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Five Tiny Croatian Gems

Unije (photo credit: Lora Tomas)

Unije (photo credit: Lora Tomas)

By Lora Tomas

Island hopping just before the rush of the tourist season.

May and June could be the perfect months to visit small Croatian islands. The summer heat and larger groups of tourists have still not swept over them, and everything is blooming. You also get to choose from several very good private accommodation options, as the rooms and apartments are not yet fully booked. The only downsize is that not all the shops that were going to be open soon were there when I visited. The same goes for restaurants on Drvenik Mali.

More often than not, the only social event of the day is the docking of a ferry, boat, or catamaran, in predictable intervals. Those are the times of day when the locals, mostly men in this case, flock on benches in ports to watch the coming and going, then stay on to talk about fishing and politics. During siestas, silence is religiously observed.

Decades ago, life was colourful and complex on these islands, but waves of emigration, especially in the second half of the twentieth century – to America and elsewhere, or simply to the nearest part of mainland – have left them starkly depopulated. They’ve become platforms for all kinds of tourism. Only a handful of autochthonous inhabitants have remained, most of them above sixty. Some of the new residents, from other parts of Croatia or the world, have permanently moved there in retirement. Others drop by only during the summer season. New, different communities are formed.

Šoltanka ferry at the dock on Drvenik Mali. On a Monday in May, the ferry carried Croatian vacationers, retired people, construction workers, and the priest from Trogir, who was rehearsing his sermon leaning over the railings, book in hands, reading out to the waves. He was the first to jump off the ferry, hurrying toward the nearby church as the ship was leaving the island in an hour, and he had to be on it.

Šoltanka ferry at the dock on Drvenik Mali. On a Monday in May, the ferry carried Croatian vacationers, retired people, construction workers, and the priest from Trogir, who was rehearsing his sermon leaning over the railings, book in hands, reading out to the waves. He was the first to jump off the ferry, hurrying toward the nearby church as the ship was leaving the island in an hour, and he had to be on it.

Turquoise waters of the sandy cove of Vela Rina on Drvenik Mali.

Turquoise waters of the sandy cove of Vela Rina on Drvenik Mali.

A scene from the almost deserted village of Petomavar above the cove of Vela Rina. Sealed and dried-up water tanks and torn-down stone walls, with macchia breaking out through the glassless windows, surround the few inhabited homes.

A scene from the almost deserted village of Petomavar above the cove of Vela Rina. Sealed and dried-up water tanks and torn-down stone walls, with macchia breaking out through the glassless windows, surround the few inhabited homes.

Catnaps in Silba’s gardens.

Catnaps in Silba’s gardens.

In front of the Sports and Fishing Association “Galeb” (Seagull) in the harbour of Mul on Silba, members run a makeshift shipyard. We came to Silba just in time for the first briškula tournament organized in Galeb, followed by grilled fish and sausages, and wine “from the shop”.

In front of the Sports and Fishing Association “Galeb” (Seagull) in the harbour of Mul on Silba, members run a makeshift shipyard. We came to Silba just in time for the first briškula tournament organized in Galeb, followed by grilled fish and sausages, and wine “from the shop”.

The pier in Silba’s harbour of Mul.

The pier in Silba’s harbour of Mul.

Painted doors on Silba.

Painted doors on Silba.

Inside the serene but dilapidated, and out-of-function seventeenth-century Church of St. Mary of Karmel on Silba. The fierce afternoon light is breaking in through the cracked wooden door.

Inside the serene but dilapidated, and out-of-function seventeenth-century Church of St. Mary of Karmel on Silba. The fierce afternoon light is breaking in through the cracked wooden door.

Seagulls clamouring for a fisherman’s catch as he is returning to Silba’s harbour of Mul in the evening.

Seagulls clamouring for a fisherman’s catch as he is returning to Silba’s harbour of Mul in the evening.

A sun-filled courtyard on Premuda.

A sun-filled courtyard on Premuda.

This broken-down house on Premuda is not an isolated example, as these small islands have been consistently losing population. The only child on the island had left some time ago to attend high school on the mainland, they told me. The primary school had been running only for him.

This broken-down house on Premuda is not an isolated example, as these small islands have been consistently losing population. The only child on the island had left some time ago to attend high school on the mainland, they told me. The primary school had been running only for him.

