Otok: Notes from a Small (Croatian) Island

This post takes us far away from the mountain Kingdom of Breg. In fact, it’s a rare post that takes us beyond the borders of Slovenia entirely. But heading south to Croatia’s Adriatic coast for the summer is a very Slovenian habit.

Almost all Slovenes that I know spend a significant proportion of their holiday time in Croatia. And why wouldn’t they? The summer in the Adriatic is hot, sunny and dry. There’s a vast coastline plus over a thousand islands to explore. It can be reached in a couple of hours by car, and it’s inexpensive. Plus for Slovenes, both language and culture are very close to home. So, along with climbing Triglav mountain, fighting with your neighbours and wearing slippers in the office, heading to Croatia each summer is just the Slovenian thing to do.

Fun in the Sun?

I’m not a beach person. I have zero interest in trying to make my skin go a slightly darker tone (probably due to it just going pinker) and certainly not having to endure hours lying on a beach in order to accomplish said pinkness. I’m not good at lying down during the day for long periods (I do that during the night thank you very much). Which is why I have succeeded in never ever having been on what you would call a ‘beach holiday’.

Whilst many of my British contemporaries were heading off to the beaches of the Costa Del Sol, Mykonos, and Ibiza in their twenties, I actively avoided any and all such destinations. Instead, I was attracted to the more active (and literally cooler) nature of winter sports, so started pursuing trips to high mountains, starting off in familiar European Alpine destinations and later exploring more exotic locales; Canada’s Pacific Range, The New Zealand Alps, Slovakia’s Low Tatras, Kashmir’s Himalaya, Macedonia’s Šar Mountains and Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps, to mention a few.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t like to be beside the seaside. Oh I do like to be beside the sea. But despite growing up on the island of Great Britain where shore is never far, the sea just didn’t play much part in my upbringing.

Until now, the longest I’d ever spent on a beach was a couple of days. And that was only facilitated by other activities; surfing, swimming, skim boarding, fishing, wandering etc. Never has sunbathing featured.

Keeping Secret Spots Secret

For almost 10 years, in addition to my full-time job, I used to write for travel magazines, newspapers and guidebooks. I tended to cover ‘road less travelled’ destinations: Monkeys and Machine guns in Kashmir, Snowboarding The Balkan Bloc, life in the backwaters of rural Japan.

But my attitude to shouting too loudly about secret spots completely changed during a summer I spent living in Barcelona. There, I experienced first-hand a city that has been heavily degraded by over-tourism. The sheer volumes of visitors have made certain parts of the city miserable; slow-moving tourists taking horribly contrived photos for their Instagram feeds. Ever-present queues in supermarkets around the centre. Brits behaving badly in rented apartments. A crammed promenade and far-too-busy beaches. Now, this is true of most large cities popular with tourists, but I noted there was also hostility from some of the locals. I saw ‘Tourists go home!’ graffiti, and Anti-AirBnB stickers on lampposts in various quarters.

I don’t blame the locals for feeling this way. If you are a resident of Barcelona who works a job that is unrelated to tourism, the excessive visitor volumes simply lower your quality of life yet bring you no benefits. If you’re a doctor or a programmer or a teacher or a warehouse worker – huge numbers of tourists just make your everyday life more annoying and more expensive.

The Island of Otok

So, coming back to our Croatian island, for the reasons above, its identity shall remain secret. I shall call it ‘Otok’ which just means ‘island’ in Slovene. And left to my own devices, it’s likely that I would never, ever have lain on a beach, let alone a beach on Otok. But my girlfriend has been visiting Croatia since she was a child and thus possesses the ‘lure of the sea’ gene which compels her to lie on a beach for as many weeks as possible during summer. It’s always good to go a little out of your comfort zone and following three years of shorter ‘training’ trips, I agreed to going for a whole week.

Though we could have driven, we opted for trains, buses and ferries instead. Ferries (by which I mean any sort of large, diesel-powered boat) are my favourite form of transport. I love the slow, relaxed pace, having plenty of space onboard, being able to go out on deck and watch the waves pass. Trains are in second place, and buses, well, they were more a necessity to fill in the gaps.

Island Life

Our hosts told us that it hadn’t rained for three months. It was ‘ni normal’ – not normal – they told us. But despite the dry spell, Otok was surprisingly green. A hilly landscape, the island was covered by thick, scrubby, evergreen underbrush, which itself was punctuated by tall umbrella pines, fig and olive trees.

