I DID NOT EXPECT to meet a Japanese expat in a tiny village on a Croatian island. But then, Hvar Island was nothing like what I expected to find on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.
After years as the darling of National Geographic and the New York Times travel section, the region — often promoted as a cheaper Italy — is no longer an insider secret. Even in mid-May, a few weeks before the start of the summer season, Split was packed.
A maze of back streets and piazzas built within the walls of a Roman emperor’s palace, with promenades butting right up to the Adriatic, it’s not hard to see why Split’s so popular. But boy, do the cute alleys lose their charm when you have to share them with a few thousand sweating tourists.
I loved Split, but after a few days, I needed to escape. I needed someplace that would stop trying to sell me beach towels stamped with the Croatian flag.
I needed: a local.
I found one through Couchsurfing. Marnel, a film student running a company called Dalmatia Trekking, suggested a weekend hike on nearby Hvar Island.
Since Hvar is called “one of the most popular destinations on the Adriatic” on Wikitravel, I was skeptical that the island would be the refuge I was seeking. But, placing my trust in a long-haired Bosnian hippie I’d never met, I bought a ticket to Hvar’s port of Stari Grad and dug out my hiking shoes.
Tips: Buying ferry tickets to Hvar (and beyond)
- Split is one of the main hubs for transport to the Dalmatian islands. Jadrolinija ferry company runs several routes between Split and Hvar, including about seven daily ferries to Stari Grad (during the summer season).
- You can check the ferry schedule online, but you’ll get more accurate info if you do so in person when you arrive. Ferry tickets are sold at tourist agencies throughout town, but it’s cheapest if you go directly to the booths on the dock. Look for the big “Jadrolinija” signs.
- Adult walk-on ticket fares between Split and Stari Grad were 39 kuna ($7 USD) for the high season in 2010. Prices are discounted for the low season, from October-April. The ride to Stari Grad is about 2 hours.
- Jadrolinija also runs ferries to Ancona in Italy, for those looking to country-hop by boat.
I met Marnel on the ferry early Saturday morning as we were both staggering to the coffee counter. He was instantly approachable with his endearing accent, blonde dreadlocks, and quick grin.
Over our espressos, we exchanged hiking stories and showed off our digital cameras. I told him about my train ride to Split from Athens; he told me about his latest film project, a documentary about the Balkans’ Roma.
As we neared the island, he patted his bulging backpack and explained that although he’d already bought food, we would need to stop in town for additional provisions. “No wine!” he said, looking half-disgusted with himself.
At the Stari Grad dock, he led me away from the masses at the taxi stand towards a footpath that was barely visible at the far end of the parking lot. The shouts and laughter of tourists disappeared; the rustle of grass replaced the roar of ferry engines.
Marnel plucked long strings of herbs growing on the path — “for eating, later” — and repeated their names in Croatian until he was sure I’d learned them.
The quick walk ended at an unmarked door on a side street. Inside, an immense man was presiding over a dimly lit closet full of stainless steel tanks.
Speaking rapidly in Croatian, he grabbed an empty plastic bottle, twisted a spigot on the nearest tank, and poured out a liter of red wine, made from grapes grown in the neighboring fields.
Back outside, Marnel set down our wine and pulled out some water. “For hiking,” he explained. Before I could say, “Of course the water’s for hiking,” he diluted the wine to half-strength and took a swig. He offered me the bottle with a wicked grin.
What the hell, I thought, taking a long drink.
Tips: Sightseeing in Stari Grad
- As one of the oldest towns in Croatia, Stari Grad is worth more than the quick stop that Marnel and I paid it. Literally “Old Town” in Serbo-Croat, it was founded as the colony of Pharos in 385 BC by the Greeks, who filled the island’s interior with vineyards and olive trees.
- The port of Stari Grad is about 1.2 miles from the town itself. Buses regularly meet arriving ferries to transport visitors.
- One of Stari Grad’s main draws is Tvrdalj, an impressive Renaissance castle. It was formerly the home of celebrated Croatian poet Petar Hektorovic, who was born on Hvar in 1487 and spent his life writing maritime travelogues and collecting Hvar’s fisherman songs. Highlights of Tvrdalj include the fish pond in the inner courtyard and the statue of Hektorovic in the front.
- Another sight is the Dominican monastery, founded in 1482, and its ancient archives and library. Nearby is the church of St. Nicholas, which dates to the 17th century.
Wine procured, we hiked out of town onto the Stari Grad Plain, which has World Heritage status through UNESCO.
Spread between the rolling hills of Hvar’s narrow interior, the miles of walled vineyards and olive orchards trace roughly the same layout they were given 2400 years ago by the ancient Greeks.
As we hiked out of the loamy, Martian-red soil of the vineyards, we passed cisterns long overgrown with moss, tiny shrines with altars coated in dust and candle wax, and eerie heaps of stone hiding under branches.
“No one knows, but they think they could be marking for where they buried people, the Greeks,” Marnel said.
We hadn’t seen a single person since leaving town. I later learned we were less than a half mile from a major road, but I couldn’t hear a single far-off voice, the whoosh of traffic, or even the braying of livestock. I had to wonder who was tending these fields.
It felt like an abandoned civilization repeopled by ghosts.
Continue reading on the next page to meet Hvar’s quirky inhabitants and learn about hiking opportunities on the island.