Croatia: A new Eden

Hedonists may be enjoying Croatia's clutch of festivals, yet its clusters of islands are landscapes of lavender fields, limpid waters and strange geology

By Sarah Barrell
Published 20 Aug 2012, 14:07 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:00 BST

I'm waiting for Charlie. It's a choppy morning on the water and I'm scanning the horizon for sign of him. As yet, only the white sails of yachts are outlined, cutting into the blue of Hvar's southern waters. Charlie's boat doesn't have a sail — far too fussy — and it's still early. He'll probably be out, skirting the shoreline for shellfish: the barnacle-covered Croatian kind that I don't know the names of but am eager to try. So I lie back on the lounger, tip my face to the sun and wait for the chuggity-chuggity of his boat as it enters the bay.

I'm off to explore Pakleni, the little string of islets that form a protective barrier off the southwest tip of Hvar, an island off the coast of central Dalmatia. Waves have managed to whip their way past this mini archipelago, creating a ripple on the bay's surface that's significant enough to warrant me hiring a skipper rather than taking a self-drive motor-dingy. "Most of the dinghy rental places are already booked out for the day," Hotel Podstine's affable manager, Sime Fio tells me. "And even if I could find you a boat, I probably wouldn't recommend driving it in wind like this." A hot sirocco is blowing onshore, bearing dust-fine sand from Africa that's invisible to me until I return to my rental car and find its windows opaque and its paintwork rendered matt.

Charlie, when he finally arrives, has noted it all. "Not good," he says tapping his chest with a leathery finger. "You can't breathe. And you need to breathe." At 80-odd years old, Charlie is allowed a bit of melodrama. But I don't believe a word of it. This skipper is something of a local legend; as well as speaking seven languages, he can be found on certain evenings playing a mean jazz piano at select hotel bars. He can also, reputedly, walk several metres on his hands. And he's so full of vim and vigour that I'd wager he could pull this off while piloting his boat.

Out on the water, Hvar Town, just around the bay from the hotel, looks postcard perfect. The wall of its Spanish Fortress unfurls down the hillside like a sweeping royal gesture, elegantly acknowledging the town's patchwork of red rooftops and the mega-yachts in the marina below. As the outline of its myriad churches, once financed by rich Venetian merchants, starts to become indistinct, I turn my head out to sea. Jerolim Island is looming fast; the scent of fragrant Aleppo pine drifts across the water from its thickly wooded centre; the trees perfect cover for its stock clientele of nudist bathers.

Charlie raises an eyebrow and points the boat towards the neighbouring island of Marinkovac, motoring between a string of archetypal castaway islands: perfectly round, crowned with dense brush, and surrounded with what looks like, in blazing sunshine, a neat halo of white sand. On closer inspection, the halo reveals itself as a crust of porous rock — the dry karst landscape that characterises much of central Croatia.

Anchoring at Marinkovac, I wander through woodland to its far shore in search of a beach, but like many places here, it's rock, not sand that meets the sea. It's an astounding spread of geological weirdness, a sort of bleached version of Ireland's Giant's Causeway; the rocks all puckered up in turrets, the surf forming bubbling pools between their crenelations.

But Hvar Island is no fossil. It's home to Carpe Diem, a bar credited with single-handedly putting Croatia on the international clubbing map when it opened back in the early noughties. Today, with a handful of early-season staff padding around, repainting beach cabanas and repairing the outdoor dance floor, it looks far from a pop culture pioneer, yet its popularity created a battle of the clubs that pushed bar prices up to French Riviera highs, and began to attract a starry clientele.

My favourite island in the little chain, next door, is somewhat less glitzy. Sveti Klement is home to a handful of hippy-chic beach restaurants and a rare sandy bay.

A bracing swim is overlooked by a few local boatmen who clearly regard this as an actof madness so early in the season. Charlie pops up on a rock to tell me my table is ready for lunch, then pads off up the hillside crooning one of his creations. "Every morning here I come, composing love letters to the sun." I'm not sure if it's Charlie's company or the tranquillity of early season — I'm the one of only two tables at Toto's, a lovely hillside terrace restaurant — but I can't help feeling a trip to Croatia is a trip back in time. Compared to the rash of resorts ringing the Med and the crowds covering its beaches, Croatia, for all its increasing popularity, feels like a seductive backwater. Many islands are still family-owned with low key hotels, while international shops and restaurants are seemingly nonexistent.

