For three years now, Peter Sommer Travels’ guests on our Croatian cruises have been treated to staying at Korčula Town. The town, capital of the island of the same name, is a rare treat, a place of harmony, serenity and beauty, of wonderful waters and stunning views towards a mountainous mainland, a place with a distinctive local atmosphere and a place with a long history that is present at nearly every step.
My first experience of Korčula town was a full-on one, as I was travelling to explore the region and the cards fell in such a way that I got to spend the best part of two days there. It was love at first sight! I’ve returned several times since and if I were randomly offered to spend some time in Dalmatia right now, Korčula Town would be one of the places I would pick.
Why so? Because it is the rare kind of place where you find a sense of long and complex history emanating from the historic stones, and where you can feel you are walking in the footsteps of those who have gone before us for many centuries. Everyone seems to know about Dubrovnik, known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, and about palatial Split, and both are indeed fantastic, but Korčula Town offers more intimate joys.
Korčula island is large and fertile and we know that is was first settled tens of thousands of years ago, as there is evidence of Palaeolithic activity in Vela Spila Cave near the western end of the island, making it one of the key sites of early human presence on the Adriatic Coast. We also know that by the first millennium BC, the Iron Age, the island was home to Dalmatian tribes, whose hillforts and burial mounds are scattered throughout.
It’s nice to know these things, but what we still don’t know is also important: the origins and early history of Korčula Town! The Greeks, beginning to settle selected points on the Adriatic since the sixth century BC, had a name for the island: Kerkyra Melaina; and there is some evidence to suggest a Greek settlement, or an attempt thereof, either in the 6th or the 3rd century BC, or both. Altogether, the Greek presence on the island remains a bit of a mystery, and we have discussed it as such on this blog. Since the potential Greek settlement is assumed to have been somewhere in the east of Korčula, just opposite the mainland, the beginnings of the town may be tied up into the same story – we simply don’t know.
Korčula Town occupies a low and nearly circular hill, measuring just 210 by 170m (690 by 560ft) and sticking northwards into the sea, pointing to the Dalmatian mainland just 1.3 km (0.8 mi) away. The headland is connected to the island proper by a narrow isthmus, and some think it may once have been an islet of its own. As a defensible quasi-island with good anchorages on either side, it would compare well with other sites of Greek colonies – but there is no evidence so far to prove the existence of one. Likewise, we cannot prove that there was a Roman settlement in this location (there is better evidence elsewhere on the island). In the tenth century AD, the Byzantine Emperor and historian Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus mentions a walled city on the island, but once again, nothing in Korčula Town can be shown to be that old – but since there is no other convincing candidate, that early medieval stronghold should be suspected somewhere underneath the present town.
Korčula’s history at the time was quite turbulent, as was that of the entire region, an interface between Byzantine, Slav and Venetian spheres of influence. The island appears to have changed owners several times. The earliest architectural remains that can be recognised in the town today date to the 1200s, when it was under Venetian control.
What we see today, however, is dominated by the 1400s. Early in that century, the whole town was rebuilt, now covering the entire headland. We do not know what occasioned the complete rebuilding: it could be due to destruction by war or a natural disaster, but also to a sudden increase in population or affluence. Whatever the reason, the town was now laid out according to a rigid design, with a central road traversing it on a virtually straight north-south line, and with residential lanes crossing that main artery at not-quite right angles, creating a ‘fish-bone’ pattern. The plan is delightful in its clarity and simplicity and it is still adhered to in its entirety. All of the houses probably stand on medieval foundations and some are still substantially the same structures they have been since the rebuilding: if you walk the streets of Korčula, you walk where people have walked for more than six centuries.
It’s amazing to realise how thoughtful the design is. If you look closely on the map, you can see that the lanes to the west of the central spine are straight, whereas the ones to the east are slightly curved. That’s not an accident of measurement, but a clever refinement: it permits the westerly winds that prevail in summer to provide the centre with a refreshing breeze, while blocking out the harsh eastern and northern winds that can occur during other seasons.
The central street was and is the heart of Korčula Town: Everything that the citizens of Korčula wanted a visitor to see is lined up along that street, entered from a monumental stairway through what used to be, and still is, the main gate into the town.
Just inside is the loggia, a space where visitors could sit and wait before entering town or where local grandees could meet and discuss, hold court or whatever. Progressing from there, one walks by the former city hall and governor’s residence, passing a series of typical Dalmatian stone-carved shop-fronts, best known from Dubrovnik, typically with a door next to a wide window or counter, nowadays serving souvenir shops and konobas (the traditional wine bars of Dalmatia, also serving local food).
