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KORCULA TOWN – THE CITY OF MARCO POLO, STUNNING ARCHITECTURE AND EXCELLENT FESTIVALS

Korcula Town is worldwide famous historic town located on the east coast of the island of Korcula, opposite of Peljesac peninsula and overlooking the Channel of Peljesac. The town consists of the medieval fortified Old Town, a Baroque suburb spreading under the old city walls and modern parts of the town that stretch along the shore to the east and west of the old centre. Korcula Town is situated near the island’s main road that connects the town of Vela Luka on the west and Lumbarda village on the east side of the island, with a distance of 40 km from Vela Luka and 6 km from Lumbarda. Korcula Town is also a municipal centre with around 3,000 inhabitants, while the whole municipality counts almost 6,000 islanders and besides the town itself also includes villages of Cara, Pupnat, Racisce and Zrnovo. Korcula Town is considered to be the tourist and cultural centre of the island and it has many social, economic and cultural institutions, but also numerous tourist facilities – from kindergarten and schools, administrative offices and banks, pharmacy, medical centre, library and museums to numerous shops and restaurants, tourist agencies, hotels, marina, etc. It also has cultural and performing societies that cherish many old traditions and customs, choral singing and folk dancing.

This beautiful coastal town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in the Mediterranean with an abundant cultural heritage and history almost as rich as history of the island itself. Although the exact time when the town was established has not been confirmed by the archaeological findings, there is a legend recorded for the first time almost two thousand years ago and also found in multiple medieval manuscripts – according to this legend, the town of Korcula was founded by Antenor, a Trojan warrior, who fled to Korcula after the fall of Troy and the 16th century stone plaque at the Western entrance to the town mentions Antenor as the founder of Korcula. This legend is also described by the writer Dihtys in his work about the Trojan Wars, which he based on the Greek original from the 1st century, saying that Trojan fugitives led by Antenor founded the town. The stone town of Korcula, according to Apolonio from Rhodos, was also incorporated into old Greek mythology, but what is certain that the first official record of Korcula Town can be found in the Statute of the town and island of Korcula (“Statuta et leges civitatis et insulae Curzulae”) from 1214 – a code setting out the life and administration of the town and the island of Korcula. The town of Korcula started out on its own oval-shaped peninsula what is today known as the historic centre or simply – Old Town. Remains of the first ancient version, like old city walls, different decorations and most of all archive documents, show that a walled city existed on the site of Old Town in the 13th century, but it was much smaller in size than the version that has been preserved to the present day. It had streets and squares, churches, public buildings and houses, but at the beginning of the 15th century the town was completely reconstructed and almost nothing from the ancient settlement remains except the identical location of some buildings. Before the renewed town was built, the old stone houses had only one story, rarely two and they were built of roughly dressed stone or dry-stone walls, without any ornaments or decorations, just like the other structures, churches, loggias and public buildings.

The 15th century reconstruction would have probably never happened if there was not for the master builders from the city of Dubrovnik and their need for high quality stone. In the second half of the 14th century stonemasonry went through a period of rapid growth in Korcula since these craftsmen came to the stone quarries of Korcula and Vrnik and with the help of local workers prepared the stone to be shipped for Dubrovnik. Working alongside those excellent stonemasons, the men from Korcula learned their trade and with time became skilled enough to establish their own workshops. Having the needed skills and high quality Korcula stone, both greatly in demand at those times, they grew more prosperous and eventually began to build new houses with Gothic decorations in their own town. Public construction followed the residential undertakings and in the 15th century the town of Korcula was gradually transformed from a humble settlement into a town with the pronounced character and style – the new cathedral was built first, then the other churches, city walls and defences and so on. The 15th century started this great architectural advancement and the entire town changed in a relatively short period of time so at the beginning of the 16th century all the houses that had not been renewed got their own Renaissance decorations. This was also a time when the town went trough some real “polishing” – streets and squares were paved, different ornaments were added on buildings, decorative columns were built, but the old city nucleus retained its Gothic style. In the following 17th and 18th century, during the Baroque period, construction works and stonemasonry experienced noticeable decline due to degrading economy situation in Venice, which was also reflected on the areas under Venetian control – only few new Baroque houses were built, but several summer houses and houses in the suburbs show that the craft of stonemasonry had not died out completely. In this period old churches got some unpretentious Baroque additions – portals, facade decorations and marble altars imported from Italy to improve the looks of the interior. This was also the time when the “Borgo” suburb was built, unofficially ending the Venetian provision from the 15th century that prohibited construction outside the city walls (because enemies could have used such structures during sieges). In the 17th century it was considered safe to build outside the city walls so the Borgo suburb gradually expanded and soon it became the centre of urban life and work – this was where people did their trading, where the majority of craftsmen worked and very soon other forms of social and public life moved to that part of the town. With the expansion of suburban life, the number of inhabitants in the old city nucleus decreased since the people preferred to build the new houses along the coastline and near their workshops. Maintenance of the old structures was no longer adequate and only some of the old houses were reconstructed, but without the needed attention to style so Gothic decorations were removed or destroyed and in this way many valuable buildings and carvings were lost.

