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A visit to Palagruža where solitude meets spectacular beauty


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

By Igor Goleš – Forgotten Dalmatia

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Cruel, wild, inaccessible, magical, these are all epithets that we can attribute to Palagruža – a small Croatian archipelago uninhabited, except by lighthouse staff and occasional summer tourists.

It is inaccessible to most of us precisely because of its distance, but that is why it is more interesting.

For almost 10 years, deep inside me, somewhere in my subconscious, I buried my desires and plans to go to this offshore island, the infinity of the soul, a place from which one can see beyond everything… but something would always prevent me, from personal busyness to several unrealised expeditions because Poseidon, the implacable god of the sea, did not have mercy and gave us a peaceful sailing.

To set sail, you should wait for acceptable weather conditions and be ready to jump on board at any moment. It may not be a big problem for the inhabitants of the offshore islands, who are used to hitting him with a trident, but for us who come from the mainland, be it from Split and who have to lose a whole day on the way to that point, it is more difficult to organize.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

If you decide to visit the lighthouse of Palagruža, you should obtain a filming permit from the Plovput Directorate, the company that manages lighthouses on the Adriatic.

I did not have any problems with that, so I thank them once again for their kindness. All thats left is to choose the way to transfer to this paradise, and there is not much to choose from if you want organised transportation.

It can be reached from Komiža (Vis) or from Lastovo. I decided to do it from Lastovo because the journey is shorter, and I preferred to travel on a modern sea cruiser with a few of my friends than with a group of about 30 foreigners from Komiža.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

This way we had more room to manoeuvre, and I arranged with Frane Škratulja, the owner of the Santor travel agency from Zaklopatica, to stay a couple of days on the island.

So we also visited the wonderful island of Sušac, went diving and fishing there. Together with Frane, we travel with his skipper Zdenko. We felt quite safe in his hands even though we sailed through the waves and gusts of the mistral.

Of course, all of you who are less experienced with the sea, and who are planning to go on this trip, do not forget that it is a drive on the open sea and there are rare days when there is perfect weather, there is always at least a bit of a wind. I recommend those with a weaker stomach to think twice before embarking on this adventure.

We reached Palagruža after an hour and a half of driving and riding waves. Speed – a real trifle, only 25 miles…


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

Visibility during the trip was not good and we only saw the outline of the island when we came within a few miles of it. By the way, in windy days (bura), Palagruža can be seen from Lastovo and Vis, from Italy too, but unfortunately that was not the case this time.

The feeling of arriving in front of the cliffs sticking out of the sea in the middle of nowhere can not be compared to anything.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

The haze from the horizon only increased the feeling of enchantment. No matter which side of the world you looked at, you could see nothing but the blue expanse.

It is therefore not surprising that the most frequent visitors to this island are sailors who know how to stop there during their crossings of the Adriatic, or fishermen and divers whose main motive for coming to this corner of the Adriatic is fishing, but also & photo hunting.

It is difficult to call the island itself an island. It hardly fits into that school definition and common perception that it is a land smaller than a continent and bigger than a rock surrounded by the sea.

If there were no climbs that slow down pedestrians on the way to the highest point of Palagruža, a person would literally walk it in 10 minutes.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

When you say island – you still think of a piece of something, and here with a small area there is almost nothing… All this enhances the impression of ecstasy when you step on its soil because, when you think about it, how crazy do you have to be to go so far to enjoy something that is actually a big nothing to most people.

The beauty of Palagruža should be understood simply. She welcomes only special souls with a smile, those who will know how to love her, let her into their heart and enjoy every millimetre of her magnificence.

On the way to the lighthouse, you have to cross 600 meters of steep path, in an environment of sparse vegetation, with thousands of lizards and grasshoppers emerging in front of you.

However, I also preferred to see them, rather than some other, less eye-pleasing inhabitants of this wasteland – snakes, rats and black widows… The terrible heat extinguished life even in the small sinkholes surrounded by stone, so life stopped growing in them too, there is no trace of vegetables , everything dried up.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

One can feel for a moment as if one is in the desert of death, and not on some Dalmatian island. The impression changes when you arrive in front of the lighthouse, the view from it leaves you breathless.

The lighthouse was built in 1875, but it was pretty much destroyed during the First World War in the Austrian attempt to occupy the island in 1915. After these war events, about which I will write a few lines, the island was abandoned by the Italian crew, and the lighthouse was rebuilt only in 1924.

At the beginning of the 21st century two apartments for tourists were arranged in the building, but it seems that this practice has ended, however, they also brought something good. Investments were made in the building and its renovation, thereby improving the standard of living of the lighthouse keepers.

