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As well as the olive tree, the Mediterranean basin possesses an extensive endemic flora, including the lavender plant. The therapeutic and aromatic use of its flowers has a long history, and the Romans took the plant a long way from its original ecosystem, even carrying it as far as Britain.

In Croatia, lavender is part of the country’s image, and even constitutes something of a national symbol. Here it is not at all unusual to come across its penetrating scent, since it was traditionally used to freshen enclosed spaces and repel insects. Upon entering a Croatian house or perhaps a hotel room, you can find the scent of lavender in the room and perfuming towels and sheets. In this simple way, the Croatia brand is impregnated with a wonderful sensation of cleanliness and freshness.

Although lavender is either cultivated or grows wild in many places around the country, it is on the island of Hvar, on the Dalmatia coast, where it is at its best. The reason is due to the good soil and the mild climate, as well as the many hours of sun that the plant receives here. The same 140 annual hours of sun and low rainfall that bring tourists to this spot also give the island’s lavender a highly concentrated chemical essence. So fine is its fragrance that it is said to surpass even the famous lavender of French Provence.

As well as an excellent quality, the local lavender here has another advantage: it is cultivated organically. The farmers of Hvar let it grow surrounded by other plants and bushes, without lining the lavender up in military rows, as is seen elsewhere. Later, harvesting is done with great care, by hand, and its processing is done at least partly according to traditional, craft methods.

It was not always like this. Lavender began to become a popular crop on the island in the wake of the First World War, after the phylloxera epidemic wiped out the local vines. The winemakers found, in lavender, a plant that was easy to cultivate and which did not require a large investment. However, after only a short time the crop became a monoculture, and a low quality hybrid variety was favoured. At the end of the 20th century, after the war with Serbia, which was the principal customer for the island’s lavender oil, production declined and unsold stock accumulated.

In 1998, an association of the island’s farmers started up a new project: organic cultivation and the use of high quality lavender seeds. It was decided to imitate the good results that nature herself has always produced. The degree of success has been so great, thanks to the efforts of these farmers, that almost all of their production is exported, mainly to France and its insatiable perfume industry. More recently, the farmers have begun to publicise their skills, and now the island has a Lavender Fair, held in early summer in the town of Vole Grablje. It coincides with the harvesting of the flower, prior to the process of distilling it in oil.

Everywhere on the island you can find shops and stalls selling natural lavender and products made with it. The oil of this plant is much sought-after, and has been famous for its properties as an aid to relaxation since antiquity. These days it plays an essential role in aromatherapy. It is also said to help muscle pain and skin and digestive problems. These same outlets offer a wind range of perfumes, colognes, soaps, creams and air fresheners. Lavender, here, has become something for the tourists to take home. Never has a souvenir been so refined and useful.

If you can see it, the flowering of the lavender on Hvar is a sight to behold. It begins in mid-June and continues until the end of July. An infinity of violet bursts fill the Stari Grad plain and the hillsides around, set among old vineyards and olive groves. At night, the sweet scent of lavender mixes with that of rosemary and the Aleppo pines of the woods. The Adriatic Sea offers a harmony of deep blues and turquoise in the background.

Photos: Manuel Montaño