Fiona Duff enjoys a culinary cruise to the island of Hvar and discovers why holidaymakers are heading to Croatia in their droves
When you find that your plans are the same as those of so many others, are you riding the crest of a wave or following in their wake? Last summer when I decided that our family holiday would be in Croatia, I was gobsmacked at how many other people had chosen the same destination. However, with direct flights from Edinburgh to both Dubrovnik and Split I shouldn’t really have been surprised.
So going with the flow, we headed to one of the islands close to Split. Finding properties to rent is tricky as there seem few in between the extremely basic and super swish and expensive, but I came across a house in Stari Grad on Hvar which was perfect.
When you are with a crowd it’s always good to stand out from the rest. Not for us the ferry from Split, but rather a culinary cruise on Sunburst Sailing. Set up by Edinburgh-based John and Lyn McMorland, Sunburst offers day trips and sundowner sails on their yacht Nera, so as a treat we arranged for them to take us to Stari Grad.
En route, and after a few plates of canapés, we stopped at a bay off Brac for our first dip in the Adriatic. As we continued our journey, bowls of delicious Thai curry were washed down with local wine.
Stari Grad has a natural harbour around which the houses and restaurants of this small town are wrapped. Said to be the oldest town in Europe, the streets are so narrow it is doubtful that even a donkey and cart could navigate them, so it’s no surprise to see so many of the residents tootling about on mopeds. One day we hired one to explore a bit of the island whilst the three teenagers snored in bed. It wasn’t the most powerful of engines (“Last week I hired one to a couple that were even bigger than you two,” said the man at the hire shop), but around Stari Grad it’s fairly level and we managed the slight inclines on the way to Jelsa, another harbourside town that seemed to have more tourists than our Croatian home.
On the way back we came through the flat expanse of the Stari Grad plain; acres and acres of the world’s oldest allotments. With little dry stane dykes around them, some obviously had green-fingered tenants whereas others looked as though no-one had been there since the Romans moved out several centuries ago.
Travelling around the rest of our time on Hvar was undertaken by foot or bus and in Stari Grad nothing seemed more than ten minutes away. Beaches here are pebbly rather than sandy and the closest one on the north side of the harbour was small and busy so it didn’t take us long to discover better ones for swimming and sunbathing a little bit further along the cove.
The locals tended to head for Lanterna along the riva or promenade by the harbourside on the south side of the inlet. The walk there takes you past the grander buildings of Stari Grad, many painted pale Mediterranean tones of terracotta and rose. Further along and closer to the ferry terminal is Maslinica beach which apparently does have some sand, but requires a car or boat to get there.
However, probably the most perfect beach I have ever been to is Dubovica, halfway between Stari Grad and Hvar. The bus journey takes about 20 minutes and we were dropped off at the side of the road then scrambled down trying to avoid all sorts of scratchy-looking plant life. It was worth it to find this little paradise – warm, clear water surrounded by rocks on which to climb and then jump off, with a small restaurant serving platters of prawns or ham and salad. There wasn’t much in the way of shade but there were parasols to hire for a few kuna, the local currency.
Of course a holiday cannot be swimming and sunbathing alone. Restaurants are plentiful in Stari Grad and most have a strong Italian influence in their menus. The McMorlands directed us to their favourite in the town, Jurin Podrum, which is on a little alley off the riva with tables both inside and out. It lived up to its reputation, and their speciality seafood spaghetti was quite magnificent. Further back from the waterside through a maze of streets we found ourselves in the prettiest little square called Skor, with picturesque houses with their green or red shutters and ornate paving. It was here that we sat at the end of a long table and had a fantastic meal at La Gitana; for location alone it must be hard to beat in the whole island. A further recommendation was on the other side of the town where we found Eremitaz on the night of my son’s 19th birthday. We had a slap-up meal and lots of wine (we really liked the Croatian offerings), so the bill of around £55 for five was enough to put a very large smile on the face of my parsimonious husband.
Although Stari Grad is very small, being as old as it is there is no shortage of lovely buildings in which to wander. The most famous is Petar Hektorovic’s Tvrdalj; a small fortress which this father of Croatian literature spent his life designing and building when he wasn’t writing poetry. There is a fish pond and dovecot, with inscriptions from his writings carved all around, as well as a real sense of serenity.
There are many little churches scattered around and I was particularly taken with the Dominican Monastery and Church of St Peter which is probably the grandest of all. The interior belies the fairly stark exterior, with its ornate carvings on the balcony and coloured glass chandeliers. This building also houses a small museum with fossils and artefacts found in the vicinity of Stari Grad and in the centre is a little orchard with trees laden with oranges.
Most of all Stari Grad is just a lovely place to hang around – it is so laid back and feels very safe. Away from the touristy shops on the riva selling pottery and t-shirts, one can find little dark rooms filled with lavender, honey and olive oil; there may be an old lady spooning home-made lemon liqueur into bottles and practically insisting you taste it even though it is only 10am.
When we chose to visit Stari Grad I had no idea what to expect. We found a lovely house (although that took time and research) and a town which bordered on the magical. And to add to the charm, it didn’t break the bank.