Even after spending three months in Croatia during the summer of 2021, doing research for a book, I still hesitate when I am asked which Croatian island is my favorite. That is not an easy choice.
But the Island of Brac, off the coast of Split, earned its place in the top tier of my list. Brac is not as trendy as Hvar and doesn’t have the cachet of Vis, but I found that it has plenty to offer. As a matter of fact, some of the villages on Brac Island are even more attractive than those on the other two better-known islands.
Spanning 153 square miles, Brac is the largest island of the Dalmatian coast, the name of the longest and most picturesque part of Croatia’s coastline. It is also one of the sunniest, with no less than 2,700 hours of sunshine annually. Easy to reach, Brac (pronounced Brach) is famous for the Brac stone, a prized white limestone extracted from its quarries that is said to be the stone used to build the American White House.
Fishing, shipping and olive cultivation were major industries on Brac until the middle of the 20th century, when emigration to Australia and the Americas led to depopulation of the island. In recent years, tourism has become a major economic activity, and it is now fostering the return of the prosperity that Brac and other Croatian islands once enjoyed.
The most famous Croatian beach, Zlatni Rat, is in Brac. On top of that, few other islands in the country have so much to offer to sporting enthusiasts – water sports, boating, fishing, hiking – just to name a few, are easily available. And let us not forget Mediterranean food: Brac has excellent and inexpensive restaurants.
With so much going for it, I was surprised that I had never heard of Brac until I was already in Split, Croatia’s second largest city. Tempted by curiosity, I took a ‘Jadrolinija’ ferry from Split’s harbor, the mainland gateway to the islands, and, after a 50 minute ride, the ferry docked in Supetar, Brac’s port of entry and one of the prettiest villages in Croatia.
Set against a backdrop of green mountains, Supetar Bay looked idyllic as I saw it for the first time from the ferry. The town developed in the 1700’s and 1800’s around a scenic harbor, and the architecture has not changed much since. There are no high rises, no shopping malls, no major highways. With a church towering over the village – a common feature in Catholic Croatia – Supetar is home to more than 3,000 people. It is also the administrative, cultural and economic center of Brac. Looking away from the harbor, vineyards, olive groves and orchards stretch in both directions, covering the mountains for as far as the eye can see.
Although dating back to Roman times, Supetar was ruled by Venice from 1420 to 1797, and the Venetian influence can still be recognized in the architecture. Searching for a place to eat, I passed through cobblestone alleyways lined with low-standing stone houses all the way, until I reached the harbor. A number of waterside bars and ‘konobas’ (places that serve Croatian cuisine) there were filling up with customers for lunch. I got a table at one called Konoba Lukin.
Croatian cuisine is a smorgasbord of the many different cultures that occupied the region throughout its history – more recently the Venetian and Austro-Hungarian empires – and each region has its own flavors. In Brac, the local grub includes lamb meat, sheep cheese, olive oil and mandarins, stews, seafood and risottos. It is even possible to find specialties like vitalac, lamb offal wrapped in intestines and roasted on a spit. The selection on the menu at Konoba Lukin was wide, but I opted for grilled shrimp scampi and salad, which proved to be a good choice; not only was it fresh and tasty, but the price was low: less than 100 Kuna ($15) for a meal that would cost twice that amount on the more touristy places on the continent.
After lunch I strolled around the harbor, soaking up the peace and serenity. The atmosphere was laid back, with only a few other tourists around. At midday the sun was shining bright on the water, reflecting a bluest sky. I took time to observe people boarding and disembarking from their boats moored on the bay, before making a stop at a street vendor that was selling jewelry made of Brac’s white stones. I asked her about Supetar in the winter. “Does it get too empty?” I inquired.
“Not really, many people now live here but work in Split, only 50 minutes away by boat,” she replied. She added that, “Of course in the summer we get crowded with tourists, but here we never feel overwhelmed, like other islands in Croatia do. Supetar is popular with families for our pebble beaches and shallow bays, while the coast around here, with pine trees, is preferred by campers,” she informed me.
School teenagers were playing with their iphones next to the Church of Annunciation, a landmark that sits atop a monumental staircase, just a few steps from the harbor. On that same site, there was once an early-Christian basilica dedicated to St. Peter. It was destroyed by a fire in 1604, but a number of mosaics were saved from ruin and have been preserved. I caught myself walking on the remains of one of them, a 6th century Roman mosaic that depicted domestic scenes; the colors were so vivid that it looked as if they had just been painted. Next to the church there was a museum that displays Venetian Renaissance items, as well as a bell tower said to offer great views of Supetar at the top. Both sites were closed for renovation that day.
Famed sculptor Ivan Rendic (1849-1932), considered the most prominent Croatian sculptor of the 19th century, spent his youth and the last years of his life in Supetar. His gallery, opened in 1999 within the National Library, is the center of Supetar’s cultural life, and often the venue of exhibitions, lectures and concerts. It is said that Rendic personally selected 18 of his best known sculptures – as well as reliefs, sketches and documents of his life – to be shown in the gallery. Rendic’s genius can also be admired in Supetar’s cemetery, located on a hill overlooking the town. A short walk from the harbor, the cemetery is his resting place and the location of his famous sculpture ‘Pieta,’ which adorns the mausoleum of a prominent local family.
