Korčula: Marco Polo’s island… or is it?

It was 8.30am and already a very warm 30º as we left our hotel heading to the island of Korčula (pronounced ‘Korchula’).

It was day seven of our Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast tour, and we were heading along the winding coastal road. The rising sun was glistening on the water of Gruž (‘groosh’) harbour as we continued along the Croatian mainland and the peninsula of Pelješac, the second largest in Croatia. This beautiful unspoilt peninsula runs parallel to the Dalmatian coast, separating the island of Korčula from the mainland. The main business in this area, our guide Tangra told us, is tourism, plus red wine, grape growing, mussels and oysters, pointing out the oyster farm in the bay with hundreds of containers bobbing on the ink-blue water. The dry stone walling we passed is the landmark of agricultural land, built with carefully selected interlocking stones, some 150, 200 and even 400 years old. Our journey took us through bright green vineyards and past twisted olive trees – the area also being a producer of good quality olive oil – and very pretty (and very toxic) oleander, a common sight around these parts.

City walls at Ston
City walls at Ston

On our way to Korčula we called in at the historic town of Ston, whose landmark is the 5.5km long stone wall built in the 14th century. This wall, which is open to the public, is thought to be the longest defensive wall in Europe and second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China. If you have the energy, you can walk from Ston to its small sister town, Mali Ston (Small Ston) and enjoy breathtaking views of the charming towns and picturesque coastline. For us however, it was a just a short visit, with just enough time to wander around the smooth cobbled streets and grab a refreshing drink before continuing on to Korčula.

Strolling around the small town of Ston
Strolling around the small town of Ston

After a cooling 15-minute ferry ride across the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we arrive on the western side of the Old Town peninsula of Korčula, founded at the beginning of the 13th century, and were met by our local guide, Lea. Dressed head to toe in white linen and with rich copper-coloured hair cut into a choppy bob, Lea was extremely tall – as are many people around this area, her pale face brightened by a flash of deep red lipstick. She told us how excited she was to be using her brand new parasol – apparently she’d been waiting for it for a long time! I could see how it would be such a welcome piece of apparatus if you were walking around in this heat each day.

Meeting our local guide
Meeting our local guide

The town is surrounded by thick stone walls dating from the 14th century and towers that were built in medieval times to defend against enemies passing the island. 12 towers once stood on the island, today, just seven remain. Leading us up the stairway which took us through the entrance known as Sea Gate and one of the towers, called Kula Morska Vrata, Lea pointed out the view to the western part of Korčula Town famous for its sunsets as the sun dips between the peninsula and the rest of the island. Entering the Old Town we walked along the narrow stone streets of the peninsula which gave us a welcome shelter from the heat of the day.

Where the sun sets in Where the sun sets in Korčula town
We imagined the famous sunset!

The Old Town of Korčula itself has an interesting layout, almost like the bones of a fish. There’s a long main street running right through the centre of the town with smaller alleyways fanning out to either side. To the north west the streets are straight allowing the summer breeze known as the ‘maestral’ to come in from the sea, cooling the streets in the hot months. In winter comes the cold wind from the east, the ‘bura’, sometimes so strong that roads are closed as a precaution. On the south-eastern side of the peninsula the streets are more curved, reducing the effect of the bura blowing through. On the day of our visit, there was a pleasant light wind – maybe this was the maestral in action?

Exploring the alleyways of Korčula Old Town
Exploring the alleyways of Korčula Old Town

As we walked through the criss-crossed narrow alleyways Lea pointed out the bridges connecting buildings on the opposite sides of the street. These ‘bridge balconies’ joined the houses of close families for easy access, enabling them to cross over the balcony instead of going through the street.

'Bridge balconies’ join some of the houses in Korčula
‘Bridge balconies’ join some of the houses in Korčula

Our tour continued past a giant 25-year-old rubber tree, the largest on the island, through winding streets with the mouth-watering smell of savoury food being carried along on the breeze. The smooth cobbled streets were quiet as Lea guided us along to the museum and on towards the 15th century St. Mark’s church right in the centre of the town.

Connections with Marco Polo
Connections with Marco Polo

It was here that our tour came to an end. As we said goodbye to Lea, I continued the short stroll on to what is believed to be the house in which Marco Polo was born. The sweet smell of lavender from the pots which lined the wall hit me as I entered the stone doorway and climbed the narrow stairs of the tower or ‘loggia’, to be met by wonderful views over the town and out to sea. It has been argued by some that the explorer and writer was born in Venice and also Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia, but whether this lovely stone building in the centre of Korčula was Polo’s birthplace or not, it was a lovely little place to call into.

