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Island stronghold

A rocky outpost in the Adriatic has fought off invaders or received visitors for all its history

Email|Print| Text size + By Drake Bennett, Globe Staff and Rebecca Ulam Weiner, Globe Correspondent
August 20, 2006

VIS -- It's always ill-advised to indulge in cultural stereotypes. Still, there did seem to be something apt in the indictment delivered by the young woman selling commemorative T-shirts near the ferry dock at Vis, the smallest and most remote of the islands off Croatia's Dalmatian Coast.

``Each summer more people come here to visit and each winter more people leave for good. That is the sorry state of life on this miserable island," she said with a smile that, leavening Slavic fatalism with Mediterranean cheer, seemed quintessentially Dalmatian.

Try as we might, we couldn't muster much pity for her. Unlike nearby Korcula, Vis lacks a fortress city that Rebecca West (who in 1941 famously wrote about traveling through Yugoslavia in ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon") might have described as ``dripping with architectural richness." Unlike Hvar, its nightclubs don't attract superyachts. But Vis, a brief punctuation in the Adriatic Sea blanketed by vineyards and orchards in late summer, has charms of its own, chief among them a deep languor that would be drowsy if there wasn't a quickening pulse underneath.

Vis offers one the sense of touristic accomplishment that comes with being somewhere at just the right time -- a feeling one gets, to a lesser extent, elsewhere along this coast, with its dark, gem-like water, craggy heights, and gleaming medieval walled port cities like Dubrovnik. In an age of cheap jet travel, few places are hard to get to. Many of today's ``unspoiled" destinations, then, aren't so much undiscovered as avoided. Croatia, while it hosts its fair share of European visitors, to most Americans still conjures up images of the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s. That is changing. ``You are adventurous Americans," an aristocratic-looking Croatian woman, dining with her English husband, told us condescendingly one night on Vis. It was clear she considered us the advance guard of a ruinous horde.

Military metaphors come easily on Vis. From the end of World War II until 1989, two years before Croatia declared its independence, it was a Yugoslav military stronghold, closed to tourism. Now, the adventurous visitor, American or otherwise, can leave behind the island's pristine stone beaches, sun-drenched waterside cafes, restaurants, and boutiques, and ascend the nearly 2,000-foot Mount Hum to visit the complex of caverns that briefly headquartered Marshal Tito's partisans as they fought the Axis during World War II.

When we set off to explore the island, the owner of our apartment-hotel sternly advised us to steer clear of areas cordoned off by barbed wire fences, for fear of encountering an unexploded mine, a legacy of the 1991 war. The craggy mountaintops that dominate the island's interior are crested with military buildings, announced by discreet signs along the road.

Vis's physical remoteness has limited the impact of tourists who lack private transportation. During the summer, regular ferries connect Vis to Ancona, in Italy, or to Split , in Dalmatia. During the off-season, access is more limited. Traveling from any of the more popular nearby islands, like Hvar, which is less than a dozen nautical miles away, or Korcula, requires either a yacht or the chartering of a sailboat, whose departure is contingent on both the weather and the ship's captain.

But it's well worth the effort. This westernmost of the larger Dalmatian islands (Croatia has 1,185 islands, about 60 of which are inhabited) is 7 miles from end to end, bracketed by two villages. Vis Town, the more stylish, extends its tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and stone buildings around a deep bay on the northeast side, and Komiza, a compact, calm fishing port, holds down the west under a steep ridge of hills that rise more than a thousand feet. Two roads connect them, the Old Road, an ancient horse path that meanders through fields and farmland and rocky, barren hills, and the shorter New Road, where the island's single supermarket and its auto repair shop are located. Bicycling the circumference takes about half a day on uphills and some precipitous downhills.

The majority of Vis's visitors come on their own -- the harbors bristle with the masts of sailboats from the mainland and Italy. Vis Town in particular has the feel of a yachting town. Kut, the ``suburb" that occupies the eastern side of the bay (and where aristocrats from nearby Hvar built summer homes), has only a few dozen buildings, among them several restaurants that could hold their own in Los Angeles or New York.

Traces of South Beach permeate Parallelo 43 Bistrot , a spacious terrace on the easternmost end of the bay, topped by a thin roof of bamboo. No matter the time of day or the state of one's satiety, it is impossible to walk by unmoved by the aroma from the large chrome grill. Calamari, whole fish, and juicy steaks marinated in garlic, rosemary, and local olive oil share the surface with enormous ripe tomatoes, zucchinis, and pale, delicate peppers. A meal can take upward of two hours, but they are well spent, especially if one starts with a plate of homemade pasta, crudely shaped, perfectly cooked, and topped with mussels and shrimp. Liters of bracing local wines, red Plavac and white Vugava, wash down the pasta and soften the wait for the grilled fish, steak, veggies, and fresh salad. Occasionally a waiter will carry a steaming platter of food off the terrace and up the gangplank of a nearby yacht.

Both nights we ate there we had the same waiter, Dario, an avid reader of ESPN and Slam magazine and invaluable source of information about the island dispensed in mocking, almost perfect English.

Toward the heart of town is Villa Kaliopa , 11 tables hidden among palm fronds, Greek statuettes, and thin cedar trees in the garden of a 16th-century villa. The menu is the same: Seafood pasta and squid ink risotto that, while good, don't rise to the level of Parallelo, followed by grilled fish and calamari or grilled steak, accompanied by local vegetables, either grilled peppers, tomatoes, and zucchinis or sauteed chard.

Preceding dinner, the Lambik Lounge offers the perfect location for an aperitif or some card playing, with its deeply cushioned low-slung armchairs positioned to absorb the last of the setting sun. Following dinner, the swanky grotto-like interior of the lounge heats up over ambitious cocktails under the pillars and vault-like ceiling of a crumbling, Renaissance-era palace. Alternatively, the enclosed garden of Peronospora Blues , toward the western end of town, shelters patrons from the sun or the stars under a dense gnarl of grape vines.

Closer to the ferry terminal, pizzerias (notable among them the pleasant terrace of Pizzeria Kariola , set back from the promenade) and cafes tend to dominate the waterfront, as well as the town's excellent bakery, Pekarna Kolderaj, and its farmers market, which entices with its produce, cheeses, and olive oil .

There are sand beaches on Vis, most notably Stoncica and Zaglav , but they are more crowded and arguably less beautiful than the pebble beaches ( some form of beach footwear is recommended ). But the water, also as a result, is wonderfully clear. The beach just to the east of Vis Town is as pretty as any on the island, and has a small bar that serves food and plays music all afternoon.

The other end of town is dominated by a crag atop which sits the George III fortress , built in 1813, when the British controlled the island to guard the entrance to the harbor. Parts of it have crumbled, but most of it is intact, and backpackers sleep on mattresses in some of the rooms.

There are only three hotels in Vis Town. The Tito-era Hotel Issa on the western end of the bay looks like a bunker but offers balconies with prime views over the water. The Hotel Tamaris , which in its disheveled elegance has more of a Riviera feel, is closest to the ferry terminal; request one of the renovated rooms and you'll likely be presented with a commanding view. The Hotel Paula , in Kut, is off the main drag and closest to the best places to eat. Another option, particularly well suited for a longer stay, is Nautic Apartments , on the westernmost edge of Kut, which offers four spacious, clean, and pleasant mini-apartments with kitchenettes and an appealing terrace over the water. With prices that beat most of the hotels, Nautic also headquarters the town's Internet cafe and radio station. A barbecue grill is in the works on the back patio.

Contact Drake Bennett at DrBennett@globe.com.

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