“Islands intrigue me. You can see the perimeters of your world. It's a microcosm of life,” wrote the artist Jamie Wyeth. It had been too long, far too long, since I had visited this good old friend. But to my obvious delight this old friend hadn’t changed one little bit. Mljet, how can I even describe the stunning beauty of this island paradise, my absolute favourite destination.
This time it was a teambuilding exercise, the Times team deserved a few days break and where better than Mljet. A long weekend of walking, kayaking, sightseeing and cycling was our challenge, and for one member of the team who had never sat on a bike before it was even more challenging. I thought that the island would have an “end of the season” feel, how wrong I was. The hotel, you know which one as there is only one, was a hive of activity. Walking groups, divers from all over the world and day-trippers had all descended on the hotel; the dining hours were a crush. The season was quite clearly ending with a bang for Mljet. But even with the heighted interest the shores on the lakes were peacefully quiet and as soon as we explored the rest of the island we felt like we were alone on the planet.
God was really having a good day when he created Mljet. As I am naturally curious, sometimes not always a good trait, I was keen to get a picture of the winter life from the locals.
However much I love Mljet I don’t know that I could live there for a longer period of time. “I guess you will all be hibernating in a few weeks time,” I quizzed the young receptionist. His eyes lit up. “Yes, we basically work for six months then hide for the other six,” he answered. But he seemed far from depressed at the thought of “hiding.” I pushed on “So how do you spend the colder months...is it a little boring.” The smile across his face had already answered my question but his answer gave more insight, “Oh no, not at all. Luckily I am a fan of computer games so the winter gives me time to play,” he smiled. I was on the verge of a sarcastic answer, like “what good luck that is,” but held me tongue. “And then I sometimes help my parents in the fields,” he added.
I knew island folk had to be a special breed but here in front of me was the confirmation. He will probably live to be a hundred, as his parents and grandparents, in such a stress free environment. The culture shock would definitely be too much for me. “You basically passed through the same circumstances when you moved from London to Dubrovnik, you just adjusted your expectations and narrowed your possibilities,” explained my wife as I recounted the receptionists story to her. I had no argument. I had, and have, successfully adjusted to Dubrovnik life but the readjustment to life on an island through the winter would be just a step too far.
How to keep the island from dying then was my next thought. This was brought home when I spoke to more locals. “Our village is pretty much all pensioners, we can only hear the voices and laughs of children on the television,” commented one elderly man. Whilst a woman, quite possibly in her late eighties, harked back to another time when “the island was all about farming, wine and family,” I fear those days of her youth have gone. We live in a world where over half of the total population live in cities. In 2007 this ugly landmark was reached and the trend shows that by 2030 over 5 billion out the global population of 8 billion will live in urban concentrations. For people who love the countryside this might be seen as a bonus, more freedom and more space to enjoy the peace. But the reality is that the countryside needs life as well. We passed countless untended olive groves, overgrown vineyards and agricultural land that had been reconquered by Mother Nature during a drive through the spine of Mljet. The odd farmer or at least farm land we saw was like finding a needle in a haystack.
One small cove which I particularly enjoy has a handful of houses. “It looks like a ghost town, every shutter is bolted and every house eerily silent,” I said to my wife as we explored this beloved bay. Weekend houses had taken the place of families. It was silent. Maybe the young receptionist and his luck with playing computer games wasn’t as bad as I had first thought. Maybe it was also our luck that he loved computer games for at least he wasn’t deserting his home of Mljet.