Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE ISLAND OF MLJET … pure gold 'Mediterranean'

An olive press

Mljet is one of over a thousand islands in Dalmatia, governed by Croatia (Republika Hrvatska).  The people on the island see themselves as belonging to Dalmatia, more so than to Croatia: they say they have experienced more Italian influence, than Slavic or Turkish.  I’m told that the dialect on the islands and that of mainland Croatia are distinctly different, and the peoples have to listen carefully to catch each other’s meaning.

It’s October 29 and I have been sitting in the sun all day (20C) watching the butterflies and bumblebees; and listening to the birds sing.  There are the little yellow ones that I met in Ibiza, chirping away; and a new one I have just noticed… a grey-brown sparrow sized bird with a red throat and upper chest, maybe yellow under the tail, as sweet singing as a robin.  I have also seen my first Praying Mantis, known here by a name that says, ‘praying woman’… a woman giving thanks, since she eats the male after copulation.  (Upon hearing the interpretation, I must admit I laughed… apparently most women do).  My small cottage (8ft X 16ft) is set in an olive grove; amongst old terracing; at the west-end of the old village of Babino Polje.

 My cottage

 The village Babino Polje

I walk out each morning and stand on the terracing, still in awe, even after a stay of 2 weeks.  Each terracing wall (and there are thousands! all over the island) is about 3 ½ ft wide and 2-4 ft high.  I used to think that the stones making such walls were all about the same size.  But no… the same sized rocks are used for the facing, while inside the wall there is every size of stone… many about an inch.  Can you imagine! Picking up all those stones?

 Close up of a terrace 

Like most of the islands in the Mediterranean… Adriatic/Aegean it matters not… it is rocky, though fertile.  It just takes some sifting to set aside the rock!  The olive trees dominate here, but there is also the almond, orange (small mandarin type), fig, pomegranate; and then there are the grape vines; the goats; and the beehives (Mljet is a derivative of the Roman word for honey).  It is Mediterranean. If the crop-producing trees are not tended, the indigenous pine proliferates again, with a scattering of cypress, a unique small oak tree and a wide variety of low bushes.  On this island, now only 700 people, many of the groves have reverted to pine.  Not only has the population been reduced from its high of 2000+ in the 19th & early 20th C; but people are giving up on the old life… tending trees, gardens, and animals is hard work.  These days, most everyone of a working age is earning by working for the government, or by the tourist trade.  There are still olive groves, and in good years there is a commercial production.  The rest of the crops and production from livestock are for use in the home or sold to the tourist.

Fish still seem bountiful.  A couple of evenings ago as I sat by the bay eating dinner at a restaurant in Sorbu, I watched an old (late 60’s!! at least) fisherman untangle his net. 

 Sitting at restaurant

He was still at it when my dinner was over and I was leaving.  There he was … standing in his boat (rowboat size), his weight on one leg with the other leg propped on the side of the boat, keeping it all steady, while he was bent over the bow, pulling the net up from below and gently tossing it (a handful at a time), setting the net in order for the next day’s haul.  That’s work:  it was 6pm when I left the bayside restaurant; his day started about 6am.  The nets are usually set at night and catches come in quite early in the day.  These are not commercial fishermen, if there is more than the fisherman can use himself, he will offer it to others.  I was lucky enough to receive a plate load the other day:  fresh sardines!  My host gave me some of his home pressed olive oil for the cooking… lightly fried in a hot! pan.  SO! Good.

Still almost alive... almost gone.

Everything I have been given has been SO! good:  homemade sherry (which is actually a cherry liquor); local small sweet oranges; home pressed olive oil; homemade flat bean soup with a locally made bacon and ‘hard’ sausage; local honey with a taste so special I can’t get enough; and homemade bread.  My hosts, Ante and Zora, are wonderfully generous.  Every day I have received:  a gift of food, of books in English! of movies (downloaded by their daughter), an invitation to join them for coffee or lunch; as well as a shower of local knowledge.  Ante has walked in every direction and knows all paths; Zora grew up in the village, inheriting this property from her grandmother.

