From the gossip pages to the travel magazines, Hvar has long been the global media’s favourite Croatian island, a status it shows no sign of losing. As well as being the summertime haunt of celebrities, yacht-travellers and cocktail sippers of all descriptions, it also remains robustly popular with those who want a piece of the Mediterranean that is family-oriented, unspoiled and affordable. It is certainly well endowed with natural beauty: a slim, purple-grey slice of land punctured by jagged inlets and pebbly coves, with lavender plantations, vineyards and half-abandoned stone villages clinging to its steep central ridge.
The island’s capital, Hvar Town, is one of the Adriatic’s best-preserved historic towns, and also one of its most glamorous, with paparazzi roving the Riva to see who is disembarking from which yacht. The other main settlements offer complete contrasts, with Stari Grad – the main port – Jelsa and Vrboska boasting old stone houses and an unhurried, village feel. East of Jelsa, the island narrows to a long, thin mountainous strip of land that extends all the way to isolated Sućuraj, linked to Drvenik on the mainland by ferry.
Around 385 BC, the Greeks of Paros in Asia Minor established the colony of Pharos (present-day Stari Grad), developing a network of fields and enclosures on the island’s central plain that can still be seen today. After a period of Roman then Byzantine control, the island was settled by Croatian tribes some time in the eighth century. The new arrivals couldn’t pronounce the name Pharos, so the place became Hvar instead. The settlement nowadays known as Hvar Town began life as a haven for medieval pirates. The Venetians drove them out in 1240, and encouraged the citizens of Stari Grad to relocate to Hvar Town, which henceforth became the capital of the island.
As in most other Dalmatian towns, the nobles of Hvar established an oligarchical government from which commoners were excluded. In 1510 this provoked a revolt led by Matija Ivanić, a representative of the mercantile middle class. After first capturing Vrboska and Jelsa, Ivanić held the central part of the island for almost four years, raiding Hvar Town (and massacring sundry aristocrats) on two separate occasions. The Venetians ultimately re-established control, hanging rebel leaders from the masts of their galleys. Ivanić himself escaped, dying in exile in Rome.
Despite all this, sixteenth-century Hvar went on to become one of the key centres of the Croatian Renaissance, with poets like Hanibal Lucić and Petar Hektorović penning works which were to have a profound influence on future generations. This golden age was interrupted in 1571, when Ottoman corsair Uluz Ali sacked Hvar Town and reduced it to rubble. Once rebuilt, the town soon reassumed its importance as a port. Later, the arrival of long-haul steamships becalmed Hvar Town, which drifted into quiet obscurity until the tourists arrived in the late nineteenth century – largely thanks to the efforts of the Hvar Hygienic Society, founded in 1868 by locals eager to promote the island as a health retreat. The first ever guidebook to the town, published in Vienna in 1903, promoted it as “Austria’s Madeira”, and it has been one of Dalmatia’s most stylish resorts ever since.
Quality seafood restaurants are becoming the rule in Hvar Town, while traditional inns in the interior are dependable places to try baked and grilled meats. One speciality particular to Hvar is gregada, a stew of fish cooked in white wine – few restaurants bother to serve it in single portions, however, so you’ll have to order it for two or more people to make it worthwhile.
As for wine, best known of the local grape varieties is the rich red Plavac mali, grown everywhere in the fertile middle of the island and along the southern coast, while the indigenous Bogdanjuša grape produces an intriguing dry white. There isn’t really any bad wine on Hvar – the house wines served by local restaurants are usually from a nearby vineyard and (never less than enjoyable) are frequently very fine indeed. Bottled wines produced by the Svirče cooperative are sold in supermarkets throughout Croatia and their inexpensive Plavac Hvar red represents outstanding value. Tomić and Duboković (both based near Jelsa) are two highly regarded local wineries focusing on quality boutique production – either are well worth a splurge.
