A February 2005 trip
to Hvar by Owen Lipsett
Quote: What’s the prettiest of Croatia’s thousand islands? According to the notoriously image-conscious Croatians themselves it’s Hvar. Notwithstanding a brush with the notorious bura, a visit in March allowed me to explore its beauty and history free of the posing hordes. So I certainly agree with their choice!
The island’s weather is such that Hvar’s hoteliers are said to offer a free night’s accommodation in the event of rain. Although I visited less than a week after its first snowfall in two decades, which must have required an even greater discount, I experienced the brightest sunshine of my three-week Croatian sojourn. While Hvar Town is one of Dalmatia’s best-preserved – having been entirely rebuilt after Uluz Ali’s galleons razed it to the ground in 1571 and spared even from the worst excesses of tourist development since then – it’s of greater appeal to aesthetes than history buffs. St. Stephen’s Cathedral which overlooks its eponymous square and marketplace alike, the waterside Franciscan Monastery, the town Arsenal (containing Croatia’s oldest theater), and the imperious Citadel are the only sights in the conventional sense of the word.
The same holds true of Stari Grad, which purports to be Croatia’s oldest settlement, at the island’s other end. A charmingly decaying collection of palaces of some of the Croatian Renaissance’s wealthiest families and greatest thinkers, it never fully recovered from Ali’s attack. The long-distance ferry between Dubrovnik and Rijeka stops here, and even in winter, when nearly everything is closed, it’s well worth spending a couple of hours inspecting its charming jumble of buildings – each a testament to a dream or an idea that in its time was in some way realized. Hvar’s vernal charms are self-evident to the hordes who crowd its beaches, hotels, Rivas (promenades), and cafes in summer, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as a winter destination either. I enjoy visiting popular locations out of season to witness their true beauty and can think of nowhere I am happier to have done so.
Hvar Town’s tourist office is located just off St. Stephen’s Square (Trg svetog Stjepana) on the ground floor of the historic Arsenal. It is open daily for extended hours from in summer but on mornings only during the rest of the year. Its counterpart in Stari Grad is at Nova Riva 2 (just inside the harbor), has a similar schedule. They are most useful for providing maps, bus and ferry timetables, and information on local events.
Regardless of when you are visiting Hvar, reserve accommodation in advance! It’s hugely popular among Croatians as a summer holiday destination and is increasing in appeal to foreigners. Out of season, almost all hotels and private rooms are closed as they lack central heating, which is necessary despite Hvar’s legendary sunshine. The following guesthouses (all in Hvar Town) are open year round:
Apartment Pension Ćurin
Coin-operated terminals inside the Hotel Palace by Hvar Town’s waterfront offer year-round internet access for 20 kuna per hour.
Getting Around Hvar: Several daily buses run between Hvar Town, Stari Grad, and Jelsa. Buses also meet ferries arriving at Stari Grad (somewhat unpredictably so it may be best just to hop the first bus you see should you arrive this way.) The tourist offices in the respective towns are the best source for schedules.
Hvar Town and Stari Grad (as well as the island’s smaller settlements) are warrens of narrow streets that can only be explored in any appreciable way on foot.
Hotel | "Apartment Pension Ćurin"
Location: Pension Curin’s only possible drawback is its location, west of Hvar Town’s central harbor. As the pension is located on a hill overlooking the harbor, the walking time (the most sensible way to get to the harbor) varies whether you are traveling into Hvar Town (approximately 10 minutes) or back to the hotel (20 minutes). As the journey is quite an attractive one, I didn’t mind, and I personally appreciated the distance from Hvar’s relatively busy center. Pension Ćurin also has the advantage of being quite close to Hvar’s beaches (which are to the west of the harbor) and a food store (should you choose to use the shared-kitchen facilities), which, in my mind, made up for its distance from the harbor. However, in choosing where to stay in Hvar, your calculations may well be different.
