Every now and then, clusters of tourists slow down by the green bowl between the hills. They stand over the rim for a few minutes, either puzzled or in delight, before walking down to the field. The grass is so dry it scratches at the ankles, and the sun is ruthless, but that doesn’t bother the men in white. Their cries of “Howzzat?” echo past the surrounding vineyards, caressing the still sour grapes. Along the boundary the tourists ask, “Cricket in Croatia?”
Also See | Trip Planner/Vis (PDF)
In fact, cricket was first played here in 1815, when the British established a naval base in these waters. Given its location so far away from the mainland, Vis was a preferred strategic location for many regimes, right from the early Illyrians to the British. After World War II, the Yugoslavians took control of the island and restricted access. Foreigners weren’t allowed in and many locals moved out.
Dubrovnik and Hvar, other towns on the Dalmatian coast, became European tourist destinations, but Vis remained cut off. Here, life continued to revolve around fishing and small wineries. It wasn’t until Croatian independence in the early 1990s that Vis was reopened to the world. Locals moved back, tourists came in and cricket found a surprisingly comfortable place between football and wine.
Sea six: (clockwise from top) A bird’s-eye view of Vis, a Croatian league game in progress, Café tables in the Vis marina and improvised scoreboards fashioned out of wine barrels.
Ironically, the years of isolation give the island an edge today—a hint of authenticity. Arriving in Vis is like stepping into another era. There is no rat race here, no crazy, eye-popping technology, no rush to beat the traffic lights. Instead, it’s a mass of old stone structures; the solid white stone is set off by bright blue or green doors, and bursts of pink flowers sitting in terracotta pots. Rickety little orange cars clog the tiny streets. People stop mid-street to shout out hellos. “Bok!” they yell, from their cars, from open windows, from storefronts, and from inside cafés.
Walking along the cobblestone lanes, past handmade shop signs and churches with bells that ring on the hour, past the museum still to open and along the waterfront, you can feel time stretch out between every tick and tock on the clock. They say the day in Vis starts with the newspaper, and the paper only arrives on the noon ferry. Things are slower on the island. They are also quirkier.
Take cricket, for example. It too has had to adapt to the local rhythm. So the ground sits between twin vineyards and a World War II airstrip, old wine barrels double up as scoreboards, the game starts only after the day’s fifth cup of coffee, and a six means yet another ball lost in the neighbour’s vineyard. Yes, things are different, but that’s half the fun.
I’m here with my husband Vivek, a part of the Zagreb XI playing the local team for top honours in the Croatian league. Since everyone chips into the team effort, I am the official scorer. It’s not a bad job on a hot day. I sit under a tree with my score sheets and a cool drink, hoping for a hint of valley breeze.
These hills have a story of their own. They were once rife with politics and strategy, now they are tangled only in strands of thyme and rosemary. During World War II, Marshal Tito established a command centre in the safety of the caves here. He coordinated military operations from what is now just a tourist sign—“Tito’s Cave”. Some 200-odd steps take you through the makeshift rooms where meetings were held, and leaders slept.
Also visible are the bunkers tucked into the hills. Most of them have been taken over by grapes; some have been converted to wine cellars, open to tourists. Signs along the roads tempt visitors into sampling local specialities; others also throw in a hearty meal at local inns—konobas. One such local landmark is right beside the cricket ground—Konoba Roki’s, run by Oliver Roki, otherwise recognized as the wicketkeeper of Vis. The inn’s speciality is the Peka, a traditional cooking method where the meal is prepared on an open wood-fired oven. The fish, meat and vegetables are placed in clay or iron containers and are slow-cooked in their own juices. The only additions are lime and a splash of the house red wine. It takes over 2 hours to cook. But the end result is worth the wait—an explosion of flavours so complicated, and yet so simple.
As the game winds down (my team wins comfortably), it’s time to cool down by the water. Most touring teams (usually from England, and this includes the mighty MCC) use this to segue into a holiday on the Croatian coast.
The beaches aren’t crowded, and the water is inviting: for lazy swims, kayaking, diving in the blue and silver reflections of the Blue Caves, and exploring the wartime wrecks that lie on the seabed. Then there is that slightly more refined way of enjoying the sea—on a boat, with a glass of white wine in hand, watching the lights on the island go off one by one till only the waves remain awake.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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