In the first half of the 19th century and all the way until the Second World War, Korcula Town was a small provincial town that slowly began its turn to tourism, mostly because its earlier main crafts of stonemasonry and shipbuilding were neglected due to increased industrial production and a new way of life. Expansion of the town was also slowed down and only several small hotels and summer houses in the vicinity of the town were built at that time. After the end of the Second World War an industrial shipyard was built and accommodation was needed for its workers so the new residential parts were built on the hill slopes east and west of the town, but also larger hotels, public buildings, a new quay, roads and marina were constructed in that period. In the Old Town, ruinous or damaged houses were repaired and renewed to be lived in and also for public use, for example to house museums and art galleries.

With such a long and rich history combined with numerous governments of different nations that ruled both the island and the town of Korcula throughout the centuries, Korcula Town is a source of abundant and impressive sights, fascinating stories and facts, but also the place of interesting traditions and customs for every traveller or visitor.

If you are arriving to town by any form of sea transportation, probably one of the first things you will notice are Korcula’s towers and remaining city walls that look particularly striking when approached from the sea. Originally these defences would have been even more intimidating, as they used to form a complete stone barrier around the Old Town, consisting of 12 defensive towers and 20 meters high walls. In the western harbour, the conical Large Governor’s Tower (from 1483) and Small Governor’s Tower (from 1449) protected the port and the Governor’s Palace, which used to stand next to the town hall. If we continue clockwise, following the edge of the oval-shaped peninsula, the Sea Gate Tower has an inscription in Latin from 1592 stating that Korcula was founded after the fall of Troy, according to the legend that was mentioned earlier in this text. Next you will arrive to the renovated Kanavelic Tower with its semicircular profile topped with battlements, followed by a smaller tower that has been adapted into a cocktail bar which provides a unique experience and a beautiful view of the town and its surroundings. The entrance to the old city is through the southern land gate and the Veliki Revelin Tower that was built in the 14th century and later extended. This fortification is well decorated with coats of arms of the Venetian doges and governors of Korcula and originally there was a wooden drawbridge here – it was the only connection with the rest of the island that was cut off by an artificial trench. The bridge was replaced in 1863 with the wide stone steps that give a sense of grandeur to the entrance and the best remaining part of the defence walls stretches west from here. The upper section of the Revelin Tower is a home to the small Moreska Museum, dedicated to the Moreska sword-dance tradition, with the expose of some costumes and old photos.

Now that you passed the defences and entered the Old Town, you can witness the remarkable ensemble of churches and museums, private and public buildings, all beautifully decorated with friezes and many other ornaments. Both artistic and unpredictable, the sheer diversity of stone carvings and masonry is remarkable so be sure to look everywhere around you to enjoy all of this beauty forever frozen in stone. Dominating the little square called “Pjaceta”, at the heart of the Old Town, is the magnificent St. Mark’s cathedral from 15th century, built from Korcula limestone in a Gothic-Renaissance style by local and Italian master builders. The sculptural detail of the facade is intriguing, particularly the naked squatting figures of Adam and Eve on the door pillars, as well as the two-tailed mermaid and elephant on the triangular cornice. The bell tower is topped by a balustrade and ornate cupola, beautifully carved by the great local master and sculptor Marko Andrijic. Inside, the nave soars 30 metres in height and is lined with a twin colonnade of exposed limestone pillars. The ciborium is also carved by Andrijic and it is considered to be his life’s masterpiece that he dedicated to St. Mark (the patron saint of Korcula Town), while behind it is the altarpiece painting “Three Saints” by Tintoretto. Other noteworthy artworks include a bronze statue of St. Blaise by Ivan Mestrovic (Croatia’s most famous sculptor, 1883-1962) near the altar on the northern aisle and a painting by the Venetian artist Jacopo Bassano in the apse of the southern aisle. While looking around the Old Town’s main square, notice the elegantly ornamented Arneri Palace opposite the cathedral, at the corner of the narrow street of the same name.

