Dominating the 2km-wide channel which divides the island from the Pelješac peninsula, the medieval walled city of KORČULA TOWN preserves a neat beauty that has few equals in the Adriatic. With a magnificently preserved centre, good out-of-town-beaches and a convincing clutch of local-food restaurants, it’s a compelling enough destination regardless of whether you believe the oft-parroted hype that it is the birthplace of thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo.
The town was one of the first in the Adriatic to fall to the Venetians, who arrived here in the tenth century and stayed – on and off – for more than eight centuries, leaving their distinctive mark on its culture and architecture. Disaster was narrowly averted in 1571, when the fleet of Ottoman corsair Uluz Ali was repulsed by local volunteers led by priest Antun Rožanović – a disappointed Ali went off to pillage Hvar Town instead. Although understandably treated by the locals as one of history’s bad guys, Uluz Ali was one of the great sea-warriors of the age, an Italian-born galley slave who rose to serve as Viceroy of Algiers and Grand Admiral of the Ottoman fleet. The first tourists arrived in the 1920s, although it wasn’t until the 1970s that mass tourism changed the face of the town, bequeathing it new hotels, cafés and a yachting marina.
The Moreška and other sword dances
The Moreška and other sword dances
Korčula Town is famous for the Moreška, a traditional sword dance once common throughout the Mediterranean. It’s now a major tourist attraction, and its annual performance on St Theodore’s Day (July 29) has been transformed into a regular show, held every Monday and Thursday evening between May and September at the open-air cinema beside the Land Gate. Tickets (100Kn) are available from most of the travel agencies in town.
The dance probably originated in Spain and related to the conflict between the Moors (hence the name) and the Christians, although in Dalmatia its popularity was connected with the struggles against the Ottomans. Basically the dance tells the story of a conflict between the White King and his followers (actually dressed in red) and the Black King. The heroine, Bula, is kidnapped by the Black King, and her betrothed tries to win her back in a ritualized sword fight. The adversaries circle each other and clash weapons several times before the evil king is forced to surrender, and Bula is unchained. The strangest thing about the dance is the seemingly incongruous brass-band music that invariably accompanies it – a sign that the present-day Moreška falls somewhere between ancient rite and nineteenth-century reinvention.
Similar sword dances are still performed throughout the island, although they are more archaic in form and frequently accompanied by traditional instruments such as the mijeh (bagpipe). Most important of these are the Moštra, performed in Postrana on St Rock’s Day (Aug 16), and the Kumpanjija, staged in several places at different times of year: Smokvica on Candlemas (Feb 2); Vela Luka on St Joseph’s Day (March 19); Blato on St Vincent’s Day (April 28); Čara on St James’s Day (July 25); and Pupnat on Our Lady of the Snows (Aug 6).
In the past many of these dances would have been followed by the beheading and roasting of an ox, a practice which was banned during the communist period. Its revival in Pupnat in 1999 was followed by lurid – and largely negative – reporting in the Croatian press, and it’s unlikely that ritual slaughter will ever form part of the dances again.