ZAGREB (Reuters Life!) - Secret army tunnels carved into the remote Croatian island of Vis by the Yugoslav army have become a draw for tourists and locals alike since opening to the public.
Vis, the furthest inhabited Croatian island from the coast, was isolated from the outside world from the 1940s until 1991 when Croatia became independent, used as a military base with 20 km (12 miles) of underground tunnels, caves, mines and storage facilities.
With crystal-clear waters and winding roads, the island of Vis appears a perfect Adriatic vacation spot but its strategic location in the southern Adriatic influenced its fate, with a turbulent history leaving its mark on the land and the people.
Over the centuries, Vis has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Austrians and Italians until it was finally given to the newly created Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the 1920s.
A period of relative tranquility was interrupted by World War Two when the island became the main hideout of the leader of the Yugoslav resistance movement, Josip Broz Tito, who went on to become the leader of Yugoslavia from 1953-1980.
Realizing the strategic importance of the island and the usefulness of its many caves and coves from his years there fighting the Germans, Tito kept a tight grip on Vis, making it one of the main naval bases of the Yugoslav People’s Army.
This effectively turned the entire island into a closed military zone, out of bounds for both Yugoslav civilians from the mainland, and foreigners. Many areas were prohibited even to the island’s residents.
Preparing for war with Vis as the front-line, the Yugoslav navy burrowed and excavated for decades, turning the island into a maze of caves, underground tunnels, bunkers and submarine hideouts.
These secret locations are now an attraction for tourists who have the chance to see places out of bounds 20 years ago and explore the tunnels that the Yugoslav National Army once guarded as secret lairs.
“This was meant to hide the people of the former Yugoslav army who were based here for almost 50 years during the period of communism,” tour guide Zvonk Brajcic, who grew up on the island as a teenager, told Reuters Television.
The bases were abandoned in the early 1990s when Yugoslavia was falling apart and Croatia declared independence, entering a four-year war with the forces commanded by Belgrade.
Stranded in this remote outpost among a population that resented their presence, the Yugoslav Navy left peacefully almost overnight, leaving behind empty barracks, caves and tunnels they had tended for almost half a century.
“After they left, all of us teenagers of 16 and 17, we just had to go and explore something that was forbidden to our grandfathers and fathers for 30 to 50 years. They always put these bases on the most beautiful positions on the island,” said Brajcic.
Many of the tunnels have already been adapted for civilian uses, with some converted into wine cellars.
With the military gone, life has opened up for the 3,600 or so residents of Vis, who look to tourism as the mainstay of their economy.
“What interested us ... apart from the ancient heritage of Vis (was) also the military heritage,” said Ivo, a visitor from the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
Reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith