Mljet – the green island. The Ogygia of Homer's Odyssey. According to legend, the nymph Calypso, lover of the Greek hero Odysseus, chose this island as her home. The beauty of the island was the only beauty surpassing hers, making Odysseus, that eternal traveler, stay there for years. Are there any facts in the legend? Some historians are convinced that, by describing Ogygia, Homer actually wrote about the island of Mljet. Others doubt that. The romantics would say that only the sea knows the answer. Well, whatever the answer may be, a cave bearing the name of Odysseus, that Greek adventurer, still stands there carved in stone.
As one looks from the open sea, there is a barely visible narrow passage cutting into the island. It is the channel of Soline, letting the sea enter into the island, opening it and creating first Veliko jezero, larger of the two “lakes”, and then Malo jezero, smaller “lake” separated by an even narrower channel from the larger one. That is how the so-called “lakes” of the south-Dalmatian island of Mljet, the eighth island in Croatia in terms of size, were created.
The Soline Channel permits permanent water exchange between the “lakes” and the open sea. Depending on changes between high and low tide, the sea current changes direction every six hours. It is a phenomenon of global relevance. Such dynamics of seawater exchange resulted in the biggest Mediterranean colony of cushion coral (Cladocora caespitosa) at the entry to Veliko jezero.
What is special about Malo jezero, the smaller lake, is the density of the population of the noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis), and the phenomenon of whitings (suspension of aragonite). There is no other place in the Mediterranean where one could encounter such a phenomenon, which typically occurs in major tropical and subtropical systems, for example on the Bahamas.
Mljet is the first Adriatic national park, the beauty of which keeps inviting the passenger to return to this place of permanent and constantly renewed discovery.
The Illyrians first settled on this greenest Mediterranean island over four thousand years ago.
Omnipresent vegetation and five different types of forests grow here under the watchful eye of experts. Benedictine monks added to the beauty of the island, taking great care of it as feudal masters of Mljet over the course of several centuries. Every year, the monks would choose six farm hands and six shepherds from the island, who would spend one year in the territory of the current Park. Prohibition of permanent settling, issued by the monastery, lasted until the end of the 18th century. It was only in 1793 that Benedictine monks permitted several farmers from the settlement of Babino Polje to permanently settle near the monastery, in order to take care of livestock for the purposes of the monastery. They were the families of Milić and Stražičić-Basto. It was cattle, and the Croatian term govedo used for it, that gave the name to the new settlement: Goveđari.
The sea, lakes, karst pits and caves – all that is present on the island of Mljet. Every small part of the island, which is the oldest marine park of the Mediterranean, is a source of life. With the establishment of the National Park, the terrestrial part of the area was protected in 1960, together with the channel of Soline, Veliko jezero and Malo jezero. The surrounding sea was added to the area of the Park in 1997. The exceptional quality of nature of the island of Mljet demanded the establishment of the National Park.
There are many other reasons as well: preserved forests of holm oak and Aleppo pine; cultural and historical heritage ranging back to the times of the Illyrians, the Roman Empire and the Dubrovnik Republic; salty “lakes”; unique plant and animal life; well-indented coast; numerous cliffs, rocks and islets.
The panorama of the indented coast and perennial green vegetation of the surrounding hills that rise above the sea hides numerous karst fields and settlements built of stone by the hands of the Dalmatian man. These are just some landscapes inviting visitors to come; writings and oral testimonies about them come second.
Vegetation never ceases being fresh in this area. It wraps the karst fields and settlements built of island stone in a majestic atmosphere, and allows you to freely explore it due to the fact that the island is passable.
The southern coast of the island is steep, and marked by a number of caved-in caves. Many endemic Dalmatian plants grow here, the most attractive being the Dubrovnik knapweed. Other endemic species include L. anfractum, Aurinia leucadea and Cynanchum acutum. Approximately thirty orchid species also grow on the island; the most widespread are the Italian orchid and Ophrys liburnica.