Rooms: Although I booked a single room, Mr. Ćurin very kindly gave me a double room, as the pension was largely empty. The room itself was extremely cosy, although since it was on the top floor beneath his house’s slanted room, part of the ceilings was quite low. The room was very basically furnished with only a pair of bedside tables; however, it was adequately lighted and immaculately clean. The king-size bed was extremely comfortable, and (unlike many other places in Dalmatia) he provided more than enough blankets. Furthermore, and crucially after my experience with the bura, the room was extremely well heated. The attached bathroom was tiny but spotless. Towels were provided, but not soap or shampoo.
Service: Even in a country justly renowned for the friendliness and generosity of its people, Mr. Ćurin stands out in my mind. As well as driving halfway across the island to pick the four of us up, Mr. Ćurin also drove us to the harbor in time for our 7am ferry. He and his niece repeatedly checked with all of us to ensure we had everything that we needed and provided us with maps. Although I had no cause to make use of it, guests receive free parking in the pension’s lot.
I hope to return to Hvar and to stay here again. I found it the best value for money of anywhere I stayed in Dalmatia. Pension Ćurin’s location and somewhat Spartan rooms may not appeal to you if you are seeking a central location and more luxurious accommodation.
Further information: http://www.hvar.hr/teo%2Dcurin
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By the Middle Ages, Croatians formed the town’s demographic core, and while Venice assumed political control, it exerted far less cultural influence than in mainland Dalmatia. Together with the island’s position on shipping routes throughout the Adriatic and the booming of its wine trade in the sixteenth century, this allowed Stari Grad (along with Hvar Town) to become one of the greatest centers of the Croatian Renaissance, to which period its most attractive buildings date. Fittingly, they’re within sight of some haphazardly marked Roman ruins, giving a physical presence to the movement’s intellectual antecedents.
The Tvrdalj, the town’s most famous and evocative building, makes up the heart of the old Renaissance town that’s still evident on the south side of the harbor. It seems somehow fitting that it was undergoing restoration when I visited as it took sixty years to build. Petar Hektorović (1487-1572), a local nobleman and one of the greatest poets of the Croatian Renaissance, ordered its construction in 1514 to serve as both his summer house and a refuge for the local population should the town be attacked. Mindful of the area’s history of peasant uprisings and of a more egalitarian sensibility than most of his contemporaries, Hektorović intended the Tvrdalj to be rustic and unadorned. Its extensive gardens featured a mullet-pond, intended to provide food should the populace be besieged.
Venetian commanders assisted with the construction, as this freed them of the responsibility to actually defend the town from marauders, the Tvrdalj was still unfinished in 1571, when Uluz Ali raided Stari Grad and razed Hvar Town to the ground. After Hektorović’s death his descendants his now largely symbolic project, although its rather more ornate modern appearance owes to renovations by the Nisiteo family who purchased it from his heirs in 1834. The nearby Bianchini Palace and Dominican Cloister (belatedly crowned with a turret after Ali’s attack) are the only other remnants of Stari Grad’s Golden Age.
Modern Stari Grad is a quiet, slightly run-down resort. Even in the off-season the contrast with Hvar Town is readily apparent. Walking its streets gives one the feeling not so much that they have been preserved (as Hvar Town’s have) but rather that they simply haven’t changed much. Monuments from the Venetian, Hapsburg, and Yugoslav periods silently and subtly coexist. As the town’s lone visitor on a March afternoon, it occurred to me that this may be a more accurate and powerful record than one can find in even the world’s greatest museums.
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The Citadel overlooking Hvar Town is the best place to begin any exploration for two reasons. First, it affords an unparalleled view of the town, its harbor, and the surrounding countryside. Second, the zigzagging path uphill to the Citadel is completely exposed to the sun, making it somewhat challenging even on a winter morning. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that you must climb Matije Ivanića (officially called a street but really a long and steep staircase) just to get there. Nevertheless, once you see the town and harbor appear before you you’re certain to feel justly rewarded and indeed encouraged to continue your ascent.
Sometimes misleadingly referred to as the Spanjol Fortress, the Citadel was actually constructed by the Venetians in the 1550s but was of little use to them in 1571 when Uluz Ali destroyed the town. Somewhat strengthened, it was a more effective deterrent thereafter, although both Napoleon and the Hapsburg emperors were each able to take control in the early nineteenth century. Both further fortified the site, which today contains a small museum and a weather station, but unlike Ali spared the town. Although the fortress itself is closed in winter, the hilltop views over the harbor and inland provide an unmatched sense of the town’s beautiful surroundings.
