A compact hump rearing dramatically out of the sea, VIS is situated farther offshore than any of Croatia’s other inhabited Adriatic islands. Closed to foreigners for military reasons until 1989, it has never been overrun by tourists, and with only two or three package-oriented hotels on the whole island, this is definitely one place in Croatia where the independent traveller rules the roost. Croatian lotus-seekers have fallen in love with the place over the last two decades, drawn by its breathtaking bays, fantastic food and wine and two great-looking small towns – Vis Town and Komiža. The latter is the obvious base for trips to the islet of Biševo, site of one of Croatia’s most famous natural wonders, the Blue Cave.
The Greeks settled on Vis in the fourth century BC, treating the island as a stepping stone between the eastern and western shores of the Adriatic, and founding Issa on the site of present-day Vis Town. Hvar took over as the major mid-Adriatic port in the late Middle Ages, and Vis became a rural retreat for Hvar nobles. When the fall of Venice in 1797 opened up the Adriatic to the competing navies of Europe’s great powers, Vis fell to the British, who fortified the harbour and fought off Napoleon’s navy in 1811. The Austrians took over in 1815, famously brushing aside Italian maritime ambitions in another big sea battle here in 1866. During World War II, Vis briefly served as the nerve centre of Tito’s Partisan movement. After the war, the island was heavily garrisoned, a situation which, along with the decline of traditional industries like fishing and fish canning, encouraged successive waves of emigration. The island had ten thousand inhabitants before World War II; it now has fewer than three thousand. According to local estimates, there are ten times more Komiža families living in San Pedro, California, than in the town itself.Read More
Food and drink on Vis
Food and drink on Vis
The waters off the island of Vis represent one of the richest fisheries in the Adriatic, and it’s no wonder that the local restaurants offer some of the freshest seafood in Dalmatia. Both Komiža and Vis Town contain highly rated restaurants renowned for their lobster and fish; Pojoda in particular is famous for nurturing traditional island recipes that rarely crop up anywhere else.
Harvesting the anchovy shoals around Palagruža island used to be Vis’s main industry, and it’s no surprise the island’s principal culinary trademark is the pogača od srdele (anchovy pasty) – also called viška pogača or komiška pogača depending on which town you’re staying in. Traditionally, the komiška pogača includes a richer combination of ingredients (including tomatoes), and it’s this version that is sold by most local bakeries and cafés. The island’s other claim to gastronomic fame is the delicious Viški hib, a deliciously sweet slab of compressed figs and herbs, which is served in tiny thin slices and goes down a treat with the local rakija.
Vis is also famous for a brace of fine local wines – the white Vugava, which thrives in the stony soil in the southeast of the island, and the red Viški plavac, which prefers the sandy terrain farther west.
Vis in World War II
Vis in World War II
The collapse of Italy in the autumn of 1943 led to a power vacuum in the Adriatic, with both the Germans and Tito’s Partisans racing each other to take control of the region’s major ports and islands. Eager to support the Partisan effort, the British occupied Vis in early 1944, and in June of that year the island was chosen as the temporary headquarters of the Partisan high command, headed by Tito himself. Having narrowly escaped a German attack on Drvar in western Bosnia, Tito was taken to Vis on board the HMS Blackmore on June 7, entertaining the officers’ mess, it is said, with a near-perfect recital of The Owl and the Pussycat.
Tito took up residence in a cave on the southern flanks of Mount Hum, while his staff meetings took place in another cave next door. British officers entertained all kinds of wild ideas about who this shadowy guerilla leader really was. Novelist Evelyn Waugh (then a British liaison officer) was obsessed with the idea that Tito was a lesbian in disguise, and continued to spread this rumour for reasons of personal amusement even after meeting the Partisan supremo in person – it’s said that Tito upbraided Waugh about this during a trip to the beach, the Marshal’s skimpy trunks leaving no room for further doubt about his gender.
Vis soon became a vast armed camp, hosting 10,000 Partisans and 700 British and American commandos. The island was an excellent base from which to harry German positions on nearby islands, although commando raids on rugged Brač (where the Scottish Highlanders indulged in a Guns of Navarone-style attempt to capture Vidova Gora) led to heavy casualties. The daily existence of those stationed on Vis was made bearable by the endless opportunities for swimming, sunbathing and drinking the local wine, though for the local population things were not quite so jolly: all men between the ages of 15 and 50 were called up by the Partisans, while women, children and the elderly were evacuated to the British-controlled El Shatt camp in the Egyptian desert, where many died in the stifling heat.
Vis saw the first meeting between Tito and the head of the royalist Yugoslav government in exile, Ivan Šubašić, who arrived there on June 16, 1944. After agreeing on paper that Tito would protect democracy after the war, the signatories went on a trip to the Blue Cave on Biševo, where they indulged in skinny dipping, followed by a lunch of lobster and wine. Fitzroy Maclean, Winston Churchill’s envoy at Partisan HQ, noted that the sea was choppy on the way back and that “several of the party were sick”.
Ultimately Tito feared that he would lose his political independence if he accepted British protection on Vis for too much longer, and decided to relocate. On September 18 he abandoned the island in the dead of night, flying to join the Soviet Red Army in a Russian plane. Vis’s brief period in the political limelight was over.