Former Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer proclaims Hvar to be her
favorite Croatian island. Read on to find out why:
HVAR TOWN, Croatia -- Upon first viewing the tiered terra-cotta
roofs and marble square of Hvar Town from a sailboat in the
Adriatic, you might think you're hallucinating: Is that a
glamourous Italian resort like Positano on the horizon?
It is not an illusion that Hvar gets 2,724 hours of sunshine
annually, making it a top vacation spot for Europeans.
Adding to the island's allure are its 18th century Venetian
architecture, yacht-filled ports and pedestrian-only alleys flanked
by centuries-old mansions.
Last summer thousands of visitors arrived daily in Hvar -- not
reaching the 10,000-a-day level of summer 1989, before the break-up
of Yugoslavia, but still a noticeable improvement from 1999, when
conflict raged in nearby Kosovo.
The first time I came to Hvar in 1996, I was only able to visit
Hvar Town, a port of call for a handful of cruise ships.
Although Hvar Town is the most obvious attraction on the island,
with its Gothic palaces and colorful seaside promenade, it is a
shame not to spend a few nights here so as to explore the less
frequented ports of Stari Grad and Jelsa.
Most visitors from other Croatian ports arrive in Stari Grad by
ferry and take a winding 40-minute bus/taxi ride to Hvar Town, the
most likely overnight spot for U.S. travelers.
Amphora and marble
Car-free Hvar Town is covered in marble. Quarried from the nearby
island of Brac, the marble covers the buildings, the town square
and the stairs that rise up into the terraced paths of lavender
plants and whitewashed homes.
Most of the more ornate palaces that surround the square, Trg
Sveti Stjepana, were built under Venetian rule, which lasted from
1331 to 1797.
Hvar's most prominent landmark is the Cathedral of St. Stjepan,
the focal point of the square. The bell tower, with its window
arches that increase with height, contrast elegantly with the
Baroque-inspired main building.
Hvar Town theater, built in 1612, was the first theater in
Europe where the "general public" -- non-aristocrats -- was
permitted to attend performances.
The theater's original decor is well-preserved, and you can
imagine tights-and-dagger- style plays staged on the tiny
The appeal of Hvar Town is not necessarily its buildings, it's
what you experience on the way to visiting the buildings.
Making the 20-minute climb to the top of the 16th century
Fortress Spanjol, you'll have the chance to pass by most of the
houses in the village.
The sounds of island life -- children playing in the marble
alleys; women clanging pots; men repairing shutters -- can be so
compelling that you might forget your final destination and just
lie about with the cats and the retirees.
The citadel commands great views of the island and the Adriatic.
Its ancient amphora collection, dating to Roman times, is worth
trudging up the steep hill in the heat.
Coming back down to the
port, a 15-minute walk past some colorful pasta and fish
restaurants on the harbor takes you to the 15th century Franciscan
The monastery is home to a few monks; a priceless collection of
medieval books; centuries-old nautical charts and coins, and a
striking painting of the Last Supper by a little-known 16th century
The airy Renaissance cloister is the monastery's architectural
highlight. Another draw is the 300-year-old cyprus tree in the
monastery garden overlooking the sea.
Have moped, will travel
To travel farther afield, I recommend renting a moped. It only
takes a few hours to traverse the island, and the hills covered by
lavender and sage provide a tranquil backdrop for an unusually
The town of Stari Grad, on the north side of the island, boasts
impressive mansions like Hvar Town but has a less picture-perfect
bay and fewer outstanding landmarks, hence, thinner crowds.
But this is still a worthwhile stop, beckoning with
old-fashioned waterfront cafes and narrow, sloping streets dotted
with ancient dwellings.
Stari Grad's history goes back as far as 385 B.C., when it was
home to the Greek colony Faros.
As is the case elsewhere on Hvar, Romans followed and then
The main square is fronted by the poet Petar Hektorovic's 16th
century castle. The Croatian nobleman was a leading man of letters
in the Slavic literary world.
A few blocks away is the town's other tourist draw, the
Dominican monastery, founded in 1482, where archaeological remains
from around the island are housed.
About 30 minutes from Stari Grad is the tiny fishing village of
This was my favorite stop during the moped ride, because the
town is mired in mystery.
Things in Jelsa look as though they haven't changed much since
the Venetians were there: Churchgoing ladies keep their heads
covered; little boys kick a ball around in the square, and men sit
sipping coffee by the one or two storefronts that face the
But the smell of affluence is in the air.
At the end of the peninsula upon which the town sits is an
upscale yacht club that caters to Europe's smart set.
The sight of well-heeled yachtsmen on their cell phones
contrasts with the sleepy day-to-day patterns that make Jelsa so
Back in Hvar Town, I inquired with one restaurateur as to the
source of Jelsa's wealth.
He smiled and said, "Perhaps they've made a killing on