In April 2005 I visited Venice for the fourth time. The city of Venice is generally regarded to be the birth place of Marco Polo – but is it?
The Italian city is fairly insistent that it is the birthplace of the explorer and as well as restaurants and hotels has even named its airport after the great traveller, but if you speak to the people of Korčula they are equally adamant that he was born there in a house in the centre of the town. Interestingly however neither city seems sufficiently confident of their conflicting claims to provide the funds to commission a statue of the famous traveller.
When I visited Croatia in 2009 I visited the island of Korčula and one of the main visitor sites in the town is the Marco Polo house. Korčula is compact (small) and after walking around the old town several times we were saving a visit to the house and museum for as long as possible so when we had done everything else that we could we delayed it a few moments longer by stopping at a café bar outside the cathedral where we sat under red umbrellas and it was a good job we did because while we there it started to spit with rain.
So now we went to the Marco Polo house and negotiated our way through the gift shop outside and paid our admission fee to enter the house.
Marco Polo was born in 1254 (somewhere) and was an explorer who wrote ‘Il Milione’, which introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. He learned about trading whilst together with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, he voyaged through Asia and met Kublai Khan. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia and travelled almost twenty-five thousand kilometres, a journey which took them nearly twenty-five years.
For his troubles Marco was accused of being a fraud and imprisoned, and whilst incarcerated dictated his stories to a fellow prisoner and cell mate. Even today suspicion continues and some historians think it more likely that the Venetian merchant adventurer picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol Empire from Persian merchants whom he met on the shores of the Black Sea – thousands of miles short of the Orient.
In a book published in 1995, “Did Marco Polo Go to China?”, Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section at the British Library, argued that he probably did not make it beyond the Black Sea.
He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and had three children. He died in 1324, and was buried in San Lorenzo in Italy.
The house is due to be turned into a museum sometime soon but at the moment it has to be said that it is a bit of a disappointment. There are no exhibits and no rooms to show them in if there were, only a succession of uneven stairs that lead to the top of a tower with an average sort of view over the town.
On the plus side the admission price did include a postcard of Marco Polo (above) – each!