After a great start to our tour of Korčula, we arrived at the town on the island most visited by passing tourists. Set out on its promontary, fortified all around and bristling with artillery, for centuries this small town guarded a strategic shipping channel. Korčula is the name both of the town and the island, in the same way that Hvar is also the town and the island. And similarly, these towns were important Venetian ports in their day, controlling trade up and down the Adriatic.
The old town of Korčula does rather remind me of Dubrovnik in its setting and layout, though it’s somewhat more compact. Perhaps a cross between Dubrovnik and Trogir would be more like it? The defensive setting is stunningly beautiful, facing out across the blue sea to the high mountain wall of Pelješac on the opposite shore.
Our first action, on being dropped off, is to find where we’re staying! Apartment Milion is in the heart of the old town, just past the cathedral, very convenient. Our room is lovely, very spacious and peaceful. Milion, of course, is a reference to Il Milione – a.k.a. Marco Polo who is one of Korčula’s most famous sons. He used mille mille (a thousand thousands) in his travel book so often that it led to his nickname, which then turned into the term for 1,000,000!
Recommendations for lunch take us to a pizzeria overlooking the view to Pelješac. I get out my sketch book, and we settle in with a glass of wine to enjoy what for us, is the hustle of big city life! I’m looking forward to exploring the art shops and galleries – this is a real treat as Hvar, sadly, doesn’t have such a lively arts culture.
Our afternoon ramblings take us up steps, down alleyways and around towers. The lovely art shop Akvarel is stacked up with paintings and artworks of all kinds, a veritable treasure trove to browse! Today, all I need is a frame and owner Sanja Kapelina will make me a custom mat and frame in time to collect before we leave tomorrow. Perfect!
Sometime around 4pm, we’re picked up again by Nikola for phase 2 of our explorations of Korčula wines. And we get to meet Rachael and John of Korcula Explorer, who have arranged much of our trip! We’re now off to Lumbarda, the only place in the world where they grow grk, the second of the island’s white grape varietals. They’re going to take us on a walk through the countryside, stopping off at a couple of wineries on the way.
Lumbarda turns out to be an area of gentle hills with quiet tracks between olive groves, cultivated fields and some grown wild with flowers. It’s a peaceful time of day, and we have it all to ourselves. John and Rachael moved to the island a few years ago, and are building a strong reputation as tour guides for independent travellers wanting to get to know Korčula. We compare notes on island life, and how different we find the two islands. It’s a very pleasant walk down towards the sea and into the town of Lumbarda.
Our first winery this evening is Bire, who have a very nice outdoor area with lots of shady tables and flowers running riot. We get a guided tour of the wine production from Višnja, who runs the winery along with her husband Frano Milina Bire. We’re given an insight into how grk is different from other wines. For a start, the grk vines are all female, so it’s necessary to plant some other variety alongside to fertilise them. Usually this is plavac mali, known locally as the “lover boy” grape!
The region where grk is grown, indeed the only place it can be grown, is very restricted. It has to be sandy soil, which only occurs in one small area, and that’s where the existing vineyards are. There’s no room for expansion, so basically, the wine production here is as much as it’s ever going to get. Bire will sell all their wine by the end of the season, as they always do.
Inside the winery, a table is prepared with cheese, olives, marinated anchovies and smoked ham ready for our tasting. The setting is perfect, and the grk has a fresh, citrusy flavour. The flowery aroma, and its low acidity gives the impression that it’s almost sweet, though it’s actually not. In addition to their grk, Bire also make some plavac mali (or lover boy wine!), and a selection of flavoured rakijas.
We emerge from the Bire winery, and find ourselves in the backstreets of Lumbarda, making our way past old stone houses and walled gardens. There are a few people out and about for the evening, but it’s mainly pretty quiet. We’re getting closer to the vineyards.
A sharp left turn takes us into the Cebalo Popić Winery, which has gorgeous views over the vineyards to a cluster of houses and the sea beyond. The backdrop of Pelješac shows it all off beautifully in the slanting light.
As many of the wine-making families here have the surname Cebalo, it can be very confusing for outsiders, so this particular winery is generally known by Zoran Cebalo’s nickname of Popić. His winery is slightly smaller than Bire, and makes a grk that is a little lighter and more fruity. Very nice! Again, the production is limited by the growing area with the sandy soil.
They also have a plavac mali, and their travarica looks interesting, with the herbs still in the bottle. Travarica is traditionally served either before a meal as an aperitif, or after a meal as a digestif. While I’m not a big drinker of spirits in general, I do enjoy a good travarica! This is a pretty way to present it!
From there, we walk down the road between the vineyards, for a good look at the sandy soil. It’s not the usual red colour that is so common on the islands, and clearly has the sharp sand running through it. At the end of the rows of grk are their plavac mali boyfriends!
Once past the vineyards, we head for the seashore. The sun is sinking, and the colours are just starting to fade and turn a soft pink. It’s all very pretty, with boats tied up at the dock and neat piles of fishing nets at the ready.
Within a short time, the sun is setting. I love the reflections of gold on the water! We wander slowly along the shore towards the main road, where Nikola will pick us up again for the drive back into Korčula.
On the way back into Korčula, we stop at the famous viewpoint, to take in the old town at dusk. Nice soft lighting, and you really get a good view of the fortifications from here. Across the channel, the lights are beginning to glimmer in Orebić.
Next morning, we have some time to spend in Korčula before the catamaran back to Hvar. We carefully chose to return on a Sunday, as the usual 6am departure turns into 1pm that day, much more civilized! We pick up my frame from the art shop, and explore further, to the soundtrack of the cathedral bells summoning the faithful! I really enjoy the paintings of Hrvoje Kapelina, who has his gallery opposite the main entrance of the cathedral. I love the strong colours and sense of place that his landscapes convey, and I’m moved to buy one of his watercolours. It’s clear that Korčula has a thriving arts scene, and there are several art galleries and jewellery workshops around town.
It’s wonderful to see the traditional craftsmanship of silver filigree and we watch Adolf Seba as he carefully worked on his latest creation. He must have seriously good eyesight to create such lovely, delicate pieces. Many of his designs are based on motifs that you’ll see around town, such as the cathedral windows, or carvings on a stairway. And sometimes he’ll make special commissions from ideas by clients themselves.
Seba Dizajn produces the most beautiful jewellery, and we spent a happy half hour chatting with Ruth and Adolf. If you find yourself in Korčula one day, do look for their shop! It’s full of all kinds of beautiful things. And if you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see me with my camera, caught in the mirror!
After a happy morning around Korčula, we had some lunch and strolled over to catch the catamaran home. What a very relaxed and civilized way to travel. And on the way home I sketched the tower of St Mark’s Cathedral, in memory of those pealing bells!
Some handy links to find out more…
Bire Winery website www.bire.hr/en/
Cebalo Popić Winery information page
Korčula Explorer website www.korculaexplorer.com
Seba Dizajn website www.sebasilver.com
Art Shop Akvarel (no website) first street on the left in the old town
Hrvoje Kapelina Art Gallery website www.kapelinaart.com