Notes from Korčula

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

Marco Polo’s exploits may never have come to light had it not been for his capture in a naval battle off the coast of this island in the Adriatic Sea

The island of Korčula, off the Pelješac peninsula on the Dalmatian coast in the Adriatic Sea, is spectacularly beautiful and away from the hordes of tourists now descending on Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia.

So what’s the connection between Korčula and a recent news item saying Italy had joined the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese brainchild to facilitate trade and infrastructure, on the lines of the old Silk Road?

The beauty of this mediaeval island, shimmering in the twilight with its architectural gems, labyrinth passages and cobbled pathways, has been laced with an interesting conflict between Croatia and Italy. Both lay claim to being the birthplace of that great Venetian (as we think him to be!) traveller, Marco Polo.

Ironically, Polo’s travels may never have come to light if it hadn’t been for his heroic exploits in the great naval battle between the Venetians and the Genoese, fought along the north-eastern coast off Korčula (then under the control of the Venetians) in the Pelješac Channel in September 1298. Polo, fighting for the Venetians, commanded a galley that was equipped by his family, and in the words of the Genoese poet and chronicler, Luchetti, “was captured because he was slipping with his galleon into the front lines and courageously fought”.

Book of wonders

Wounded and taken to Genoa in chains, he was imprisoned until 1299; during this time he dictated his adventures to his fellow prisoner, the writer Rustichello of Pisa. He recounted his long years at the court of Kublai Khan — and thus was born the first (and arguably the greatest) travelogue in history, called The Book of World Wonders, recorded in Old French at first and later translated into Italian as Il Milione. Printed for the first time in 1477, it’s a fascinating bit of trivia that, for at least 300 years, this was the most widely read book in the world after the Bible!

And to think, the “patron saint” of all travel writers may never have come to light had it not been for the Battle of Korčula!

But what of the birth of this mediaeval figure, ace explorer, traveller and travel writer?

Noble house

The manuscript chronicle of the history of Venice in the 15th century mentions a list of the noble families who lived in Venice, confirming the Dalmatian origins of the Polo family. Documents in Korčula reveal the grant of a house placed on the east side of town to the Polo family, and a century after Polo’s death, his descendant Mateo Polo requested the Korčula community to allocate him the land for a shipyard near the one where his great-grandparents had built ships.

Croatia claims the Polo family was one of many Croatian families settled in Venice, where they arrived after the birth of Marco.

But coming back to Polo. His journey to China began in 1271, when his father Niccolò took the young Marco with him. He spent 17 years in the service of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, exploring many unknown places and wonders. The first insight for Europeans into faraway lands, payment with bank notes, cheap porcelain, coal burning asbestos and silk manufacture (hence the term‘Silk Road’) all came from Polo’s stories.

Sipping Croatia’s most popular red wine, Plavac Mali, seeing the evening shadows bathe the Gothic St Mark’s Cathedral in Korčula’s spectacular sunset, I understand why the Croatians would love to lay claim to Korčula being the great traveller’s birthplace.

Have the Italians cocked a snook at them by collaborating with the Chinese on the new version of the Silk Road discovered by Polo? Croatian or Venetian, may the great travel writer’s journeys inspire all those bitten by the travel bug!

The Bengaluru-based travel writer is a compulsive trekker, theatre aficionado and management consultant.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:10:14 PM |

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