At the top of the hill, just a few minutes from the gate, one reaches the highest point, the central square, really just a widening of the road, overlooked by the former episcopal palace and the cathedral: the spiritual core of the community. Afterwards, the main street continues, now downhill, eventually reaching what used to be the northern town gate.
In the original fourteenth century design, the town was ringed by defensive walls. Part of them survives on the northern and southern sides, but most has been demolished in the nineteenth century, as they served no more purpose and as city walls were demolished all over Europe at that time, considered to be an unhealthy barrier to air and light. In Korčula, the defences made way for very pleasant coastal promenades, but the broken remains of the walls and the eight remaining towers suffice to give an impression of what this enclosed town once looked like.
I always enjoy places where you can perceive how people organised and lived city-life in the past. On this blog, we have described ancient cities, now in ruins, like Bronze Age Gournia on Crete or Greek Priene in Turkey (and there is more to come), as well as more recent traditional villages, like those on Symi in the Dodecanese or Amorgos in the Cyclades, where the fabric of the settlement illustrates how people lived.
Korčula is another such place, essentially a living Late Medieval Town: the only major thing that has changed (apart from the loss of the walls) is that it has grown further and now a ‘new town’ exists on the other side of the isthmus and a second ‘new’ centre has developed just outside the new main gate. The moment you enter Korčula Town, you walk on streets and lanes that are basically unchanged since many centuries ago, even though the houses lining them now include fine Renaissance and Baroque details. Only fifteen per cent of the buildings are later than the seventeenth century! This urban environment exudes a sense of history, an atmosphere of calm stability, of modest beauty and of robust civic pride.
Within that calm and long-term spirit of Korčula, there are things to enjoy during your own moment there. The Town Museum, set in the Renaissance-era Gabrielis Palace on the main square, offers an overview throughout the history of the place and the region, focusing especially on the material from various ancient shipwrecks around the island, but also on the local traditions of ship-building and stone-carving. The superb four-aisled Cathedral of St. Mark (14th to 16th century) with its delightfully irregular plan and its breathtakingly tall campanile (if you are not afraid of heights, you can climb it for one of the best views in Croatia) contains many minor treasures and one major one (see below). There is also an ecclesiastical museum in the bishops’ palace, a rare example of an original Wunderkammer, a collection of just about anything the bishops thought interesting, from ancient coins via sculpture and paintings to embroideries and garments spanning many eras.
If you visit, you will also be enticed – by much advertisement – to see the Marco Polo House, supposedly the erstwhile home of the famous explorer of China, who is claimed to be from Korčula by some. Speaking for Peter Sommer Travels, I opt for a tasteful neutrality on the veracity of that controversial claim, but I state that Korčula should not need any such flashy association to be considered significant. For a less doubtful prominence, all you have to do is enter the cathedral: the altarpiece is by Tintoretto (1518-1594) and it has its own unusual story. During recent restoration work, x-ray studies revealed that the great Venetian master had to paint the patron saint twice. His original painting showed Saint Mark as the evangelist, the typical image of Saint Mark as the patron of Venice. The people of Korčula, however, worship him in the less common role of a bishop, and it appears that they rejected Tintoretto’s first version, forcing him to paint a second one over it.
And beyond all these things, there is the stonework. This is a speciality of Korčula, its origins go back to the grand rebuilding of the town or even before and it is everywhere. Nearly every house has finely carved details, such as cornices, window- or door-frames, balcony supports and so on, none of them spectacular by themselves (except those on chapels and churches), but all of them combining into a grand monument, defining the character of the place by making the whole far more than the sum of its many parts.
Korčula town breathes slowly, unaffected by your visit or mine, in a historic slumber that awakens occasionally for exciting local events like the celebration of the Moreška, a traditional sword-dance. But still, you don’t visit Korčula Town for a momentary thrill, you go there to experience its history, its sense of resting in itself and its sheer beauty. If you’re there on a Peter Sommer Travels cruise, our tour expert will help you in reading the place and understanding its history, but there will be room also for your own experience.
There is more to see in Korčula Town than what this post can cover, and the rest of the island also contains many places of beauty and interest. To see Korčula Town, you should consider joining one of our gulet cruises from Split to Dubrovnik or from Dubrovnik to Split. It is a central highlight on both, and one you will find hard to forget: Dalmatia’s other pearl!