[The entire island was essentially] a closed military zone, out of bounds for both Yugoslav civilians from the mainland, and foreigners. Many areas were prohibited even to the island’s residents. Preparing for war with Vis as the front-line, the Yugoslav navy burrowed and excavated for decades, turning the island into a maze of caves, underground tunnels, bunkers and submarine hideouts.
What do Meryl Streep, Josip Broz Tito, and atomic bombs have in common? Besides carefully crafted public images and explosive personalities, all three have ties to the picturesque Croatian island of Vis: Streep spent this past summer on the island filming Mamma Mia! round two, Yuoslavia's Tito turned the entire island into a military base from 1940 to 1991, and fears of nuclear fall-out prompted the construction of the island's bomb shelter. Take that, Kevin Bacon.
While staying in Split last month, I decided to travel on a whim to the remote island of Vis. Not the brightest idea I've had lately considering the little amount of planning I did for the trip, but overall an incredible experience. (Smart tourists plan trips to Vis in the summer season, when they can't swing a stick in the charming, cafe-filled old town without hitting someone offering tours to the military sites or stunning blue and green caves.)
I arrived in Vis thinking I could just rent a bicycle or scooter on the small island and do my own "military tour" before heading back on the next day's ferry. I learned fairly quickly that it'd be impossible for me to adequately explore Vis on my own in an afternoon and enjoy myself in the meantime, thanks to the island's rough terrain, complicated history only locals seem to understand, and sheer abundance of things to see, many of which are hidden or not on tourist maps. I walked through the narrow, empty streets, loving the old limestone buildings but not the lack of tourist amenities in the off-season (my lunch and dinner consisted of an apple and stale crackers from the grocery store, and a few stray almonds I found in the bottom of my bag). After ducking into a bar to get a wifi signal so I could Skype a tour company, a good excuse for a beer, I found someone that would take me on a private tour of Vis for $60. At first I was reluctant to sign up for such an expensive tour, the bane of solo traveling in the off-season, but I had already spent $60 on the ferry and accommodations, so why not spend another $60 to make the trip truly worthwhile? I handed over my credit card, jumped into a Land Rover, and was on my way to exploring Vis.
My tour guide, a fascinating and knowledgeable local whose name I forget, was a wealth of information about Vis and the places we were visiting. As we rushed through the sites and watched rain and darkness set in, he explained to me the many layers of the island's military history, from the 200-year old Fort George to the atomic age to Tito's Yugoslav People’s Army. He told me about why the caves and coves of Vis island were so strategically important to protecting the nation from enemies, especially the Germans. Tito made Vis one of Yugoslavia's main naval bases, meaning the government invested a ton of money and resources into the island. Many of the large infrastructure projects were never used, or used so rarely that such significant investments were deemed extravagant and superfluous. Today, what remains of Vis' military past is impossible to ignore and well worth a closer look.
Mamma mia, indeed.
Here is a bit more on the island, courtesy conte-adriatic.com:
The island of Vis is placed among the favorite destinations on the entire Mediterranean. It is probably strategically the most important island in Adriatic Sea. With crystal-clear waters and winding roads, the island of Vis appears as a perfect Adriatic vacation.
Vis, the furthest inhabited Croatian island from the coast, was isolated from the outside world from the 1940 until 1991 when Croatia became independent.It was used as a military base with 20 km of underground tunnels, mines, caves and storage facilities. Vis was intensively fortified from early 19th century, first by UK, then by Austro-Hungarian Empire, Greeks, Romans, Venetians and everybody else who controlled the island.
During World War II, Vis was at one point the main hideout of Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Yugoslav partizans. Realizing the strategic importance of the island and the usefulness of its many caves and coves from his years there fighting the Germans, Tito kept a tight grip on Vis, making it one of the main naval bases of the Yugoslav People’s Army. This effectively turned the entire island into a closed military zone, out of bounds for both Yugoslav civilians from the mainland, and foreigners. Many areas were prohibited even to the island’s residents. Preparing for war with Vis as the front-line, the Yugoslav navy burrowed and excavated for decades, turning the island into a maze of caves, underground tunnels, bunkers and submarine hideouts.
Josip Broz Tito become the leader of Yugoslavia from 1953-1980. These secret locations are now an attraction for tourists who have the chance to see places out of bounds 20 years ago and explore the tunnels that the Yugoslav National Army once guarded as secret lairs.
You will find the labyrinth of underground tunnels, see the remains of cannons and abandoned warehouses.
For 50 years, the island followed a policy of isolation and was inaccessible to tourists. When Yugoslav army left the island in 1992, Vis left as a ghost town of former army barracks which serve as a haunting reminder in the minds of Vis residents. Stranded in this remote outpost among a population that resented their presence, the Yugoslav Navy left peacefully almost overnight, leaving behind empty barracks, caves and tunnels they had tended for almost half a century.These secret, underground tunnels; underground labyrinth was constructed and linked at various defense points around the island.
Secret army tunnels carved into the remote Croatian island of Vis by the Yugoslav army have become a draw for tourists and locals alike since opening to the public.
Many of the tunnels have already been adapted for civilian uses, with some converted into wine cellars.
When the military left the island, life has opened up and residents of Vis look to tourism.
Beautiful beaches, preserved nature, ecological agriculture and preserved traditional architecture are unique advantages of this unique island. Explore Vis and Komiža, experience its history, try to discover all the beauties of the island of Vis.
All aboard the ferry
The ferry from Split to Vis was enjoyable, thanks to good weather and affordable tickets (just $14 for a round-trip ticket!). The ferry schedule is a bit more limited in the off-season, meaning Mango and I had to spend the night on the island.
Stop 1: Yugoslav military shelter for submarines
This cavernous docking station for war vessels is apparently quite the summer hot spot in Vis, with locals coming to swim in the shallow, man-made cave. Workers used so much concrete constructing this project that they built a concrete factory just meters above the shelter.
Stop 4: former ARK and shelter Vela Glava
ARK = Atomska Ratna Komanda
Stop 5: Mount Hum
The highest elevation point in Vis at 587 meters. The tiny stone Chapel of St. Spirit is open to visitors, and quite cozy.
Stop 6: Josip Broz Tito's WWII hide-out
Stop 7: missile base Stupišće near Komiza
Stop 8: secret underground hospital
This was our last stop and definitely the most interesting part of the tour. My guide told me this underground hospital was built (by Tito's Yugoslavia?) in secret, "just in case" military personnel would ever need it. It was never needed. The long, narrow tunnels led to a surprisingly small area, and I couldn't help but shake my head at how much work, money, and energy this project must have used, and all for nothing. At least tour guides and curious visitors such as myself are enjoying what remains of misguided government expenditures.