I had heard of Hvar (pronounced ‘Huar’ in Croatian) long before I ever set foot in Croatia. This famous Croatian island off the Dalmatian coast is known for having it all: lush nature, rich history, beautiful architecture, scenic beaches and exciting nightlife, plus stylish restaurants, bars and hotels. Of course that doesn’t go unnoticed: each summer the gossip magazines fill their pages with pictures of celebrities reveling in the turquoise waters on luxury yachts offshore, or dancing the night away at the bar Carpe Diem, the island’s party central.
In the summer of 2021 I spent three months in Croatia doing research for a book. After five days in Korcula I took a ferry to Hvar, located between the islands of Korcula, Brac and Vis. It was raining lightly, but when the ferry docked in Hvar in the late afternoon, the sun was shining bright again. From the ferry I could see what looked like a medieval village on two hills topped by a fortress. At the bottom of the picture was a blue bay full of lavish yachts. When I got off the ferry, the bells of a nearby church were ringing, drawing people to mass, a sound I always relish when I am in Europe.
A young man from Dea Hvar Hotel was waiting for me on the ferry platform, to help with my suitcase. It proved to be a good idea, as I soon realized that Hvar is covered in steps. We climbed many to reach the hotel, but, once there, I encountered a stunning panoramic view. Finally in my room, the view was even better, and I watched as the last reflections of sunlight on the sea faded into nightfall.
Hvar is the longest and sunniest Croatian island, with an annual average of 2,726 hours of sunshine. For more than five months a year, the sea temperature is above 20 degrees Celsius, about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The air temperature only goes below 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) in January and February, but even in the wintertime the Mediterranean climate guarantees mild temperatures most of the time.
The sea around Hvar is crystal clear and unspoiled. The island claims to have the cleanest waters on the Adriatic Sea, with a cobalt-blue color that allows for seeing the sea floor even around the boats of the busy marina.
The island’s coastal villages – Hvar, Stari Grad and Jelsa, among others – attract a lot of tourists, and may get a bit crowded in the summer. By contrast, the atmosphere inland is peaceful, with fields of lavender, centuries-old olive trees and vineyards as far as the eyes can see. In mid-June, the lavender was still in bloom and the heavenly fragrance permeated the air all around the island.
The town of Hvar is the main tourist attraction on the island and one of the most visited places on the Dalmatian coast. It has been home to ancient Greeks and Romans, but its heyday was the Renaissance period when the region prospered under Venetian rule as one of their important ports. Trade with the Orient brought wealth and culture; a theater built in 1612 is one of the oldest in Europe, and it was open to all classes, something unusual at a time when the aristocracy didn’t mingle with the rest. At the same time as the arts were flourishing, the island became famous for its wine, lavender, olives and ship building. Venetian rule came to an end in 1797, when the French troops under Napoleon took over. Later, the Austrians dominated, but Hvar is now 100% Croatian.
The Venetian influence is easy to detect in the architecture of Hvar, especially around the central square – called Hvar piazza – the largest square in Dalmatia. The piazza is dominated by the Cathedral of St Stephen, a Renaissance building with a 17th-century bell tower on only one side. Surrounded by trendy boutiques, ice cream parlors and bars that start filling up at 5 pm – when the boats come back to shore – the piazza is the lively center of town. At the end of hot summer days, people descend upon it with their families; children play around unattended, and elders sit in front of their homes to chat with passersby, a scene that is a perfect snapshot of life in the Mediterranean.
The harborside area is full of trendy bars and restaurants, and the boaters making a stop there at the end of a day out at sea were good looking and chic: the women wore simple but stylish dresses in the latest fashion, and the men exuded an air usually associated with affluence. Hvar undoubtedly attracts the rich and famous like a magnet.
I had the address of a restaurant called Konoba Menego (which proved to be an excellent choice for dinner), and on my second day on the island I climbed the sharply rising hillside of an ancient quarter called Groda to get there. Narrow cobblestone streets were flanked on both sides by charming stone houses with wooden shutters painted in bright colors. In one of the alleyways I discovered a Benedictine convent founded in 1644, where nuns living in seclusion still make and sell the famous Hvar lace, which is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and is one of the symbols of Hvar. The delicate lace is made from the strings of an agave cactus plant not older than three years that is specially processed to produce a thin, white thread. The detailed and highly demanding ritual is time consuming, but the lace is absolutely gorgeous.
From the Groda quarter I kept climbing the hill, and after a 20 minute walk I arrived at the ramparts of the 16th-century Citadel – which locals call Spanjola – a city fortress built after 1278, when Hvar came under Venetian rule. In 1551, a new fortress was built on the same site to protect the population against the pirates that were rampaging through the Adriatic at the time. The same fortress ended up saving the lives of nearly the entire local population, who took refuge there on August 19th, 1571, the day the island was invaded by Turks who plundered and set the town on fire.
