From sea routes to silk roads

Whether he was born here or not, the ghost of Marco Polo looms large in Korcula, writes Ben Stubbs.

Tales are told all over the world of the adventures of Marco Polo, the European traveller who brought the Western world the ideas of paper money, engine oil and a taste of exotic Asia more than 700 years ago.

In an age oflow-cost airlines and shoestring guidebooks, Marco Polo's exploits still amaze modern-day explorers; he has left his indelible mark on the high plateaus of Tibet, across the plains of Mongolia and in the Burmese temples of Bagan to name just a few.

Myself the most amateur of explorers, I want to find out where it all began.

Within the islands of the stunning Dalmatian coast is Korcula, a sliver of pine-studded hills and curling white-stone coves looking out across the Adriatic Sea to Italy. Korcula boasts numerous attractions, from internationally recognised windsurfing channels to freshly caught seafood and the vineyards that produce white wine from the "grk" grapes that are unique to the island.

Korcula is also famous for being the reputed birthplace of the legendary explorer and has claimed Marco Polo as its favourite son, with the adventurer believed to have been born on the island in 1254.

The largest island in an archipelago of 48, Korcula is a place that once thrived off ship-building and mining in its vast limestone quarries. With the rise of tourism in Croatia, Korcula has capitalised on its sunny climate and welcomes travellers from all over the world.

Arriving at the gates of the walled old town we are led through its winding alleys by Dario, a local fisherman with a five o'clock shadow that sits just below his eyelids. In summer Dario rents out the downstairs area of his family's home to people on the Marco Polo trail.

As we walk under the sandstone arches and past the churches of the old town, the history of this place is echoed in the worn paving stones that spread across the square, slick like morning ice from hundreds of years as the town's thoroughfare. We notice the streets are spotless despite the bustle of people and Dario smiles, telling us that the old town "was designed for the winds, so that the afternoon breeze would sweep the streets clean".


Inside his centuries-old home we are introduced to his mother-in-law, a sturdy old lady boiling potatoes as the afternoon breeze lashes through the kitchen. Dario sits us down for a welcoming glass of sljivovica, the locally produced plum brandy which sits on the bench of practically every house in this area.

As the homemade liquor burns the back of our throats, Dario tells us that Croatia is playing Turkey in the football tomorrow night and it will be a big party if they win. His mother-in-law shuffles off to continue with the preparations for the family's dinner and before we are given a chore, Dario motions us upstairs to admire the view from the terrace.

From the rooftop we find what we've been looking for. Just across the alleyway is the reputed childhood home of Marco Polo; the ochre-tiled tower is surrounded by purple hibiscus flowers growing wildly across the walls and a view that looks across the choppy Dalmatian waters.

The next morning we hop across the square to explore the house. Rickety stairs and chipped whitewashed walls lead to a central tower that has views across the terracotta-tiled roofs to the foaming ocean below.

There are sceptics who dispute the existence of the Polos on Korcula. Stanka, the local tourism delegate, in turn disputes them. She tells me there is much spoken folklore on the island confirming the existence of the Polo family and a line of "De Polos" living there now who claim lineage to the great explorer.

Stanka says each year the citizens of Korcula re-enact the famous naval battle of 1298 with "15 to 20 galleys just off the coast and actors in full costume", celebrating Marco Polo's heroics when he was captured and imprisoned by the Genoese fleet. The tourism department in Korcula has a museum and library in the pipeline to commemorate the town's most famous (probable) resident.

The "original" intrepid explorer is everywhere on this peaceful island; however, beyond the ice-cream cafes selling Marco Polo-flavoured gelato and the restaurants flogging Polo risotto, there is much more to Korcula.

The coves around the island are of unpolluted aquamarine water, perfect for snorkelling, kayaking or sunbathing. In the centre of the old town are museums and the cavernous limestone church of St Mark's with frescos by Tintoretto gracing the walls.

Another Korculan activity is Moreska, a traditional Croatian sword dance performed in the evenings during summer. Korcula is the only place in Croatia that still practises this graceful centuries-old skill.

Much of the way of life here doesn't seem to have changed, from the fishermen and winemakers to the architecture.

On the morning of our departure we say goodbye to Dario and the legend of Marco as the crisp southerly wind whips across the paving stones. More than 700 years ago on these very stones, I imagine a sturdy mother yelling "Marco!" as she looks for her son roaming the alleys of Korcula as the potatoes boil upstairs, moments later to be answered with a far off "Polo!".


Getting there

Contact your local travel agent for competitive air fares to either Zagreb or Dubrovnik.

From the port of Split, the Jadrolinija ferry crosses daily to Korcula for 47 kuna (about $10).

Staying there

While there are many hotels in Korcula, the most authentic way to experience the island is to take up one of the home-stays offered. You can negotiate at the bus or ferry station with one of the many suitors or approach travel agencies in Korcula for an option that suits you.