Croatia has almost 1,200 islands that dot the Adriatic Sea like spots on a Dalmatian dog: a perfect place for sailing and enjoying isolated coves and turquoise waters. In a very short time the Dalmatian Coast has attracted an unstoppable wave of tourists, travellers and sailors.
And a part of that endless myriad is its most famous island, Hvar, maybe because it’s the most beautiful. Its elegant capital of the same name maintains standards of good taste –to the extent that it’s forbidden to walk around in bathing suits.
The Venetian influence is obvious in the ancestral homes and white stone palaces along steep narrow streets that empty into a square that’s reminiscent of San Marco, dock included. All around are expensive restaurants, art galleries, museums and jewellery shops. The port is full of huge yachts and where it’s possible to run into a princess or Bill Gates or Beyoncé.
The fortress, known as Forte Spagnolo –it was built by Spanish architects– provides a vantage point over all the human fauna teeming through the city. Now there are also guided groups of tourists, retired people and, especially, young people in search of sun, beaches and partying. There are endless techno ‘raves’ on summer nights, in designer beach bars where the champagne flows until dawn.
When we’re on holiday at the seaside there’s no time for hangovers, and anyway there’s plenty to do each day. Beside sailing through the Pakleni Islands, there’s scuba diving or underwater fishing (there are many squids). For less active visitors there is Jerolim Island, one of the first enclaves of nudism in Europe.
Aboard a scooter or a rental car it’s easy to explore the interior, which is full of beautiful Aleppo pine forests. You’ll soon reach Stari Grad, the island’s old capital: while the pace is calmer here, it has that same noble air of the city of Hvar, and the artists have made it their refuge. On a solemn square is the home-museum of the Petar Hektorovic, a key figure in Croatian Renaissance literature who throughout his life collected the songs and stories of the local fishermen.
Stari Grad Plain has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its architecture and the layout of its vineyards and olive groves, which have remained intact since being planted by the Greeks 24 centuries ago. In addition, this fertile plain also serves to grow lavender through ecological methods: because of the many hours of sunlight and the little rain, it is among the best in Europe. Its spectacular flowering runs from the middle of June to the end of July. During the harvest, the town of Vole Grablje holds a festival in honour of this aromatic and medicinal plant.
Hvar is a model of an interactive maritime and cultural space, with a rich heritage left by the different peoples that reached this coast. After the Ionians came the Romans, who colonised the rural areas and built their rustic villas.
With the protection of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the island prospered, and the Venetians let the Turks occupy it only briefly. During the domination by the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was fashionable for its climate, and doctors advised a stay there for aristocrats who were ill. Later it would be integrated into the greater Yugoslavia by Tito, and after the traumatic Balkan War the country became independent and a part of the European Union.
Fortunately the sound of bombs from the continent at the end of the past century has been replaced by the music blasting from the open-air discotheques in Hvar during the summer. Electronic music envelopes the island and there’s an important festival that attracts clubbers from all over Europe. The people most bothered by the uproar may be the city’s Benedictine nuns, known for the lacework they fashion from threads extracted from the aloe plant. Their very special technique has been recognised by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The sunsets in these climes are incredibly beautiful. Visitors to the island –mainly Germans, Austrians, Italians and Croats– share the common language of hedonism. Nowadays Marco Polo, a native of the island, would find few reasons to leave the Dalmatian Coast.
Fotos: Manuel Montaño