Opposite St. Mark’s cathedral is also the Town Museum, located in the Gabrielis Palace, which is an outstanding example of the residential architecture from 15th and 16th century. The exhibits trace the cultural and commercial milestones of Korcula from prehistory to the present and the collections explain traditional crafts (stonemasonry and shipbuilding in particular), while the household objects help to evoke the everyday life of the past times. Korcula’s developing urban identity is exemplified by a number of exhibits – a facsimile of a page from the 1214 Korcula Statute, artistic imagery of the city, stamps, stone inscriptions, documents, etc. The most valuable exhibits in the museum’s collection are the bronze pendant of Tiziano Aspetti and the piano from 1819 played by Beethoven’s close friend, Edith Streicher.

Another museum is a modest Icon Museum that has a small collection of interesting Byzantine icons painted on gilded wood and 17th and 18th century ritual objects. As a bonus, visitors also have access to the beautiful old All Saints’ Church next door, which preserves the oldest town traditions together with the Brotherhood of All Saints. The Church was built at the beginning of the 15th century in place of an older church from 10th-13th century and it features a carved and painted 15th century wood screen and a late 18th century pieta, along with the numerous local religious paintings. Among other notable buildings in the Old Town is the Abbey Treasury established in 1954 and located in the Bishop’s Palace from 14th/15th century next to the Cathedral of St. Mark, which houses a collection of 12th to 15th century religious paintings, coins, pottery, manuscripts and Dalmatian art, with an excellent selection of 15th and 16th century paintings. In this famous museum of sacral arts are many priceless works from Croatian and Venetian artists and the most outstanding work is the polyptych “Our Lady with Child and Saints” from 1431 by the Dalmatian painter Blaz Jurjev Trogiranin who was the most significant name in Dalmatian Gothic art. He resided in Korcula from 1431 until 1435, creating pictures for the Korcula churches and teaching drawing and painting techniques. There are also liturgical items, jewellery and furniture, while in the wall cabinets you can see numerous documents and books that speak about the distant past of Korcula and Croatia, with the Korcula Statute from 1214 being one of them. The marvellous Gothic two-part window “bifora” is turned towards the interior of one of the exhibit halls so the visitors can enjoy its craftsmanship and style, while coins from the 4th century B.C. and forged for Korkyra Melaina are in the numismatic collection cabinet, which attracts considerable attention. Also worth mentioning is the House of Marco Polo, a little museum especially interesting for children that tells the educational story of Polo’s extraordinary life and illustrate some key scenes accompanied with the audio tour available in several different languages. You can watch Marco Polo embark on a journey from Korcula Town or follow him to the palace of the famous Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan in one of the seven exhibition halls that bring to life his adventures with outstanding set design and realistic life-sized waxwork figures.

Besides the attractive historic sights and locations, Korcula Town also has great entertainment offerings in form of different festivals, traditional dance performances, events inspired by old customs and many more. Just to name a few and to introduce the most exciting ones, first let’s mention the Festival of Sword Dances, a great ensemble of all the island’s sword dances, together with the town’s proudest tradition – the sword dance Moreska. If you happen to be in town during this event, don’t miss their colorful and attractive performances because these men’s dancing societies put up a terrific show. For the fans of more classical music, a great choice would be the Korkyra Baroque Festival, which is an international music festival established in 2012. The Festival offers a rich baroque experience in impressive culture heritage venues on the island of Korcula and music of an exceptional standard, attracting tourists from all over the world and enriching the cultural offering, but also making this event one of the most important and successful baroque festivals in Croatia and abroad. Additionally, there are several other music festivals, numerous sports events, interesting and somewhat unique events like masked Half New Year’s Eve celebration during the traditional summer carnival, many religious processions, but also wine festivals and different gastro events and many more happenings in both the town of Korcula or in the places near by. To make sure you don’t miss out something, feel free to check out the official calendar on this link: http://www.visitkorcula.eu/events.html

Korcula Town and its fascinating Old Town, built centuries ago and completely covering the oval-shaped peninsula, surrounded with the mighty stone walls and defences, invites you on a journey trough its marble streets and around all the numerous historic sights and their remarkable Renaissance and Gothic design, telling you many stories of interesting and rich tradition and history along the way. This birthplace of legendary explorer and trader Marco Polo has a fascinating fishbone layout, unique amongst the cities on Croatian coast, that was cleverly designed for the comfort and safety of its inhabitants – western streets were built straight and steep in order to open the city to the refreshing summer “maestral” (strong, steady westerly wind), while the eastern streets were curved to minimise the force of the winter “bura” (cold, north-easterly wind). Be sure to experience a splendid blend of history and architecture from the times long gone and lovely art galleries, little shops, restaurants with both traditional and modern cuisine, cocktail bars, festivals, marina and all other essential and additional tourist offerings, all nicely combined in this beautiful Mediterranean town surrounded by the crystal clear sea.

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