I had time to kill before getting on a bus to Bol – my final destination, on the south side of the island – and I took the time to wander about the labyrinth-like alleyways of Supetar. Some were so narrow that I could touch houses on both sides by stretching my arms sideways. The stones felt cold to the touch, even in the midday sun. “Why aren’t houses made of stone anymore?” I wondered.
In the few hours I spent there, Supetar slowly grew on me. It captivated me with its simple and unassuming charm. Before boarding the bus I took pictures of some houses for rent around the harbor, making a mental note to go back someday.
A 40-minute local bus ride separated Supetar from Bol. The bus stopped in every small village on the way so that local residents could exit, but before stepping out, each one of them chatted with the bus driver, as if they had nothing else to do. “People are so relaxed here,” I remember thinking. “No one seems to be in a hurry.” The bus ride to Bol took us by white limestone quarries and small hamlets that encircled chapels. On some stretches I caught glimpses of the sea, shining at a distance on the other side of the island. The interior of Brac is made up of small valleys and fields of olive trees (Brac’s olive oil is famous around the world), while the woods along the coast are mainly made up of Aleppo pines.
Bol is the oldest settlement on the south side of Brac. A small, attractive village of about 1,000 people squeezed between the mountains and the Adriatic, it lies beneath Mount Saint Vid, the highest peak on all of the Croatian islands (778m). Bol stretches along a seafront promenade – the Riva – lined by taverns and bars. The water is exceptionally clear, at times of a cobalt-blue color, and across the channel one can see the island of Hvar.
Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn), a white-pebble beach located 2 kilometers west of Bol, at the end of a pleasant promenade, is the most popular resort in Croatia and the most photographed beach in the country. Its unique tongue-like shape alters according to the winds and currents – the strongest in the Adriatic – and the site has become a favorite spot for windsurfers, kite surfers and para sailors. With shallow waters, the beach is also a favorite of families with children, and in the summer it is usually full every day. At the end of the beach I reached a sign warning that there was a nudist beach ahead (there are many in Croatia) and that only naked people were allowed to enter. Turning around, I noticed that behind the shady trees of Zlatni Rat there are mid-range priced hotels and accommodations for tourists.
I stayed at Hotel Kastil, in the center of town and on the Riva, housed in an old baroque fortress formerly owned by a local aristocrat. From my balcony I could see the harbor, and in the mornings I drank coffee while watching fishermen bring in their catch to sell on the small stands by the water. At the end of the day, my favorite pastime became the rituals of boats moorings on the harbor: like clockwork, as soon as the sun started to go down, they would come back to the shore, spilling their occupants onto the Riva and the nearest bars and restaurants. When the stunning sunsets were over, the lights in the village and on the boats would all be lit, competing with the silver rays of a full moon. The beauty of Bol in the early evening hours was breathtaking.
After sunset a DJ would entertain a young crowd on a large dance floor at the only party venue in Bol, a cocktail-bar called Varadero, near my hotel. The bar was al fresco, with tables spread out below pine trees and between tiki-style huts. Unlike the hip beach bars of Hvar, the music at Varadero did not go on all night long; peace and quiet was restored after 11 pm so that boaters could get a good night’s sleep before venturing out onto the sea the next morning.
My favorite place to eat, Konoba Dalmatino, near the hotel, was highly recommended by locals. At this friendly taverna that has been in operation since 1997, I had an unforgettable dish of gnocchi with prosciutto and truffles, as well as fried calamaris that I can still remember the taste of. They also serve other Brac specialties like ‘lamb on a spit’ and ‘octopus under peka.’ The food in Croatia is very fresh; despite eating all I wanted I actually lost weight, perhaps due to a combination of fresh food and long daily walks exploring the area.
From Bol there are plenty of boat excursions for those intent on island-hopping or visiting the main towns of Dubrovnik or Split, on the continent. I chose to stay in the village instead, to get to know it better. That is how I came about one of the most beautiful spots in Bol, a 15th century Dominican Monastery next to the episcopal palace (‘Biskupija’). The buildings of the complex are set on a scenic headland by the water, a short walk from the harbor. The early Christian architecture of the chapel, its gray stones a stark contrast against the blue waters, is still engraved in my mind. Art lovers will be interested to know that the church’s altar is decorated by a ‘Madonna and Child’ painting by master Venetian artist Tintoretto (1518-1594). It is said that the monks of the monastery still tend to the monastery’s garden, but on the day I visited, I had the place all to myself.
The bus to get back to Supetar and the ferry to Split passed through Pucisca, which competes with Supetar for the honor of most beautiful village in Croatia. Pucisca is a regional center for quarrying and cutting white limestone from three large nearby quarries, and is also home – for more than a century – to the only stone masonry school in Europe.
We drove by Deskovic Palace, a four star hotel considered the best on the island of Brac. Priced at $165 per night for a standard room, it is in the higher price range for the region, and not far from the quaint center of Pucisca. At midday people were waiting to get a table for lunch at the bars around the main square, and the atmosphere was festive but relaxed. Pucisca didn’t feel at all touristy; I had to resist the urge to get off the bus to explore it. Maybe next time.