The village houses… over 300 yrs old

Main road through village

They raised their children here and ‘the kids’ are now in their thirties.  Everything is happily provided.  I want for nothing:  even the ‘rice milk’ I need (which is not carried by the island markets) turned up on my patio chair.  I have not found out ‘the how’ yet, but my guess is that someone in Dubrovnik was asked to put it on the ‘fast boat’, which arrives daily about 2:30p).

Having described all this wonderful food, it was not a good year for produce:  no rain from May to late October.  The figs fell off the trees; there are few olives, so no ‘pressing’ this year; and the pomegranates split open prior to ripening…  remaining sour.  To have to rely on the land is hard, let alone to work it.  No one wants to return to the old ways.  I am lucky, to be still benefitting from the old ways… people in the village know about goats, chickens, bee keeping, olive and grape pressing.  The Mediterranean food is naturally good; and it is a food we naturally seem to devour with great pleasure.  Regardless of its simplicity it always seems like an indulgence.   Beyond the sun and soil, I think there is a knowledge that also makes a difference… these people on the island are not just old masters, they are descendent from old masters.  All this knowledge of harvesting and preparation is ‘in the blood’; they have lived it for hundreds of years.  The Life of the Mediterranean is pure ‘gold’.

The olive groves

I do love it!  It seems quite natural to ‘Live’ in the Mediterranean… what I mean is that it is so natural, it is like an old glove:  Marvelously comfortable.  This is my second stay on a Mediterranean island this year:  Mljet and Ibiza, so different yet both so nourishing.  Ibiza still has its’ beautiful nature, though it is well developed; Mljet is 1/3 National Park and the old villages remain undeveloped, some incorporating old Roman ruins. 

300 year old house, using Roman ruins as foundation; in Polace

Roman arch in Pomena

A stay on Mljet is closely connected to the old ways; a stay on Ibiza the old and the new beautifully intertwined.  Ibiza is a vacation destination, though quiets after ‘the Season’.  On Mljet there are no small cities; no large hotels; no beautiful architecturally designed homes.  Mljet is quiet most of the time, with a relatively small influx of visitors in the summer.  On Ibiza there are 65 beaches; on Mljet there are, at least, 65 churches… many in ruin, most built in the 16th  & 17th Century.

Church steeple, common on Mljet

 Saint Marija

 Mljet does have a few beaches, and there is good swimming off rocky cliffs, or in saltwater lakes in the National Park.  The water is equally as warm.  It really! is the Mediterranean though it is located in the Adriatic.  

 Cove where fishing boats are kept

 View of cliffs

Ibiza warms your heart! Mljet strikes as deeply, drawing you into the poetic.  It is said to be a mystical place.  Just 20 minutes walk from where I am staying you can find Odysseus’ cave!  THEY say.  Then there is the Romanesque monastery, built on Roman ruins, on an island in the middle of the largest of the salt-water lakes.  Talk about atmosphere.  Imagine living in a hermitage on an island, in the middle of a large lake. You cannot see where the water enters from the sea; you are amongst mountains, though there are other lakes and channels proliferating just beyond your view.  Often when you look toward the island from shore you cannot see it, the light is wrong, or there is a slight mist.  You strain to find it: gone one minute, there the next.

Monastery in lake

 Architecture of monastery

 I was reminded of Iona and the old, isolated hermitages of the Hebrides.

