We write to you from the city and island of Korčula, which lies in the southernmost region of coastal Croatia, known as Dalmatia. Although we only meant to stay a night in this 13th century walled town, its charm has kept us here for four. We have rented a lovely (and shockingly affordable) apartment in the old city, in the house right next door to where the famous Marco Polo spent his childhood. From our rooftop terrace where we have been eating our meals, we can look over the red tiled roofs to the Adriatic waters and mountains with the same perspective as Marco would have had! It feels very magical.
Korčula has been an island offering us both challenges and rewards. We arrived by ferry to the western port of Vela Luka, a quiet fishing town we both enjoyed. However, from Vela Luka we experienced probably our most difficult bike ride yet to get 50 kilometres east to the town of Korčula. We climbed up a mountain and into a wind that was blowing 60 to 70 km/hour, which became even more of a problem when we ascended into a low-lying cloud and our visibility dropped significantly. It was really cool to be inside a cloud and it often felt dreamlike, but this environment was also quite stressful and thus we were thankful to descend onto the peninsula that homes this old walled city. »video
Almost immediately upon arrival we met Simon, who provided us with our great accommodation. Private accommodation, where landlords independently advertise and rent rooms, is the cheapest and most popular way to spend nights in Croatia. For example, this downtown apartment with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, one kitchen and a beautiful terrace is only costing us 20 Euro a night! (We have learned that in the off-season prices are always negotiable, and Alec is getting very good at bartering for cheaper rates). With this type of accommodation, you also get the opportunity to know the landlord. We ended up spending an entire evening with Simon in his little tavern restaurant. Simon is quite the conversationalist and he shared with us stories of his life in Macedonia, Germany and Croatia, and also shared with us some food and a too much free wine and Rakia (the local liquor that neither of us have the stomach for).
Another individual who has made our short stay here so memorable was Lea. We met Lea randomly outside the walls of Korčula, and we could not be more thankful that we did. She is a very interesting and passionate person who has a very inspirational perspective on life. She emits a level of positive energy that is truly motivating. She took us under her wing and gave us a very informative personal tour of the old city, and afterwards we shared in some excellent conversation in a cafe. Lea has connected us with some of her other friends throughout Europe so we hope to meet others in her network as we continue on our adventure.
Our tour from Lea, who is a guide in the summer, was fascinating and gave us a lot of insight into Korčula. This city has been one of the most important in the Adriatic for many years since, because of its proximity to the peninsula; whoever controlled the island controlled the shipping lanes. Thus, the city was very well fortified and very densely populated; in fact, during the city’s peak during Venetian rule, there were about 3500 people living in an area the size of a football field. The city has some interesting design features that increased its efficiency. For example, all the east facing streets are curved to protect the city from the Bura, the extremely cold Croatian winter wind, while all the west facing streets are straight to allow the cool summer breeze through the city. Quite the creative heating and cooling system! We have enjoyed exploring this walled city very much and are looking forward to exploring the most famous walled city in Croatia: Dubrovnik, where we are heading next. We really like how walled cities are very dense and all pedestrian-only. All the architecture is usually from the same era and thus is indicative of a specific time in history. The buildings are all quite well preserved, thanks to the fact that they were once well protected for strategic and safety purposes, and they continue to be taken care of for cultural and historical reasons. We have also recently been musing over the irony that these walled cities were once built to keep foreigners out, but now they do quite the opposite.
Another fortified city we must mention is the second largest city in Croatia: Split, where we stayed four days in the company of our lovely Couch Surfing host named Tanja who we liked very much. As a Split native, Tanja grew up in this city that is the old palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, which was built in the 300s. As the Lonely Planet attests, there are about “a zillion” cafes in this city, and we certainly saw a lot of them during our stay (although we did not explore Split’s other major attraction which is shoe shopping). One of our evenings was spent in a cafe bar listening to an acoustic set of Tanja’s friend (we found it funny that the Croatian audience knew far more of these American country and rock songs than we did). This again highlighted how cool it is to stay with locals; the version of Split we received through Tanja was a bit more “authentic” than perhaps the average tourist.
As usual, we love that both Split and Korčula are on the sea. Both towns have a very strong tradition of shipbuilding, sailing and fishing. For example, according to Lea at one time the small island of Korčula had almost 200 shipyards. Tanja also told us how even today being a shipbuilder or in a shipbuilder’s family has always been a great honour. However, the shipyard in Split is about to go bankrupt, which would have a widespread, likely riotous, effect on the city. To better appreciate these traditions, we visited Split’s Maritime Museum which resided in the city’s old fort that was built to repel Turkish invasions.
Another highlight of being in Split was that the city granted us two of the three things we have been homesick for (besides of course friends and family). First, we met another Canadian! Steffi, a friend of Tanja’s, hails from Montreal and is spending a year teaching English in Split. It was really great to get her perspectives on Croatian life, and she and her Spanish roommate showed us to a fantastic supper at the local’s favourite eatery. The second craving that was satisfied in Split was the discovery of peanut butter! For some bizarre reason, Europeans don’t eat PB and thus no grocery store shelf is stocked with it. However, amidst the jam and Nutella at a small store in Split, we found an extremely tiny jar of peanut butter, and promptly bought three. After two months, it tasted heavenly. We have yet to find Craving Number Three, a good cup of coffee, but we will keep you posted.
Well, we are right now waiting for Lea to come over for a breakfast of local Croatian food before we head off to Dubrovnik. It is raining right now but hopefully it will clear soon!
Happy December everyone!
Alec & Caitlin