At the centre of an archipelago of some 45 uninhabited islets, tiny LASTOVO lies over four hours away from Split by ferry (and over three hours by catamaran), and as a result feels much more isolated than any of the other Adriatic islands. Its strong sense of regional identity is most obviously expressed in the annual Poklad a uniquely archaic Lenten carnival. Like Vis, Lastovo was closed to foreigners from 1976 until 1989 owing to its importance as a military outpost, and organized tourism has never caught on, but what it lacks in hotels and amenities it more than makes up for in its natural, wooded beauty. Ferries arrive at Ubli, a small and uneventful harbour a few kilometres short of Lastovo’s one major settlement, Lastovo Town, where most of the remaining eight hundred islanders live.
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Lastovo’s carnival is one of the strangest in Croatia, featuring the ritual humiliation of a straw puppet, the Poklad. Things come to a head on Shrove Tuesday, when the Poklad is led through town on a donkey by the men of Lastovo, who dress for the occasion in a uniform of red shirts, black waistcoats and bowler hats. Following this, the Poklad is attached to a long rope and hoisted from one end of town to the other three times while fireworks are let off beneath it. Each transit is met by chanting and the drawing of swords. Finally, the Poklad is put back on the donkey and taken to the square in front of the parish church, to the accompaniment of music and dancing. At the end of the evening, the villagers dance the Lastovsko kolo, a sword dance similar to the Moreška in Korčula, and the Poklad is impaled on a long stake and burned. Drinking and dancing continues in the village hall until dawn.
Local tradition has it that the Poklad symbolizes a young messenger who was sent by Catalan pirates to demand the town’s surrender, although it’s more likely that the ritual actually derives from ancient fertility rites. Whatever its roots, the islanders take the occasion very seriously, and it’s certainly not enacted for the benefit of outsiders. Lastovčani from all over the world return to their home village to attend the Poklad, when accommodation is at a premium. If you do want to attend, contact the tourist office well in advance.
Vukodlaci and other vampiric houseguests
Vukodlaci and other vampiric houseguests
Express an interest in vampires in today’s Croatia and you’ll probably be told that you’ve come to the wrong country – and yet belief in the supernatural creatures was widespread hereabouts until a couple of centuries ago. Europe’s first documented case of vampirism took place in an Istrian village in the 1670s, when the nocturnal roamings of Jure Grando were recorded by Slovenian chronicler J.J. Valvasor. One of the last known outbreaks of vampire mania in Croatia took place on Lastovo in 1737, when officials from Dubrovnik had to dissuade the local populace from carrying out mass exhumations of those suspected of walking with the undead.
According to Croatian folk belief, the most common form of vampire was a vukodlak (often translated as “werewolf”, although it clearly means something quite different), which basically consisted of the skin of a human corpse puffed up with the breath of the devil and further bloated with the blood of its victims. The vukodlak was an all-purpose bogeyman whose existence could explain away all manner of crises and conflicts: anything from listlessness among the local livestock to marital problems were blamed on the bloodsuckers (it was said that vukodlaci visited the beds of bored wives and pleasured them in the night). A mora was a female equivalent of a vukodlak, nightly sapping the strength of the menfolk; while macići were mischievious young vukodlaci who created envy and discord by bringing good luck to some villagers, misfortune to others – if a farmer got rich, neighbours would say that he had a macić in the house.
People were said to turn into vukodlaci after their death if a dog, cat or mouse passed under their coffin while it was being borne to the grave. The only cure was to dig up the body and cut its hamstrings to prevent it from wandering about at night. Visiting the Dalmatian hinterland as recently as the 1770s, the intrepid Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis discovered that some of the locals asked their families to carry out this operation as soon as they died, just to be on the safe side.