Discovering Marco Polo in Korčula, Croatia

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If the old story is correct, the 800-year-old gated stone tower—with its arched doorway providing entrance to Croatia’s medieval town of Korčula—once served as an exit for a man who, perhaps more than any other, changed world history. Across the walled town’s plaza, with its limestone tiles polished to an icelike sheen by centuries of footsteps, past 500-year-old Saint Mark’s Cathedral, down a sun-dappled cobblestone lane, narrow enough for a passer-by to touch both walls lining the route, and just below a four-story tower that rises above Korčula’s red-tiled rooftops, is the home of Marco Polo.

Although questions about his youthful origins are disputed, old records and modern evidence suggest that Polo (1254-1324), then 17, left Europe in 1271—when Venice controlled the Adriatic—for a 24-year-long, trans-Asian journey to the court of China’s Kublai Khan. On his return, Polo recorded in his book Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo) the remarkable things he’d seen. The Chinese, he reported, burned coal for heat. They used paper, not parchment, for writing. They had printing presses. They had magnetic compasses for navigation. They had gunpowder. They had cast iron. And they had rare spices.

These observations were so improbable to late 13th-century European minds, many considered the account a hoax. But from these revelations came Gutenberg and his books, cannons and modern warfare, improved ocean navigation and the Age of Exploration, and the Renaissance. It was, in fact, Il Milione that inspired Christopher Columbus to head across the Atlantic. Polo to Columbus, and Columbus to Magellan, and today’s globalized world was born.

The town of Korčula, with a population of about 3,000, lies at the eastern end of an Adriatic island of the same name, and is a relaxed miniature of nearby and fearsomely touristy Dubrovnik. Banana-shaped, pine-covered, 46-kilometre-long Korčula Island is part of the archipelago that parallels Croatia’s mountainous coast, providing ocean adventurers, wine aficionados, and the indulgent with endless unhurried opportunities—from sea kayaking to winery-hopping to floating on the tepid Mediterranean under an endlessly blue sky.

Like all the old fortified towns that command the headlands of the much-fought-over Adriatic, Korčula is a delightful maze of shop-lined cobblestone lanes, restaurant-filled plazas, three-story limestone homes, and Gothic churches with dark interiors that smell of incense and candle wax. But whichever way one turns, the town’s famous ghost is never far away. There’s the Marko Polo Hotel, the Konoba Marco Polo restaurant (where a delicious seafood risotto, a plate of local mussels, salad, and wine for two goes for $35), and the Marco Polo Shop, which sells modern memorabilia of the great traveller. And there’s the Marco Polo Tower that rises directly above what is believed to be the adventurer’s old home, giving those who ascend its perilous, exterior stairs a breezy vantage point overlooking the town’s balconied, flower-draped laneways; and further distant is the windswept Pelješac Channel, which separates Korčula Island from the Croatian mainland to the east.

Since the end of the civil wars that wracked the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, peace has come to Croatia and its Balkan neighbours. But prosperity lags behind. Despite the coastal mountains, the seaside pocket beaches, the resorts, and coastal cruising opportunities, this inexpensive region of Europe remains off the beaten track for many whose idea of the Continent does not extend further east than Tuscany. Yet, it looks like Tuscany. Has the same mild Mediterranean climate as Tuscany. And similar vineyards, similar medieval villages, similar customs, and similar wines and cuisine (with a hint of spicy, garlic-red pepper ajvar from its days as an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

The two-lane road west from Korčula town climbs into the cave-filled, dolomitic ridges that form the island’s spine. These hills are full of pine and cypress, and the air on a summer morning is redolent with wild lavender, sage, and marjoram. Life proceeds in a minor key. In emerald vineyards, sunburned and back-bent couples till the soil, just as has happened annually on the island for thousands of years.

In the hillside village of Smokvica, a small sign points toward Vinarija Toreta—Winery Toreta—where Frano Baničevič, 29, presides over the tasting of his four varieties of white wines and his one red. Unlike European grapes with familiar names—chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon—the wines of the Balkans, like the pošip grapes that Baničevič grows, are virtually unknown elsewhere (and therefore hard to export to markets beyond the region). Over his shoulder, as he chats with visitors and proffers samples of his excellent Toreta wine, is a black-and-white photograph of his great-great-grandfather, ploughing the field outside the tasting room’s open windows with a pair of oxen 120 years ago, just as Baničevič’s father rides a tractor there today.

Winding side roads descend through the island’s forested hills to the cove-lined south coast. Here, in populated bays like Pavja Luka, Prišćapac, and Prigradica, the steep hillsides contain scores of stepped terraces for olive trees. At harbourside wharves, hustlers offer cruises to popular Mljet and Lastovo islands. And in the cafes that dot these villages there are always a couple of hardy mountain-bike enthusiasts or water-weary sailors slurping down the inevitable gelato that marks a well-earned pause in the traveller’s journey.

Few, of course, know that it was that old Korčula vagabond, Marco Polo, who—on his return to Italy from the court of Kublai Khan—brought the first reports of something called ice cream to Europe over 700 years ago.

ACCESS: Korčula is located three hours by road, and a 15-minute ferry ride, northwest of Dubrovnik. For more information, see www.korculainfo.com.

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