Marco Polo's house?
Marco Polo’s house?
Views from the tower of Marco Polo's house
Views from the tower

The peninsula is a really pleasant place to wander around: I passed little galleries and craft shops tucked into stone buildings, walked beneath washing hung out to dry across the ornate wrought iron balconies, and busy restaurants with brightly coloured umbrellas fluttering in the breeze. There were plenty of places to eat offering everything from sandwiches to pizza, pasta and seafood – it all smelled delicious! Continuing my explorations of the peninsula, I strolled through the backstreets which lead to the eastern side, lined with more inviting restaurants where people were enjoying a spot of lunch whilst taking in the fantastic views out across the sparkling sea. There was a lovely breeze, and the smell of seafood and wood burning stoves wafted along as I continued north, arriving at Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan), also called Berim Tower, then back along the main street running through the centre of the peninsula to the Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south, built in the 14th century.

Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan) – also called Berim Tower – on the north side of Korčula’s Old Town
Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan) – also called Berim Tower – on the north side of Korčula’s Old Town
Strolling along the eastern side of the peninsula
Strolling along the eastern side of the peninsula

The original wooden drawbridge which stood at the Land Gate was replaced in the 18th century by the sweeping cream stone steps which stand there today. As I made my way down the grand staircase I was met by the lively atmosphere of colourful market stalls selling stones, jewellery, t-shirts, hats and souvenirs and with people hunting for a bargain.

Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south of the Old Town
Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south of the Old Town

Palm trees rustled in the breeze as I made my way around to our meeting point. It was time to say goodbye to the island of Korčula after a wonderful few hours on this charming peninsula and a day of stunning scenery, beautiful Croatian sunshine and stories of Marco Polo.

Time to say goodbye to Korčula
Goodbye Korčula!

Have you visited Korčula? Share your stories with us!

Art, architecture and tree-lined avenues: see the sights of Paris in a day

It was a warm early autumn morning, and I’d just jumped out of a taxi at one of the most famous landmarks in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe. There were people chatting, others posing for photos, cars, buses and scooters whizzing around like the horses on a merry-go-round and high above us, people walking around the top of the structure, which looked so much larger up close than it appeared in any of the photos in the brochures.

 Arc de Triomphe

I’d chosen to spend a full day in Paris – the third day of my four-day coach break – and see the sights on foot. I’d joined the guided sightseeing tour by coach the day before which gave me a good idea of where things were and decided that I’d get out amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets of the wonderful French capital. Whenever I go away, I prefer to walk around (whenever possible) – I get to see more and sometimes end up in places I didn’t intend.
So, armed with my already-crinkled city map, I was there: at the top of the Champs Elysées, on a hot September morning with the whole day ahead of me.

Champs Elysées Sign

As I strolled along past small souvenir shops and large stores displaying designer names, the morning sunshine was glittering through the trees lining the famous avenue. There were people in cafés chatting on mobile phones or with friends, enjoying a croissant and ‘cafe au lait’. Smartly dressed ladies with large sunglasses hurried past, phone in one hand and a glossy, rigid designer shopping bag on the other arm. I had entered into the world of ‘chic’.
My route took me all the way along the two-kilometre length of the Champs Elysées to one of the best-known squares in Paris: the Place de la Concorde, originally a site of execution during the French Revolution. Here, the splashing of fountains and sound of people chatting and laughing as they posed for photos filled the air, along with squeals as passers-by were taken by surprise by the statues that come to life as soon as you get near them. The scene was so far removed from what I imagine it to have been like in the late 18th century.

Champs Elysées

Fountains at Place de la Concorde

Continuing straight across to the Tuileries Gardens – an area which was once a clay quarry for tiles, or ’tuilerie’ – I turned to see the Arc de Triomphe, now a tiny archway in the distance, and the unmistakable structure of the Eiffel Tower over to the left, standing against the bright blue sky.
By now the temperature had risen quite a bit and as I entered the wide lane running through the Tuileries Gardens, linking the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre, there were people sitting around a large fountain on green steel chairs reading, sunbathing, kissing, chatting and listening to music, whilst others relaxed in the cafés under the shade of the horse chestnut trees lining the avenue.

