I first heard of Hvar at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. While waiting to board the flight to Dubrovnik, I was talking with a couple of women who were making their first trip to the Balkans. Their excitement reminded me of a younger version of my self eager to explore the wider world. They had made plans to see a mix of the popular and the exotic. Besides the obvious places such as Split and Mostar, they were also going to visit the island of Hvar, where they would stay for several days. I assumed that Hvar was a place for sun and fun by the seaside. Since they were not long out of college, I figured their choice offered them a mix of beauty, culture, and cocktails.
Our conversation did not last much longer, but the mention of Hvar stayed in my memory. This came back to mind after the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik departed from Brac and made its way toward its second stop at Hvar Town, the largest town on the island. From a few things I had gleaned from guidebooks prior to our arrival, Hvar was one of the most popular island destinations in Croatia. It was large, comparatively well populated and had a great deal of tourist infrastructure. This led me to imagine resorts, concrete constructions for mass tourism and beaches covered in sunshine seekers lounging about drinking copious numbers of cocktails.
Watering Holes – A Geological Fantasy
Hvar’s natural history is as fascinating as its human history. That was clear as the ferry made its way from Brac to Hvar through the appropriately named Hvar Channel which washes the island’s northern shores. This channel is of very recent vintage in terms of geological time. 11,000 years ago it began to fill with water after the last ice age ended in Europe. Hvar consists of the land that stayed above the rising level of the sea. This included the usual karst topography of limestone to be found on Croatia’s islands. It sucks up the rainfall which falls upon the island. There is plenty of water, but very little to be found on the surface. Perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient sea mariner was thinking of Hvar when he said “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Of course, water surrounded Hvar on all sides and that allowed the ferry to bring us into Hvar Town, set upon hilly terrain on the island’s southside.
An unimaginative name like Hvar Town does not exactly lend itself to thoughts of spectacular beauty or Levantine exoticism. I say that with a hint of irony because nothing could have prepared me for the stunning sight which appeared before my eyes when the Jadrolinija ferry pulled into the harbor. The essence of travel can be summed up in two kinds of moments, the moments you would rather forget and the moments you will never forget. Hvar Town was the quintessential example of the latter. No amount of hyperbole could come close to describing the scene as Hvar Town came into view. It was as though a picture postcard of rustic perfection had been made into a higher form of reality. Stone houses, with the customary terra cotta rooftops set ablaze by the sun, were stacked one atop another. Beyond this were patches of scrub forest, touches of darkness scattered across barren ground. It was stark and beautiful. On a hilltop one hundred meters high loomed Hvar’s “castle”, the quixotically named Spanish Fortress.
Fantasy Island – The Making Of A Moment
With its stone bastions and formidable battlements, the Spanish Fortress drew the eye upward. The hill on which it stood had long been a favored defensive location, going all the way back to the Illyrians, who ruled the island prior to the Romans. The fortress, as it stands today, got its start back in the late 13th century when the Venetians constructed it to guard the city from piracy. It was later anointed the Spanish Fortress after skilled workers from Spain did work on it during the 14th century. The fortress proved its value to Hvar’s citizens when the Turks sacked and burned the rest of the town in 1571. The fortress continued to provide protection for several centuries thereafter while under Habsburg ownership. Today, the Spanish Fortress is one of the main attractions for those visiting the town, but I found it just as delightful to view from the ferry.
The fortress, like the rest of Hvar Town, was radiantly photogenic on this day. Above it was the sky, with a depth of blue only rivaled by the waters of the Adriatic. The scene was tailor made for Croatian tourism authorities, Hvar Town offering a default marketing campaign for the best that Croatia’s islands have to offer. The history, the setting, the scenery was beyond compare. The mild weather, marked by cloudless skies allowed the sun to illuminate the homes of Hvar’s lucky inhabitants. The town looked like an ivory inferno, with its luminescent limestone walls and blazing rooftops. There was nothing soft about these colors. It was an image that radiated intensity and would forever be seared into my memory. While we were not in the harbor of Hvar Town very long, that did nothing to stop me from going into a dreamlike trance, imagining what it would be like to disembark from the ferry and walk away from the rest of the world. Everyone should nurse such a fantasy. Hvar was made for moments like these.
Magical Mystery Tour – Sojourn By The Sea
The hits kept on coming. Island hopping was a magical mystery tour where all was revealed in a matter of minutes. The ferry soon made stops on the islands of Korcula, followed by Mljet. It felt like I was window shopping islands for a future sojourn by the sea. Split was a distant memory and Dubrovnik had yet to twinkle in our eye. As the day grew dimmer, with the sun starting to slowly sink towards the horizon, the seamless transition of the afternoon into the early evening did nothing to dampen the spirits. The ferry floated ever onward, keeping strictly to schedule. I knew that this journey would have to end, but there were moments when I wished it would last forever. I vowed to someday return to several of the islands. It was a dream that I hoped to one day make reality.
Click here for: End The Beginning – Port of Dubrovnik: Coming Back To Life (Travels On The Croatian Coast #60)