ON the rocky fastnesses above the little town of Lesina, two proud castles rise against the sky, which played their part long since in the town's "island story "-now but silent witnesses of the conflicts of yore, in the centuries when Dalmatia waged defensive war, or kept, in intervals of peace, incessant watch and ward against the Turk. So grey are these old forts, so grey the mountains, that they seem part of one another; but if you climb up to them in spring-time you find the apparent barren waste becomes on near approach a garden of wild flowers. Yellow and white marguerites-not the common ox-eye daisies, but the marguerites of our gardens and window-boxes at home, with delicate blue-grey foliage-are here in masses, together with flaunting scarlet poppies; wild thyme scents the air, bushes with wildrose-like flowers grow in the crevices of the rocks, and in the ruined walls of the fort are Page [204a]
There is no better place to dream of the stirring history of these Illyrian isles than the steps of Fort Spagnuolo above Lesina, in the shade cast by the winged lion over your head, with the little harbour lying far below, and the land on each side of it stretching out and away; across the water islands, always islands, from the tiny barren islets which shelter the port, to distant Curzola and Lissa, where English guns thundered in 18II, and 880 brave Britons, under Admiral Hoste, spurred on by the signal, " Remember Nelson " defeated the 2500 French and Venetians who thought to annihilate them.
Another naval battle was fought in this same channel in the sixties between the Austrians and the Italians; and many were the fights of old, when these islands were the seat of Illyrian piracy.
Tradition says that Greeks from the isle of Paros settled here on Lesina, and founded a Page 206new Pharos, of which the Slavonic name of Hvar is a corruption. Greek coins of the earliest date, and bearing the devices of the most ancient cities of Greece and Asia Minor, have been found, which bear this out. History relates that Lesina was a Roman province over two hundred years before the birth of Christ, but it is not till it became Venetian that we know much of its story. It bears the impress of Venice still to-day in its Venetian arsenal, the ancient loggia of Sanmichela (restored, alas ! by those who knew not what they did), and more than one ruined palazzo with Venetian Gothic windows and balconies, or carved supports on which once long ago stone balconies still rested. Its streets, like those of Curzola and Ragusa, are narrow passage-ways of old stone steps up and down the hills; so narrow that when you meet the heavily-burdened donkeys, whose loads of wood project each side, you have to step into a doorway to let them pass. Wheeled vehicles on the island there are none, but the country-folk often ride their patient steeds when the latter have no other load, and it looks very quaint to see them carefully ascending and descending the steps.
Lesina's pride is in her Duomo; that is, the Page [206a]
The singular bishop's crosier, bearing the date 1509, was the life-work of its maker, who fashioned on it representations of the Evangelists with their symbols, the Apostles, and Old Testament heroes. In the centre, the Madonna is seen standing on a serpent's head.
Page 208A beautiful monstrance was shown to us of about the same date as the crosier. The best pictures in the church are by Domenico Uberti and Giacomo Palma, of which I preferred the former's St. Joseph.
The body of the patron saint of Lesina, St. Prosperus, lies in a marble sarcophagus to the left of the high altar.
Far more interesting than the Duomo to me is the Franciscan monastery, which was plundered by the Turks in 1571, but still contains many treasures in its library, besides the famous painting of the Last Supper by Marteo Rosselli, which hangs in the refectory, and was given to the monks by the painter in gratitude for their care in his sickness.
To see this painting, I had to pass through a door marked "Closura," and knowing the strict rule of the order against admitting womankind, I was wondering why an exception was made in my favour when, lo ! at the door of the refectory I was stopped and told, "Thus far and no further." I had to view the picture from afar, and it was then explained to me that I was permitted to pass the first door, because in no other way can the picture be seen, and Page 209the Father Superior, I suppose, holds that the distance from one door to another being but a few steps, the sacrilegious foot of woman can do but little harm.
The garden of the monastery, with its three-hundred-year-old cypress tree, is another place to dream in ! The tree is unique in that its branches spread outward instead of upward, and shade a space fully thirty feet in diameter, with old stone benches underneath where the monks read their breviaries or sit in silent meditation in the hot days of the Dalmatian summer.
Like all the monasteries I visited in this country, the situation of this one is delightful, with a garden to the seashore, so that the murmur of the waves is ever in your ears.
The people of Lesina have had a shipping trade from earliest times, and export olive oil, wine, and oil of rosemary, which is largely grown on the island. The tender green of the vines, mingling with the grey of the olives, is a marked feature of the landscape in early summer; though wine-making, they say, is less profitable than of yore.
Page 210The sardine fisheries employ a large number of the population, and the fishing-boats used at night, with overhanging lanterns to attract the fish, add-a quaint touch to the harbour.
In climbing the hills or rambling by the shore, you see many women employed as goatherds, knitting while they watch their flocks.
As on the other islands, the drying of wild chrysanthemums for conversion into insect powder is a considerable industry; so, too, is the making of rosemary oil for export, as this sweet-smelling herb grows all over the island. On account of its wonderfully even climate, Lesina has been called the Austrian Madeira, Statistics prove that its winter temperature is much higher than that of Naples, or even of Palermo, and an effort is being made to attract attention to its undoubted advantages for consumptives, who can undertake the journey by sea necessary to reach it.
A new hotel, built to this end, somewhat overshadows San Micheles Loggia, and strikes a note of rather incongrubus modernity in the little town, where everything else is of the past, from the roofless palaces with Page [210a]
As might be expected from its climate, all kinds of Southern plants and trees flourish on Lesina, among them the date palm, olives, oranges, and lemons, giant agaves and eucalyptus. It is interesting to cross the island to Citta Vecchia, which can be done on mules over the mountains in half a day, and so to get a glimpse of the interior; as Citta Vecchia lies on the sea at the inland end of a long fjord, it can also be reached by boat if preferred. This town stands on the site of the ancient Pharos, which was destroyed B.c. 221, -but must have been rebuilt, as coins are frequently dug up of the time of the Roman Emperors, and bricks brought from Salona have been found in the walls.
There is nothing of special interest in the little town, which looks rather modern, with the exception of a fourteenth-century campanile; but Dalmatians point with pride to a red-brick house, which was the birthplace of Simeone Ljiebic, the historian and antiquarian, who is Page 212not the only genius to whom Citta Vecchia has given birth. Some four miles distant from it lies the village of Verbosca, with its remarkable fortified church, which alone is worth going a long way to see, and recalls the days when the islanders lived in dread of the armies of the Crescent, or equally savage pirates who infested these waters. It is more like a fortified castle than a church, with bastions and ambrasures for cannon, and, I believe, not the only one of its kind in Dalmatia. But apart from its curiosity as a building, it has some really good pictures, which would be better known were they not so out of the way. There is a "Birth of Christ," said to be by Paul Veronese, and a Titian, which must be authentic, as a document is shown in the church archives as follows:
An interesting picture of the Ascension is by a little-known painter, Alamardi.
The little harbour of Gelsa joins that of Verbosca, and charms you by its pretty houses Page [212a]