Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Next stop, Hvar: the Party Island with a Secret Side

Split was nice, but we were wanderlusting, in the mood to explore more of Croatia and give in to the pull of island life. Our next stop: Hvar, probably Croatia's best-known
island, just an hour south of Split by ferry. But here's the thing: all the talk of Hvar Town's busy summer crowds – 20,000 visit each day in high season, apparently – its glitzy nightlife, obnoxious yachting crowd, Z-lister celebrity sightings (Prince Harry, Abramovich...) and Conde Nast status as one of the 'world's 10 most beautiful islands' admittedly put me off visiting; had it not been for a trusted friend waxing lyrical on her recent blissful honeymoon. 

But as we discovered, this is an island famous for all the wrong reasons. Away from the busy hot spots, it's a mysterious destination with a secret, charismatic side. So, follow me...

Here's a scene to get you in the mood. The walk from the port to our apartment in Stari Grad on the north coast of Hvar – translation: 'old town' (every Croatian island has one so make sure you get the ferry to the right one...) – takes you through a miniature maze of ancient marble-clad streets. We feel like we're in a toy town and can't believe our eyes. 

(Yes, I do have a thing for doors.)

It's a magical fairytale-like setting filled with old artisan homes, merchant houses, cute churches, hidden alleyways, secret doorways. This is one of Croatia's oldest settlements – even Europe, apparently – once a Greek town called Faros in 385BC. Mindblowing. The Stari Grad we know today – now a UNESCO site – was built in the 16th century. Still, pretty old...

I guess this one was inspired by Wes Anderson. 

Finally, we reach our destination: this pretty apartment set in a traditional stone building in among Stari Grad's amazing history-steeped streets... 

And look! We're right next door to the most beautiful Baroque church you've ever seen – called St Stephen's built in the 12th century, sadly closed for renovation during our visit. But you could stare at the outside of it forever...

Oh and how handy, the perfect local restaurant – Cafe Antika – right around the corner...

We wander through town to the picture-perfect harbour, plucked straight from a Hans Christian Andersen story book. 

We found more pink houses... does Wes Anderson secretly live here?

We get lost in the alleyways filled with mysterious looking buildings...

Further along we find a swimming cove. It's missing something, though – I know, a beach! These concrete platforms – common in Croatia – are easy to spot for they come equipped with a ladder that takes you down into the warm crystal-clear water.

It's so pretty at sundown... 

What's nice about Stari Grad is you can do so much without needing a car. One day, hiking shoes on, we just walk. Right out of town about 2km up a hill towards a church...

...past a cool old faded pink Volkswagen Beetle and a boat...

A house with a garden full of grape vines... (they love home brew here.)

...but we don't quite get to the church. At the top of the hill, we turn a corner and stumble upon what looks like an abandoned village. There's no one around. Grass and weeds grow in between stone slabs, on roof tiles, up along the fronts of houses...

A sign tells us we're at a place called Malo Rudina – this is clearly one of Hvar's best-kept secrets. With just 20 houses – the first built in 1663 – this is what's called an eco-ethno village, one of many around the region designed to protect local culture and architectural traditions. To our surprise, it isn't actually abandoned. Rather in a state of preservation – there are a few permanent residents and some of the houses are used as holiday cottages... 

As I look around this deliberately ramshackle village, it's impossible to imagine it coming alive mid-August for the art festival, when the houses are used as galleries for local artists' work.

A tip off sends us to another eco-ethno village – called Malo Grablje (I can't pronounce it either) – but this time completely derelict. I'm excited. Since visiting Bodie ghost town in California a few years ago, I'm obsessed by the thought of what happens to places when they're just left to rot... So we set off in our car, taking in some awesome views across to the island of Brač as the road winds upwards. 

Nobody has lived here since the 50s and 60s when all of the villagers decided to move lock, stock and barrel down to the pretty cove of Milna. They didn't sell up; simply built themselves new houses. Imagine if it was that easy?

All the old stone cottages are returning to nature. Roofs are sagging and have fallen in, you can see daylight through the windows, trees and plants grow inside the walls. 

Surprisingly, we find a cafe! A proper lived-in, (usually) open-for-business cafe. But when we get there, we find out it's only open for dinner – shame. Although imagine! Dinner in a derelict town. Spooky! So if you want to go to Konoba Stori Komin, call in advance to find out if it's open, just in case.

It's so peaceful wandering around these empty once-loved houses, my imagination running wild thinking about times gone by. I'm not ready to leave this tranquil yet eerie place, but we've unfinished business in Stari Grad: waterside lunch at Eremitaž, a traditional restaurant set inside a 15th-century building which was once a hermitage for monks... the food is delicious and the service friendly. We love Eremitaž.

...before a peek inside Tvrdjalj Castle, a Stari Grad highlight. It's not really a castle, but a beautifully well-preserved Renaissance home designed and built in the 16th century by a Dalmation national treasure, architect and poet, Petar Hektorović. 

Behind the imposing old wooden door is a secret world. There's a beautiful seawater fish pond filled with carp within a covered courtyard. Wasn't Hektorović's major work called Fishing and Fishermen's Talk? This man seriously loved fish. 

If you follow me on Instagram you'll already know we found this amazing wine shop selling delicious home-brew for just £1 a full tumbler (yes it's nice!). So here I am, on our last night, sitting outside watching the sunset. 

See, there's really so much to discover behind Hvar's glossy surface.

Follow us to "little Dubrovnik" next week, or catch up on last week's post on Split, The time we vacationed in a crumbling Roman palace.


  1. Cool cars of Hvar, including the Renault 4s would be a good feature, bring it on.
    Thanks Ellie, your blog post reminded me of great times in Croatia.

  2. Oh my god, as if I didn't want to go to Croatia as it was, now I realise i HAVE to go!!! Your pics are amazing!!! xx