Photo: Nenad Štancl
In the Croatian Mediterranean imagination, Palagruža is a place of longing, almost a mythical piece of land in the middle of the open sea that only the chosen, the luckiest can reach. It is the island farthest from the Croatian land, the most protruding beam of light for those sailing across the Adriatic, guidance for boaters and fishermen. There are 68 miles from Split to (Velika) Palagruža; the island is not even a mile long, and its width is 300 metres. In addition to the Velika (‘great’) and Mala (‘little’) Palagruža, there are three other islets in the archipelago – Kamik od Tramuntane, Kamik od Oštra and Galijula, along with fifteen rocks (Pupak, Volići, Gaće, Baba and others).
From the boat we jump to Velo Žalo, which is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Adriatic, situated in a bay and full of oval stone pebbles, some of which are surprisingly large. Every single one is completely polished, because on Velo Žalo the sirocco wind blows often and fiercely, chasing the stones before it, rolling them with force, sinking them, and, when the sea gets calmer, spitting them back to the beach. Seeing that, you are no longer surprised by the gentle, almost silky smoothness of the pebbles.
As we climb towards the lighthouse, there is wild garlic and wormwood everywhere; the first capers of the year are coming into gentle buds, and the yellow of cypress spurge is striking. Palagruža was once thought to be of volcanic origin, but research has shown that in ancient times it was part of the mainland, connected with Gargano, Tremiti, Mljet, Lastovo and Sušac.
Some researchers say it was Diomedes’ island, that it was here that he took refuge from the vengeance of Aphrodite, the goddess of love he had wounded at Troy.
At the top of the island, on a cliff standing 90 meters above the sea, there is a large stone building, a monumental lighthouse erected in the 19th century, during the Austro-Hungarian era. It was designed by Richard Hanisch, took two years to build and was built by workers from Vis and Komiža.
Even if not actually inhabited, Palagruža is never deserted; there are at least two lighthouse keepers here at all times. They work for a month, and then have a month off, when they go back to their families to have a rest. Palagruža is then taken care of by the other shift. All four keepers on Palagruža are Korčulans. There have been lighthouse keepers on Palagruža, it is assumed, from Roman times. Since there was a lively trade between the left and right coasts of the Adriatic, navigation had to be made possible.
The lighthouse on Palagruža is the largest on the Croatian side of the Adriatic. It was mostly built of stone from Brač, not Palagruža. Admittedly, a quarry was opened here during the construction, and, at first, stone was extracted to build the foundations and the ground floor. However, it was so hard that it destroyed tools on an every-day basis, so it was eventually decided to bring stone from Brač.