The macchia is particularly dense for a Mediterranean region. Holm oak is dominant, but one also comes across other broadleaved plants: strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), mock privet (Phillyrea media), tree heath (Erica arborea) and true myrtle (Myrtus communis). Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) also grows on the island, as well as wild olive (Olea oleaster), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and many conifers.
People found a way how to use almost every species. Carob tree gives edible fruits; fruits of the strawberry tree were used to prepare grappa and jam; mastic was used to protect fishing nets. Myrtle shoots were used to make fish traps and baskets.
This is a karst terrain, a full-blooded Mediterranean area.
The area is covered by a network of walking trails, allowing even the most passionate and curious visitors to thoroughly investigate the area and the accessibility of the Park, either on foot or by cycling.
The two “lakes” cut into the island by the sea, that we mentioned at the beginning of this story about the island of Mljet, are globally relevant geological and oceanographic phenomenon. The surface of the bigger “lake”, Veliko jezero, is 145 hectares, and it is up to 46 meters deep. The surface of the smaller “lake”, Malo jezero, is 24 hectares, and it is up to 29 meters deep. They are not fully researched yet, and there are still many unknowns regarding their depths and the underlying system of salty “lakes”, which is why they are attractive to natural scientists and visitors looking for true nature.
In the center of the larger “lake” lies a must-see tourist spot, the picturesque St. Mary’s Island with the church and the Benedictine monastery dating from the 12th century. They were built in Romanesque style; however, during the period of the Dubrovnik Republic, alterations and additions to the monastery gave it the appearance of a monumental Renaissance villa with visible Romanesque elements. While the monastery changed its appearance over the centuries, it never lost its significance. It remained a source of cultural influence, with renowned scholars and poets visiting it, such as the poet and historian Ignjat Đorđić.
Valuable remains of a Roman palace can be seen in the Park as well. It was built in the 5th century on the remains of a settlement built three centuries earlier, for the needs of a Roman dignitary on the property of the Empire, which encompassed entire Mljet until the end of the 12th century. The center of this complex architectural site is the monumental palace located on the coast. In the immediate vicinity are thermae, the so-called Northern Complex, commercial facilities of Lazarei, two sacral complexes – the Eastern and the Western Basilica, Kaštio citadel, and an ancient port.
All the settlements on the island are linked by road. Every road of Mljet is worth exploring, because the island is packed with interesting sites. On the southern part of the coast, one can find Jama, better known as the Odysseus Cave – a karst cavity the ceiling of which caved in. That gives it the appearance of a pit, or a well with a wide opening. The bottom of Jama is connected with the open sea, so visitors can get quite surprised when they see fishing boats in it. The owners come from the nearby settlement of Babino Polje, the biggest on the island. The locals skillfully descend to the boats, as the guests look on towards the bottom of the “pit”.
According to adventurers, the Greek hero Odysseus stayed on this island after the shipwreck, mesmerized by its natural beauty, and the cave is named after him. For seven years, the nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas, held Odysseus captive in the cave, until she finally set him free upon the order of Zeus.
The island of Mljet managed to surpass Calypso’s beauty – luckily for her, because that is how she kept the eternal traveler on the island.
Many experts have no doubts that the island of Ogygia from Homer’s Odyssey is Mljet, that magical island of thick forests... ”[...] there were also four running rills of water in channels cut pretty close together, and turned hither and thither...”
Odyssey V, 59
There are four water sources on Mljet that never run dry. Out of all the islands of the Mediterranean, details of the description correspond only to Mljet.
Descriptions of beauty are frequently best seen in legends. Let us mention, therefore, the one about a young Roman exiled to the island of Mljet. Upon receiving a question by his father – “How are you doing on Mljet, my son?” – he sent a symbolic answer. Instead of a letter, the father got a branch with a bird’s nest on top, and a shell on the bottom of the branch. Father knew he needn’t worry about his son.