The upper and lower village of Susak, the island made of reed and sand, as seen from the path that leads toward the Susak Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1881, and has been run by the same family for over thirty years now. They tend to the light, their garden, and their cats.

The upper and lower village of Susak, the island made of reed and sand, as seen from the path that leads toward the Susak Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1881, and has been run by the same family for over thirty years now. They tend to the light, their garden, and their cats.

Tourists lost among the tall reeds on one of many paths criss-crossing the island of Susak. The reeds keep the island’s sand together, and frame and hide its gardens.

Tourists lost among the tall reeds on one of many paths criss-crossing the island of Susak. The reeds keep the island’s sand together, and frame and hide its gardens.

Susak was once covered in vineyards. Now there are only a few. Water is a constant problem on small islands. Besides rainwater harvesting, water is delivered by ships and then distributed. The authorities are looking into desalinating the sea.

Susak was once covered in vineyards. Now there are only a few. Water is a constant problem on small islands. Besides rainwater harvesting, water is delivered by ships and then distributed. The authorities are looking into desalinating the sea.

Chance finding in Susak’s upper village: a piece of art left behind by Susak Expo, an international contemporary, and, in a way, countercultural art biennale that took place on the island in May this year.

Chance finding in Susak’s upper village: a piece of art left behind by Susak Expo, an international contemporary, and, in a way, countercultural art biennale that took place on the island in May this year.

Lovely entrance doors on Susak.

Lovely entrance doors on Susak.

One of the stairways leading toward Susak’s upper village.

One of the stairways leading toward Susak’s upper village.

One of the stairways leading toward Susak’s upper village.

One of the stairways leading toward Susak’s upper village.

Dusk in Susak’s harbour.

Dusk in Susak’s harbour.

Susak’s main beach.

Susak’s main beach.

The only settlement on Unije, on the western side of the island. The island’s single shop is open from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m., and then again from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Some of the locals regularly gather in front of it in the afternoons, to drink and socialize. But the shop doesn’t sell bread. By inserting a slip of paper with your name and the number of loaves into the little postbox next to a small bakery not far from the shop, you can order your bread a day in advance and collect it next morning, from 8:00 to 10:00.

The only settlement on Unije, on the western side of the island. The island’s single shop is open from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m., and then again from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Some of the locals regularly gather in front of it in the afternoons, to drink and socialize. But the shop doesn’t sell bread. By inserting a slip of paper with your name and the number of loaves into the little postbox next to a small bakery not far from the shop, you can order your bread a day in advance and collect it next morning, from 8:00 to 10:00.

Main beach on Unije, still mostly empty at the beginning of June.

Main beach on Unije, still mostly empty at the beginning of June.

Outlines of Susak as seen from Unije. The tall grass has replaced tiled fields – a consequence of deagrarization that has affected small Croatian islands.

Outlines of Susak as seen from Unije. The tall grass has replaced tiled fields – a consequence of deagrarization that has affected small Croatian islands.

Vnetak Lighthouse on the southwestern part of Unije, automated and home to a flock of sheep. The poignant smell of sheep dung washes over you as you come near.

Vnetak Lighthouse on the southwestern part of Unije, automated and home to a flock of sheep. The poignant smell of sheep dung washes over you as you come near.

Vnetak Lighthouse sheep on the run, still not used to visitors.

Vnetak Lighthouse sheep on the run, still not used to visitors.

Clouds towering above the only settlement on Unije, the island that boasts a small airport.

Clouds towering above the only settlement on Unije, the island that boasts a small airport.

Dusk in a cove on Unije, a perfect mooring spot for sailboats and yachts.

Dusk in a cove on Unije, a perfect mooring spot for sailboats and yachts.

Ferries, or how to get there:

Drvenik Mali
Daily from Trogir Riva at 10:00 a.m., plus two afternoon ferries, either at 4:00, 6:00, 7:00, or 8:30, depending on the day of the week.

Silba and Premuda
Daily from Zadar, Port Gaženica, at 9:00 or 11:00 a.m. Check by day of the week and date for accurate timings.

Susak and Unije
Daily from Mali Lošinj at 5:00 a.m., and 1:00 or 2:30 p.m. Check by day of the week for accurate timings.

 

 

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