Owner occupier

Croatia has a wealth of beautiful bays to develop and defunct hotels to be acquired or renovated, but due to a hangover from the co-ops of the communist era and the chaos of the Balkan wars, there are hundreds of legal cases over who, exactly, owns these hotels or has the right to develop land. During the 1990s, many of Croatia's hotels were used to house refugees and have since been subject to private-public ownership wrangling and property embezzlement scandals that have seen numerous government officials arrested. And while it may seem unfeasibly glam to own an island — as numerous families still do — traditionally they were seen as nothing more than grazing lands for goats. True, some are selling this rustic terrain to hopeful foreigners, but there's currently little new owners can do by way of development.

But local businesses, of course, have found a way around this and in many cases are flourishing — often in the most unexpected places. A morning's walk, back on Hvar, along windblown cliffs and stony trails, following the folds in the mountains, brings me to the deserted hamlet of Malo Grablje. This hillside patchwork of grey stone buildings was abandoned in the latter half of the 20th century when poverty forced occupants to relocate to nearby Milna on Brac island. It can't have happened suddenly — the town reburied their dead in Milna cemetery — yet I find garden tools rusting upright in the ground where they were left and a motorbike is meshed to a fence with ivy. The only sign of recent life are the remains of what looks like a tiny blue whip snake on a step below a church.

Half a mile or so on, just before the sandy path opens onto Milna's shingle beach, I meet Mate Tudor and his wife Mihaela, descendents of Malo Grablje. The pair run an informal restaurant, Konoba Lambik, in their flower-filled garden. Bread is baked in a traditional outdoor wood oven and everything from herbs, jams, wine, eggs and veggies are produced at the property using methods dating back to the couple's great grandparents and beyond. The name Tudor can be traced back centuries here: local legend has it that it derives from a member of the English House of Tudor who married a local girl after becoming shipwrecked on these shores. Tudors, I am told, are renowned for being resilient and resourceful. Mate points out the villa of Croatian football star Igor Tudor just visible on the hillside above us.

One Croatian star many visitors haven't heard about is its wine. I spend the evening at Tomic Winery, one of a handful in the country producing medal-winning vintages and offering tastings to tourists. Here I learn about the recently discovered genetic link between America's Zinfandel grape and Croatia's Crljenak Kaštelanski, which has the couple of restaurant-owning Californians who join us frothing with excitement. The vine was introduced to North America in the 1920s and has since been claimed as something of an American creation. "But this is better than anything we get back home," says Julia, the self-confessed hard-drinking half of the pair.

She and her doctor husband, Dale, are on a motorbike tour of the Balkans, and as we sample the cellar's award-winning big red (the Plavac 2007), we discuss wine and war. Among their fellow bikers are Slovenian, Bosnian and Montenegrin nationals. They recall how those who fled the country to work in the tourist resorts of neighbouring Italy during the Yugoslav Wars would gravitate towards each other in exile, partying with the very people their home troops were fighting against. But these Adriatic islands remained bullet-free during the decade of fighting that tore Yugoslavia apart. Hvar's UNESCO-protected agricultural landscape of ancient dry stone walls and lavender fields looks today much like it would have done when indigenous Illyrians farmed and built fortresses here in the first millennium BC.

My days are spent walking through Biblical landscapes — along stony trails that take us into deep valleys of olive groves, with pine-forested mountains towering above us and not a soul in sight. Stari Grad, Hvar's Old Town exudes a blissful tranquillity found not only on Hvar but wherever I walk in Croatia, from the island of Murter, north of Split, to waterfall-strewn Krkr National Park, inland.

I skirt Split's Old Town's sun-shaded backstreets, where busking Dalmatian male choir groups send goose bump-inducing baritones up into crumbling, ivy-clad cupolas. Then on to the market, laid elegantly around the Roman Dioceletian's Palace, to stock up on armfuls of cherries, the sweetest of almonds, sheep's cheese from the island of Pag, vines of ripe tomatoes, oily jars of anchovies and giant half moons of crusty bread.

En-route to the island of Murter, bags loaded, I take the old coast road from Split, passing tiny hamlets strung around elliptical bays of pristine azure water, and barely another car on the road. Two hours later, I'm on the road again, this time on two feet. Heading out from Murter's main town, Tisno, I follow a dirt track lined with Stations of the Cross, leading uphill to a pilgrim's church with soul-stilling sea views. Further on, I find several more churches, built in the Middle Ages to protect, both spiritually and physically, against plagues and malaria.

The houses in Murter's stone hamlets are in rude green health, each carpeted with mangold, the leafy green chard that accompanies most grilled fish dishes in this part of the world.