Please forgive me.  I am going to put in a quote from a Dalmatian writer, V. Nazor, writing about the Dalmatian island of ‘Brac’ (2 islands to the north, closer to Split).  I am including it not so much because of what he says, but how he says it.  He is a beautiful, poetic writer.  His poetry is the feel one gets on this island:
“But true history is something else.  There are histories without storms with flashing lightning and rumbling thunder seen and heard from afar; there is also a quiet history which flows along the bed of time like a river that knows of no waterfalls, whirlpools and floods, yet full of life, full of events, the more tragic they are the less noise they make.  It is to the latter kind that the history of Brac belongs.
… here human destiny unwinds and flows along peacefully and quietly and yet… too often perhaps… full of long, hard struggles, struggles that could be cruel and merciless.  A drop of blood spilt by anyone, once and for ever, cries to the sky and everybody hears that cry; the river of sweat that flows for centuries down the brows of countless generations is soaked up by the mute earth and soundlessly disappears.  The cry of anger is heard from afar, the sigh of suffering dies without an echo.
Which sort of history is more difficult to grasp, discover, study, describe?  That of blood or that of sweat?  The answer to this is easy:  the history of that which does not clamour with colour and noise, which is quiet, continuous and everyday, the deep foundation and the even deeper root of human events.  This is history!  True human history!  But it is much more difficult to write about this than about the other.”
BRAC.  Simunovic, Peter, dr.  Graficki zavod Hrvatske. Zagreb.  pg. XXX11

(In his later years Nazor expressed his gratitude to this island, accustomed to thirst:  “Thank you, waterless isle, for having taught me to thirst and long for something all my life.  Brac, 1940.)

Old terraced olive grove

By the way, Brac had a population 12,900 in the 1970’s; and has many more tourists than Mljet, accommodating 15,000 visitors at any one time.  I have learned about Brac because my hosts, Ante and Zora, were caretakers of a Hermitage on the island of Brac during the 1970’s.  They left because it was getting too crowded.  Ante says the isle of Mljet is more mystical, so even more poetic… there is ‘something’ quite unseen that starts to inhabit your soul (those are my words).  It truly grows on you… leaving its’ deeply serene and peaceful mark.  ‘Serpentine’ is the word used on the island’s roads to designate the ‘S’ curve… subtly sly and tempting.

 Island road

Whether it is the shaded olive groves; the 300 year, old stone houses and churches; or the vistas that seeps into you, I am unable to tell.  A couple of days ago I once again took the long road SE across the mountainous spine of the island, to arrive at a soft and sandy beach, an unusual phenomenon on these rocky isles. On this narrow, mountain isle you drive on the side of the mountain wherever you go.  There are few guard rails; you are high on the mountainside; and it matters not if the road veers to the north or to the south you are presented with a stunning vista.  To the north it is the inner sea with coastlines, coves, and islands; to the south it is all sea… eventually a horizon. You cannot drive on the south side of the island without the eye being pulled into the distance… the peace of the savannah is stirred, yet it is over water to where there is a subtle line blue on blue.  A long horizon where there might even be a curvature, the fluidity of the two taking you… into eternity.

Vista from mountain

I have a friend whose son-in-law has a house on an island just south of here; my Victoria travel consultant’s in-laws sail these waters every summer.  The Dalmatian Coast is one of those well-kept secrets.   I think it is pure gold!  It is the gold of sunlight; of honey; of olive oil; of white wine from yellow grapes:  The Golden Life of the Mediterranean. Mljet, though not glamorous, is definitely worthy of your respect, definitely worthy of a glimpse.   BUT! I bet it would demand more of you. It marks you.

PS… Ante invited me to lunch yesterday, my last Sunday on the island.  As the front door opened I walked into the room, and stood very still as I faced the back wall which is usually covered by blankets and curtains.  Today the gold velvet curtains were tied back, revealing an inner fire room (not place… there is bench seating).  I saw an inner sanctum… of a Hindu temple.  It wasn’t.  There was hot ash in a small mound, on the floor, at the back of the room.  I thought it was the evening fire, rain was expected.  It was not, it was our lunch roasting under those coals: lamb, chicken, potatoes… with rosemary.  I shall remember the lunch, so delicious:  the lamb, mild! and juicy.  The flavor was unforgettable… not just a baking, a baking under hot ash which melds the flavors into a distinct dish.  More than the food, however, I will never forget that inner sanctum: a ‘Cave of the Heart’, where the dark and light are but one.  I fell into an altered state, silent for quite some time.  My words, I know, are inadequate.  

 Sunset across the saltwater lake...monastery just visible in the shadows.

The rest of the photos from Croatia can be found at this link: Croatian Slideshow

1 comment:

  1. A book, Paula, definitely. Cornwall to come, an Island of another sort. Love, Kristin.