 Tuileries Fountain

As I walked, the gentle sounds of the cream-coloured gravel crunching underfoot and birds singing above, the quiet hum of conversations and the bells of energetic cyclists ringing as they whizzed past all made for a very laid-back wonderful atmosphere.
Ahead of me was the large building of the Louvre Palace, home to one of the world’s largest museums and the modern glass pyramid which sits in the main courtyard. As I got closer I could see the long queue of people, all waiting to get in to the famous museum for a peek of one of art history’s most famous paintings, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, perhaps or maybe the elegant sculpture of Venus de Milo?

 The Louvre Courtyard

The Louvre Palace & Fountains

By this time it was extremely hot, with people sitting on the edges of the fountain dangling their feet into the water to cool down. I joined them for a few minutes and soaked up the atmosphere of my surroundings: the impressive glass pyramids, the decorated façades of the Louvre Palace; the cooling water pools and the visitors enjoying their day. It gave me a good opportunity to update my notebook, check my camera and consult my map. With my various bags, pockets and pieces of kit to delve into, the moment turned to slow motion as I saw my video camera taking a dive! “Nnnnnooooooo!!!” I yelled, as I lunged to grab it, but it was too late. There was a loud ‘PLOP!’ and there lay the camera, in 2 feet of water like a coin tossed into a fountain by visiting tourists. I reached into the cold water to retrieve the camera – knocking my map into the pond in the process – and left it to dry on the wall, in the hope, somehow, of bringing it back to life! After a few minutes, in the heat of this beautiful September day, the map was functional again, despite being a bit soggy. The video camera, on the other hand, was not.
Sacre Coeur
Next on my list of ‘things to see’ was the Sacre Coeur Basilica – the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Peeling my map apart, I set off through the passage leading out of the Louvre courtyard and along the Rue de Louvre, heading for the Montmartre area. 45 minutes later, after asking a couple of people in shops and bars for directions and after a lot of pointing and hand gestures, I reached the Sacre Coeur. The bright building stood out against the deep blue sky, much larger than I had expected. It had been quite a long walk – especially in the heat – and a lot of it had been up hill, but it was worth it for the wonderful view over the city. As I arrived at the steps I noticed the funicular which takes weary sightseers up the hill to the basilica itself.

View over Paris

After catching my breath, I climbed the steps and followed the road around to the left of the cathedral, heading for the Place du Terte. Taking a left turn at the end of the wall, suddenly the road was really busy. The volume cranked up a notch or two, with music playing and people chatting at the bars and cafés and at the plentiful souvenir shops – there was a real buzz about the place. As I ventured through the crowds of the narrow street and out into a little square, there was an elderly woman singing along to the old music box she was playing, fed by a roll of paper with holes in it. Wearing knee-length denim trousers, a shirt and a neckerchief with a floppy, cap-style hat, the woman was attracting quite a crowd, some of them clapping along to the music while others captured it all on film.

 Souvenir shops in Montmartre

The sun was beating down as I passed the crowds and there in front of me was Place du Tertre. The square, although small, was lined by restaurants on one side and was a maze of artists – an extremely busy place where painters sat at their easels, applying oil paint to their canvas while others were busily sketching as they glanced over their thick-rimmed spectacles every so often to see if their display has any interest. There were traditional paintings and some more modern or abstract; old artists with bushy white beards, some clad head to toe in denim; others wearing neckerchiefs and shoes with no socks – the atmosphere here was wonderful. One old artist stopped mixing the colours of his palette to stand up and show us his works. I noticed he had bright green paint dotted in his wiry white beard. “I have many more – this one is quite good” he told us, showing us another of his colourful works. Behind the artists, shaded restaurants were bustling like the rest of the area, packed with contented customers.

Place du Tertre Paintings

Artist at Place du Tertre
I would’ve loved to spend much more time around Place du Tertre. I could easily have spent a day around the Montmartre area with its inviting and alluring atmosphere, just as I could’ve idled away a few hours watching the world go by from a Parisian café or strolling around the Tuileries Gardens, soaking up the sun and the wonderful atmosphere. I’d seen so much during my day in Paris: the Arc de Triomphe; Champs Elysées; Place de la Concorde; Tuileries Gardens; Eiffel Tower (OK, so this one was from a distance!); the Louvre; the Sacre Coeur; Montmartre and the Place du Tertre… and I know there’s still more for me to see in this magical city. I’ll just have to come back one day!
What’s your favourite part of Paris? Share your stories with us.