Mladin, keeper of the lighthouse, was outside his cottage, cleaning his speargun. It was a beautiful scene: rocky headlands and blue sea, deep and mysterious. Mladin pointed to the bay below. ‘In spring, I’ve seen dolphins herd thousands of fish in there and then go crazy eating them.’ The lighthouse, Struga, sits on cliffs at the end of a narrow peninsula that curves around the bay, almost separated from the rest of the island by a deep, dark sea-filled gorge.
‘I came here some years ago from Split,’ Mladin told me. ‘It’s a good life. I look after the light, sort out the apartments and go spearfishing – almost every day.’
He was middle-aged, with a pot belly. I couldn’t imagine his spear-fishing trips were very strenuous, so asked: ‘Would you mind if I come with you?’
He nodded. ‘Tomorrow. After lunch. Down at the jetty.’
I’m always drawn to the remoter parts of any country. Scanning the map of Croatia I spotted Lastovo, aloof from the other 1,106 islands, way out in the Adriatic, on the way to Italy’s Gargano peninsula. When I learned that visitors can stay at a remote lighthouse there, I was hooked.
The ferry from Split, however, was big, full of cars, speedboats, jet skis. Not what I’d hoped for. And then we pulled into a large port, whose quayside heaved with cafes and people. My heart sank again. It was not until I drove off the ship that someone explained: this was the island of Korula and we were taking another ferry - please join the Lastovo queue.
Now there was only a van, a clapped-out Volvo filled with timber, and a couple of tourists. The jet skis and speedboats had disappeared. An older, less salubrious ship appeared and we boarded. Local passengers settled into the lounge, a 1970s Formica paradise, unpacked homemade sandwiches, opened flasks and started card games. I relaxed. I liked Lastovo already.
After four hours, a wooded island appeared and we arrived at Ubli, Lastovo’s main port: a tiny inlet with a handful of houses, a shop and a man asleep over a fishing rod.
By the time I’d shopped for supplies, I was tackling the drive over the craggy 10km-long island in the twilight. Wide-eyed hares stared at the car; an owl swooped through the headlight beams. The lighthouse apartment was bare, almost spartan, but spotlessly clean. The lighthouse is operational, so all night long it was sending out six beams of rotating light into the night.
Lastovo’s south coast is remote, rocky and full of hazards, not least the cliffs on which the lighthouse is built.
Later, I lay under the stars on the wall outside my room. A warm wind was blowing and, watching those light beams, I felt like I was being transported by giant magical helicopter to the outer reaches of the cosmos.
There was a small concrete jetty below the lighthouse, a handy spot for launching my inflatable canoe or simply diving in without fear of the many spiky sea urchins. That is where I met Mladin for our first expedition.
I soon realised I had underestimated him. Not only was he quick in the water, he was silent and stealthy. No splash and no apparent effort.
‘Did you see that?’
I shook my head, tried to be more observant and was at last rewarded: a golden creature, about a foot long, bat-like cape swirling, was ambling across the sea grass with all the grace and menace of Nosferatu. Mladin didn’t know the name in English. (I found out later that this gorgeous apparition was a kind of slug.)
We moved on. He spotted a fish and took aim. His spear tip broke. Our first expedition was over and he was not happy.
In the days that followed I explored a dozen lonely coves and rocky shores in my canoe and drove to Lastovo town, a place of ornate chimneys and evocative ruins. In the evenings I sat on the wall and watched the rotors of my giant cosmic helicopter. I was beginning to feel lost to Lastovo. I wanted to become a lotus-eater and stay forever.
On my last day, Mladin had mended his spear and we met again at a remote and lovely inlet. We swam out. Mladin was hungry. I followed him. With mesmerising speed he speared three octopuses and bagged them, still alive. Back on the beach he got them out. They were squealing in fear and alarm, struggling to get back to the sea.
That evening he was sitting outside his cottage, replete with octopus, and invited me over. ‘I left Split on doctors’ orders,’ he told me. ‘They said if I didn’t change my life, I’d die.’
‘So you came to the remotest island in Croatia?’ He smiled. ‘I’ll never leave. I’m happy. Life is good.’
I was envious. Mladin is the lotus-eater. I am the rover, always pushing off for newer worlds. The ferry was already in port and leaving the next day. But Lastovo is truly special: that island came very close to stopping me.