Old seafaring town rewards visitors with magnificent views, exquisite local crafts
Each morning, I wake up aboard ship thinking there’s no way that the new day could top the previous one. And each day, I’m proven wrong.
Today, we docked outside Hvar, one of the more than 1,000 islands dotting Croatia’s coastline. Since we’re heading north and my cabin is on the port (left) side of the ship, I couldn’t see the town from my balcony. When I finally caught a glimpse of the harbour, its beauty took my breath away. If one can get tired of deep blue water, red tile roofs, aged stone houses and tropical flora, it certainly takes more than a week.
Hvar is an old seafaring town that was under Venetian rule for centuries, just like many of the other ports of call we’ve visited. During Venetian times it was a major naval base with an indoor repair facility that meant hauling the boats on wooden planks through a stone archway to a dry work area.
Today, making a living on the island is more difficult. Tourism is the main industry, but it isn’t a high-paying one, so many of the inhabitants work more than one job to make ends meet.
Tourists who do visit Hvar – and the size of the harbour won’t allow for large cruise ships – are in for a treat. The beautiful stone buildings are intact, since the island remained untouched during what Croatians call the “Homeland War” and others refer to as the Balkan War.
That isn’t to say residents were unaffected. Their harbour was mined by the Serbs and they were virtual prisoners on the island with food and supplies scarce. The small community living in Hvar’s major town clung together, relying on the church for both physical and spiritual sustenance. This strong sense of community helped them pull through, and it’s what keeps many people living here despite the economic uncertainty.
The town itself is built on one of the rocky hillsides so typical of the Croatian coast. Standing at the top is a 16th century medieval castle turned fortress. A walk up steep stone steps and along a winding path takes the visitor past fig trees, bougainvilleas, palms and agaves to magnificent views of the a cerulean harbour speckled with boats and ringed with red roofs. Visitors who overcome the discomfort to their hamstring muscles as they make the climb can reward themselves with a cold beer or some sparkling mineral water at the fortress cafe.
Back down in the town, the main square and side streets are home to shops selling lavender products, a trademark of Croatia, as well as jewellery and clothing. The local convent is home to cloistered nuns who weave lace from the fibres of the agave plant, a labour-intensive process that yields exquisite, expensive pieces. It is so beautiful that Pope Benedict himself commissioned a piece.
Outside the town hall stands a tall wooden flagpole that has been in place for centuries and plays an interesting role in justice in the town. The rector (head of the government) was both judge and jury for legal matters and heard them in the loggia (covered porch) of the town hall. When a guilty decision was rendered, the offender was forced to stand for 24 hours in front of the flagpole holding a sign that told the tale of his crime. Townspeople would walk by and spit on him or throw stones in punishment. Quite a deterrent, I imagine!
Aboard ship in the afternoon, I enjoyed one of the many lectures that have been available during the week, each given by a university professor expert in some aspect of the ancient world. Their presence has enriched the experience of travelling here, filling in the many gaps in everyone’s knowledge of the area’s history. Understanding the past has given us all a clearer lens on the present.
One question on everyone’s minds is whether Croatia, Montenegro and their Balkan neighbours can maintain their hard won peace. Our cruise has contributed in some small measure to the region’s economy. A stable economy bodes well for a future without conflict and all my fellow travellers will be watching closely. As our resident classics professor says, jokingly, “Here’s Lucan at you, kid.”