Korcula is the birthplace of Marco Polo, and the city houses Marco Polo Museum. // © 2015 Insight Vacations
Feature image (above): A preserved medieval town, Korcula offers beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea. // © 2015 Insight Vacations
The cobalt-blue waters, dense holm oak forests and mountains running the 29-mile length of the island of Korcula, Croatia, made me wonder why the region’s reputed native son, Marco Polo, chose to set off on the Silk Road. There is certainly no lack of things to see and do right in his hometown, as well as on the other islands of the Korcula archipelago.
Inhabited since prehistoric times, the island was dubbed Korkyra Melaina (Black Korcula) by the Greeks. After 1000 A.D., the island was the scene of numerous battles involving the Venetians, the Croats, the Genoese and the Turks, each of which has left traces of their existence.
A good place to start exploring is in Korcula’s Old Town, atop a peninsula and surrounded by 13th-century stone walls with towers and bastions courtesy of the Venetians in the 15th century. To enter the city, ascend a 19th-century staircase to view a bas-relief with a winged lion, the symbol of the Venetian Republic. In the central courtyard, the cleverness of ancient city planners is evident, with straight passageways to the west allowing in cool summer mistral winds and curved streets on the east minimizing cold bora winds.
Korcula is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Mediterranean. In the central square is the Gothic and Renaissance Cathedral of St. Mark, which was begun in the 14th century. Two stone lions guard the entrance to the cathedral. The building’s intricate stonework is a reminder that the people of Korcula have been builders, stone-cutters and artists since ancient times. Other buildings in the square include the Bishop’s Palace, which houses the Abbey Treasury known for its Dalmatian and Venetian art. Along the seafront is Church of All Saints, built in 1301 and redone in the Baroque style.
The island is known for its folk festivals, as well. The Moreska sword dance, depicting a battle between the Christians and the Moors, takes place annually on July 29, as well as on Mondays and Thursdays during the summer. Times vary, so it’s best to check before going.
About 17,000 people reside on the island, with more than 5,500 in the main town, making Korcula a thriving community. Many locals continue the traditions of their ancestors, such as beekeeping, candy-making, winemaking and olive oil production, as well as fishing and stone crafts. The gourmet food businesses supply new, sophisticated restaurants and hotels that keep Korcula in competition with its better-known Mediterranean neighbors.
We enjoyed contemporary restaurant Filippi, with its outdoor tables that overlook the Peljesac channel and other islands in the archipelago. Filippi has modern Dalmatian cuisine showcasing local artisan pasta, vegetables, fish and regional wines. Of particular note was the warm octopus salad and duck with fig sauce and polenta.
Korcula is also upgrading its hotel accommodations. Lesic Dimitri Palace, the new Relais & Chateaux hotel, is a private retreat in Old Town constructed out of an 18th-century bishop’s palace. It offers five residences, ranging in size from one to three bedrooms. Hotel Marko Polo, which has been recently renovated, is another top luxury hotel option.
The island is an intriguing place to explore leisurely on foot or to follow distinct hiking trails, and lush views of the sea, mountains and forests are everywhere. For those who are more active, there is windsurfing, motorboating and sailing, as well as diving. Additionally, there are many places on the island to rent bicycles. The Korcula tourist office is a great place to find information on tours.
This stunning, historical region is about a three-hour scenic drive from Dubrovnik by rental car or bus and then a short ferry ride from the shore to the island. I visited the island as part of an Insight Vacations tour, where we were allotted around two days here. There are day tours from Dubrovnik, but a longer stay on the island is highly recommend.