The air was laced with salt and pine resin. And upon the airwaves, the ever-present buzz of cicadas meant that silence did not exist. Green lizards and geckos skittered away as we disturbed their sunbathing. Large, colourful butterflies flapped about like small birds; some had a taste for wine. There was a healthy wasp population who were keen on our drinks too, though they preferred beer and coke (clearly less sophisticated than the butterflies). I saw relatively few birds, but plenty of dogs, many of which arrived on the sailing yachts which moored in the small harbour overnight.

Otok has just a couple of villages and we were staying in the ‘capital’. Our apartment had a large terrace which overlooked the blue bay and was framed by a magnificent vine, which covered the entirely of the ground and first floor.

There is only one real road on Otok. The long-term locals were easy to identify as they drove cars with no number plates (and presumably no insurance, registration or road tax). Houses varied from brand-new villas, to half-finished red-block buildings, to derelict ruins. In the midst of the village ‘centre’, said houses were separated by narrow concrete paths, just about wide enough for a car, though not in all places. Most people used scooters, bikes or just their own feet to get around.

Apparently there were once over 1000 people living on Otok, and the metre-thick stone walls which still remain all over, must have once separated the islanders’ sheep and goat territories. Indeed, one day whilst trying to reach a hidden beach via a narrowing footpath, we startled ourselves when we stumbled upon a group of rather miserable looking sheep, tethered to the trees. We pushed on for a while but were eventually forced to turn back when the path faded out and the thorny scrub became impassable.

The Cheese Brothers

On the harbourside of our village, there were two small restaurants, a pizza and grill shack, a cafe/bar and a small kiosk selling fruit, vegetables, home-made wine and olive oil (which must be good as I saw an Italian couple load their boot with a crate of the stuff).

Every evening, two young brothers would appear with a basket of their grandfather’s goats’ cheese, which he makes on the island (apparently in the kitchen sink of their house). They spent several hours at the harbourside going boat to boat and attempting to temp sailors and other visitors to buy.

One evening we chatted to the boys for a while; they are from a town on the mainland but come every summer to Otok to sell the cheese. I asked if they enjoy it. The cheese selling part – not so much it seemed. I asked what the most cheese they ever sold in one evening was. The older brother once sold 13, the younger replied, clearly impressed by his sibling’s cheese-selling abilities.

I told them that I had tried their cheese (I had bought some from the bakery some days previous) and that it was very good (this was a white lie; it was good, but being a young cheese, a little bland). The younger suggested I could buy more. I politely declined, asked them to pass on my compliments to their cheese-making grandfather and wished them the best with the rest of their cheese-selling summer.

Heading a little inland we found the island’s only ‘super’ market, which was staffed by grumpy locals (woe betide you not having the exact change), and the island post office. I later visited another tiny store in another village and found the owner equally grumpy. Must be a requirement of running an island general store.

There was also a small bakery beside another beach, but it was staffed by a cheerful, helpful girl who was quite happy to provide change and actually say hello, thanks and goodbye. She sold white bread, burek, and other cheesy, salty, doughy delights.

Into The Wild

Away from Otok capital, the island felt quite wild. We followed narrow footpaths of red soil that cut through hot scrub to discover hidden bays, channels and secret beaches. At least three times, we had the shore entirley to ourselves.

At first I found the heat oppressive, but as the days passed, I got into the routine that my beach sensei taught me; swimming early in the day, then warming up in the sun then cooling off in the sea again. Sun, sea. Rinse, repeat.

My sensei takes a stack of books with her and is happy to read all day long. I took one book with me, but didn’t open it until day four. Perhaps it was just a bad book, but I found that I was not in the mood for reading.

Instead, I discovered that observing underwater life via snorkel and mask was more interesting. I had snorkelled occasionally as a kid, but ever since I inhaled a lung full of French sea water on a family camping holiday, I had never felt particularly comfortable breathing underwater.

I decided to try again and I ended up spending a couple of hours each day observing the marine life. It was only the danger of sunburning my back that prevented me from spending all day in the sea.

There is something sultry and sensual about heat, sun and sea. People shed their inhibitions and clothes and lounge with little on. One day, on the most beautiful little sandy cove, three young women appeared and de-robed entirely. They were promptly joined by a middle-aged man who seem delighted to have found fellow nudists and positioned himself directly in their line of sight. It’s strange that such behaviour when on a beach is acceptable, yet almost anywhere else, it would get you arrested.

