Miso (right) shares a grape sampling session with a guest at his Vis vineyard.
The Island of Vis on the outer rim of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is one of the less-visited islands in the turquoise and royal blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. It is ideal for dreamers, wine lovers and history buffs.
Most travelers jump at a chance to explore an unfamiliar destination with any local resident. To follow in the wake of someone who can point to 20 generations – that’s 500 years of relatives – in the monastery graveyard is just about as insider as it gets. Mišo Poduje, island son of Vis, country vineyard and boutique winery owner, just happened to be our Croatian eyes and ears for a four-island Dalmatian Coast exploration from Dubrovnik to Split aboard our 100-foot wood and brass motorsailer.
Medieval back streets offer hours of intriguing exploration.
On each island, he shared his deep knowledge of the region, but it was during our visit to Vis that Mišo’s comfortable intimacy with the surroundings, the people, and the passion of generations brought rewarding bonuses to each encounter during our days of exploration. A subtle shift from guide to host took place the minute we stepped from the ship’s gangplank into the heart of Vis’s bustling harbor town of 2,000 locals.
Christened Issa by 4th century BC Greek settlers, the townsite and well-protected harbor of Vis first enter our written history as the most powerful Greek colony in the Adriatic Sea, a city state with its own rulers and currency. After a short walk around the almost-circular waterfront, we arrived at the Hellenistic Cemetery where archaeological excavations of many remarkably unplundered gravesites are presently yielding up treasure troves of intact grave goods. Many are now on display in an exceptional museum which occupies much of a former British fort, a 15-minute stroll to the opposite side of the harbor.
Discovered by marine archaeologists offshore, an ancient ship’s treasure trove of amphora make an impressive collection at Vis’s fort museum.
Yes, the British did occupy strategic Vis for a time, along with the Romans, Croats, Byzantines, Venetians, and even a few pirate colonies who menaced merchant shipping from this outer island of Dalmatia. The Romans predictably left a legacy of baths, an amphitheatre, fortifications and their own archaeology-rich cemetery, while the Venetians and other European interlopers left beautiful public buildings, villas and narrow cobbled streets that today encourage plenty of walking and photography around a perfectly-structured harbor and its picturesque back streets.
Our American group of 12 active seniors could hardly wait to explore the countryside with our “host”. Mišo agreed to take us to his country vineyards, and we certainly didn’t want to miss Marshall Tito’s famous cave hideout on Vis’s highest mountainside, so we piled into two vans and literally circled the island. We were often 1,000 feet above the electric blue Adriatic, sometimes on one lane roads. Most roads fell sharply away with few guardrails to obscure the view! Vis is not large by Adriatic island standards, tenth in size out of 1,186 islands and islets, but it is dramatically mountainous with plenty of limestone caves used for shelter and defense from the Iron Age to World War II.
From the hardly-visible trailhead, we began our climb to Tito’s cave, where his Partisans, together with allied British and American forces totaling 60,000, successfully repelled enemy assaults by air from 1943 to the end of the war. Two hundred steps had been mentioned, but several keeners in our group did their own counts closer to three hundred by the time we reached the gun platforms and the cave entrance. Our faces perhaps reflecting disappointment at the small size of this famous cave, Mišo introduced us to Tito’s “office” where much of the communications and planning went on, but he quickly admitted that most nights Tito spent a far more comfortable time in a nearby villa. Well, at least Josip Broz, nicknamed Tito, had to climb up all those steps just the same, rain or shine!
The steep trail to Tito’s WWII cave headquarters. How many steps did we just climb?
Until 1989, Vis remained a military island largely off limits to visitors, leading present day tourism authorities to declare this destination “Croatia as it used to be!” Mišo shared a personal footnote to its military history. In 1943 when the allied armies arrived, all non-fighting people were removed with most women, children and the elderly directed to British-run tent camps in the Egyptian desert. Among the evacuees were his grandmother and father, then a child. During three years, many Vis people died there from the heat, and shortages of food and water but his family members were lucky to return in 1946.
Vis’s strollable historic waterfront has a deep protected harbor recognized as among the finest in the Adriatic Sea by Greeks, Romans, pirates, Venetians and more.
The Poduje vineyards are in a sweeping valley bottom in the middle of the island a short hike from the road. The “soil” of the valley is almost pure golden sand which the vines clearly find entirely to their liking. In this tranquil setting virtually building- and vehicle-free for miles, listening only to birds and pondering the sugar content of grape clusters as they ripened, we saw our host as farmer, linked to the land, in a very different mode and mood from the more commonly passionate, forceful advocate for societal change, for youth employment, and political reform.
Before World War I, he explained, this small rocky island exported a mind-boggling 53 million gallons of wine a year from grapes grown here. Then vine disease struck hard, the men went away to fight, and many never returned even if they survived. More wars and occupations followed, and today a much smaller boutique wine industry is once again putting Vis on the sophisticated wine lovers’ map. In his late 30s, Mišo’s yearly contribution to this local industry is about a thousand gallons but the superior quality commands a strong price in domestic markets. From my personal sampling back aboard our motorsailer in Vis harbor, I would say the Vinski Podrum Poduje (Wine Cave Poduje) has a promising label. Mišo is planting more fields of vines with the patience and confident knowledge that grapes have been grown on this island continuously for at least 2,000 years. He is in historic company!
A remarkably intact 2,400-year-old Greek cemetery overlooking the harbor is the perfect place for Mišo to tell tales of his island’s history.
Best seasons and tourism information: Vis is hot and dry in summer, mild and humid in winter. Shoulder seasons are best in order to experience comfortable temperatures, and to avoid crowds and summer prices.
Vis Island Tourism website.
Alison Gardner traveled to Vis as part of a ROW Adventures “Jewels of the Adriatic” yacht cruise, www.rowadventures.com. With 20 years of experience sailing the Dalmatian Coast between Dubrovnik and Split, this US-based tour operator offers four 12-day Croatian cruise adventures in June and September aboard one of the most gracious and authentic brass and wood vessels in the region. Price depends on the number of cruisers per trip [maximum 16], and it includes two nights in Dubrovnik, one night in Split, all gourmet-quality meals aboard ship and most in Dubrovnik and Split, expert local guide service, excursion transportation and attraction entry fees. Airfares excluded. Mišo Poduje only guides for ROW.
We invite you to enjoy a Croatia Islands companion article in our collection which features highlights and photos from the entire “Jewels of the Adriatic” sailing cruise including Korcula, Hvar, and Brac.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: email@example.com.