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Echoes of Marco Polo on an Adriatic island

George Bernard Shaw famously quipped that Dubrovnik was like ‘paradise on Earth’. Imagine our disappointment, then, when – after bypassing the UNESCO world heritage site en route to a southern Dalmatian island – we were told that the (twice-weekly) Jadrolinja ferry was fully booked. My partner and I turned away from the harbour booking office dissatisfied, deflated even, before darting for the nearest café bar on the tree-lined promenade to reassess our itinerary. Notwithstanding the hour patrons were enjoying an alcoholic beverage, but T and I opted against a Karlovačko (beer) in favour of some kava (coffee). This was a wise choice since an unclear head might well have prevented us from seeing what was clearly in front of us: a mini-Dubrovnik that easily equals its more celebrated sibling in everything save scale.

Marco Polo MuseumWith its marble-looking cobbled streets and patchwork of terracotta-roofed buildings, to say nothing of the cobalt-blue Adriatic, the island of Korčula is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Approximately 75 miles from Dubrovnik, the transfer can eat into your trip somewhat yet the scenery ensures it is so digestible that it leaves you hungry for more. I say this not least since the coast-hugging highway provides a veritable feast of picture-postcard settings including cliffs climbing into the clouds and vineyards diving into the sea. Looking westward (when driving northbound to Orebić), away from the Dinaric Alps to the east, visitors would be forgiven for thinking that they were in Southeast Asia and not at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe because the archipelago of idyllic islands – the largest in the Mediterranean with 1185 (Korčula, at nearly 30 miles in length, is the sixth-largest) – rival those in the Andaman Sea.

This was where I earned my PADI certificate a decade ago and I had yet to come across a diving paradise to rival it in the years since – until the eastern Adriatic, that is. Whether it was specifically since we did not visit the only sandy beach on the island (at Lumbarda) or generally because it was late in the season (mid-to-late September), I do not know, but there appeared around the marina to be few takers for surface-related activities and fewer still for those below; the only diver T and I encountered was evidently more of a businessman than a pleasure-seeker although his wave to us, harpoon-in-hand, made our semi-submarine trip all the more pleasurable. That afternoon’s catch most likely made its way onto T’s plates early evening, so fresh is the seafood at the highly regarded konoba (traditional tavern) Adio Mare, yet none of it graced either of mine or touched my uneducated palate.

Marco Polo House, Despite not being a big fish-eater, the bellowing smoke from the fish grill made me crave a glass of white wine – something T and I drank at Maksimilijan Garden as we watched the sunset. For non-oenophiles craving a cocktail, Massimo Bar offers a more impressive vantage point from which to view wooden fishing boats and luxury yachts sailing up and down the Pelješac Channel, and it is a perfect watering hole – ensconced as it is in a 15th-century turret – after visiting the alleged 13th-century birthplace of Marco Polo. Venetians have reacted with fury to Korčulan claims that the legendary explorer is one of their own (despite Dalmatia being a Venetian satellite state during the Renaissance when ‘Venice’ was the name of the whole Republic, not exclusively the city), but whatever the origins of the Polo family name and regardless of your opinion on the claim’s historical legitimacy, there is no disputing the fact that Marco Polo Museum is a first-rate attraction (unlike his attractive and seemingly-authentic ‘house’) which gives those in Croatia’s second city a run for their money.

T and I returned to the same café bar we frequented a week earlier, only this time satisfied, elated even, safe in the knowledge that there is far more to Croatia’s Dalmatian coast than simply Dubrovnik, what Lord Byron even more famously referred to as ‘the pearl of the Adriatic.’ It was only right and proper, therefore, on this occasion that we both opted against a kava in favour of some Karlovačko and toasted the island of Korčula: the jewel in the crown of the Adriatic.

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