The Old Man And The Sea

One morning, whilst I was still in bed, I heard someone calling me. It was Mirko, the kindly gentleman who built the very house we were staying in. After several days of slightly-too-windy weather – he was able to go out and check his traps. The fishing trip was on! I hastily clothed myself, grabbed my cap, sunglasses and a bottle of water, and headed down to the waterside.

Mirko had already boarded his small wooden skiff, which he kept in the harbour. It had seen some action; the paint was peeling and some of the ribs cracked but it was still ship shape. Mirko jerked on the outboard’s starter cord bringing it to gurgling life, and we chugged out of the bay.

Mirko spoke Croatian and no English. I speak a little Slovene, and no Croatian. However, Slovene and Croatian have some overlap, so I was able to ask him questions in crude Slovene and get the gist of his Croatian answers.

Due to some outboard issues (‘bad benzene’ Mirko said) we made slow progress but eventually crossed a wide channel and reached another piece of land. As we neared the shore, Mirko cut the engine and began to peer into the water, scanning the clear, blue depths. After several minutes, he grabbed what looked like a small anchor, and threw it into the sea.

At first I thought we were stopping there, but the anchor was in fact a grappling hook, and somehow, Mirko had located one of his traps and hooked it with his hook, even though it was not marked or tethered to any buoy. He hauled on the rope, arm over arm, until a metal cage surfaced. But Mirko was not happy. His basket was devoid of any fish, and the slim opening where fish would enter, was much wider than it should have been.

The discovery provoked a barrage of heated Croatian, and though I didn’t understand the words, the meaning was clear. I later discovered that Mirko thought his trap had been emptied by a diver. It would certainly be possible for a spearfisher to help themselves to Mirko’s catch, or perhaps a vegan snorkeler set them free?

Mirko spent 15 minutes repairing the trap which was constructed of a thin metal frame covered with chicken wire. Viewed from above, the trap is heart-shaped, with a flat top and bottom. Fish swim in through a narrow slit, and can’t figure out how to swim out again.

Eventually Mirko was satisfied with his repair, and re-baited the cage with stale white bread and mussels, which he smashed with a piece of wood before throwing into the trap. He then laced the rope onto the trap and carefully lowered it back to the sea bed.

Mirko bore a blurred tattoo on his forearm and I asked him about its origin. He explained he was in the Yugoslavian navy for three years, stationed in the Croatian coastal town of Pula, working as an electrician. He mentioned the word ‘torpedo’ several times, making me wonder if he worked on the small Yugolslav subs, one of which I once visited in the Slovene town of Pivka where they keep one on display.

We repeated the process for another four traps. I was amazed that Mirko found each one so easily. When I looked down into the depths, I couldn’t see anything, but decades of experience allowed him to pinpoint and hook them out with ease.

The haul, however, was slim pickings. The first two traps were empty. The third had one tiny fish, which surprisingly Mirko threw into the ‘keep’ bucket. The fourth trap had two slightly bigger specimens, and the fifth another couple more small ones.

Mirko was a little disappointed with the catch, explaining that sometimes he can get 10kg of fish in a single trap. But it’s enough for a delicious meal which Mirko prepared later, grilling the fish over hot coals, and complimenting with a potato salad plus figs and grapes from his garden.

Could I become a ‘beach guy?

Although at the start of the week I was restless, I did to get used to not doing a whole lot. The heat does force a certain slowness to life, and though I’m not naturally predisposed to lying around all day, I could certainly see myself getting more into the snkorkelling and perhaps even taking up spearfishing.

And if you’re going to make me do a ‘beach holiday’ on a Croatian island, then Otok, with its quiet coves, hidden beaches and clear seas, is exactly the sort of island I want to come to.

4 thoughts on “Otok: Notes from a Small (Croatian) Island

  1. Hi. Love your blog. I’m hoping you may be able to help me. Pre COVID we visited Slovenia and fell in love with a local brand of tea – CVET Mountain Tea. Even though everything seems to be available in the UK we’ve found it impossible to source this, even going direct to the company. So crazy and cheeky request- would it be possible you could post us some please to keep us going until we can return. Payment will of course be made!

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