History and high-life living in Hvar
Hvar is fabled as one of Croatia's most rambunctious, culture-rich towns. We headed there on a yachting odyssey through the Adriatic Sea to uncover what all the hype was about. Countless champagne bars and Gothic churches later, and plenty of Vitamin D-bolstering Balkan rays better off, it was clear to see why it magnetizes so many during the summer months and beyond!
We'd sailed down the Makarska Riviera, where the tanned (and tanning) bodies of package holidayers peppered the main beaches. We'd whizzed out of Split as the yacht sails billowed for the first time, leaving behind the Riva Promenade and the stone labyrinth that is Diocletian's Palace. We'd visited little Lumbarda, where the fishing skiffs bob in the harbor and the locals have a wide smile, shining like the city beach, across their faces. Now, it was time for Hvar.
Fabled, fabled Hvar. The escape of choice for Croatian sun seekers and jet setter sailing across the Adriatic, for train-hopping backpackers looking for a bout of Balkan sun to finish their European odyssey, and one-week package travelers with just beaches and villas and good food in mind. I was sure we fitted somewhere into that mold as the yacht lurched over the waves and Hvar Island appeared, as if my magic, on the horizon.
We'd crossed the whole length of long, stretched, finger-like Hvar in the couple of days before arriving. We'd headed across from Lumbarda to the forested isle of Vis (that's another story altogether). The cobalt-blue of this corner of the Med had engulfed our ship. A speckling of bald-topped rock islets punctuated the sea. But, in the distance, I had been able to make out the rising, muscular outline of the place peaking up towards the crowds.
I'd known then that the stone-dressed center of Hvar Town lurked within. I couldn't see it but I knew it was there, the streams of yachts and ferries and small fishing boats that carved their wake into the morning waters as they sought out its age-old ports belied its position around the coast. I couldn't wait to arrive – this was, as so many had already told me – one of the real highlights of a trip through the Croatian Adriatic; a place steeped in myth, throbbing with life, brimming with culture; a playground for all ages, all people.
The bustling harbors of Hvar town
Picture it: We're pulling into a sun-splashed harbor; gliding past millionaire yachts and chichi cocktail bars where Gucci-clad folk chatter and clink champagne flutes (in the morning, even); glowering across at the handsome facades of age-old Venetian mansions. Our big and trusty – if beer-doused – boat finds its own mooring, squeezed between two gleaming-white sails that flutter in the wind. Myriad flags jostle in the light breezes, heralding the nationalities of the sailing crews already docked: Russian; Polish; Ukrainian; French; German. Awed by the harbor architecture and the presence of James Bond vessels, I feel just a little out of place as I scurry down the gangplank and onto the palm-spotted promenade that rings the front of the town.
The first thing that hits me is the bustle and buzz of life. Like so many other historic – especially historic erstwhile Venetian towns – Hvar is anchored on its old marina. These days, it's the prows of expensive sailing ships that crowd the moorings, not the outline of formidable naval fleets looking to forge a Mediterranean trading empire. I find myself not minding that change as I strut between the green trees and the benches.
I can instantly feel why Hvar's garnered a reputation as one of the most handsome spots in the region. The marble slabs that dress the sidewalks are worn by the footfall of centuries of visitors – it's not only Venetian armies that alighted here, but also decades of adventure travelers on account of the islands dedicated tourist department (one of the first in all of Europe, no less).
I'm strolling in their footsteps as I dodge the crowds and weave between the bars and restaurants. The scents of freshly cracked beers and breakfast platters issue forth from the kitchens. People laugh, chatter, gesticulate in that overtly European way, and enjoy their morning coffees in the balmy breezes that roll in from the docks and beyond.
A jaunt through the Hvar town – the old town
As the harbor walks come to an end, I look up. Between the pine-studded peaks that shoulder above the bay, I can make out the silhouette of a great castle. Its walls and turrets are glowing yellow-red with the morning sun. It looks like a great spot to delve into the deep history of the place, and to get an eye-watering view out across the Adriatic Sea from where we've come. First though: I must navigate the Hvar old town.
That's no easy feat. Lanes wiggle this way; alleys shoot that way. Tavernas spill onto the flower-strewn streets, and crowd the tight-knit spaces close to the marina with their tables, chairs, and breakfast-eating locals. Some stone staircases go upwards from a small alcove in the corner. I decide those steep inclines are my best bet for gaining height and leaving the bustle of the boat-bobbing center behind.
Between grey-stone walls I'm squeezing, breathing for air when the ad hoc piazzas and hidden squares pop up now and then. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a gorgeous Baroque church, towering overhead with its sculpted spire and crafted façade. Sometimes there's an ice-cream-colored mansion, its stern face of gargoyle-spotted apses and overhanging balconies just another reminder of the rich and elegant heritage of Hvar's onetime Venetian rulers. Sometimes there's an open door, leading the way to winding stone stairs down to a basement where the smells of Croatian dumplings twist and turn in the alcoves.
