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A compact hump rearing dramatically out of the sea, VIS is situated further offshore than any of Croatia's other inhabited Adriatic islands. Closed to foreigners for military reasons until 1989, the island has never been overrun by tourists, and with only two or three package-oriented hotels on the whole island, this is definitely one place in Croatia where the independent traveller rules the roost. Croatian holiday-makers have fallen in love with the place over the last decade, drawn by its wild mountainous scenery, some interesting historical relics and two good-looking small towns - Vis Town and Korniia.The latter is the obvious base for trips to the islet of Biševo, site of one of Croatia's most famous natural wonders, the Blue Cave. The island is also famous for a brace of fine local wines - the white Vugava and the red Viški plavac - and the pogača od srdele (anchovy pasty, also called viska pogača or komiska pogaca depending on which town you're staying in), which is sold by local bakeries and cafes.
Vis's history has been shaped by its strategic position on the sea approaches to central Dalmatia.The Greeks settled here in the fourth century BC, choosing the island as a base because of its convenience as a stepping-stone between the eastern and western shores of the Adriatic, and founding Issa on the site of Fall present-day Vis Town. When the faof Venice in 1797 opened up the Adriatic to the competing navies of France, Britain, Russia and Austria, Vis was again much fought over, eventually falling under the control of the British, who fortified the harbour and founded the Vis Cricket Club. The British defeated Napoleon's navy off Vis in 1811, and the Austrians - who inherited the island from the British in 1815 - brushed aside Italian maritime ambitions in another big sea battle here in 1866.Vis's position was once more exploited during World War II when Josip, Broz Tito's Partisan movement was briefly based here. After the war, the island was heavily garrisoned and used for military training, a situation which, along with the decline of traditional industries like fishing and fish canning, encouraged successive waves of emigration. The island had 10,000 inhabitants before World War II; it now has fewer than 3000. According to local estimates, there are ten times more Korriiia families living in San Pedro, California, than in the town itself.
Ferries run year round between Split and Vis Town (1 or 2 daily; 2hr 30min; once a week these call in at Hvar on the way) though in winter the trip can get mighty rough. From mid-July to late August there are also two weekly ferries from Ancona in Italy.
VIS TOWN'S sedate arc of grey-brown houses stretches around a deeply indented bay, above which looms a steep escarpment covered with the remains of abandoned agricultural terraces. There's not much of ancient Issa to be seen apart from a few chunks of unadorned masonry – most of which have been absorbed into the dry-stone walls of local gardeners – on the hills above town. The most attractive parts of town are east of the ferry landing (to the right as you get off the boat). A five-minute walk along the front brings you to the venerable Church of Our Lady (Gospa od Spilka), a squat sixteenth-century structure harbouring a Madonna and Saints by Girolamo da Santacroce, just beyond which is the Austrian defensive bastion known as Gospina baterija (Our Lady's Battery). A barrack block at the rear of the bastion has been transformed into the Town Museum (Gradski muzej; Tues–Sun 9am–lpm & 5-7pm), a small but well-organized collection mixing Greco-Roman finds with nineteenth-century wine presses and domestic furniture. The star exhibit is the bronze head of a Greek goddess, possibly Aphrodite, from the fourth century BC, which is claimed to be by a student of Praxiteles, although only a replica is on display – the original is locked up in the town vaults.
Another 500m east along the seafront lies the suburb of Kut (literally "quiet corner" or "hideaway"), a largely sixteenth-century tangle of narrow cobbled streets overlooked by the summer houses built by the nobility of Hvar – the stone balconies and staircases give the place an undeniably aristocratic air. Kut's St Cyprian's Church (Crkva svetog Ciprijana) squats beneath a campanile adorned with unusual sun and rose motifs.There's a fine wooden ceiling inside, although it's difficult to gain access outside mass times.
Continuing round the bay from Kut for another fifteen minutes brings you to a small wooded peninsula, and a tiny walled garden containing a British Cemetery – inside lie a couple of unobtrusive monuments honouring the war dead of both 1811-15 and 1943-44. The marvellous pebble beach on the far side of the cemetery is one of the best on the island.
Heading west around the bay from the ferry landing takes you past an equally diverse collection of monuments, beginning after some 200m with an Ancient Greek Cemetery (daily 5-9pm) behind the municipal tennis courts. There's only a handful of tombstones bearing faded inscriptions, but it's an evocative place, heavy with the scent of wild fennel. Another 200m further on lie the rubbly remains of the Roman Baths (you're free to wander round if the gate is open), a smallish second-century complex centred on some exquisite abstract floor mosaics in what was the main hall. Beyond here it's impossible to miss the campanile of the Fllranciscan monastery (Franjeva6ki samostan), rising gracefully from a smakidney-shaped peninsula. Flanked by a huddle of cypresses, this sixteenth-century foundation was built on the remains of a Roman theatre, and some of its interior walls follow the curving lines of the original spectator stands, although you can't get inside to have a look. The adjacent municipal graveyard is similar to the one in Supetar in featuring some elegant nineteenth-century funerary sculpture, including a particularly fine statue of a maiden stooping over a cross, dating from 1899, by Supetar sculptor Ivan Rendić, which can be seen adorning the grave of a certain Toma Bradanović.
Beyond the monastery, the road continues along the shoreline past the Hotel Issa. After twenty minutes, a track breaks off to the left and heads uphill to Fort Wellington, a ruined white tower constructed by the British after 1811, which crowns a blustery ridge providing fine views back towards Vis Town to the south, or out towards the island of Hvar over to the northwest. A ten-minute walk east from Fort Wellington brings you to the George the Third fortress, built in 1813 to guard the entrance to Vis harbour. At the time of writing visitors can wander at will through this remarkably well-preserved complex (although access may become more difficult once the authorities decide what to do with it), entering the main courtyard through a doorway topped by a crude carving of the Union Jack.A passage leads through the sturdily built barrack blocks, emerging onto a sea-facing gun terrace shaded by palms and agaves.
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