Returning along Ivanića, you’ll see the intact Renaissance Benedictine convent on your right, and beyond it the surviving spire of the otherwise ruined Dominican Monastery, long a landmark for sailors. Continuing down you’ll glimpse an unfinished (but delicately carved) palace possibly commissioned by the Hektorović family, not to be confused with the next-door Palace Hotel, which attractively incorporates the Town Loggia! The graceful area below, the heart of the harbor, merges with St. Stephen’s Square, a very evocative (but rectangular!) expanse overlooked by the sixteenth century Cathedral from which it takes its name. The cafes in the square afford a much more honest and compelling view of Hvar’s life than their counterparts along the Riva, perhaps due to the proximity of the market and bus depot.
The Venetian Arsenal on the Square’s south side today contains the town’s theater, built in 1612 to (unsuccessfully) alleviate class tensions and generally considered its architectural highlight. Personally, I found the simple and stunning located Franciscan Monastery and its simple church, built in 1583, more compelling. Halfway through the ten minute waterside walk from St. Stephen’s Square, I understood that Hvar’s true beauty isn’t a matter of any individual building but rather the ensemble, set together between its idyllic harbor and the mountains.
Archaeologists date the human presence on Hvar to the 3rd millennium before Christ, on account of some pottery fragments found in caves on the island. Despite its crucial position at the heart of trading routes along the Adriatic Coast, there was no permanent settlement until the Parans (a group of Ionian Greeks), established the colony of Pharos in 385 BC. The name of this settlement, located between a sheltered bay and fertile meadow, was corrupted by the island’s subsequent Croatian inhabitants in "Hvar," although ironically the settlement itself came to be know as "Stari Grad" as it is today. Considering that this simply means "Old Town" and that it’s the oldest in Croatia, however, that’s singularly appropriate.
Pharos fell under the sphere of influence of the Greek empire that had its capital at Syracuse (in present day Sicily). This empire came to control most of the other large offshore islands of the Dalmatian coast, such as Korkyra Melaina (Korčula) and Issa (Vis), but was frequently attacked by the Illyrian tribes who controlled the mainland. When the Syracusan Empire fell a half-century after Pharos’ founding, these tribes managed to gain control of Hvar, and, under Demetrius of Hvar, made it the center of a state that included much of the Dalmatian Coast, before this in turn fell to the Romans in 219. The Romans, who called the island Pharia were the first to extensively develop the island agriculturally. The area’s fertile climate soon made it self-sufficient, and prosperous enough to become an autonomous municipium by the first century AD.
Interestingly, while there is a great deal of contemporary written information about Hvar’s history under the Romans, sources from the early Middle Ages, when the Croatian Neretljani tribe settled the island, are extremely fragmentary. It is certain, however, that Venice occupied Hvar (as the island was known by this time) in 1147, and established a diocese subject to the Archbishop of Zadar, with its cathedral at Stari Grad. In 1180, Hvar fell to King Bela III of Hungary and Croatia, who transferred it to the archdiocese of Split in 1185.
The Venetians retook Hvar in 1278 and, cognizant of how their initial period of rule over the islands ethnically Croatian inhabitants had ended after a single generation, undertook a variety of measures to strengthen their control. First, they established the settlement now known as Hvar Town and made it, rather than Stari Grad, the island’s political and religious capital, translating the Cathedral here and establishing a Dominican Monastery (whose Bell Tower still remains.) Second, they abolished the island’s existing clan structure, leading the local nobles to rebel, unsuccessfully, in 1310. The island fell to the Hungarian-Croatian kingdom for a second time in 1331, and after subsequent rule by the Bosnian Kingdom and Ragusan Republic (present-day Dubrovnik), the Venetians managed to retake it, along with the rest of Dalmatia, in 1420.
