Sailing the Coast of Illyria

Scene II. The Sea Coast…Enter Viola, Captain, and Sailors                                         Viola: What country, friends, is this?                                                                                Captain: This is Illyria, Lady.                                                                                                 Viola: And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium. Perchance he is drowned – what think you, sailors?                                                                                         (From: Twelfth Night: Shakespeare)

I read the above lines around 1965 when the Marist brothers thought Year 9 boys were ready to read Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. I had never heard of Illyria or Illyrians then and it took me another 50 years to discover where Shakespeare set the plot for his confusing tale of the love-life of identical twins…I suspect he didn’t really know where Illyria was either. The coast of the republic of Croatia in 2016 is often called Dalamatia, another name I had heard of back in my school days but thought it was only a foreign country where white dogs with black spots came from.

I found myself on a cruise boat in October 2016 with a dozen Kiwis for companions, island-hopping down the coast of Croatia. It was like being in the middle of a disaster in a Hokey-Pokey Ice-cream shop on a day when the wind was blowing ‘forty bastards’! The boat held a maximum of about 40 passengers and we joined the ship in Split and sailed down to Dubrovnik and back over seven days, stopping at towns like Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Mljet and Omis on some of the Islands from over a thousand that lie just off the coast of Croatia.

One of the villages we pulled into on the trip was Korcula on an island of the same name. It was a walled town with a couple of watch towers and it was only 750 metres to walk around. It was a curious town that raised a lot of anthropological, cultural and historical issues from that region of the Adriatic, made more interesting by the quality of the guide that led us around her little town. For example, she explained that the main watch tower was originally designed for defensive purposes, changed to a prison but because it wasn’t large enough to fit in all the politicians, it was turned into a water tower as there were no other water sources on the island.


As Australians we have been worried ever since Federation about the ethnic make-up of our country and who we allow to come from far away countries (eg. Croatia!) to join us. If we check the list of peoples determined to make Korcula and Croatia home over the last 5000 years, it makes our immigration issues look insignificant. It is instructive to consider the folllowing list of racial or national groups that have made Croatia and its islands home over the years, without producing Passports, Visas or filling out refugee application forms.

  1. Unnamed Mesolithic/Neolithics … Small family/tribal groups
  2. Illyrians (around 1000BCE)… Semi-nomadic, tribal
  3. Greeks… Colonists, little integration with local Illyrians
  4. Romans… Conquered slowly from 200BC and incorporated in the Empire 37 BCE. Korcula’s population exterminated by Augustus Caesar in his attempts to wipe out the pirates of the region. (Illyrians regularly turned to piracy as a way of life back in those days!) Emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace and barracks at Split at end of third century CE.
  5. Invasions of Roman Empire’s eastern provinces by Slavic and Croat peoples… Diocletian’s palace, after being abandoned for a number of centuries, was used by local peoples of Split to set up their town behind the Palace’s defensive walls to escape invading Croat tribes in 7th
  6. Venetians… After initial incursions in earlier centuries, the Venetians held much of Illyria from 1420 to 1797 when the Napoleonic wars finished their empire.
  7. Austro-Hungarian Empire… Spoils of the Napoleonic wars, lost at the end of World War 1.
  8. Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes… Set up after World War 1 and lasted until 1941
  9. The Germans… Occupied by German troops from 1942-1945
  10. Yugoslavia (Socialist Federal Republic) … Ethnic and Nationalistic tensions arose after the death of Tito in 1980
  11. The Yugoslavian war… Called the ‘Homeland War’ by Croatians, it began in 1990 and lasted until 1995.
  12. Post 1995… The old state of Yugoslavia broke up into the seven successor National States.

Our insightful guide on the day of our visit to Korcula pointed out the above history and then wondered out loud why Croatia, given its continuous struggle for national independence, gave away some of its independence to the European Union.

Korcula’s tourist bureau in order to encourage more tourists, promotes the names of two famous people who have had significant links with Korcula.

The major name is that of 13th Century world explorer, Marco Polo. The tourist pamphlets claim that he was born in Korcula but our wise guide stated that there were only two facts about Marco polo that we could be sure of; “that he was born and that he died!” Some historical support is available for him being a galley captain for Venice in 1298 against the Genoan fleet in the Battle of Curzola and that he was captured and held briefly on Korcula before being imprisoned in Genoa where he wrote the story of his travels to China. On Korcula there are historical records of ‘Polo’ being a local name but whether this is enough to claim that he is a local son and give credence to the claim that the Polo family home has been discovered and to which tourists are invited to visit and buy fridge-magnets and Polo Shirts.

The other person whose association with Korcula is claimed is that of Sir Fitzroy McLean. This Scottish hero of World War Two was the only foreigner to be given the right to own land in Yugoslavia by Tito. His house in Korcula is apparently still used for summer holidays by his family. Fitzroy-McLean’s life was an extraordinary one given that he …

  • Was a diplomat in Paris and Moscow before the World War Two.
  • On enrolling as a Private in the british army, he rose to the rank of Brigadier by the end of the war.
  • He travelled and fought in Soviet central Asia, the Western Desert in Africa and from 1943-45, worked with Tito and his Partisans fighting the Nazis. His medal collection after the war was immense.
  • He was a conservative Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1974.

Despite all his heroic accomplishments, these aren’t quite enough for the tourist bureau chiefs on Korcula…the major point of interest about him was that ‘some people, somewhere’ have suggested that he was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and films. The following is one such claim…                                                                 Try and find the house of Fitzroy Maclean – the real James Bond! Ian Fleming was a senior Civil Service Office Jockey but knew Maclean well and he based Bond on the character of Maclean. Marshall Tito enabled Maclean to own his own private house on Korcula in recognition of Maclean’s daring activities during World War Two. (Trip Advisor)        People interested in such things have listed 15 possible people as inspirations for the womanising, chain-smoking James Bond although McLean himself denied that there was any link between his life and that of 007.

Korcula doesn’t need famous names to thrill its visitors…it is a picturesque Croatian Island village with a long history, curious architecture, great food and beautiful views over the Adriatic.


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