: an up-ended concrete pillar, inscribed with a Croatian motto which Oliver translates as: "We don't want others, and we will not give up what is ours." Tito again, with one of his regular proclamations to the people. The sad slab was once an overbearing monument in the centre of town. When Yugoslavia broke up, and Croatia rediscovered its nationhood, this and many others were either towed away from public view, or dynamited.

So, at last, Vis is able to open its doors again. The island will never be overwhelmed by visitors - the mere act of getting there more than doubles the journey-time from, say, Gatwick to Split.

And Vis town, where high-season rooms are in such demand that it could treble its permanent population of 1,000, has so far resisted the temptation to add to its three rather modest hotels. Visible alterations to even the most dilapidated waterfront buildings are zealously kept in check. The island's only supermarket is tucked out of view at a safe distance from town, like an embarrassing relative. Vis remains obstinately different. It will never follow the route of the Croatian hotspots of Dubrovnik, Rovinj and Hvar, because it sees itself as something else. A haven for lovers of wine, waves, wild flowers, and - if Oliver Roki has his way - willow-wielding cricketers.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting There

The writer flew to Split from Gatwick with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) for £97 return. BA operates daily flights to Split between April and October. Other airlines flying direct from the UK to Split are Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0020; www.croatiaairlines.hr) from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Nottingham; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick; and Wizz Air (00 48 22 351 9499; www.wizzair.com) from Luton. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Split is around £3. Two ferry companies operate between Split and Vis. The quicker of the two - the Sem Marina catamaran - is cheaper, with the single fare for the 90-minute journey costing 26 kuna (£2.60). It's 34 kuna (£3.40) on the Jadrolinija car ferry, which makes the two-hour crossing to Vis twice a day in summer.

Staying There

Hotel Tamaris, Obala sv. Jurja 20 (00 385 21 711 350). Double rooms start at 700 kuna (£67). The writer stayed in a house, which sleeps up to six, in a quayside hamlet across the bay from Vis town. A week's rental for two costs £420-£700. Details: 01635 200 258; www.houseonvis.com.

Eating & Drinking There

Konoba Roki's (00 385 21 714 004). Free transport is arranged between the restaurant and Vis.

Further Information

Croatia National Tourist Office: 020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick