Islands Seek Direction in Seas of Change

17 November 2014

Islanders in Croatia and Greece enjoy an enchanting way of life but face challenges posed by isolation and ageing populations.

Marija Knezevic Dugi Otok, Palagruza and Serifos

  • Veli Rat lighthouse, on the Croatian island of Dugi Otok

  • Zvonimir Skvorcevic climbs the stairs of the Veli Rat lighthouse

  • View from Veli Rat lighthouse, Dugi Otok, Croatia

  • Danijela Skvorcevic and one of her daughters at the lighthouse on Dugi Otok

  • A ferry passes another at the Croatian port of Zadar as it heads for the island of Dugi Otok

  • Palagruza island, Croatia

  • Nikola Zuvela, lighthouse keeper on Palagruza

  • View from Palagruza lighthouse, Croatia

  • Pulley system for delivering supplies to Palagruza lighthouse

  • Tomislav Zuvela, Croatian lighthouse keeper

  • Susac lighthouse, Croatia

  • Vojo Sain, Croatian lighthouse keeper

  • Chora, on the Greek island of Serifos

  • Antonis Ventouris, lighthouse keeper on the Greek island of Serifos

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  • One hundred and eighty-three steps. That is Zvonimir Skvorcevic’s daily commute – from the bottom to the top of the highest lighthouse on the Adriatic.

    Veli Rat lighthouse stands on the northwestern tip of Dugi Otok (Long Island) off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. One of the most beautiful lighthouses in the region, the 42-metre high tower is surrounded by woods, a small garden, a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas and the divine blue sea across which you can see the contours of Italy on a clear day.

    Zvonimir has been a lighthouse keeper for 24 years but he grew up far from the coast and did not see the sea until he was 25.

    “As a teenager I started to dream about life among nature, a small house, wife, children… I grabbed the first chance that crossed my path,” says ‘Zvone the lanternist’, as locals call him.

    The lifestyle that appealed to Zvonimir a quarter of a century ago still holds many attractions, for islanders and for the millions of tourists who travel to Croatia every summer. The islands offer beautiful scenery, sunshine, sea air and a soothingly slow pace of life.

    But island communities also face challenges as their populations age and their remote locations make them less and less attractive as a place for younger people to settle.

    Zvonimir lives in a house at the base of the lighthouse with his wife Danijela and their two young sons. He also takes care of the garden and olive grove nearby.

    Despite being a heavy smoker, he climbs the stairs of the lighthouse easily, slowing down to wait for a breathless younger visitor trying to keep up.

    The Skvorcevic family at Veli Rat lighthouse

    Photo: Marija Knezevic

    He goes barefoot all summer long. By late May, he already has a deep tan and dresses in a striped T-shirt and cut-off jeans. He has a warm smile that never seems to leave his face and speaks gently to his two little boys. But a note of worry enters his voice when he talks about his eldest child, Ivana, a daughter from his second marriage.

    Ivana stayed with Zvonimir after her parents’ divorce and went to elementary school in the village of Bozava, 17 km from the lighthouse. Now it is time for her to go to high school, which means she has to move to the county town of Zadar on the mainland, about 35 km away.

    Zvonimir and other locals would like better transport links – cheaper, more frequent ferry services and taxi boats that would allow more people to live on the islands and commute to the mainland.

    “If only the authorities understood that isolation is our biggest problem,” he says. “Ferry companies that take people onto the islands and back complain about small numbers of passengers – like they don’t realise it will only get worse if something doesn’t change.”

    Tourism has eclipsed farming and fishing to become the main industry on Croatia’s islands but it is not always enough to support thriving communities all year round.

    Veli Rat Lighthouse, the highest on the Adriatic

    Photo: Marija Knezevic

    Veli Rat is the most popular of Croatia’s lighthouses offering tourist accommodation. Holidaymakers occupy its two suites for 36 weeks of the year, until the weather gets cold.

    “They’d all love to live in a lighthouse, love the nature, love the life… during the summer. They think winter on an island is romantic, but usually give up with the first autumn rain,” Zvonimir says.

    Of Croatia’s 1,244 islands, 67 are inhabited, 47 of them all year round. About 125,000 people live on the islands, according to the 2011 census.

    But there are fewer young people among them. In 1953, more than 26 percent of those living on Croatian islands were aged 14 or under. By 2011, that figure was below 13 percent.

    Just under a quarter of Croatia’s population is aged 60 or over but more than 30 percent of the island population falls into that bracket, according to a demographic analysis published last year by Ivo Nejasmic, a geography professor at the University of Zagreb.

    Ageing islanders

    Percentage of Croatian island population by age group.

    Source: Census data from Demographic Ageing on Croatian Islands by Ivo Nejasmic, University of Zagreb. Graphic by Lada Vucenovic.


    Lighthouse families

    On June 30, locals on the island of Korcula celebrate ‘Half New Year’s Eve’ – a big all-night party in the bars and streets of the main town. “Imagine how it looks here when it’s the real New Year’s Eve,” says an Irish tourist passing by a masked, dancing crowd. Actually, this is as good as it gets. Celebrations in winter are much more modest, with far fewer people.

    After a long night, the atmosphere is a little subdued on a boat heading out of the harbour at six o’clock the next morning. The boat belongs to Plovput, the state company that operates and maintains Croatia’s 46 lighthouses. Among those on board are Ivo Sain and Tomislav Zuvela, both of them lighthouse keepers and sons of lighthouse keepers.

    Both know the work is not easy but it offers secure, state-backed employment all year round. There are not too many jobs like that on the islands.

    “This job is like being a sailor. It gets under your skin, so you can’t live without it.”

    – Lighthouse keeper Nikola Zuvela

    Tomislav, 32, is travelling to the island of Palagruza, closer to the Italian than to the Croatian coast, where the lighthouse is the only inhabited building. He is joining his father Nikola for a one-month shift. At this time of year Marija, Nikola’s wife and Tomislav’s mother, is also with them.

    When the boat approaches Palagruza, a smaller one collects Tomislav and some other passengers. It speeds up as it heads for the island, bumping to a halt on the beach and leaving the occupants to clamber out.

    Palagruza lighthouse

    Photo: Marija Knezevic

    Perched on a rock 100 metres above the sea, the lighthouse building is a broad, imposing stone structure with 40 windows and green shutters. Built under Austrian rule in 1875, it was meant to radiate power to travellers getting their first sight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    “We’ve been here, on and off, for 35 years. This island became a part of me and I love every foot of it at every time of the year,” Marija says in the kitchen of the lighthouse. She came to Korčula on holiday as a young woman, fell in love with a lighthouse keeper and raised one.

    Island life has been good to her. She gives off an air of contentment and looks younger than her 60 years. She speaks slowly and calmly, with no needless gestures.

    Her husband Nikola, 57, helps receive his son’s supplies and sends down empty gas bottles using a pulley system that links the lighthouse to the boat below.

    “If it wasn’t good for us here, we wouldn’t have stayed this long,” he says. He is pleased his son has followed in his footsteps.

    “It was his wish to become a lighthouse keeper so why wouldn’t he be happy? Anyway, it’s better he does this job than the other one he was thinking about,” he says.

    “He wanted to be a pyrotechnician,” says Nikola, smiling with relief.

    “I was lucky because my family was with me most of the time. When the children went to school, it was hard. I was alone here, two months on the lighthouse and two months with them. We made up for it during the summers,” he says.

    “This job is like being a sailor. It gets under your skin, so you can’t live without it. And you have to love the sea. If you don’t, this isn’t for you.”

    The start of Tomislav’s shift at the lighthouse allows Vojo Sain, 50, to end his. Tanned, athletic and dark-haired, he takes the path down to the beach to travel back to Korčula.

    Next-door neighbours

    On the way back, the boat stops to unload supplies at the island of Susac. Population: two lighthouse keepers and a shepherd. One of those lighthouse keepers is Vojo’s son, Ivo, who was dropped off to begin his shift earlier in the day.

    “My son and I are ‘next-door neighbours’ and we never get to see each other. I’m glad he managed to get this job. With two small children, coming from an island, this is a good solution,” Vojo says.

    Father and son share a few small hidden tears and strong hugs. They ask and answer questions at the same time. Their words are simple and mundane but the eye contact never stops.

    “Hey! What’s up?”

    “Nothing much, dad.”

    Lighthouse keepers Ivo Sain and his father Vojo

    Photo: Marija Knezevic

    Ivo is the youngest lighthouse keeper on the Adriatic. He is only 22, and already has a wife and two little girls.

    “My younger girl is two months old, the older one is a year and a half. Just as she gets used to my presence, I have to pack my bags and leave. I’m like a stranger every time I go back home to Korcula. But I’ll get used to it, we’ll all get used to it…” Ivo says.

    What did his mother say about him becoming a lighthouse keeper, already having one in the family?

    “Actually, my parents are divorced. And it’s because of the lighthouse. But it all depends on what kind of people we are. Not everyone who works on a lighthouse gets divorced, and not everyone who lives together all the time stays together,” he says.

    Greeks grapple with island dilemmas

    Croatians are not the only Europeans trying to figure out the best ways to maintain island life in the 21st century. With some 6,000 islands, 227 of them inhabited, Greece is grappling with similar challenges – such as how to encourage tourism and economic development while also protecting the environment and local traditions.

