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In the Balkans, a hidden paradise

Croatia's island of Vis, once a cold-war fortress, now seeks tourists.

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Fresh figs for breakfast. Sweet, ripe, yielding figs, picked in the cool of the previous evening. A sunbaked beach where pleasure craft bob in the shallows and scuba divers set out for adventure. A stroll at dusk to a harborside restaurant serving grilled grouper.

Welcome to the Balkans.

Yes, the Balkans. It is true that this region does not immediately leap to mind as a holiday destination. Wracked by war, civil strife, and economic collapse for the past decade, it has seen more peacekeepers than pleasure seekers.

But Croatia's Adriatic coast, long famed for its turquoise waters and delightful climate, is a tourist's paradise. Before Yugoslavia broke up violently, German and Italian visitors flocked here. Slowly, they are coming back, now that Croatia is up on its feet as an independent country.

Or at least they were, until the conflict in neighboring Kosovo made foreigners think twice about holidaying near a war zone. So this year, again, the beaches were half-empty.

Not that the beaches were ever very full of outsiders in Komiza, a small fishing village tucked into a bay on the island of Vis. Foreigners were not allowed here until 1989, and even Yugoslavs were kept out until 1975 unless their families came from Vis.

Former Yugoslav President Tito had turned the rocky, mountainous island into a military fortress, honeycombed with tunnels and caves sheltering aircraft, artillery, and anything else he thought might dissuade the West (or the Soviets) from attacking.

Commercially, that kept the island in a state of suspended animation, deprived of (or free from) tourist-oriented development.

Above ground the arid hillsides, fragrant with wild rosemary and studded with olive trees, walnut trees, and cypresses, look much as they have for millennia.

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