Croatia’s Crown – Discovering the islands of Kornati with DestiMED - New blog from Vicki Brown, photographer and travel writer.
On my last holiday, I trudged up a hillside littered with sharp edged boulders. Beneath a hot sun tempered by a chilly mountain wind, I crouched amongst the rocks to harvest wild sage. I took it in turns with a partner to shear off the tender, topmost leaves using what looked like an oversized beard trimmer, and then stuff them into a large sack. It took close to an hour for us to fill the sack with 7kg of fresh sage. We lugged the sack back down the hillside and emptied it into a giant bowl – big enough to fit some 15 sacks of sage inside.
Next, a small team of us, wearing ear defenders, tossed handfuls of sage leaves into a shredder. The shredded leaves were passed up to someone standing on top of a ladder, who tipped them into an enormous steamer. Once we’d worked our way through 100kg of leaves, the steam oven worked its magic. Within a couple of hours, as the dials and thermometers spun and rose, a pale yellow liquid dripped out of the machine.
Our host, Philip, held up the jug with the results of our labour. 600ml of pure sage oil – from 100kg of sage, with six workers and several hours of graft. We gazed at this liquid gold in awe, before being handed tiny vials of it to take home. Sometimes, the only way to understand an item’s value is to really experience all the work that has gone into it.
Manual labour may seem like a strange thing to do while on holiday, but as testers on DestiMED´s new Croatia package, we were quickly learning the importance of the connections between people and landscapes in Kornati National Park. And our brilliant tour organiser Tina knew that our experience of Kornati would be so much more valuable if we all just got stuck in – just like the islanders themselves.
The remote Kornati Archipelago is not as wild as it may first appear. The landscapes of this jagged, rocky “crown” of islands have been moulded and manipulated by humans for millennia. Clearing the vegetation, carving up the hillsides with drystone walls, letting goats and sheep roam, planting patchworks of olive groves, setting up hives for bees. Mainlanders sailed here for centuries to bring back meat and milk and fish and olives to sustain their families, and today a few hundred of their descendants own every bit of the land. The national park was created to protect Kornati’s cultural heritage – impossible to untangle from its natural one. By working on these islands, albeit for a couple of days, we testers were becoming a part of that history.
Making sage oil was not the only bit of “work” involved in our week-long adventure. One afternoon we followed our endearing host, Slobodan, up and down Kornati’s undulating terrain until we reached his olive grove. There, we learned how to make a traditional drystone wall, placing heavy, larger rocks on the outside then filling the middle with smaller stones. The structure had to be too high for sheep to jump over, and too sturdy for the strong bura wind to topple. Slobodan was in his seventies, born during the Second World War when the Italians occupied Croatia – yet he was skipping over the rocky landscape and lifting heavier stones than those of us half his age.
We stayed with Slobodan for our two nights on Kornati, in the beautiful house he designed himself overlooking a tranquil bay. His family lived on the mainland but owned this land, and had come to these islands for generations, sailing across treacherous waters. If the wind changed they could be at sea for days, living off the supplies carefully packed in their boat’s deep hull. These days, Slobodan and his wife and sons had a motor on their boat, and the journey from the mainland took three hours. But Kornati has no permanent residents. Island life is still tough and those who spend time here must be masters of many skills. As well as designing his own house, skippering a boat and building drystone walls, Slobodan was an excellent cook who prepared meals for us each day. We tucked into seabass over an open fire, veal and potatoes in a cast iron pot, black risotto made with squid that Slobodan had fished himself. He grew fruit and vegetables on the slopes around his home, and pressed oil from his olives. There is still no source of freshwater on the island, and aside from a handful of fancy new restaurants springing up for the summer yachters, nothing is bought or sold on the islands; what you have is what you bring or barter.
But for those of us on this trip, Kornati offered up plenty of riches. Crystal clear water to bathe in, vast sunsets which gave way to the Milky Way, the simplicity of homecooked meals, shared on Slobodan’s terrace, and – above all – peace, away from our constantly connected lives. For hundreds – thousands – of years, the Croatians have understood that no matter how long the journey was to Kornati, no matter how rustic the living conditions, what these islands had to offer was worth it. And today, through DestiMED, modern travellers are discovering the same.