Like so many old towns in Crotia, Hvar feels very Game of Thrones. It's got the sun-scorched stone edifices. It's got the ramshackle grid of roads and alleys. Like a rabbit in a warren, I'm turning left, right, then left again, then right again, all the time trying to scale staircases and cobbled streets upwards. Upwards is my goal, and the muscular castle tops that I can occasionally see between the red-tiled roofs.
The Spanish Fort, or, views to die for
Capping off the pine-spotted hills above the main town of Hvar, the great Spanish Fort is visible from all corners of the harbor. That was kind of the point, I learn as I move between the bulwarks and the thick walls. It was raised first by the Byzantine conquerors of Hvar, who came in the 6th century. Then it was bolstered to its current formidable state by the Venetians in the 16th century. It was a useful place to have, touting colossal cannons – cannons you can still see today – that pointed straight down at the docks. More than once it is said to have protected the locals as the Ottoman navy patrolled across the Adriatic from the east.
But the history is just one reason so many people make the arduous climb away from their ships and the cozy coffee shops on the marina to this high-perched point. The views are another. And boy are they fantastic!
The bastions of the mighty citadel seem to peek out over the edge of the rocky hills that surround Hvar town, offering uninterrupted 180s of the whole western end of the island. In one direction, the sweeping sky-blue hues of the Adriatic roll out in front of me. Before it, the terracotta-colored roofs of the Hvar old town glimmer in the late-morning sun. I can make out the palm trees swaying on the Riva promenade where I'd just be strutting with the jet setters. I can see the white sails of the yachts, and the regimented rows of tables in the waterside tavernas.
In the other direction are the scrub-dressed coastal mountains of greater Hvar Island. The scents of lavender flows down through the valleys up there, and clusters of evergreen pines jostle for space between the rustic farms. It heralds a place more untrodden and remote. It heralds the wilder side of Hvar island, far from the energy and action of the port. I turned my gaze away. My destination led me back to civilization, not deeper into the clutches of the rugged hinterland.
The Paklinski Islands – where Hvar is truly beautiful
We hitch a plan to hop across the bay to the Paklinski Islands in the afternoon. People had been spinning tales of their beauty for us all as we yachted from place to place across the whole Adriatic. They popup from the sea just a stone's throw from the Hvar harbor – you can even see the green-topped outcrops of rock that herald the start of the Paklinski chain from the cafes there.
There are water taxis that whiz across to glimmering Palmizana every hour in the summer. They are usually in high demand, packed with sun seeking folk who want to splash in crystal-clear bays or laze on pebble coves just a short jaunt away from the hustle of town. Wedged betwixt sun-cream scented travelers, we head out with the crowd.
From the moment we arrive, it's clear to see why this corner of Hvar has made such an impression on so many. The aromas of heather and rosemary drift out from the pine woods to greet our purring water taxi. Green trees bow low over the pebble beach in front of us, casting splashes of shade onto the warm stone. And the sea? Well, let's just say the sea is transparent like a window; a window onto the fish schools and shoals and underwater pebbles beneath the surface.
It's not long before we find out own private corner of the Paklinski Islands – something we're used to after sailing through the Adriatic coast with our very own yacht at our command. A wide bay of turquoise-blue water laps close by. We go there whenever the sun gets too hot (clue: it often does). We've got packs of spiny cacti hiding us away from the paths that weave into the forests, and some pine-cushioned places to lay and soak up the Balkan rays.
Back to town, or, Hvar in the evening beckons
We reluctantly leave behind our space on the postcard-perfect Paklinski Islands to head back across the water on the aqua taxi. Hvar Town beckons again, only this time it's a different side of Hvar Town: Hvar Town by night. Nothing short of legendary is the nightlife of this small corner of the Adriatic. It's Croatia's Ibiza, some say. It's the Mykonos of the north, whisper others.
Even as we drift back into the docks, we can see things are starting to kick off. Chic cocktail bars are sprayed with twirling neon lights. Swish sofas and cushions spill onto the marble walkways of the town. Yachters in loafers and chinos recline on the chairs, sipping Long Island iced teas and mojitos and bisque-colored Croat wines. Champagne bubbles everywhere. The pop of corks is the backing track.
Our destination is the Hula Hula along the coast. It's a short walk around the headland from the main harbor of Hvar, and we pass luxurious hotel bars and small pebble beaches as we go. They are all doused in a red-pink hue that's come with the sunset. People are everywhere, pouring out of their villas and boats to watch the evening light across the Adriatic. People dance, spray Champagne in the air, natter away about the day's sailing.
Then we're in Hula Hula. Tiki umbrellas rustle overhead as the sea breezes roll in. We are sipping cocktails just a meter from the shore. A beach nearby is still dotted with the sun-kissed bodies of the most avid tan-seekers. Bikinis mingle with designer wear around the deck-built dance floor. The DJ hits the EDM and the evening begins in earnest. We get chatting to locals who reel off lists of the places we simply have to party at here. It's what I expect: Oodles of champagne and cocktails and letting loose in the sultry Balkan night. I can't wait. Cheers Hvar.