Sunday, August 29th we had a tour of the village of Korcula. The name Korcula means fish town, it is built on a peninsula in the shape of a fish, hence the name. During the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries this city was part of the Venetian Empire and it was surrounded by two stone walls. During the Austrian/Hungarian occupation of the 17th and 18th Centuries the walls were not maintained as they were not needed and after WWI most of these city’s walls were taken down because they were too expensive to maintain and they had become a danger to the inhabitants of the city. Luckily, there are a couple of spots where the walls remain as a reminder of their past.
The island has many trees that have flowers which smell like oranges but they do not bear any fruit. Also hanging down from the remaining stone walls and on some sides of the buildings are caper plants. Birds eat the fruit from the caper plant and transport the seeds to new sites for the plant to grow. During the 15th and 16th Centuries this area was famous for their stone carvers and during the 17th and 18th Centuries they were famous for their ship building. Today there are just 3 ship yards remaining on the island. There are 8 divers on the island licensed to dive for red coral but they are restricted when they can dive and how much coral they can get. The souvenir shops sell red coral jewelry which is very precious in this area. Most of the employment revolves around tourism today.
The Old Town of Korcula, which was first settled in the 13th Century, is entered into by two gates, one is called the land gate where you must walk up steps to get to the gate. These steps are very slippery, not because they are wet, but because they have been worn down by all of the pedestrian traffic entering the city since the 14th Century when the stone walls were built. The steps are so smooth they feel and look polished. There used to be a draw bridge at the top of these steps to close up the city at night but now the draw bridge is left open all the time. The Old Town of Korcula is actually a peninsula and was settled by the Venetians on top of a hill of rocky terrain. The town was densely populated and it’s streets were very organized. The main street which is straight goes North and South. The side streets to the right or East side are curved and the sides streets to the West are straight. When you look to the East you can only see the houses or wall as the street curves around but when you look to the West you see the water. The streets were purposely made this way to create a wind to blow into the center of the town which keeps it cool during the summer and warmer in the winter. All the houses, palaces, churches and walls are built from stone found locally on the island. There was also a Column of Shame in the main square, these columns seem to have been very popular in small Croatian towns. Not only were criminals tied to these poles but they were used to post notices and to raise flags during the processions.
The first floor of the house was always the shop as the streets had the workshops along them for the citizens to buy things. The second floor was the bedroom, the third floor was the living room with beautiful windows and a balcony. The top floor was the kitchen because of the smoke and in case of fire it was very easy to escape.
Just inside the land gate is a little chapel dedicated to St. Michael, who protects the entrance to the city. There are more than 20 little stone bridges built above the streets which connect a house to another building in the inner city of Korcula. Many of these bridges connect a Brotherhood house to a church. The people of Korcula have Brotherhoods and every family belongs to a Brotherhood. These Brotherhoods work together to protect and help their members. The city also has competitions between the Brotherhoods and 10 religious processions each year. During processions men from each of the Brotherhoods wear vestments of different colours and carry very heavy candles around the city. These processions represent a penance paid by the members (by carrying the heavy candles) and they sacrifice themselves in celebration of Jesus. To honour the fact that Jesus sacrificed himself for all of the people. Women do not participate in processions which can last for up to two hours. Women and female children from the village are the audience. All males, even babies march in the processions. The processions are very important to the Brotherhoods and even during the Communist Era they still had their processions. When a girl marries a boy from a different Brotherhood she changes to his Brotherhood and their children all belong to their father’s Brotherhood. If a man comes to the island and marries a woman from Korcula he will join her Brotherhood. Men actually sign contracts and make oaths to be members of their Brotherhood and there is a monthly membership fee. The Brotherhood membership ensures that you and your family will be looked after if you ever need help. Brotherhoods are very important to the island life and this custom has been in effect since the 14th Century. The Brotherhoods are named after Saints and professions such as: St. Michael’s Brotherhood, St. Rocco’s Brotherhood, Shipbuilder’s Brotherhood or Goldsmith’s Brotherhood, etc.
