Croatia 3: Where have you gone, Marko Polo?

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Get your Marco Polo t-shirts here!

The Venetians hail famous explorer Marco Polo (1254?-1324) as one of their own, but Croatians will tell you that Marko—with a ‘k’—was actually born in the town of Korčula, on the island of the same name. For someone who died almost 700 years ago, he is in excellent health: Marko Polo house, Marko Polo restaurant, Marko Polo ice cream… the man is around every corner.

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Marko Polo may have been born here. There's an admission charge, but not much to see.

Don’t let this deter you from visiting Korčula, however. It is a compact, circular walled town on the eastern tip of the island, overlooking the strait of Pelješac. It has charm and views in abundance. The distinctive herringbone pattern of streets was supposedly designed to permit airflow but to protect against high winds.

At the center of the walled town, at the top of the hill, is the cathedral of St Mark. The exterior is decorated with many carved faces: humans, mermaids, animals. The interior has a beautiful wooden roof which contrasts with the light grey stone. If St Mark rings a bell, it is indeed the same saint as San Marco in Venice—which makes sense when you remember that Venice controlled modern-day Dalmatia for several centuries. There are many buildings in Korčula decorated with the winged lion of Venice.

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Fanciful carvings on St Mark's cathedral

I can also speak highly of Korčula’s pastries. The ice cream, not so much. Nothing we had anywhere in Croatia comes close to the quality of Italian gelato.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!

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The walled town of Korčula as our ship approached the harbor

Croatia 2: Be careful in that belfry

I’ve always liked climbing up to the top of tall buildings in Europe. It’s probably because I like stone circular staircases so much. St Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, St Peter’s in Rome, the Duomo in Florence. Typically I enter a doorway off to one side of the cavernous central space, and ascend the various claustrophobic staircases until I emerge at the top and take in the breathtaking view of the ancient city. The large domes are particularly interesting because the final ascents are sandwiched in between the inner and outer shells of the dome.

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In the belfry of the church tower in Trogir, Croatia
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The harrowing climb up to the belfry in Trogir, seen from the top

So when we arrived in Croatia, naturally I wanted to ascend the first belfry tower I encountered: Saint Duje’s Church, inside the Roman-era “Diocletian’s Palace” in Split. I paid my 10 kuna (about $2) and I headed up the staircase. Halfway up, however, I realized what I had gotten myself into: instead of a safe, windowless stone staircase, I was on metal stairs attached to the sides of the tower on one side. The other side was a sheer drop to the bottom of the shaft. It may seem contradictory that I both enjoy climbing towers and have a pronounced fear of heights, but there you are. It took every ounce of “when am I coming back to Croatia? Carpe diem!” that I could muster to steadfastly ignore the  chasm beside me and concentrate only on climbing the stairs.

So two days later, in the delightful walled town of Trogir, what I did do? Why, I climbed another bell tower, this one with an even rustier and more rickety staircase than the first. My friend and fellow musician Mary Lea was a big help getting me to the top. The last few steps were as steep as a ladder, and involved stuffing myself through a hole about two feet square.

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Looking up to the Trogir belfry from the base of the tower

Two belfries were enough for me! Later in the trip, however, I did take a walk along the magnificent city walls in Dubrovnik, which were stunning and not at all acrophobic.

Read David’s other blog posts about the Croatia trip!