Islands of stars

'On the last day of the Creation, God desired to crown His work, and thus created the Kornati Islands out of tears, stars and breath.' So eulogised George Bernard Shaw about the Kornati — a national park of rugged, barren islands two hours by sea from Murter's shores. Sadly, the omnipotent being didn't factor in weather-dependent ferry schedules — I find the wind is up and the ferry ticket office window down. No tears are shed, however, as Murter's coast has me completely under its spell. I take a 10-mile circular walk from Tisno, south to the tiny promontory of Murtaric. Sandy paths, lined with wild poppies, buttercups and fragrant gorse, lead me to deep, craggy bays where I take secret swims and sun-soaked picnics.

A gleeful couple of hours are spent rock hopping along the south coast; sea spray nipping at our heels. I pass a tiny chapel garlanded in a string of seaweed and vines, then head up onto a narrow brush-obscured path, crunching over pine cones. The trees suddenly reveal a couple of bathers, one entirely in the buff apart from a pair of black socks. Further along, the heat encouraging me, I brave a quick skinny dip off a rocky dock, watched by a curious dog, although the profusion of spiky black sea urchins covering the rocks makes this something of an adrenalin sport.

A fire on the mainland has knocked out the power along the coast and northern Murter, but the only evidence of this when I return from my walk, is the harried look of our Hotel Borovnik's manager and the faint scent of smoke in the air. Life on this island goes on as it always has: dinner cooked up in outdoor wood-fired ovens, eaten on simple tables lit by candles and starlight, with a breeze off the marina providing air conditioning. This sleepy pace seems replicated everywhere, from city to sea. Along the coast in the beautiful Greek-founded walled city of Trogir I wander cool cobbled lanes, taking shade in the exquisite UNESCO-listed cathedral to watch a group of kids playing a spirited game of five-aside in the square outside.

Just north of Trogir, I follow the Krkr River inland to the Krkr National Park. It's not as well known as Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park, but in Krkr I have to queue for tickets. Once inside, I'm again lost to a timeless landscape of woods and water. Here Croatia's geology of porous limestone and dolomitic rock comes into its own. Water bubbles from underground streams and overground rivers, cascading in myriad chutes over endless shelves of rock or plummeting hundreds of feet in a sheer drop. It's almost impossible to believe the park's monastery was just a few miles from the front line during the war of the 1990s. Like so many places in Croatia's central coast, this is a landscape where peace reigns.


Getting there
Croatian Airlines, EasyJet, Wizz Air and Jet2 fly from the UK to Split; the region is also served by Ryanair from East Midlands to Zadar. 

Ferries to Split depart from Ancona and Pescara in Italy.

Average flight time: 2h30m.

Getting there
Buses serve destinations along the coast but the region is much more easily explored by car.

From Split's marina, there are regular ferries to the Dalmatian Islands, including Hvar (the closest, around two hours away), Brac, Vis and Korcula. Most are car ferries, operated by Jadrolinija, but there's also a fast 'Krilo' catamaran running from Hvar and Korcula. Tickets can be bought on the day of travel at the kiosk on the quay. One-way from Split to Hvar on a Jadrolinija ferry costs around 300 HRK (£32) for a car and passengers.

Murter and Trogir are accessed by road bridge from the mainland. Boats to the Kornati Islands are weather dependent and can be arranged via a hotel or private excursion from Tisno's marina.

When to go
Peak summer months (July-August) are hot, humid and crowded. Early summer, spring and autumn are the best times to visit; spring walking reveals fantastic wildflowers; the sea is warmest in autumn.

Need to know
Currency: Croatian prices are often marked in euros but the official currency is the kuna (HRK): £1 = 9.33 HRK.

International dial code: 00 385.

Time difference: GMT +1.

More info
Secret Hvar offers guided walking/history tours of the island.
Insight Guides: Croatia. RRP: £16.99.
Croatia Berlitz Pocket Guide. RRP: £5.99.

How to do it
Inntravel offers a range of fly-drives, walking, self-catering and touring holidays in Croatia. Islands and Waterfalls, a self-guided, three-centre trip through Central Dalmatia costs from £768 per person, including seven nights' B&B at three hotels, one dinner, seven days' car hire, route notes and maps. Flights are extra and can be arranged.

For a longer holiday, this can be combined with Inntravel's Dubrovnik & Dalmatian Island Journey (from an additional £755 per person) to create a 15-night, three-centre break flying into Split and out of Dubrovnik. 


Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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