We arrived by sailboat to the Croatian island of Lastovo – surrounded by the crystal clear Adriatic and known for the fact that its main village was in the center of the island as opposed to sitting on the harbor like all other cities and villages of its age. The site was chosen, according to local lore, so that it was hidden from pirates or maybe the opposite – that the city’s inhabitants were pirates who stole from sailors and then retreated to the clandestine location. I imagined it was more likely that the pretty little stone village known for its 15th and 16th-century Venetian architecture was tucked in the middle because it was simply practical. It was laid out like a bowl in a well-ventilated valley between rocky peaks, thus protecting it from storms and marauders and probably providing good soil in an otherwise arid land.
Lastovo is an island of only eighteen square miles, with so few inhabitants that the children must leave it after primary school to attend upper levels on the mainland, but it has stunning craggy hills, cliffs, and lagoons. So, although Lastovo might be tiny, it is very pretty and has rarely gone unnoticed. At any given time in history until twenty years ago, the Romans, Avars, French, Italians, Austrians, Communists, and pretty much anyone else sailing by felt the urge to occupy it. Most left a mark. Lastovo might not be large, but it warranted a tour.
“In the end, I will tell you stories about love, but not now,” began our local tour guide, as he jumped into the driver’s side of his new blue Mercedes Benz passenger van. Both he and the van were incongruous on Lastovo where there are no bridges or everyday vehicle ferries, and where tiny old cars leftover from communism and slightly newer compacts, were the norm. In his thirties, tan, handsome, and with Ray-Ban glasses, our debonair driver seemed to be the island’s most industrious entrepreneur as he also operated the number one taxi service on the island. It was not an easy job. He would receive calls the entire time we were with him and answer the same way each time: “Fifteen minutes.”
The ride up the single narrow winding road from the dock where our boat sat in a pristine lagoon off some of Croatia’s deepest waters, to the island’s top peak of 1368 feet, was not made for vans and did not favor any cars approaching from the opposite direction. After the first near-miss, I looked out the window and observed that the rocky terrain also didn’t offer a soft landing for those who were not careful. Each time an on-coming car flew down the steep road and our driver slammed on his brakes and snugged up against a cliff wall to let it pass, I would shut my eyes, hold my breath, and blame my husband for the foolish tour. What was there about Lastovo anyway?
Of the occupiers for which our guide had the highest praise was the latest round of Italians, who held the island between the first and second World Wars – even though Mussolini was its leader.
“He did not destroy Lastovo – he built roads and churches and they planted olive trees.” It was true – olive trees were everywhere we looked. They were now mostly unkempt and not producing olive oil, but as he said, that was changing as the desire for olive oil grows.
“Do you know why he saved Lastovo?” the guide asked as we sat quietly in our back seats and without a clue.
“The story is that he fell in love with a Lastovon woman and he did all those things in order to impress her.” He paused for a second and then added the obvious: “The Lastovo women are quite beautiful.” We nodded in agreement. It only made sense that he had a girlfriend as the town seemingly had no other strategic value to the Italians at all. On the other hand, some historical references claim that Italy did the same re-building in all the places it occupied in order to make them more “Italianized”. If so, it didn’t work – Lastovo’s inhabitants are definitely Croatian.
We thought about the possibility of a local woman being kept as a mistress of a notorious fascist as we sipped cappuccinos and ate fresh fruit at a table under a rare stand of shady trees in the city center. The table was one of many miss-matched pieces of outdoor furniture from various decades’ past in a small city park defined by short stone walls – a pleasing mosaic of new and old. The park was probably as old as the village itself as it was anchored on one side by a little church built in 1600 and on the other side by some city offices. On the road up to the park and everywhere possible in between were quaint homes with incredible hill-top views, cascading flowers, and Lastovo’s famous chimneys – elaborate stone caps called fumari’s that looked like minarets on a mosque and forced the smoke out openings on the sides rather than the tops.
It was a perfectly wonderful morning and many homes had an elderly man or woman sitting by an open window enjoying the sun. It made me wonder if anyone was left who might know about Mussolini’s mistress, but I decided if someone was alive, and fortuitously knew his mistress, they probably wouldn’t know English. They seemed content watching us and I was content watching them. Although it was the height of tourist season, there were no other visitors wandering about the narrow roads and alleys. Our only companion in the park was a thin wry old man, hunched over and wearing pants tied with rope at the waist and shoes that were too large. We observed him as he methodically picked up small items off the ground – perhaps nuts from the trees – and in his own way arranged the tables for the day. When he stopped his movement we became mesmerized by a tree in the park whose knots had become birthing spots for hundreds of tiny white snails. It was that kind of a day – so quiet and peaceful you could watch snails gestate.
