Mljet, Croatia. Four days in June.
My skin sizzles as I slip down into the cool water. The lake in front of me stretches away to the pines, glittering in the sun. She holds me buoyant in her salty arms, lets me lie back and listen to the waves licking the shore; the cicadas singing in the heat. Peace.
This is the place. Too trussed up, too constrained, I want to swim for the first time without a stitch on. I untie my bikini top and hurl it into the air. It goes sailing in an arc and lands on the scalding rocks. Then I pull off my bikini bottoms and throw them to the land, too. The water rolls around every dip and dive of me. I’m swimming truly wild now, for the very first time, and it’s bliss.
We stayed in a small apartment on the village of Polace. One street curving round the bay, fishing nets tangled at the water’s edge. That day we hired bicycles and headed out to the salt lakes. The island of Mljet is hilly and most of it is covered in forest – two thirds in a national park. We were grateful for the intermittent shelter of the pine trees as we cycled up the hill in the heat of the day. When we reached the top, we looked back over the bay.
Then it was downhill all the way to Veliko Jezero, the larger of the two lakes. Our bicycle wheels spun as the chorus of the cicadas rose up from shrubland like steam. The scent of the Aleppo pines filled the air too, the kind of scent that doesn’t just get into your nose – it curls around your body, sticky with the heat; touches the tip of your tongue, the curve of your shoulder, the base of your feet.
The water was so welcome once we’d reached it. It was startling turquoise and clear, like no place I’d ever swum. Being naked in such a place seemed the only possible way to be. So different from the static concrete pools of English leisure centres, or the rough handling of the sea. Here the water was warm and clear, and there was no one around.
Not until a boat roared passed, carrying dozens of tourists to the Benedictine Monastery on tiny St Mary’s island in the lake. I waved to them, my white body floating beneath the surface.
I went swimming again the next day in Malo Jezero, the smaller lake, where they say two feet mussels spend their lives. At the tiny beach families gathered. This was a noisier place, with children’s shrieks and tinny phone music dashing through the soft wild sounds of water, breeze, the birds and the wind. The water in the smaller lake was warm was a bath tub, though, and swimming through the tiny channel to Veliko Jezero was a shock as cold water moved in.
We cycled round the edge past the pines and spiky juniper trees and caught a boat to St Mary’s Island where a 12th century monastery and church abide. The earth is parched on this sacred land, and two donkeys stumble through the scrubland, begging for bread. The church can only be entered by those with fully covered skin, and swimming is strictly prohibited.
On our last day I clamber down the jagged rocks at the bay in Pomena, careful to avoid the sea urchins: dark little creatures that squat in the shallows. Spiralled padina seaweed curls round the rockpools like ears and tiny shrimps spin around them. As I drift out into the water, I feel a moment of fear. I’m out of my depth. What’s under me? Sharp crabs crawling on sea floor, jellyfish floating like ghosts, curious fish that could peck at my toes… All of them harmless, but still – there’s a dangerous feeling in swimming wild. My eyes up here – above the water, knowing most of my body is hanging under the waves, vulnerable, ill-adapted, marine sense long, long gone.
- the water soothes me: she carries me gently down past the white rocks that slide into the sea. The lilting breeze touches my face. The sea sparkles.
She’s a seductress, the island of Mljet. She’ll gather you up in her watery arms. They say Odysseus was held captive here for seven years by the goddess Calypso. When he was here, I doubt he was dreaming of home.