Hvar, Croatia

 Visited 18 and 19 October 2009

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Hvar claims to be the sunniest spot in Europe and has been a tourist destination since 1886. Over 5,000 years ago, this was the site of the Hvar Culture.  UNESCO calls the still-used fields a world heritage site for Greek agriculture.

This island is the longest Adriatic island at about 43 miles long. But it's thin -- averaging less than 7 miles wide. The Dinaric Alp mountain range that parallels and defines the Croatian coast lifts up an east-west limestone ridge out of the Adriatic.

Over thirty other empires have tried to run this thin limestone island that was once the southern Dinaric Alps mountain chain --before the Adriatic flooded its valleys.

The founding Greeks named this island ΦAPOΣ-- Pharos which to them meant a lighthouse. Slavs pronounce that "Hvar." (Croats write our "F" sound as "Hv.")

Rocks and their roles

Let's start though a bit to the south of Hvar. After our Dubrovnik visit, we ventured north along the Dalmatian coast. Views such as the above are typical: communities hug the shores and over a 1000 islands, many of them inhabited, rise steeply from the Adriatic. Except for the southernmost islands and coast where Dubrovnik was able to hold its independence, the rest of Dalmatia became Venetian territory starting in the 12th century.

Long before that, crashing tectonic plates created most impressive ridges along the 400-mile-long Dinaric Alps as they laced the edge of the eastern Adriatic with craggy islands and shores. Natural barriers such as this have historically kept the area "Balkanized" into separate states not known for getting along. Bosnia in particular has trouble getting to the sea.

Above is one of the more dramatic views of these limestone ridges with a thumbnail of population below. Venice used these harbors to supply its ships -- with water, food, and oarsmen. Venetians discouraged education and culture. They mostly wanted supplies and muscle.Along most of the Dalmatian coast, these ridges parallel the Adriatic, keeping Bosnia on the other side from the sea only a few miles away. But here the fault shifts to provide some sea access where the Neretva River carves its way to the sea.

Limestone generally does a lousy job of holding water so lakes such as these are a rarity along the Dalmatian coast. Typically water corrodes the limestone, creating channels and drainage. Instead here it has formed 100-foot-deep reservoirs. These are the 7 interconnected Baćina Lakes which border the coast at the city of PloÄe at the mouth of the Neretva River.The Dinaric Alps in the background are a nearly insurmountable barrier between the inland agricultural areas and the Adriatic. Besides this Neretva River valley, the only other pass through them is the Krka River canyon to the north. Bosnia would do a lot to get their hands on this territory and PloÄe's nearby port (where 95% of the population is Croat.) Negotiations continue.

Here we see an example of effective irrigation of the topsoil brought by the Neretva River to its delta.

But this view is more typical: forested mountains plunging steeply into the sea with perhaps a small town clinging near the edge -- and nary a field in sight.

Usually limestone meets shore without interruption. Occasionally you might see a small beach as is the case here.  About 12,000 years ago, global warming led to the rise of the Adriatic which converted this area of the Dinaric Alps into islands -- long before Al Gore was invented.

Road building is taken seriously here and tunnels are not uncommon. This road led us from Dubrovnik to Split where we took a ferry to the island of Hvar, a hot destination for European beachcombers.

Neolithic Hvar: herding through the grapevines

Hvar has a lot of history -- and a lot of prehistory. It has been populated at least since Neolithic times. 

Note the terrace farming here preserves the rain water that would otherwise quickly drain through the limestone karst in the valleys.The Dalmatian islands are typically parts of the Dinaric Alps whose gulches were filled in by the rising Adriatic sea about 12,000 years ago.

Agricultural and herd animals arrived here, most likely from Italy, around 6000 BC. Typically with agriculture you get pots as you have to keep that grain somewhere. The late Neolithic Hvar culture flourished here for a millennium starting around 3500 BC. The Adriatic coast has over 50 archeological sites with fragments from their black pots. Hvar alone has 17 Neolithic archeological sites.

Here's another view of the terraces, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites as examples of Greek agriculture. Some have been in continuous use forever, if not longer. 

Terrace farming is important to preserve the rainwater (about 27" per year -- not all that different from the US Midwest area). But scarce fresh water disappears quickly through the porous limestone. The soil is not suitable for raising grain, but works well with vines and, as we see at the bottom of this picture, olive trees...

...but often lavender makes for a more lucrative crop although it takes some tending.  While Napoleon was in the neighborhood, the lavender crop mushroomed to serve the French appetite for perfume. Much of this area has an abandoned feel to it, and typically the lavender terraces seem a bit scruffy. 

Since the Venetians brought vines in the 12th century, wine was also an important export but, as in France, the phylloxera critters wiped out the industry and many of the island's agricultural workers left. The slopes and sun -- along with strong winds that keep insects at bay -- make this excellent wine country and Hvar's wine industry has made a strong comeback. (Croatian and Hungarian wines -- dismissed for years as Eastern Block schlock-- are suddenly in vogue.)  But sometimes the winds (named "Bura" for the North and "Yugo" for the south) are so strong that those who labor in the vineyards must be tied together with ropes.

Out of the over 1000 Dalmatian islands, Hvar is unusual for having both fresh water springs and large coastal plains. No surprise then that this isle was inhabited early, maybe even before it became an island about 12,000 years ago. Once people started to settle down with agriculture, they needed a place to stay. Besides inventing the wheel, Neolithic man figured out how to stack stones to create shelters with roofs and sides that repel water. Like the wheel, it was obvious how to do it in hindsight. Like wheels, these "trims" are typically round to avoid issues like corners, (although that's not apparent from this picture.) Today these mortar-less structures look like so many stone igloos dotting Hvar's ancient stone-walled terraces. If you're into this kind of stuff, Zagreb theoretical physicist Berislav Horvatić who appears to be both a rock and a rocket scientist has an excellent page which can be reached by clicking here

Preservationists are a bit incensed that an airport has been proposed for part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of agricultural fields terraced by rock fences from Greek times. 

Throughout the island, we witnessed further rock construction in progress. 

The Greeks arrived in 385/4 BC, bringing the local indigenous tribes into history (writing) and a market economy. The Greek colonization of the East Adriatic was not particularly intensive; but two centuries later, this island was well positioned as part of the Roman Empire which saw free movement of people and goods along the entire Mediterranean and along the Atlantic from Africa to Scotland.

Some Hvar residents still work in marble quarries. (Several guides informed us that the US White House was made from stone from Hvar but when the New York Times published that factoid on the front page of its travel section a few years ago, historians corrected the paper of record. But guides here are not about to abandon the story. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?)

At the north end of the island is Grabak Cave, a major Neolithic archeological site which once held many pottery fragments, knives, copper tools, and human and animal bones -- most of which are now a ferry ride away in a museum in the mainland city of Split. Descendants of this cave continued to be the majority of the inhabitants of Hvar island long after the Greeks arrived. Most archeological sites in Hvar are in caves -- not that all of the Neolithic tribes lived there. It's just that those on the plains most likely had their remnants wiped by the elements (remember those winds?)

Is it any wonder that the Greeks had to terrace to keep the rainwater from escaping through the limestone karst?

Stari Grad -- Î¦Î±Ïος

Conde Nast Traveler calls Hvar a 3-S tourist destination: Sun, Shore, and Sex. Instead we found here a 2-S site: Stari Grad and a lot of Stones just like the nearby stone-fenced Stari Grad Plain, the UNESCO agricultural site. Unfortunately, the Stari Grad ruins were the biggest disappointment of the trip, as only a few undocumented piles of stones mark the archeological site. Come to think of it, the sun and shore weren't all that great either, in my humble eStimation.  

A long bay on the north side of the island creates an excellent natural harbor leading to this spot. Greeks from Syracuse (Sicily) started a colony here called Pharos in the 4th century BC, making this one of the oldest civilized spots in Europe. When it founded its colony of ΦαÏος, Syracuse was probably the most important Greek city on the Mediterranean and at the peak of its power. War with Carthage would soon follow. Eventually the Greeks invited the Romans into Dalmatia to help them maintain their power. Not that good of an idea.

St. Stephen -- part one

Invite is a bit of a misnomer as this island resisted the 219 BCE  onslaught of the Romans and were punished severely for it. (This was typical for the Romans.) Over the next 600 years, Romans pretty well controlled their province of Dalmatia -- but only in the cities and towns. The countryside remained native and tribal. 

Here, as in the rest of Croatia, the southern Slavs eventually swarmed in.  When Venice finally got control, it moved the capital from Pharos (now called "Stari Grad" ) to the southwestern side of this thin island. 

Above is the 17th century church of St. Stephen whose facade, like that of many churches throughout Dalmatia, dimly echoes that of the resplendent St. Zaccaria in Venice.

St. Stephen's was locked up, leaving us to admire this doorway with a pope memorialized between two half shells overhead. This depicts Pope St. Stephen -- not the martyr we usually see depicted sprouting arrows like a porcupine. Instead, this Stephen was the 3rd century Pope who invented mass vestments. (Before that priest wore street clothes. While this may not be world peace, it has endured much longer: Today Stephen's sole brother Benedict XVI wears Prada loafers.)

This church replaced a 12th century church on the same spot -- and used stones from the city's defensive walls. The Venetians constructed the first church of St. Stephen as part of a Benedictine monastery.

Above we see one of the few windows that break St. Stephan's ashlar wall. 

Construction started in 1604 and continued for over a century. The Venetians fought with the Byzantine empire, Hungary, and Croatia from the 12th century until 1409 when they more-or-less settled the matter. In fact, when Venice began to dominate the Dalmatian coast, these islands in the center of the then-known world had had over 30 changes of control including Greeks, Romans, Tatars, Croats, Serbia, and the Byzantine Empire. Nice of the Greeks to introduce history here, but it's hard to keep up with it all.

For nearly 4 centuries under Venetian rule, the island prospered economically, even if it occasionally rebelled politically. The Hapsburgs ended the Venetian Republic in 1797 followed a decade later by Napoleon and his crew. Then came the dog's breakfast of rulers that ended in Yugoslavia. Except, of course, it didn't end in Yugoslavia. Today the island is back as part of Croatia.

The old town ("Stari Grad") is filled with stone houses which we found mostly closed-up in the rain -- despite the fact that the tourist office claims this to be the sunniest spot in Europe. (It averages over 7 hours of sun per day.) 

This island supports itself by producing excellent red and white wines, lavender -- and, of course, tourism.

Petar HektorovIC

Although an island, Hvar was often at the center of culture such as the Croatian literary Renaissance. One of its major figures is Petar Hektorović whose statue rises in front of his imposing stone house he designed facing the port in Stari Grad. Today it's an ethnographic museum.

The Croatian literary renaissance was a 15th and 16th century movement that saw Croat writers who had been using Latin --Hektorović had translated Ovid -- begin to write using their native tongue. Their subject matter included contemporary life, local folk lore, and common people.

Hektorović was such a noble whose poetry glorified the common man. He was born and died in Stari Grad, where he built the fortified house shown above around 1520, calling it "Tvrdalj Castle." (His family was among the wealthiest here and he had a much different summer home in Hvar town that we will see in a few slides.) The pond contains sea water as is often the case in coastal gardens where fresh water is in short supply. It flows under the "fort" to an interior atrium and garden.

Hektorović wrote in both Latin and Italian, but his masterpiece was in the local Croatian dialect, describing a fishing trip around the island. This in the seas where wily Ulysses sailed. Hektorović did eclogues, not epics.

South to Hvar Town

Let's now leave the old town of Stari Grad and venture to the southeast section of the island to the town of Hvar. The long quay reaching out into the harbor at the center of the picture was built by the Venetians to moor their fleet. At upper right are some of the 20 Pakleni Islets, where forests meet beach and those with boats or water taxi can experience both. The name is mistakenly thought to translate as "Hell's Islands," and some is raised there. 

In 385 BCE, the Greeks also settled here in a town they named "Dimos." Most likely this was a trade center between such great Greek cities as Corinth and the interior of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With the arrival of the Greeks, the natives, perhaps descendant from the cave dwellers, retreated to the hills in the island's interior. To keep them there, the Greeks built walls. (Traces exist today but scholars dispute whether the natives built these earlier to keep the Greeks out. Myth holds that these walls were built by giants such as Odysseus's Cyclops.)

The local tribes of Illyrians eventually took the island back from the Greeks but held it for less than a generation before the Romans took over in 219. They came to stamp out the pirates based here that were menacing Adriatic shipping. They created villas with mosaic floors that are still being excavated today. When the Western Roman empire collapsed, the eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire took over in 535 -- but local bishops kept Dalmatia Catholic, not Orthodox. 

Dubrovnik (Ragusa) dominated the island. Byzantine rule never quite took, especially after the Slavs swept through the Neretva river valley (remember those lakes we saw earlier) and populated Dalmatia during the 7th century. They stayed while Byzantine kept conquering and losing the same territory. Finally Croatia became a vassal of Hungary (but administratively somewhat independent) in 1102. 

Then came Venice.

Venetian Dalmatian Domination

Hvar willingly gave itself over to Venice in the 12th century in exchange for protection. When the Venetians took over in 1278, they moved the island capital here in what is now the town of Hvar. 

Three hills descend to a lovely harbor which laps the town square. While hovercraft land here, this appears today to be more a marina than port. The island's major port has stayed on the other side of the island at Stari Grad. 

