Croatia has 1185 islands. Oh, wait…1244. Or was it 1246? As strange as it may seem, even this oddly simple information becomes problematic for Croatian scientists to agree on. One would probably wonder: How hard can it be to count the islands using today’s technology? Obviously, not very hard. But, the Croatian scientific society loves to debate even about some definite and quite realistic things, such as the number of islands.
One of the problems that make counting disputable is the definition of the concept island (In Croatian: otok) itself. Many Croatian islands are in fact islets or rocks. Differences in opinion on matters like whether a rock can be counted as an island, or how big does a reef have to be to be taken into account, eventually led us to absolute chaos in the scientific literature.
Until we get an opportunity to count the islands ourselves, we will stick to the data provided by the Hydrographic Institute of the Republic of Croatia. According to their research, there are 79 islands, 525 islets and 642 rocks in the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea – a total of 1246. Only 49 of them are inhabited. In this article, we will concentrate on the inhabited islands with the intention to reveal to you some of their most interesting characteristics.
The beginnings; who were the former inhabitants of Croatian islands?
Some Croatian islands have been inhabited at least since the time of Ancient Greece. Numerous Greek and Roman colonies can be traced from as early as 3000 BC (for example, Vis was a colony founded by a Greek tyrant in the 4th century BC under the name of Issa).
Slavic people settled on the Adriatic coast and the islands somewhere around 7th or 8th century. Soon it became dominant and took over the whole territory of today’s Croatia (as well as the majority of Southeastern Europe).
The biggest foreign influence, in terms of development, culture and language (In Croatian: jezik), came from Venice, as the islands were under Venetian rule for centuries. It was the end of the 18th century when the Adriatic coast and the islands came under the same rule as the rest of the Croatian lands. This fact is important to be kept in mind when talking about the cultural heritage and, most importantly, the dialects spoken on Croatian islands.
What is it like today?
The current population of the Croatian islands is around 125 000. None of the islands has urban centers with a population over 10 000. The biggest settlement is Mali Lošinj with its 8 240 residents and it is the only settlement with the population over 5 000.
So what is it like to live on these islands? Of course, there are some major differences from place to place, but we will try to explore some of the common features that islanders usually refer to when they are talking about the specifics of island living.
The local economy on the Croatian islands
Traditionally, the main industries on the islands have been agriculture and fishing, with agriculture being primarily devoted to wine and olive oil production.
There are some exceptions, such as the Island of Pag, which is widely known for its salt production, but generally speaking, these two products can be found on each of the Croatian islands.
There is an interesting controversy about Šipan – one of the islands in the Dubrovnik region. This island is also called Zlatni otok (The Golden Island) because it is believed to have the biggest number of olive trees per capita per meter square in the world. Olive oil from this region is golden colored because it is produced from the mix of green and black olives, hence the name. And here comes the controversy: if you look for the Island of Šipan online or take a tour with a local guide, you will definitely see or hear the information that Šipan got into the Guinness book of world records for this fact. However, if you take the Guinness book of records itself, you won’t have any luck finding it. How this happened, no one knows for sure. It could be just a modern legend based on someone’s deep impression of this beautiful green island.
But on Šipan too, almost everyone is turning to tourism now. Why? Some of the main reasons are poor infrastructure and lack of spring water (In Croatian: voda).
Most of the Croatian islands still have problems with water supply, especially if they are situated far from the mainland. For example, the Island of Koločep is close to the mainland so it is connected to the main water supply system, but the Island of Mljet, which is slightly further away, still has to deal with a water deficiency (with a help of local firefighters and their water trucks), even though its a big part of it has been a national park for decades. It became incomparably easier to earn money from tourism. Those islands that managed to achieve a breakthrough in tourism have completely reorganized their local politics. Islanders have undergone a big change in their lives too, as now their lives and work are focussed on a few summer months.
This change has affected the islands more than one might expect. Apartments are built, restaurants are opened, and different activities organized, all for the sake of tourists and their pleasure.