The last addition to the fortress was made in 1775, when Hvar was under Austrian rule. The Citadel is now a symbol of a turbulent period in Hvar, and its elaborate ground plan – perfectly preserved – is one of the finest of its kind on the Croatian coast. Perched on top of a hill 100 meters high, it offers the best views of Hvar and of the Pakleni islands on the bay. A short ride from the harbor, the Paklenis are made of 21 small islands, islets and reefs, and are recognized as one of Hvar’s most beautiful natural assets. Within their many hidden coves there are a few strictly nude beaches, something quite popular in Croatia.
I took a public bus in the town to get to Stari Grad, a village only 20 kilometers away (about 12 miles). On the way there I could see the lush and jagged island coastline, which makes it a popular destination for scuba divers and boaters.
Stari Grad was so different from Hvar that it could easily be in another world. It was founded 2,400 years ago by Greeks from the island of Paros – which makes it one of the oldest towns in Europe – and it is the island’s main ferry port, where transportation to the Croatian mainland and to other islands is easily available. The old town lies at the end of a deep water channel protected by hills, the reason why the harbor of Stari Grad has been considered a safe haven for 20 centuries.
Stari Grad is among the most picturesque places I saw during my time in Croatia. Walking past low stone houses lining both sides of narrow streets that ended at the sea transported me to a time several centuries past, while the constant movement of boats reminded me that I was in an active modern port. On the waterfront, children were eating ice cream while being supervised by their chatting families. I got a table at a bar where the rhythm of the water smacking against the brick walls in front -combined with the light breeze from the sea – put me in such a relaxed mood that I almost fell asleep in my chair. Stari Grad felt peaceful, unpretentious – perfect.
In the afternoon I visited the fortified summer residence of famed Renaissance poet and nobleman Petar Hektorivic, one of the highlights of the village. Within this magnificent 16th century compound called Tvrdalj, the poet realized his idea of a microcosm, a small and self-contained world where all divine creatures – fish, birds, plants and people – had space to live. Hektorović also fortified his villa to function as a shelter for him and his fellow citizens during the frequent raids by the Turks.
I braved the bright, hot sun to walk to the Dominican Monastery outside the old town. Founded in 1482, it had a beautiful cloister and a library rich in medieval incunabula (books printed before the year 1500), as well as a rare collection of paintings that include a ‘Lamentation of Christ,’ by master Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594). The two imposing round towers at the corners of the building were added as fortifications after the Turkish attack of 1571, when the town was partly destroyed. I took time exploring the inside of the monastery in the company of a solicitous nun who was visibly glad to help me (I was the only visitor). The place was reeking with history and definitely worth a visit.
To the east of Stari Grad, the Ager – also called Stari Grad Plain – is an agricultural landscape that preserves the original field plan established by the first Greek colonizers in the 4th century BC. They cultivated wine, figs and olives, as it is still done today. The ancient layout of the land has been preserved and the stone walls carefully maintained, along with shelters and the original water collection system. The Ager was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008 as the only land cultivated uninterruptedly for over 2000 years in all of the Mediterranean. It’s possible to rent bikes to visit it.
Before going back to Hvar I had an early dinner at the quaint Konoba Zvijezda Mora, in the center of the old quarter. The authentic Mediterranean dish of carpaccio, arugula salad and tomatoes tasted so fresh that I seriously considered staying in Stari Grad longer to have it again the next day. If I ever go back to Hvar, that’s exactly what I intend to do.
I was early for the bus back to Hvar and waited for it under a shady tree at the town’s edge, next to the Ager. The afternoon was hot and quiet, only every once in a while a car passed by, and even less frequently people walked by in small groups. Stari Grad has less than 3,000 inhabitants, and if it wasn’t for the tourists in town the streets would probably be totally empty. I killed time admiring the details of a charming old stone house with blue windows nearby, imagining what it would be like to live there. That Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the summer in a town where not much has changed in the last 2,400 years, filled me with sheer joy. “Some things never change, and that’s good,” I thought, when the bus came. I hope Stari Grad stays that way.
On my last day in Hvar I visited a Franciscan Monastery on a peninsula facing the sea. Dated from 1461, it had many important historical references and awesome sculptures (the Croatians love sculptures). It was St Anthony’s Day, and the 6 o’clock mass was packed with women probably praying for a husband (in the Catholic tradition, St Anthony is the patron saint of marriages).
After that I decided to spend my last moments in Hvar doing what tourists there like to do – partying (well… kind of, since I don’t drink alcohol). For that I went straight to Carpe Diem, where the dancing usually kicks off at 5pm and goes on until early morning. It was still empty when I arrived. I got a table with magnificent views of the bay, and slowly savored a colorful fruit cocktail while watching the boats return to shore. When one of the waiters offered to take a picture of me, “to remember Hvar,” I agreed.
Like clockwork, at 5 pm the perfectly tanned beautiful people started to descend from their yachts and occupy the tables around. The disco music was turned on, and the atmosphere changed to a festive celebration of summer. I said goodbye to the friendly staff and headed back to my hotel to pack – the next morning I would be setting sail for Split very early – knowing with certainty that the beauty of Hvar would stay with me.