You won’t find Mategosa on a map. Not a recent map, at any rate. There are Medieval Venetian maps and 16th-Century Ottoman charts that show the Isle of Mategosa, but modern-era cartographers either don’t know about Mategosa and leave it off – or they know full well about Mategosa and the trouble that could arise from putting it on a chart, so best to leave it off.
I was in Trieste harbor back in 2017, and I remember approaching the port authority to see navigation charts for where the Isle of Mategosa is. There’s no island on the map, just a “navigation hazard” that most shipping lines go neatly around… but it’s also the only navigation hazard that has a small number of shipping lines actually terminating on it.
I asked a worker at the port authority about getting passage to Mategosa. He was set to retire soon, so he had a certain candor in his speaking that others were too early in their careers to have. I recall his knowing smile and comments along the line of, “I can’t tell you that, but I can.” I asked him if that was the case just in Trieste. No, he said, it’s that way all around the Adriatic. Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Albanian ports – all of them have no official way to get you to Mategosa, but you can still get there if you need to.
So what’s the best way to get to get on a boat that arrives at the navigation hazard in the Northern Adriatic Sea? Well, experience has shown me that the best way to get there is to be a regular commuter. If one is in a habit of going to and from Mategosa, one tends to stay in that habit. But what about the casual visitor, drawn by tales of the ancient Roman playground for the wealthy, romances of Crusader pirates, or glimpses of the glitterati? How do tourists get there?
The good news is that it is very easy to get to Mategosa, once you know how to understand the system that is in place. The caution is that it is also very easy to get to Mategosa the wrong way, so you have to be careful about your travel arrangements.
Let’s cover what not to do first. Do not walk up and down the fishing piers, asking if any of the boats are going to Mategosa. You might very well find a boat that will take you there, but you might either pay a price that is ultimately too high or become permanently entangled in lines of business that will always keep drawing you back when you think you finally found a way out.
Do not walk into a ferry terminal and ask for a ticket to Mategosa. You will be flatly told that there is no such place. You will also be marked as a possible international police inspector or some other kind of busybody and the ferry operators’ network will likely blacklist you up and down both sides of the Adriatic. One of the most important rules of Mategosa is never asking the wrong questions about it. Asking for a ticket to Mategosa is one of those wrong questions.
To properly get to Mategosa, do go to the right kind of ferry terminal. One that advertises cross-border or trans-Adriatic service is the right kind of terminal. Local-only terminals will either lack service or offer it only to people that they recognize. In the international terminal, do not look for a ferry by its listed destination, look instead for ferries by their departure and arrival times. Where you see a ferry that has a departure time but no arrival time, that is the ferry to Mategosa. Depending on distance, fares for the ferry will range from 70-100 Euros. Go with established, recognized ferry firms, such as Jadrolinija, Gomo Viaggi, Kompas, or Venezia Lines.
Travel time to Mategosa from most major Adriatic ports is at least 5 hours, and from Pescara or Split, it can be 10-11 hours. I do not recommend boarding a ferry to Mategosa from a location further south. In most cases, it’s faster to take the train to Ancona in Italy or Split in Croatia and then board the ferry there. Nevertheless, if you must get to Mategosa directly from Bari or Durres, you can find passage on a recognized carrier in the manner described above. Be advised, however, that travel times will be much longer – you’ll likely be on a sleeper – and that the ferries depart less frequently than those in the Central or Northern Adriatic.
Do not expect Adriatic cruise ships to make any stops at Mategosa: Mategosa is one of the rare Adriatic islands not hugging the coastline, which is the domain of the cruise ship. Moreover, there would be some potentially severe legal entanglements for cruise liners to make a Mategosan port of call, so they will treat it very much as a “navigation hazard”, even though the hazards are purely ones of international law.
There is a causeway to Mategosa, but you do not want to travel to Mategosa by car. I will say no more of this except to re-iterate that if you arrive in Mategosa by any means other than a legitimate ferry service, you will most certainly not be a tourist. A word to the wise is sufficient.
Once you debark from the ferry, expect to be greeted by the smiling, but abrupt, natives. Most folk speak a blend of Dalmatian, a Romance tongue that is extinct everywhere else in the world, and Chakavian, the dialect of Serbo-Croatian most common along the Dalmatian and Istrian coast. Mategosans often know enough English to help tourists get to basic attractions, but prefer to conduct their business affairs in these obscure dialects. The reasoning behind that preference goes back several hundred years, back to when Mategosa became notorious as a base for uskoci pirates.
Now, if you want to know why Mategosa is not on any map, do not ask any Mategosan. At best, they will treat your question with quiet contempt. There is a certain cultural pride in their obscurity being a given, and they are tight-lipped about their national secrets. Do not also ask any boat operators, for reasons noted above. They will sail to “nowhere”, pause, and then turn around, no questions asked. Ever.
The answers to that question that should not be asked are to be found in Nacionalna i sveučilišna knjižnica u Zagrebu – the National and University Library in Zagreb. They are in the Library of St. Mark in Venice. They are in Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, the Ottoman State Archives in Istanbul. They are in the Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, the Austrian State Archives in Vienna. And you will find those answers not by asking about Mategosa – that is a good way to get no information – but by asking roundabout questions about general information regarding the Central/Northern Adriatic region, with particular reference to endemic trees that people enjoyed in the past.
When you understand that in the patois of the mystery island, “Mategosa” translates as “tree we enjoy”, you will understand why that reference noted above begins to unlock the secrets of the place. And Mategosa is indeed home to a catkin-bearing chestnut tree species that is unique to that island, so if you don’t want to be sent to the botany section, be sure to mention “in the past” in your questioning, so that you are led to the part of the archives that have the maps with Mategosa on them… and the papers explaining why it had to be removed.