Putting so much energy into tourism has caused locals to slowly abandon traditional industries, as they now have to spend their whole summer working long hours to earn enough money for the whole year. Tourism (In Croatian: turizam) has definitely brought some benefits to locals, but there are still some old problems they have to fight each day in order to live their normal lives.
The main issues Croatian islanders have to deal with
As we’ve already stated, one of the biggest problems for the islanders is the lack of water supply systems. Depending on water trucks is not only inconvenient, but also quite expensive.
The other problem that’s becoming more and more evident is the sewage. Primitive sewage systems simply cannot accommodate the increase in the number of tourists in the summer months.
Next are difficulties in traffic connections. During the tourist season, most of the islands are well connected to the mainland, but when the summer’s over, problems occur. Even for the islands situated very close to the mainland, there is usually only one morning and one evening ship (In Croatian: brod). Food, drinks and other supplies have to be transported by ships too, so it’s an everyday ritual for locals to wait for the first ship to bring them some of the goods needed for that day. Of course, these goods are always more expensive than those bought on the mainland.
In winter it is very common for strong winds to cause traffic problems. During those days, the islanders are literally cut off from the rest of the world. So what if they get sick? There is not much that can be done for them. There are some basic medical institutions on most of the islands and for urgent cases, fast motorboats and helicopters are provided, but when the weather is wild, islanders are on their own.
Even that is not the biggest problem. As a result of the decreasing population of the islands, the biggest problem is definitely poor education facilities. Due to the small number of children, most of the islands are providing only primary and secondary education. When you send a 14-year-old child to a bigger town for education, the chances are he or she will never come back. They meet new people, widen their interests, and soon it becomes clear that there is not much for them to do on the island.
Even though there are some real problems one has to deal with to live happily on the islands, some people would never change it for a life on the mainland, and even more people are willing to come each year to catch a glimpse of it. So what’s so fabulous about the life on the islands?
The fabulous side of life on Croatian islands
Being isolated from the rest of the world has brought some positive side effects to Croatian islands: incredibly rich cultural heritage, preserved the medieval architecture, archaeological sites, untouched nature, diversity of dialects, and many more. Three out of eight Croatian national parks are situated on the islands, and that already says a lot about their natural beauty.
On most of the smaller islands there is no traffic at all; moreover, it is strictly prohibited to use any vehicles other than a bicycle or a golf car. Imagine waking up to the sounds of a singing bird, waves hitting the shore and mild breeze sneaking through the trees rather than the sounds of an annoyed driver, police sirens or a crowd of drunks coming back home from a night out.
The sea around you is as clear as it can be, and the food you eat tastes like heaven. You can pick a tomato from your garden, cook that fish you just caught, season everything with a little bit of homemade olive oil, and finish with a glass of rich, tasty wine. We have a saying in Dalmatia: fish have to swim three times: the first time in the sea, the second time in olive oil and the third time in wine. Imagine you have all three within reach and you just have to stretch your hand to pick them up.
Apart from that, island communities are so tightly connected that once you are in, you will never want to leave. That’s the reason why it is the islanders who have preserved Croatian culture the best. Almost every Croatian island has its local variety of speech. These local speeches were somewhat influenced by the Italian language (mostly through vocabulary). All of them are versions of the Čakavian dialect. You won’t find anything similar elsewhere.
The Baška tablet (about 1100 AD), which is one of the oldest monuments, has an inscription in Croatian recension of Old Slavic language and Glagolitic letters (the original Slavic alphabet), was also found on one of the islands – Krk.
Being far from urbanization, consumerism and wild capitalism, Croatian islanders have managed to keep all of the things Croatians treasure so much. If you get to talk to the islanders you will see the shine in their eyes and the pride in their words. They will welcome you as a dearest friend and show you the paradise my words cannot describe. The only problem you may possibly have is how to choose just one out of a thousand islands to visit.
What are your experiences with Croatian islands? Is the idea of living on an island inviting? Why not tell us in a comment section below? 🙂