The story of Susak
Back then in the late 80’s when I first set my foot on the island of Susak, I knew about it only as much one can learn from gossip and legends. What I expected to find was an island entirely made of dust deposits, surrounded by many shallow sandy beeches, most of the people emigrated to United States…
In the following text I tried to give a more detailed picture about what this island is, and as well what it is not. So, if you ever decide to visit the island, you will at least know what to expect.
Susak is located in the north Adriatic, 10 nautical miles south-west from the island Lošinj.
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Geography & Geology
The island has a complex geological history, which the island unique in the whole Mediterranean. The limestone plateau is the base of the island, which is covered by thick two-layer sand deposits. There are still doubts on where this sand came from. One of the most plausible theories states that the first lower layer was supposedly deposited during the last ice age by the river Raša, although other theories indicate the river Po in Italy. Yellow fine sand, which covers the upper layer of the island, was brought by Aeolin alluvion (deposited by wind).
The limestone rock base holds this sand above the see level and by thus preventing it to be swept away by the see. The altitude of the plateau varies from one halve to 30 meters. Dust/sand deposits form cascades supported by reed which grows on their edges. These cascades are not natural formations, but were rather created by farmers who used them to grow vegetables and vine. They also came up with the idea of planting reed on the edges, in order to prevent or at least slowed down the erosion.
The island is 3 km long (1.86 miles) and 1.5 km wide (0.93 miles), has circumference of 12 km (7.5 miles) and a surface of 3.5 km2 (1.35 square miles). Due to the limestone base, the coastline is mostly made of stone, with the exception of a few beeches which covered with pebbles or sand. The depth of the see around the island varies: on the side of the island facing the mainland the bottom is shallow and covered with sand. On the other side of the island water is much deeper, while the bottom is predominantly rocky. One of the most interesting bays it called Obis, which is characterized by vertical coastline and cliffs dropping directly to the depth of 20-30 meters (35-100 ft).
Deposits mentioned in the previous chapter are in fact a very fertile soil, which combined with mild climate enable all the Mediterranean vegetation to flourish. A special kind of reed can be found all over the island. By growing on the edges of the sand cascades and terraces it prevents erosion. The flatter upper parts of the island are mostly covered by grass, bushes of wild grapes, blackberry and various herbs. Some parts of the island are covered by forest of acacia tree.
Apart from goats, sheep and a few cows, rats, mice and bats, cats and dogs, there are no other mammals living on the island. There are of course reptiles: western whip snakes (hierophis viridiflavus; see photos) which locals call “gad” and two kinds of small lizards: dalmatian wall lizards (odarcis melisellensis; see photos) and moorish gecko (tarentola mauritanica). Moorish geckos come out at night are probably more interesting. Locals call the “tarantula”, probably after it’s latin name. You can usually spot them on a house wall under a street lamp, where they wait for their pray: the moths and other insects. They are characterized by thin pinkish transparent skin, through which you can see their internal organs.
I almost forgot to mention the birds - yes you can find seagulls, crows, swallow etc. Coming from the world of insects we have: common flies, mosquitoes (there’s no malaria), various butterfly, ants, caterpillar and harmless mediterranean scorpion (euscorpius italicus).
The name of the island come from the word Sansegus, which Greek for oregano. Italians call it Isola di Sansego, means The island of oregano. As you might have guessed - oregano grows there.
Island was first inhabited by Illyrians. They build a settlement on the highest part of the island (98 meters abouve see level) called “Vela Straža” (eng. high guard). After them come the romans. Roman writer Pliny the first to mention the island. He describes it as a sandy island not fare from Piatas Juliae (todays city of Pula).
The first written document where Susak is mentioned it the “Mletačka kronika” from the year 884 by Ivan the Deacon. In the year 476 after the fall of the western roman empire, the island comes under power of Ostrogoths. From 6th till 10th century it was under ruled of Byzantine empire.
In the 8th century it is finaly populated by Croats. In the 10th century it becomes a part of Croatian kingdom under rule of king Tomislav the first. The island is given to the Benedictines by the king Krešimir. First monks arrive from the Osor monastery and are followed by the abbot who arrives from Monte Cassina. First an convent was built. As the number of monks and the size of the estate grew, the convent was turned into an abby of saint Mihovil and Nikola.
The island was often raided by pirates, so in the 7th century a fortification wall was built. Ruins of this wall can still be seen near the church.
In the 14th century the abbey was dissolved, but continues to exist as a convent until 1770. After the abbey was abolished, the bishop from Osor establishes a parish and on the monastery ruins builds a church of saint Nicholas. Todays altar of the holy mother of Carmel lays on the abbey sacred ground. At that time the island had the population of 300 inhabitants.
In the 18th century the island comes under rule of Austro-Hungarian empire. Austrians build the first summer resort, promenade which connected the lower village with the bay of Bok. In 1885 the lite house is built. They draw the first plans of the Susak and introduce cadastre.