    Serifos, part of the Western Cyclades group of islands in the Aegean Sea, has seen major changes over the decades.

    “There used to be no roads, no electricity, no cars and no tourism here. It was a mythical place for us, where we could be absolutely free,” says Ioannis Spilanis, a university professor who enjoyed childhood summers on Serifos and has spent most of his free time on the island ever since.

    In the first half of the 20th century, many people on Serifos worked in iron ore mining. Nowadays most make a living from tourism and construction. The number of houses on the island has doubled in the last 30 years, with most new homes built to be rented to tourists, Spilanis says.

    “I am not sure that Greek or Croatian islands can … still be competitive”

    – Ioannis Spilanis.

    Spilanis is a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of the Aegean. He lives on the island of Lesbos and has dedicated most of his career to studying islands, examining economic development, the environment, planning and tourism.

    He and his colleagues are working to come up with a system that would measure the economic and social impact of tourism in fine detail – right down to how much water tourists consume and how much garbage they generate.

    Only then, Spilanis thinks, will it be possible to know how much tourism can expand before its drawbacks outweigh its benefits.

    He says the current development of Greek islands is not sustainable as it depends overwhelmingly on tourism and imports. Some 99 percent of items consumed on Greek islands are imported, mainly from Athens, he says.

    He suggests European islands may lose out in the tourism market to more distant destinations, where holidaymakers can enjoy a cheap break and are guaranteed good weather all year round.

    “There is a big difference between European and other, say Asian, islands where prices are totally different, much lower,” he says in a café near the ferry port. “I am not sure that Greek or Croatian islands can … still be competitive.”

    The lighthouse on the Greek island of Serifos

    Photo: Marija Knezevic

    Antonis Ventouris, 35, is the lighthouse keeper on Serifos. His father was a lighthouse keeper too. His wife and daughter live on a nearby island.

    The Greek national football team is playing Columbia at the World Cup in Brazil but Ventouris is outside, trying to calm his nerves. Serifos is a good place to calm down.

    “You can write a book here during the winter,” Antonis says. “You can write all the books here.”

    Our conversation is punctuated by long periods of silence as we gaze at the sea.

    Over dinner at a taverna recently opened by a fisherman and his family, a group of local people order dishes “for the table” including fish, feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and aubergines. They drink beer and ouzo and talk about life on the island.

    Just like in Croatia, their main concerns are access to good education and health care.

    “I’m afraid if I think about health care too much I’ll start having heart problems and then I’d be in real trouble,” jokes Manolis Pelopponissios, a hotelier of 57 who has a 14-month-old daughter.

    Greece takes a different approach to Croatia on education for islanders. It has high schools on almost every inhabited island, including Serifos, with its population of just 1,400. Croatia has high schools only on a few bigger islands, mostly with bridges connecting them to the mainland.

    Tunnel vision

    Back on the Croatian island of Dugi Otok, where ‘Zvone the lanternist’ looks after the lighthouse, longtime local resident Ivo Juranov, 70, admits building a high school there could not be justified at the moment.

    “There aren’t enough children here. If people stayed, it would be different,” he says in his home overlooking the port in the village of Božava. “Now we need to get them back.”

    Local authorities insist they are working hard to help the islands. Having joined the European Union last year as one of its poorest members, Croatia is targeting EU help with infrastructure projects.

    “We are trying our best to connect islands with the mainland, and islands with each other. It’s not easy with the finances, but we hope EU funds will be the solution,” says Davor Lonic, head of the development department in Zadar county.

    One grand plan backed by the local government envisions the construction of undersea tunnels. But local people are sceptical about whether it will ever happen.

    For the foreseeable future, young islanders will still have to move to the mainland at the age of 14 to go to high school, just as Zvonimir the lighthouse keeper’s daughter Ivana has done. She now lives with her mother in Zadar.

    “I wanted to stay on the island after my parents divorced. My childhood was beautiful, but for a person my age now, especially during the winter, it’s very hard,” Ivana says.

    “I had no company so now I’m happy about moving. I’ll miss my dad, though.”

    Ivana wants to learn languages and study architecture.

    “I really want to live on an island when I grow up. I just don’t know if the conditions will change for the better till then,” she says.

    Like her father, Ivana now climbs stairs at the start of her day. Sixty-eight steps, up the stairs of the school building to her classroom.

    Maybe one day she will design a high school building for Dugi Otok?

    “Maybe,” she says. “Why not?!”

    Marija Knezevic is deputy editor-in-chief of the Croatian newspaper Zadarski List. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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