This third period of Venetian rule proved to be the longest and most successful, lasting until the Venetian Republic’s own dissolution by Napoleon in 1797. It was not without strife, however. In 1510 Matija Ivanić led an uprising by the city’s merchants against the exactions of the local nobility, which had essentially been given a free hand in internal affairs by the Venetians in exchange for its loyalty. One of the longest rebellions of its kind in Renaissance European history, it lasted for five years and was only put down (in an extremely bloody fashion) by the intervention of forces from Venice itself, on their second attempt. Ivanić, who remarkably managed to escape to Rome, has been rather ironically memorialized by having the street (or, more accurately) staircase that leads to the path to Hvar Town’s Citadel named after him!Thereafter, a period of peace and prosperity, the latter largely due to Hvar’s increased wine production, ensued.
This prosperity conspired with several other factors to make Hvar one of the centers of the Croatian Renaissance. Hvar benefited by the fact that its nobility and merchants were mostly Croats, in contrast with the Italian-dominated ports of the Venetian possessions on the Dalmatian mainland. Furthermore, the proximity of the eastern end of the island to the Turkish-ruled Makarska littoral compelled the Venetians to respect the Croats’ language and cultural traditions, lest the latter be inclined to side with the comparatively tolerant Turks. Perhaps most importantly, Hvar Town was located directly on the shipping route to Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik), the Croatian Renaissance’s other great center, allowing ideas to flow as freely as commerce between the two.
On Hvar, the greatest thinkers of the period were the noble poets Hanibal Luiciić of Hvar Town and Petar Hektoroviić of Stari Grad. Hektoroviić is perhaps better known today for designing the Tvrdalj, a utopian residence combined to provide food, shelter, and protection to Stari Grad’s residents, which is perhaps that town’s most evocative sight. The most influential, however, may well have been Friar Vinko Pribojeviić,, who in 1525 delivered his paper De origine successibisque slavorum (Of The Origin and History of the Slavs) at the Dominican monastery to the local nobility. Holding the not unreasonable thesis that the Slavic people shared a common origin (as well as the somewhat more optimistic view that it was a Croatian one), he can quite reasonably be seen as the progenitor of the nineteenth century Pan-Slavic movement. As its most famous expression was the establishment of the state of Yugoslavia, whose demise is decidedly unlamented in these parts, Hvar’s contemporary residents prefer to focus on his poetic contemporaries.
Such high-minded concerns came to a halt in 1571 however, when the Turkish raider Uluz Ali razed Hvar Town to the ground and ravaged Stari Grad (including the as yet incomplete Tvrdalj). Although the Venetians and their allies in the Catholic Holy League saw off the Ottoman naval threat at the Battle of Lepanto the same year, Hvar suffered lasting damage. Hvar Town was rebuilt (and more comprehensively fortified) in what is more or less its present form, and ecclesiastical buildings across the island were strengthened. This policy was generally effective, but it did not prevent the island’s fall to the Austrians in 1797, who subsequently were compelled to cede it to Napoleon’s forces. Austria retook Hvar in 1813, consigning it like much of the rest of the Dalmatian Coast to a century of genteel prosperity and general irrelevance.
Hvar did serve, however, as the stage for one of the most important events of nineteenth century history. On July 20, 1866, the Austrian navy under Admiral Wilhelm von Tegtthoff defeated its much stronger Italian counterpart between Hvar and Vis in an engagement that ensured Austrian’s retention of its Dalmatian territories. The result of this battle, the last to feature combat "in melee" (ships used as battering rams against one another) mean that all of historical Croatia remained under Austrian rule, thus facilitating its wholesale incorporation into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (subsequently known as Yugoslavia) a half century later.
Perhaps more appropriately, Hvar was the site of the foundation of the Hygienic Society in 1858, the world’s first tourist organization. In seeking to make Hvar attractive, it oversaw a comprehensive program of draining its inland marshes and improving its roads. With the exception of the region’s repeated conflicts (which have remarkably left Hvar relatively unscathed, in contrast to many of Croatia’s other islands), tourism has grown ever since. Although perhaps more attracted by Hvar’s very reputation as Croatia’s most chic resort than its physical beauty (let alone its history), the hordes who converge on the island each summer have saved it in a way, by stimulating the economy to the extent that Hvar has not suffered from depopulation to the extent of some of its neighbors.
Long may it remain so!
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