In the 1500s, builders raised walls for the Gothic palace of nobleman poet Petar Hektorovic at the city gates, but stopped before putting on the roof, for unknown reasons. Maybe they took a...
HVAR, Croatia In the 1500s, builders raised walls for the Gothic palace of nobleman poet Petar Hektorovic at the city gates, but stopped before putting on the roof, for unknown reasons. Maybe they took a coffee break, got entranced by the local scenery and forgot to go back to work.
Hvar can do that to a person.
Except for a few weeks in August when visitors cram the central Dalmatian coast, the island town avoids the clamor and gloss that increasingly permeate tourist spots, but is overlaid with a reflective languidness.
Hvar isn’t a deliberate anachronism, a fussily preserved simulacrum of the Old Days but the blandishments of modernity seem crude and irrelevant here.
No video screen, no matter how wide, could better the hues of the aquamarine Adriatic water and jagged ochre mountains; no pulsing electro-bleeps could complement the sights as well as the sound of church bells reverberating off sun-bleached limestone walls.
Hvar’s spirit is manifest even when choosing which ferry to take there from the mainland a speedy, sleek catamaran or a lumbering, aged tub.
The catamaran costs less, but even though it’s up to the minute and gives a smooth ride, it’s kind of low-class, confining its passengers to a cabin with cramped seating. The old boat takes twice as long, but lets travelers wander the outside decks, taste the salt spray, rock with the waves and watch the propellers churn the sea into jade foam privileges worth the extra $1.40 and 60 minutes travel time.
A welcoming crowd
Within five steps after leaving the ship, any visitor toting luggage and looking even vaguely foreign will be in the thick of an old-fashioned Balkan practice women offering rooms in their homes. Those who choose this way of finding accommodation are quickly led up steep streets some of them hardly more than wide staircases through a warren of 16th-century houses flanked by potted palms, dusty blue-and-pink hydrangeas and sleeping dogs.
Whichever house the room turns out to be in, it is sure to be fastidiously clean and its proprietor happy to converse, whether or not she speaks your language.
After settling in, visitors tend to drift down to the town piazza (pjaca in Croatian), a waterside expanse of stone slabs polished by centuries of strolling feet. The square, like much of Hvar, is free of motor vehicles.
There, they settle in at one of an array of outdoor cafes for reconnaissance and refreshment: the local schnapps called rakija and bitter coffee with sweet whipped cream are among the most popular choices.
This can take a good chunk out of the day, if the visitor follows local practice. A Croat spends longer sipping an eight-ounce soft drink than an American teen takes to dispose of a jeroboam of cola at a convenience store and seems to derive more pleasure from it.
The empty windows of the unfinished Hektorovic palace still loom over the pjaca, but other buildings testify that Hvar’s people were impressively diligent.
The pjaca’s ends are anchored by an armory both massive and graceful and by a cathedral whose bell tower has so many arches and windows that it seems to have been woven in lace. Two centuries-old forts crouch amid the 1,000-foot slopes at the edge of town.
With its intact city walls, narrow streets and seaside position, Hvar can seem like a vest-pocket version of Dubrovnik at Croatia’s far southern tip. But it lacks that renowned city’s air of cultural sanctity, and high seriousness is outdone by naked pleasure.
That’s literal sometimes. Two rocky islets just off Hvar are popular for providing rocky perches for those who love to sun and swim in the altogether. Even in town, modesty is only relative. Quayside loungers often see yachts coming in to dock with a woman or two perched on the prow, minimally clothed like figureheads carved by extremely lonely shipwrights.
But for all that is on display, Hvar is hardly a fleshpot; it’s sweet and even a little naive. Double-entendre T-shirts are rare. Some watering holes play music, but never too loud to block conversation. Vendors selling seashells along the quay at night light their wares with candles, as if offering holy relics.
With its sea and sheer mountains, Hvar looks like a prime spot for “extreme sport” thrill-seekers, and visitors can indeed rent high-speed jet-propelled water skis and hire parasailing jaunts but almost no one does.
People-watching, even in the full-clothing precincts away from the beaches, is superb entertainment, giving vivid glimpses of simple lives.
Farther afield, the town of Vrboska, an hour’s bus ride over the island’s 2,000-foot spine, has an array of paintings by Titian and his contemporaries in its three churches, including an unusual church-fortress. Stari Grad, 12 miles from Hvar, features Hektorovic’s summer palace, which was actually finished.
A natural cathedral
Many choose a day trip by cabin cruiser to the island of Bisevo to see the famed Modra Spilja sea cave.
The entrance, a low, dark opening in a sheer wall of rock, is so small that visitors have to crouch down in small rowboats and seems all the more spooky because it is guarded by a man and a dog in a boat, like the mythological Charon and Cerebrus at the gates to Hades.
But coming a little closer, they find that the man is contentedly sipping a midday beer, and the dog is wagging his tail at the approach of potential new friends.
And the switch from fear to cheer continues inside, when the boat makes a sharp turn into a soaring chamber of shimmering blues and greens, lit by sun refracted through the water of a subsurface opening. Schools of fish scurry across the sea bed, clearly visible 50 feet below.