A Gorgeous Island unknown to many American travelers
Imagine sailing across the dark blue Adriatic sea and as the waters begin to transition to a bright turquoise, you see a centuries-old stone wall high above the sea with four distinctive bell towers piercing the clear blue sky. The historical towers are a vision in themselves: St. Mary’s Campanile tall and statuesque built in the 12th century, another one pink and posh with its top looking like a Turkish hat, the other two shorter and more angular. This special island, known as Rab in Croatian and once known as Arbe when ruled by the Venetians, is described as resembling a ship with four masts.
But there is more to this epic scenery. Behind this ship-like island town rises the majestic Velibit mountains, stark, craggy and made of karst, famous for the strong bura winds that blow through the area cleansing the air and drying out the delicious prosciutto (pršut) Croatia is renown for.
So many levels of beauty and history rolled out with this fabulous view. This is your “dobrodošli” or welcome to Rab, which is located in the northern portion of the Adriatic Sea. It is farther north than the better known cities of Split and Dubrovnik, which are well-liked by Americans for their Game of Thrones connections. Many people visit its neighboring islands Krk and Cres, but to a lesser degree Rab, which makes it somewhat of a new revelation to the North American population. You won’t find many Americans here. It is, however, far from empty, even in September of 2020 during the pandemic as many Croatians and Europeans have been visiting the island for many years due to its forested hiking and secluded (and gorgeous!) sandy beaches.
One thing I love about sailing in Croatia is this unique assortment of islands you come upon when traveling throughout the Adriatic. All have an incredible mix of history as well as natural and architectural beauty, but we noticed right away that Rab had something special. I really was surprised that we hadn’t heard more about it in our almost three years in Istria.
What’s in a name?
The island of Rab has a long history that started somewhere around 360 BC when it was inhabited by the Illyrians and known as Arb. The Illyrian-Liburnian word Arb meant ‘dark, obscure, green, forested’. The name Arba was appropriate given the rich pine forests that once grew on the island.” * there are still many forested areas on the island which make hiking very popular here.
Layers of History
However, the millennia long history of Rab is so long and winding (like most of Croatia’s past) that it would take a book to describe it all. I won’t do that here, but will take you on a little tour of the main sites and it’s unique attributes and hope it will encourage you to read more about the island and of course, visit.
Rab Town, where we sailed to on this journey last September, was sold to Venice in 1409 and much of the architecture there was built under Venetian rule, so at times you will feel like you are walking on a Venetian street with the peaked Gothic arches and cornices of that beautiful bygone era.
Climb the St. Mary’s Campanile At Sunset
What was it that I loved so much about this island besides the incredible architecture and just sailing up to the towers? Well, climbing them, of course. First these beautiful bell towers greet you as you sail up to the island. When you come upon them in a boat (we were sailing from our home port of Pula), it is breathtaking site as they rise out of the blue green waters. They each have a distinctive design and come from various centuries. The tallest one mentioned before is St. Mary’s Campanile, and we climbed it somewhat serundipitously at sunset, which turned out to be like a golden gift.
Although the climb is a little scary if you are height sensitive, it is something I’m glad I did as you will see by the photos that follow. If there was ever a time to overcome your fear of heights and claustrophobia, this is it. As precarious as a climb it was, brave-hearted Croatian visitors climbed the steps with babies in tow and the mom in me was having mini-panic attacks worrying about them as they walked around the top level.
Anyway, all the more reason for you to just do it. It’s incredible. When you look at three of the towers out of the window of the fourth at sunset, it’s pure magic. From the other side you’ll see the beautiful church of Assumption of Mary and the tiny island of …. in the distance. We happened to get a peak of a nun in the monastery garden below and I felt like I’d glimpsed into a private and long-forgotten time.
It’s truly worth sailing or motoring up to the island also, but non-boaters don’t need to feel like they will miss out as there are tour boats that will take you out for rides to see this lovely sight. And Rab Island has a ferry ride from the mainland, so you can visit by car if you are not the seafaring type.
But for those who aren’t up for climbing the bell towers, there are many other things to occupy your time. Walking along the seawall that borders the island is a magical experience as well. The little walk has ladders and stone steps that drop down into the water for swimming and as you stroll around there are stunning stone formations along the way that would appeal to both geologists and archeologists alike. Boats anchor off the stone quay and people swim that way as well. We did and it was a memorable and refreshing way to spend a September afternoon.
But if the walking and swimming makes you hungry, there are plenty of options with coffee bars and seafood restaurants along the walkways and those with a penchant for sweets (hello, me!) the delicious and historical Rabske torte, a chewy lemony almond cake with a hint of Maraschino cherry liqueur, is waiting for you in many of the pekara or bakeries around the island. We walked along the winding stone walkways and sometimes steep streets and stopped at an incredible little cafe and sweet shop aka museum well-known for it Rabske tortes. My good friends Melissa and Elizabeth had driven (and ferried) to Rab and were researching the island for Fodor’s. They were determined to visit the Kuća Rabske Torte (House of the Rab Torte), a museum of the likes which I’ve never seen.
Upon entering the place a charming view befell us. Quaint stone walls, heavy wooden chairs and kitchen, a beautiful woman making the torte before us, the scent of cookies baking in the oven all combined to make this museum a unique and extremely inviting place. We ordered a sample plate of the cookies that were available and of course a slice of the Rabske torte. I was admiring the artistic shapes of the torte, hearts and the more traditional spiral cakes, as we ate and drank our macchiatos, when a couple came into the place and almost emptied the shelves of the delicacy. I felt a strong urge to go grab one before they completely wiped them out. They were purchasing them as gifts for friends on the mainland and the lovely baker told us after they left that they have trouble keeping the torte on the shelves. This was September during the pandemic, mind you, and I could imagine in peak summer season, the bakery must do a brisk business. So if you are there at that time, I think I would plan accordingly and get there early.
There is some history behind the torte as well which dates back to 1177. Apparently Pope Alexander III took refuge on Rab after the ship he was on got caught in a storm and wound up consecrating the Assumption Cathedral during his visit. The Benedictine nuns decided to thank him by creating this dessert with ingredients familiar to him from his birthplace in Siena. And the Rabska (Rapska) torte was born.
Must dos when visiting Rab:
- Take a boat ride around the island. We came by sailboat and it is breathtaking to sail up to the beautiful four towers up on the hilltop.
- Try out the historical and delicious Rabska torte, a chewy lemon almond delight that has people gorging on it and stocking up to take home for gifts. The museum is one of the best places to get it as you can eat as you watch the owner prepare it.
- Climb St. Mary’s tower at sunset. It takes a little coordination, bravery or chutzpah, but it’s worth it. The views are epic and to glance out of the tower at sunset is a dream.
- Take a walk around the island and admire the rock formations. The formations
- Have coffee or a glass of wine at one of the little cafes along the stone walkways around the old town.
- Go swimming off the coast or from your boat. The sparkling green blue water is as cool and refreshing as it looks.
- Go hiking through the winding walkways and forests on the island.
And of course, visit it. It’s a spectacular little place and you won’t regret putting it on your itinerary.