They were especially delighted by the 138-meter-long cable car, which was placed at the foot of the cliff on which the lighthouse is located and which greatly facilitates the transfer of cargo to the lighthouse. In the past, this demanding task was performed by donkeys.

There is a fascinating story about a donkey from Palagruža who killed himself by throwing himself off a cliff into the sea. How much truth there is in it is best known by the lighthouse keepers with whom he spent time there.

Namely, every time a ship appeared on the horizon, it was a signal to their donkey that he would have to carry a load, so as time passed, with each appearance of the cargo ships the donkey started to hide around the island. The lighthouse keepers would find him and yell at him, but the poor animal was getting more and more tired.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

And so, one summer afternoon, when the ship appeared in front of Palagruža, the poor donkey squealed 2 to 3 times and in front of the owners eyes jumped from the cliff into the abyss… He obviously thought that this was the only place where he had not hidden until now and where no one could find him anymore.

The conditions in which people used to live are best described by the statement of Ivan Barbir, a former lighthouse keeper, from 1969: ˝Guests are coming! I am just going to take the gun and get the rabbit. The previous manager brought one pair. Since then, rabbits have multiplied so much that there are about five hundred of them.

These rays that are drying outside are our reserve for the winter, they are worth the same as cod. We are like seagulls you know. We eat primarily fish. Vegetables and fruits are very rare, and even the few that grow in gardens are destroyed by hungry rabbits. The army brings us the freshest meat. Unlike us, they have refrigerators on board.˝

Today, 4 lighthouse keepers work in the lighthouse, in shifts so that two are on the island and two are at home. They change after a month. Although many people imagine lighthouse keepership as meditating in the wilderness, these people actually have a lot to do and every minute is organised for them.

This is especially important on Palagruža, from whose meteorological station data on movement and wind speed must be sent every 3 hours. In addition to the basic job of a lighthouse keeper, there is always something to do, but also leave some time for yourself and the much-loved fishing.

To live in the middle of such an aquarium, and not use every moment to peek into it, would be a real sin. It is interesting that most visitors have an image of lighthouse keepers as a person who sits on the doorstep of his home and is lonely, eagerly awaiting every new soul that will brighten his day. The reality can be quite different.

When sometimes in the summer several sailboats anchor at Veli Žal, and all those mesmerized and euphoric crews start an invasion… I can only imagine the eyes of the lighthouse keepers widening as if they saw the devil in front of them. I think that in their place I would have excellent binoculars and at the first sighting of newcomers I would close all the hatches and doors and hide, hahaha. I try to understand these people and respect their privacy, so I especially appreciated every minute they shared with us.

Krešo greeted us upon arrival, and later we met Voja and his wife Manuela. Vojo is the record holder for staying at this lighthouse, he is just completing 25 years of work at Palagruža.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

Manuela, whom he met in Ston, has been with him for the past fewyears. They fell in love and Manuela, a Croatian-born in Germany, came to live with him in Palagruža without any problems.

She enjoys every moment there, picks asparagus and capers, goes fishing with Vojo, with fishing she has become so enchanted that she can boast of her capital catch – a toothfish weighing 8 kg.

Only the bravest and those who love without bounds can come to live on the open sea with their partner, and I wonder if there is actually a more beautiful example of boundless love and loyalty. It is nice to see them happy enjoying themselves like two teenagers in love.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

I will always remember the moment when, before dark, they set off together to hunt for squid. I was so intoxicated by the ambiance of Palagruža that I did not even think of taking a photo of that nice moment. I dont know how, but what I always do – photographing every detail, has become so irrelevant here… and that speaks volumes about time standing still in a place like this.

There, every little thing, from the hot Turkish coffee you drink at the lighthouse in the early morning to the taste of the delicacies from grill- rock-caught squid, grouper, sardines, dried tabinja and capers only intensify the desire not to return to the mainland.

fish on Palagruža

(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

Yes, it seems to me that I could be in the shoes of a lighthouse keeper in a place like this, but I better come back to reality. We came in the best part of the year and we are enjoying it, and only lighthouse keepers know how cruel it is in winter.

Sometimes bad weather and storms lasts for days and you are condemned to absolute solitude, there are no visitors, you are on your own, and the gusts of wind are sometimes so strong that it is risky to leave the lighthouse.

You pray to God that you don’t get sick or hurt because there is no doctor and there is no way to get one. You are your own specialist.

Vojo and Manuela once counted as many as 7 leeches. It is a blood-curdling scene. Nowhere can the power of nature be felt like here. To live in that harsh environment, you have to be a little positively crazy. So hats off to all the offshore inhabitants of these imposing stone titans, I admire them, their courage and their stories.

Given that I carefully choose the destinations I will write about and that they must have some connection with my Forgotten Dalmatia, I cannot write about Palagruža without touching on a historical event that happened here, which unfortunately very few people know about.

Namely, a clash between two submarines took place near Palagruža, the first in the history of world warfare in which one sank. I encountered this story for the first time when, while collecting old postcards of Dalmatia, I came across real photo postcards of the Austrian siege of Palagruža, which were taken from Austrian military ships.

In total, during the years of collecting old postcards of Dalmatia, I managed to find as many as 9 different photos of these events, and I was particularly surprised by the photo of the destroyed lighthouse.

That is why I started researching the story of the battles that took place here in more detail. The whirlwind of the First World War brought the Italian army to Palagruža for the first time in May 1915. Although the Austrians tried unsuccessfully to occupy the island on 2 occasions already during July, all their attacks were repelled.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

The patience of the Austrian admiralty was getting less and less, so they decided to return the stolen island as soon as possible. Two new attacks followed in August. In the second attack, the fleet, which included the Austrian cruiser Heligoland, 6 counter-torpedo boats and 12 torpedo boats, badly damaged the lighthouse and destroyed everything around it, forcing the Italians to leave the island.

However, the first August attack, which took place on August 5, 1915, when the Austrian submarine U5 sank the Italian Nereide, has historical significance. In the history of naval warfare, it was the first time that a submarine was sunk by another submarine.

The Austrian submarine U5 was sent to the waters of Palagruža based on the report of the reconnaissance seaplane that the Italian submarine was anchored under the cliff of Palagruža. On the morning of August 5, at 5:13 a.m., the submarine U5 discovered an Italian war flag near the coast.

The enemy submarine was not visible, it was hidden by rocks, but the commander of the Austrian submarine Georg von Trapp saw the Italian sailors running along the coast towards the flag.

He made a big circle with the submarine and when the bow was facing the island again, he noticed at a distance of about 200 meters an Italian submarine in the dive phase, facing him.

A small group of sailors was bustling about on deck. Von Trapp did nothesitate, he fired the first and then the second torpedo. The first torpedo missed its target. The speed of movement of the enemy submarine was misjudged. But the second hit and literally cut the Italian submarine Nereide in half. She sank the same moment. There were no survivors. In his book ˝Die NEREIDE˝, Wladimir Aichelburg quotes the words of von Trapp in connection with this event, who wrote in his memories: I dont understand Italians at all!

There was no net around the submarine, no mine protection! Or did we accidentally slip past them? After all, how was it possible that at 5 o clock in the morning the flag of the submarine was hoisted? Without the colourful colours of the flag, I would never have discovered the submarine! As is known, in all navies the flag was raised after sunrise and lowered after sunset.

The remains of the Nereida were surfaced in 1972 from a depth of 35 meters and transferred to Italy… Although the Italian side glorified the sinking of the Nereida and mentioned a difficult battle in which a torpedo was fired from the submarine towards the Austrian submarine, this is not true. During the extraction of the Nereida, all torpedoes were found in their place.

The real truth is that the Italian crew was not even aware of their death, the submarine exploded in an instant. The war propaganda machinery is always the same, losers become winners who are never actually there.

Especially when wars are fought for such remote and uninhabited islands. It is illusory that the Italians left Palagruža after August 1915 and for the rest of the war it was an abandoned island with the ruins of the lighthouse and the soulsof the dead guarding it. It was not until 1924 that the lighthouse was restored and started working again.


(Photo: Forgotten Dalmatia)

Only cannonball holes on some parts of the present-day lighthouse, as well as the ruins of the small church of St. Mihovil and the military barracks in the middle of the island, serve as a memory of these events. Many who visit it are not even aware that it experienced a wartime siege. I leave the island with exactly these thoughts…

I consider the trip to Palagruž the most favourite that I have ever made anywhere in Dalmatia. Her charisma and beauty enchanted me and I hope we will meet again sometime. The team I traveled with also contributed to the impression of a perfect trip: Filip, Lovre and Marin and, of course, Frane and Zdenko.

Thanks to everyone, especially Lovra for the great photos of this beauty from the air. I hope that they will motivate many of you who will read this blog to decide to go the way of Forgotten Dalmatia and get to know the most magical island in the Adriatic.

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