One of the great things about Split is the large ferry dock. We have now taken ferries to four different islands for day trips or overnight. There are slower car ferries that also take walk-on passengers and faster catamarans that only take foot traffic. The ride can be 45-160 minutes long but hasn’t cost more than $8. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk to the farthest ferry dock from where we are staying.
On the islands the pace of life is calmer than in Split. Very small towns are spread out on large islands. As one taxi driver told us, there is no industry beyond tourism and small-scale agriculture. He added that also means there is no noise, no pollution, and little stress. The islands also get more sunshine than the mainland and are very popular for both foreigners and Croatians in the summer. The shorelines are fingered, creating many small bays. Human history on the islands goes back thousands of years with multiple archeological sites.
Today the islands are sleepy with many abandoned-looking houses. It didn’t used to be that way. The Greeks introduced grapes and wine making 2500 years ago. Viticulture became a significant industry on the islands, and vineyards covered the land. Around the turn of the 20th century came a grape blight that wiped out virtually all of the vines and collapsed the local economy. That started a mass emigration that was furthered by the challenges of war, continuing through the 1990s when Croatia separated from Yugoslavia and became an independent country. Four million people live in Croatia today. Exact numbers for the diaspora are impossible to come by but the estimates say two to four million Croatians left over the last 150 years.
On the islands rock piles and rock walls are ubiquitous, a sign of when the population was much larger and more food production was happening. The soil is high quality but mixed with rock. To create usable land for planting, rocks were removed and stacked. In some places, it looks like half the area is covered in neat rock piles ranging from 2 to 6 feet tall. Slopes are terraced. It’s hard to imagine the tremendous amount of work it took to create fertile areas on these islands. I’ve only spent a few days picking rocks, which gave me enough to complain about but doesn’t even register to what these farmers did! We saw many active gardens next to houses and in town that show that the people who live here now are still growing food.
Šolta is the smallest island in this area. The ferry docks in a tiny village with a row of houses along the shore and one cafe. We walked 2k up to Grohote, the town on the top of the island. On the way, we passed small farms and olive trees. Neighborhoods of tumbling stone houses were beautiful in the way that nature reclaiming human effort often is. The cleared land around was fallow with overgrown grass. We spotted another fire lookout on a ridge overlooking Grohote and the far shore of the island. On our way back to the ferry, we sought out the one restaurant in walking distance open on Sunday. We were the only guests. They gladly pulled out a table cloth, brought out cushions, and welcomed us. The family who runs the place was just about to sit down for their meal and we got lucky. They had prepared a traditional meal called peka. It is essentially a one-pot meal with the pot buried in hot coals. The juices cook together; it was delicious!
We also visited Brač, Hvar, and Korčula, which are all much larger islands (110-150 square miles each). On these islands, it is easy to see signs that we are off-season. Beach bars, restaurants, and beach facilities are all closed and shuttered. However, we never had trouble finding a good inexpensive place to eat, often seated outside in the warm sun. Many towns have an old medieval center with narrow winding cobble lanes and stone houses leaning overhead. On Hvar, we looked at the archeological remnants of Pharos, a Greek town settled 2,400 years ago, and the plots of land that the Greeks divided for farmers. Those divisions are still used today and make the area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On Korčula, we visited a cave that contains signs of human habitation beginning 20,000 years ago. On Brač, we walked through a lovely seaside cemetery on All Souls Day as families placed flowers and candles on the graves of loved ones.
You can see more pictures from our island visits in the Croatia Photo Gallery. Some stories are best told with a picture so you’ll find things in our photos we didn’t share in the text.