Croatia's island of Hvar claims place in the sun

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

The terra-cotta roofs of Hvar Town as viewed from Fortress Spanjol. 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 proscenium.

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.

One of Stari Grad's stately mansions.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 monastery.

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 Venetian painter.

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 smooth ride.

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 Slavs.

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 Jelsa.

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 port.

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 tranquil.

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 lavender."

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