After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, falls i the hands of Italy. Italian becomes official language and local population is forced to change their to Italian. But not all is bad - in 1936 Susak reaches it’s peek: a big vine cellar and a fish can factory is built. Life is good. At the end of the WW2 Susak has the population of 1876. After the WW2 was over, Susak once again becomes a a part of Croatia, which was now not an independent state but a part of Yugoslavia. Communist regime nationalizes all the land and forces agricultural reform, copying the soviet model. As a consequence the island is sentenced to slow, but certain death. The fish factory is closed and in 60’s most of the population has immigrated. Under cover of the night men set off in their small wooden boats and row all the way to Italy. From there they catch a boat and leave for their final destination: Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. Some never saw their home island again.
The end of communist regime in 1990 marked a turning point in history of this island. People who have emigrated, once again could freely return to their island. However, due to the fact that most of these people still had jobs, families and their whole new lives in the United States, almost none have returned for good. The ones who have were retired, and have chosen to spend their last days on the island where they were born.
Today only about 200 people live on the island the whole year round. With a few exceptions of younger, most of them are retired. The life on the island goes on in cycles. During the winter it’s almost deserted, while at the peek of the summer season there are as much as 2.000 people living on the island.
On the island there’s a post office, a carpenter, two grocery stores, an elementary school, a lighthouse, one church and two chapels, a cemetery, infirmary, a few restaurants and bars (see the corresponding chapter), vine cellar and that’s about it!
Language spoke among Susak people is a dialect of Croatian. It’s a blend of early Croatian mixed with languages brought by different nations who ruled the island through history: Italian, French, German. Due to great distance from the mainland, Susak was an isolated environment which enabled people to develop and preserve a unique language and culture. The dialect spoken on Susak is so different from the standard language spoken in mainland Croatia, that it’s virtually impossible for a Croatian tourist to understand any of it.
The Susak dialect is still alive and spoken in the Susak community in United States. Unfortunately it is not passed on to younger generations. Second and third generation of ancestors of original Susak people usually speak only English.
Susak costumes are another story. Young women wear colorful short ballet tutu-shaped skirt, a matching vest and pink or orange woolen stockings. Dolls dressed this outfit are sold as souvenirs.
Wherever you meet them, there’s one thing which undoubtedly distinguishes islanders of Susak or their descendants - it’s their last names. There a few typical Susak last names, which you can’t find anywhere else. During the past people have been changing the way their last name is spelled, depending on the state which held Susak at the time (Italy, Austria, Croatia). As a consequence, some names have up to six variants of spelling. Here’s a list of them, where first a Croatian version is given with variants listed in parentheses:
- Busanić (Bussanich, Bussanic)
- Hrončić (Hroncich, Hroncic)
- Matesić (Mattessich)
- Mirković (Mircovich)
- Picinić (Picinich, Piccinich, Picinic, Piccinic, Picini, Piccini)
- Skrivanić (Scrivanich)
- Tarabokija (Tarabocchia, Tarabochia, Tarabokia)
On the island there is only one settlement, which can be split into two villages: upper and lower one. The older upper one is located on a hill above the sandy bay called Spiaza. The newer lower village lays along the western coast of the same bay.
Centuries ago the first houses were constructed using reed and mud and were covered with reed and straw. Later people started using stone, which is the main material from which most of the houses of the island are built. More modern materials such as bricks are used only in a few buildings built in recent hundred years (during the Austro-Hungarian empire).
Most of the houses built in the oldest part of the village around the church were build in fact atop of ruins of older houses. It’s not uncommon to find human bones if you dig close to church. A few hundred years ago the first cemetery was located in that area.
Today the she Susak village counts around 700 houses, from which most of them were soled to become summer residences.
Nowadays old houses and the original island architecture is faces big problems. The laws which should protect these houses from being turned into white uniformed bricks is not enforced. So now you can see a lot of bat taste in action: white facades, concrete balconies decorated by porcelain or plastic garden dwarfs and all sorts of animals!
Therapeutic properties of Susak
A the beginning of the 20th an Austrian doctor Ernest Mayerhofer was searching the Adriatic. He was looking for an adequate place for thalassotherapy for children. In 1912 his search brought him to island of Susak, where he found just the place he was looking for: isolated small island with a balmy maritime climate where children, referred by their physicians could covalence in the company of their parents without the usual seaside distractions. The island proved to be very therapeutical for children’s asthma, allergic conditions of pharynx, chronic bronchitis and similar ailments. The location is also perfect for other pediatric indications, such as various respiratory diseases, skin rashes, chronic and torpid forms of rheumatism, hiperthrophia tonsillaris, convalescence after various infectious diseases. Soon in the bay of Bok a number of small houses and a kitchen were constructed, based on the sketches of the Austrian architect Alfred Keller. Along came a small hotel as well as a number of tents and reed cabins for aerotheraphy. Susak became a famous Austro-Hungarian sea-spa for allergic children.
All came to an end as the World War I broke out unexpectedly. Today all that remains are ruins just above the Bok bay.
There are claims that the Bok bay has therapeutic properties for healing fertility problems in women. The active substance is supposed to be contained in the sand. Even today one can see women lying around buried in it.
Read more about this subject at: My medical memories of the island of Susak in years 1912-1914, by doctor Ernest Mayerhofer
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