Island Life

‘No Mosquitos! No Criminals!’

Such were the selling points of Viz according to our landlady Mala along with the home-made wine she was fermenting downstairs. She was keen to share a glass whenever our paths crossed – a habit first introduced with the bottle of schnapps she presented to us along with the key to our compact and bijou studio. Sarah was more attuned to random drinking from her time in the French countryside and generally stepped up when it might appear rude not to. Mala had first propositioned us on the quayside of the little harbour of Viz Town. She tidied our apartment when we were out by climbing through a portal from the house next door that exited next to our toilet. The unusual lyrics of the song ‘She came in through the bathroom window’ would sound quite sensible to her.

While our incongruously large ferry was docking, we knew we had found our Adriatic island paradise beyond the coastal nation’s major towns. Eating well, and bathing and reading on a quiet stone beach would satisfy our sparse demands for our precious few days before the return home.

Our possession of this space was enhanced by the lack of tourists in the dwindling days of the on-season, but also due to its long seclusion from the rump of Yugoslavia when largely used as a military base. The most outlying of the islands, Viz was still relatively deserted compared to most closer to the mainland, though a rather harmless looking yacht moored up on the periphery of the harbour threatened to change all this. I thought Mama Mia 2 was an odd choice of name for a boat until we were told the latest film in the Abba sing-along franchise was recently shot here. Much as the original film caused its Greek island setting to be swamped with tourists, the serenity of Viz may soon end in the wake of those seeking to make a reality of the make-believe.

Of less interest to modern-day tourists is the island’s historical role in various major wars. During the Napoleonic wars, the British navy waged a successful battle against the French within sight of the island. We visited the old British fort on a summit close to the harbour, which now caters for weddings and parties. From here too, a famous naval battle lasting several days between the Austrian and Italian navies could be observed at a safe distance . The latter eventually triumphed in a foggy confusion. Its iron-clad vessels – symbols of a new era of warship – outmatched the ship-of-the-lines of its adversaries. The local citizens were not entirely neutral – these two countries were fighting over the territory of a nation yet to emerge in the pecking order of European powers.

In World War II, Viz was the only Yugoslavian island not to be taken by the Nazis, and was the base for the later leader of the nation – Marshall Tito. We later elected not to take a hike to his empty cave on a cycle ride to the other side of the island – deciding its 500 steps were an unnecessary addition to our undulating 60km journey. In this we were supported by the young woman at the hire shop who clearly saw it as a pointless footslog. Her colleague begged to differ. ‘It is a historical monument!’ Although the puppet government of Croatia supported the Nazis, Tito’s guerrillas did a better job at fighting them than Serbia, which had officially sided with the allies. Churchill and Tito, the aristocrat politician and the communist dictator, forged an unlikely friendship that lasted beyond the war. Tito’s distance from the communism of Stalin perhaps made Yugoslavia an acceptable chink in what Churchill first described as the countries of the Iron Curtain.

On a long afternoon walk, I stumbled across a British naval cemetery on the outermost flank of the harbour. The dates on the lonely tombstones were grouped in two eras – the early 1800s and the mid 1900s. While there, I sketched a deserted bay from the rocks – the only signs of habitation being the deserted stone buildings that lined the quiet coastal pathway. Its pleasant isolation was protected by a steep boulder-strewn slope, down which I later fell backwards onto my head. My middle-aged body held up fine bar a few bruises.

We also took the ‘top secret’ military tour – the closest thing to a tourist activity on the island. We visited the fort, some Roman ruins, an old network of bunkers, and a concealed submarine base – the unpolluted blue waters of the latter was now a swimming pool for squadrons of sprats. Its image now serves as a screen saver on Sarah’s computer.

Our unusually affable guide, Nicolau, detailed the island’s history and its many conquerors over the last two millennia. He was most sombre when discussing the recent civil war during which he was a student in Split. He joked darkly about the importance of choosing digs not facing the mortars of the besieging Serbs. His friends still ribbed him for not actively participating in the bloody conflict. Nicolau said that while history is usually written by the victors, in this war ‘there were no winners.’ It didn’t seem like an event in which many made a positive contribution.