The real reason for the tour of the island was not the village rich in history and churches, as perfectly wonderful as it was, but rather the remnants of the Communist occupation that were scattered about the island and, of course, the views from the top peak. After World War II, Lastovo fell into the hands of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and was made a military installation off limits to the locals. Under the control of Tito, the leader of the former Yugoslavia and an extension of Russian idealism, the island’s people suffered greatly, reducing the already slim population by more than half. It was a strange thing to see what remained of Tito’s military. The guardhouse at the original entrance, vacant and unkempt now, had the paint of a Russian flag still visible along its walls. There were also barracks in ruins in the over-grown brush on the sides of the roads, but little else.
It was when we stopped at the top of the island that I was rewarded for the ride. In every direction, I was greeted with breath-taking panoramic views of not only Lastovo but the other Croatian islands. We even saw Italy on the horizon. Lastovo was but a speck in a sea of over a thousand islands, so small that our taxi driver could, with lots of confidence, always offer to pick up anyone anywhere in fifteen minutes. I took endless pictures of the cliffs rising above calm seas under a cerulean sky, while I stood on what I assumed was a bizarre empty paved parking lot (only to discover later from the guide that it was Tito’s former helio pad.) All the while I wondered what Tito would think about Americans in shorts traipsing about his former base.
“We are a small island without many people. When Tito was here we had maybe 600 men and half of them were old. Tito had over 1000 men. The only way to survive was to negotiate. It is always that way on Lastovo. We must negotiate in order to survive. So, here is my second love story. It turned out that the Captain over the island fell in love and married a Lastovon woman. I told you they were very beautiful.” Again he paused and we all nodded in agreement. “Times were hard and sometimes problems arose. The Lastovons had to negotiate with the army, so they would tell the Captain’s wife what they wanted and she would negotiate it that night. It worked well. They negotiated a lot. In fact, the Captain was so in love with her and with the island that when the army finally had to leave, the Captain left the map to all of the mines on the island in his top drawer, saving the lives of many. That is why he is still loved by the people and comes back to visit.”
I could see the Captain (I envisioned him handsome and in his uniform) in the city park surrounded by adoring men and women talking about the past and drinking expresso. It was a pleasant thought.
Our van left the scenic top on the same scary road we took on the way up, but this time the view was marred in one place by a small patch of burnt land. With a terrain much like California, fire is a very serious problem on Lastovo. In fact, I was told that they have two full-time men who sit at the highest vantage points of the island and watch for smoke. I thought perhaps there might be a more modern efficient solution for surveillance but said nothing. Their system seemed to be working.
“Now for the last love story – the tragic one.” Our guide lowered his voice. “Several years ago a young man on the island fell in love with a beautiful Lastovon woman (we all nodded in agreement again about Lastovon beauty) but this woman did not love him back. She refused to marry him, so he decided he would show the island people how much he loved her. He decided to set Lastovo on fire.”
Wow, that would do it. I could see the spurned lover, wild dark eyes and manic movements, dousing everything with gasoline and torching it, then shaking his fist to the air in a lover’s angst. Truthfully, I am not sure what he did, but history notes it was a really bad fire and my story seems as good as any.
“He burned sixty percent of the island, but most of the main village was saved. It was very sad.”
Then, the guide returned to the wheel in that unmistakable sign that it was the end of the story and the tour.
Surely, I thought, he could not leave it at that.
“What happened to the girl?” I asked.
“She fell in love with someone else and had a baby.” That matter-of-fact response was a complete downer.
“Is she still here?”
I pondered that response. That would be awkward, I thought. How do you out-live that gossip on such a small island? Unfortunately, our guide did not appear to want to discuss her further.
“Well, what happened to the man who set the fire?” I asked.
“He was sentenced to five years in prison. He served four years, got one year off for good behavior, and came back to the island.”
This was shocking to me. How dare he come back to the island? Did anyone even talk to him? What about the old people in the quaint houses? They had to be very angry. I was outraged at the justice system.
“What can he possibly be doing on the island?” I asked, now leaning forward in my seat toward the driver. I was not letting this go without an explanation.
The van slowed down and our guide lifted his sunglasses to the top of his head and turned back to look at me. Then he answered in all seriousness:
“He works for the fire authority. They trained him in prison.” After which he turned back to the wheel, pulled his sunglasses down, and he finished our drive in silence. Ah, the irony of love on Lastovo Island.