When couples get married they first have a ceremony at the city hall then go to the cathedral to have a religious ceremony. The medical building with a pharmacy is directly across from the City Hall. In the 16th Century there were 3,500 people living in this city behind the walls. There are only 200 houses here so the people were very crowded and they started building homes outside of the city walls. Houses built outside the city walls are approximately 300 – 400 years newer than the houses inside the city walls. Today, approximately 500 people live in the city centre. Inhabitants of the island are all Roman Catholic and many of the boys are named after the Apostles; Peter, Paul, Luke etc.
On August 15th, 1571 the Turks were sailing in to attack and siege the city of Korcula! The Governor with his city leaders took all the men and soldiers and escaped leaving behind the women and children with one priest. (Cowards)! The priest dressed up all the women and children in soldier uniforms and placed them at the top of the walls surrounding the city to pretend the city was well protected. They were hoping to discourage the Turks from coming in to the island. The Turks kept coming and so they all prayed to Mary, the Holy Mother for help. Suddenly a huge storm came up with stronger winds than any winter storm the town had ever experienced and it was August 15th! The Turkish fleet was completely defeated by the waves and shipwrecks. The Turks never entered into the town of Korcula!! After this miracle, the Holy Mother became the Saint for the city of Korcula and there is a statue of her beside the land gate inside the walls. Each year on August 15th there is a procession to honour The Holy Mother.
We were allowed to have a tour of Old Saint’s Brotherhood and their chapel. Inside the Brotherhood was a museum of vestments worn by all the different Brotherhoods and religious icons (borrowed) from a Greek Orthodox church. All the Brotherhoods are Roman Catholic so it was interesting that they had a collection of Greek Orthodox icons, painted on wooden squares. The collection was from the 15th and 17th Centuries. There were also many huge candles standing approximately 8 feet tall. These are some of the candles which are carried during the processions.
We also toured a museum with many artifacts. One item of interest was a voting instrument. It looked like a tin can sitting on top of two metal tubes. One tube collected the yes votes and one tube collected the no votes. The idea was that you voted by putting your hand and arm into the tin can and dropped a pebble into the yes or no tube. No one could see which tube you dropped your pebble into. After the voting they would count the pebbles to see if the yes or no votes won. The vestments worn by the Bishops were also on display. The embroidery was so fine and intricate, all done by hand, it was amazing. They would use bowls filled with water and look through this to magnify their work. The thread used was actual 22 carat gold. Many nuns went blind doing this work because there was no electricity for light.
On the outside of one church there were elephants and crocodiles carved into the stone. Lion’s on top of columns and sailor knots on the sides of the columns. The purpose of these animals was to frighten the evil spirits away and protect the people inside the church. On another section of this church was a statue of St. Rocco who protects the town’s people from the illness. The legend says that St. Rocco had the plaque as evidenced by an open sore on his leg. So he isolated himself in a cave. A dog would come to him each day with bread for him to eat. St. Rocco was cured and made into a Saint. The statue of him points his finger down to his leg to show everyone that he was cured from the plaque and that he will protect them as well. The moral of the legend is that when two people are great friends they stick together through the good and bad times, just like St. Rocco and the dog. (The only problem with the statue was that the dog was missing. There are four St. Rocco statues in the village and all of the dogs have gone missing). This church was built in phases during the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries.
Marco Polo lived in Korcula with his family until he was 15 years old. No one knows if he was born here or in Venice but they can prove he lived here with his family during his childhood. He traveled with his uncle and father to the Far East for 24 years. Marco was 17 years old when they left and he did not come back until he was 41 years old. What the Polo family brought back to the West was spaghetti (actually all different kinds of pastas from China), spices, silk scarves (silk fabrics), paper production, printing, porcelain, ice-cream, fire works and gun powder. In the 13th Century (1298), the Italians from Genova were attacking Korcula. Marco came back to Korcula to help protect his home town. The Genova (Genoa) Italians won the battle and Marco Polo was captured and put in prison for one year. His cellmate was a writer and he wrote a book all about Marco Polo’s travels, called The Book of Wonders. To celebrate Marco Polo’s life there is a tower in Korcula dedicated to him which overlooks the island. Thank you – Marco Polo!!