One of the best views of Hvar Town is from the sea, with its grainy-white and brown scatter of buildings following the contours of the bay, and the green splashes of palms and pines pushing into every crack and cranny. Once you’re on terra firma, central Hvar reveals itself as a medieval town full of pedestrianized alleys overlooked by ancient stone houses, providing an elegant backdrop to the main leisure activity: lounging around in cafés and watching the crowds as they shuffle round the yacht-filled harbour. As well as being the nearest thing Croatia has to the Côte d’Azur, Hvar Town is also very much a family destination, bringing both haute couture and howling kids to the animated korzo that engulfs the town at dusk. Hvar’s growing reputation for bars and clubs has led to an increase in the number of young-adult tourists, together with the drunkenness and dumb behaviour that goes with it – although it would be a mistake to think that the party scene has become the dominant influence on a town that retains a deep-rooted Mediterranean charm.
There are dozens of places to eat in Hvar Town, and although prices are constantly spiralling upwards, several establishments offer seafood of sufficiently high standard to justify the cost. Note that many restaurants are only open from April to October. For drinking, the cafés and bars around the main square and along the harbour are packed from mid-morning onwards. Trade thins out for a few hours during the hottest part of the day, until the crowds return for the evening korzo.
Private rooms and apartments are available from Pelegrini Tours, near the ferry dock on the Riva.
Straggling along the side of a deep bay, the island's main port of Stari Grad is more laidback and family-oriented than Hvar Town, although it is getting gradually more popular with the yachting fraternity and can be quite lively in high season. The narrow streets of central Stari Grad are as atmospheric as anywhere in the Adriatic: a warren of low stone houses bedecked with window boxes, and narrow alleyways suddenly opening out onto small squares.
The fertile plain or hora stretching south and west of Stari Grad has recently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, as it is one of the few places in Europe where the ancient Greek system of field division has been preserved almost unchanged. With olive groves and vineyards divided by a grid of dry stone walls and country lanes, it is easily explored on foot or by bike.
Renaissance poet and Hvar noble Petar Hektorović (1487–1572) is primarily remembered for his Ribanje i ribarsko prigovaranje (“Fishing and Fishermen’s Conversations”), the first work of autobiographical realism in Croatian literature. Written in 1556, by which time he was an old man, the 1680-line poem was inspired by a three-day boat trip to Brač and Šolta in the company of two local fishermen, Paskoje and Nikola, who despite being commoners are accorded a dignity which was rare for the literature of the period.
Concern for the local populace also underpinned Hektorović’s plans for his summer house, the Tvrdalj, which he began in 1514 and carried on building for the rest of his life. As well as a place of repose, it was intended to be a fortified refuge for the locals in time of attack – a self-sufficient ark that would provide food from its garden and fresh fish from the mullet pond. Hektorović’s typically Renaissance fondness for order and balance was reflected in the symbolic inclusion of a pigeon loft in the main tower, to emphasize the point that the Tvrdalj was a refuge for creatures of the sky as well as the sea and earth. The house was built in simple unadorned style, both because Hektorović had a taste for rusticity and because he didn’t want to provoke commoners with a display of lordly luxury. Local Venetian commanders sanctioned the diversion of manpower from Hvar Town to assist Hektorović in its construction, since it freed them from the responsibility of defending the people of Stari Grad from pirates.
Hektorović died before the Tvrdalj was fully finished, though it was renovated and added to by his descendants. Ironically, the one thing which most people find so memorable about the Tvrdalj – the restful arched cloister surrounding the fishpond – wasn’t part of Hektorović’s original plan, added instead by the Niseteo family in 1834.
The former fishing village of Jelsa sits prettily by a wooded bay 10km east of Stari Grad. There are large package hotels on either side of the bay, but the place retains a relatively laidback feel. Tucked away behind a nineteenth-century waterfront, the old quarter is a maze of ancient alleys and lanes. East of Jelsa on the road to Sućuraj are a sequence of pleasant coves, most popular of which is Grebišće, 4km out of town.
Top image: City Harbour of the town of Hvar, on the island of Hvar, the Adriatic coast of Croatia © rustamank/Shutterstock