Vis: A Dalmatian Island with a Hoste of British Cultural Influences

When the 2004 Croatian property boom took off, there was an explosion of international interest in property on the Dalmatian coast, with foreign buyers looking to pick up their dream holiday home or investment on the stunning Adriatic coast. Many of the buyers were British, and many headed to islands such as Hvar, Brac and Korcula, as well as the island of Vis, where the tradition of British visitors is strongest of all.

Arguably one of the most beautiful and fascinating of all the islands in Dalmatia, Vis has added attractions for visitors interested in British history and heritage, and there is much to explore from the legacies of previous generations of British visitors, from the historical to the quite remarkable.

Who would have thought, for instance, that the oldest cricket club in Europe outside the UK was on a tiny Dalmatian island that is not even the most accessible from the mainland? And yet it is true that in 2009 the Vis Cricket Club celebrated its 200th anniversary, as the culture of leather on willow hit a double century in years since the first official game on Vis in 1809. Read more about the incredible story of Vis cricket on the club’s website or listen to the story of the development of cricket in Croatia from humble Vis beginnings in the video below:

The man behind this curious sporting association was a certain Captain William Hoste (later Sir William) who was stationed on the strategic island of Vis by Nelson at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. His most famous feat was victory on August 13, 1811 over far superior Franco-Venetian forces at a battle in the Vis Channel, a victory that sealed his fame. One of the small islands in front of Vis town is named Host Island in his honour. 

Given its strategic importance, Vis became a fortified island, and it has played an important role in various wars, in addition to the Hoste naval victory. The British and then the Austro-Hungarian empire fortified the island in the 19th century, and Tito used it as a major base during the Second World War.

The remains of the these fortresses still exist today, in varying states of disrepair, from the almost ruined Wellington Fortress to the more impressive and substantial King George Fortress.

Vis played a crucial role in the Second World War for the Allies, and many British servicemen lost their lives in the struggles against the Nazis. Much of that is remembered with British war cemeteries, plaques, benches and the old air strip, all of which can be visited. For more pictures, click here.

Vis also played a central role in one of the most fascinating and under-reported events of the Second World War – the evacuation of more than 25,000 civilians from the Dalmatian islands and mainland to a refugee camp in Egypt’s Sinai Desert called El Shatt. Vis was used as a staging post by the British to transfer the refugees to a base in Italy and then on to Egypt. An exhibition in the museum on Vis in the video below has exhibits of the time in El Shatt.

Vis has proved to be a popular place for tourists to visit, and the fascinating British history, combined with the submarine bases, natural treasures and rich history, make it an ideal holiday destination for relaxing and exploring.

There is just one more British connection with Vis, which occurred after the 2004 property boom, and has been little reported. On October 19, 2006, in a civil ceremony in London, Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, married Paola Doimi, whose father is from Vis and still has property there.

For more information about Vis and its rich history, visit the Vis Tourist Board website.

Unique Traditions in Dalmatia: The Easter Procession in Jelsa

While Dalmatia is justifiably famous for its fabulous coastline and stunning islands, it is a destination which is deceptively rich in heritage and unique traditions, and the region has plenty to offer visitors looking for more than a standard sun and beach holiday.

Among the most fascinating is the annual ‘Za Krizem’ Easter procession on the island of Hvar, a religious procession which has taken place uninterrupted (despite the region’s turbulent history) for more than 500 years, included a procession in the Egyptian desert during the Second World War.

As the name suggests, the ‘Behind the Cross’ procession follows a single cross-bearer through the night on Maundy Thursday, a journey of some 22km via five other churches, before returning to the starting point at around 7am on the morning of Good Friday.

The cross bearer is assisted by his acolytes, clad in white robes and carrying torchlit lanterns through the night, while singing their haunting religious chants without interruption. Behind the acolytes comes the congregation and visiting tourists, who are becoming increasingly attracted to arguably the world’s most unique religious procession. The procession has been internationally recognised and was granted UNESCO heritage status in 2009.

Each village on Hvar has its own procession, and they take place at different times during the week (see the Jelsa Tourist Board for more information), but the main event is the simultaneous processions of the communities of Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirce, Vrbanj and Vrboska, who all set off at 10pm on Maundy Thursday, moving slowly in the same direction.

As they approach the next village on the route, they visit the church to pray, before proceeding on to the next location. The cross bearer, traditionally barefoot, carries the cross the whole way, a cross weighing between 10 and 18kg, and one which is several hundred years old and full of history.

The main procession is that of Jelsa, and the faithful make their way slowly to the main square on Good Friday morning, where the exhausted cross bearer runs the final steps before delivering the cross to the priest.

Although the procession has taken place every year since 1510, there have been occasions when it was under threat, most notably during the Second World War. The photograph above, which was exhibited at a festival in Svirce last year, shows the 1943 procession in the village. During that year, the occupying Italians banned the local people from taking part, and would only allow the cross-bearer and acolytes in the picture.

More interestingly, the procession has also taken place in the Sinai Desert in Egypt at a refugee camp in El Shatt, as more than 25,000 people from Dalmatia, including more than 3,000 from Hvar, were evacuated to Egypt. Many people on Hvar today were born in that refugee camp.

Carrying the cross is a huge honour and one which people sign up for up to 20 years in advance. In an interview with Hvar TV (see below), 2012 Pitve cross bearer Ivo ‘Mafija’ Mileta explains the relationship with his acolytes, the prestige of carrying a cross his grandfather and great-grandfather carried before him, and the role of various parts of the community in the whole event.

Tourists are more than welcome to take part in the procession, and many do. Some choose to walk the whole route, while others choose to spend the night in one of the squares, such as the main one in Jelsa, watching the various processions arrive and depart. Some cafes remain open all night. Another interesting vantage point is inside the churches themselves.

For those wanting to take part in the procession, take plenty of water, as well as a snack for sustenance. Much of the walk is along hilly paths, so bring appropriate footwear. Clapping as the procession passes and ends (as happened in Jelsa last year) is not encouraged, as this is first and foremost a religious festival.

One other additional attraction to the event is that all residents leave their lights on through the night, so the six settlements are bathed in light, while the cross bearer’s house has an illuminated cross outside for the days leading up to the procession.

The Easter procession is the undoubted highlight of an Easter visit to Hvar, but it is also one of the best times of year to visit the lavender island, a time when the local community comes out of winter hibernation and prepares for the season, and a time of family joy as extended family congregate for this important religious festival.

For more information about Jelsa and the Easter Procession, visit the Jelsa Tourist Board website.