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

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