In the Balkans, a hidden paradise

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

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.

Tito had personal experience with the island's military potential: When he was running the Yugoslav resistance to the Nazi occupation in 1943, he set up a headquarters in a cave on Vis. For years the secret grotto was a shrine, a symbol of heroism in the face of foreign aggression. Today, it is abandoned. Most Croats remember Tito as a tyrant who suppressed their nationalist dreams.

For a dot on the map, Vis has a fair amount of history. According to Homer's "Odyssey," it was on a neighboring island that the sea nymph Calypso fell in love with Ulysses. A Greek city-state flourished on Vis four centuries before Christ, then it fell under Roman control. Venetian doges ruled for seven centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British and French fleets fought for control of its port, renamed Port St. George by the victorious British.

Today, with all the cold war military installations on the island abandoned (the Serb Army blew most of them up as it withdrew at the beginning of the war with Croatia in 1991), Vis has fallen back on its historic resources: vineyards and fishing.

The chief librarian in Alexandria in the 2nd century BC recorded his opinion that the wine of Vis was the best in the Greek empire; a 16th century pope considered the sardines caught off Vis to be the tastiest in the world.

Unfortunately, uncontrolled fishing has depleted sardine stocks to miserable levels. Many fishing families emigrated to California at the turn off the century.

The quality of Vis' wines has dropped off considerably over the past 2,200 years. But if the vineyards do not contribute as much as they might to the island's economy, they are an essential part of its charm.

As I walked one evening through the single valley on Vis, the earth's aromas rising in the silence, the air was heady with the smell of grapes ripening on the vine. Two pheasants, gorging themselves on the fruit and disturbed by my passing, flapped away into the dusk. "The Balkans" seemed a very long way away.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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