In the summer, this basin is pretty much a parking lot for 3-S yachts as this is Croatia's most in sin resort.

The Venetians moved the capital here as it was easier to defend than Stari Grad. If you come by road, this is what Hvar town looks like on first sighting -- the Spanish fort and a piece of the crenellated town wall erected by the Venetians. 

The town was allowed to govern itself within these walls.

Walls protected the town on the land side. To protect the sea entrance, the Venetians constructed an arsenal to support both the city's defense as well as shipbuilding. The building at right is a newer arsenal built from 1579-1611 after the invading Turks burnt down its predecessor. Its huge arched entrance allowed ships to be taken inside in times of danger. 

The Turks burnt down almost all of the town in 1571 as they rowed their way to their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto. Their commander, Uluz Ali -- the governor of Algiers -- brought 80 galleys here as a diversionary tactic. He sailed around Hvar island, trashing all its cities before proceeding south to Corfu. 

Later one of the oldest surviving theaters in Europe was built inside the Arsenal in 1612. Called the "Kazaliste," it further solidified Hvar as a center of the Croatian Renaissance with the homes of Hanibal Lucic, Petar Hektorvic, and Gian Francesco Biondi. The town square at left leads to the cathedral and its iconic Dalmatian bell tower.

The Venetian Galley

(Thanks to Frederic Chapin Lane's "Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance" for this drawing.)

Above is the main reason that Venice wanted Hvar. While their galleys were great ships for getting into and out of military situations and tight harbors, including the Venice Lagoon, they were labor intensive -- which meant water intensive as that labor sweated in the Mediterranean heat. When not at war, these ships transported cargo so safely that they routinely "sailed" without insurance. 

Speed required that they be long: eight times as long as they were wide. That meant they would tip easily if loaded with cannons high enough to do damage. Because of that, they eventually became obsolete. 

Most used three banks of oars on each side powered by rowers on benches angled so seat mates wouldn't interfere with each other. Oars -- one per rower --weighed about 120 pounds each and were rarely operated by slaves. Typically there was enough room at the end of each bench for a single bowman/marine.

The Spanish Fort

At the other end of the island, the Venetians fortified their churches. But they couldn't hold the island and Hungary-Croatia took the island back in 1358, followed by Bosnia -- which was eventually defeated by the Ottomans in 1389. But the Ottomans couldn't hold Dalmatia and finally the Venetians got Hvar back despite Dubrovnik (Ragusa) and Split both fighting for it.

But even Venice's hold was tentative and they erected the Spanish Fort between 1531 and 1551, 358 feet above the town, in anticipation of an attack by the Ottoman Turks. (They arrived 20 years later). But not all enemies were from beyond the island shores. Hvar denizens revolted against their Venetian masters several times.

When Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, he gave Dalmatia to the Austrians who built their barracks inside this castle. When Austria, in turn fell after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, the French took Hvar back. This in turn brought out the Russians who bombarded the island a few years later.

A pleasant walk through aloe and scrub bush leads to the above fort built by Spanish engineers during the 16th century and called the Spanish Fort ever since. (Spain has spent the centuries before mostly attacking the Moors in a successful attempt to get them out of Andalusia.)

Hvar residents survived the Ottoman onslaught in 1571 by taking refuge here. Before this fort, a medieval castle occupied this obviously strategic high ground.

Our luck was not as good. We found the fort closed due to high winds -- but not so high that we couldn't easily walk up here on a sunny mid-October afternoon. Fortunately, no Ottoman Turks were to be found.

Safe Harbor

With Hvar, the Venetians had safe harbor halfway between Venice and Corfu. Galleys stored little food and water and navigation in open water was rare. Ships clung to the shore. Hvar was well positioned to supply the 2 gallons of water needed per day for Venetian galleys that held over 200 sailors/rowers. Venice also built the tiny enclosed marina at the foot of the plaza at left which today is still called Mandrac (Greek for a sheepfold.) The town prospered and nobles built their Gothic and Renaissance palaces right into the city walls. Venice used this as one of its  naval bases until 1776.

The Arsenal is at center left of this picture. The Venetians moored their Adriatic fleet here along the long quay where today the glitterati moor their yachts.

Hvar Architecture

Besides being the sunniest spot in Europe, Hvar is known for the Venetian Renaissance buildings edging its main square. Here we look north at the loggia and clocktower of the Rector's palace (equivalent to city hall) at the bottom of the hill protected by the Spanish Fort. These remnants are now part of a hotel once favored by Elisabeth, Empress to Franz Joseph, during the 1800s.

The Habsburgs ran Dalmatia from 1815 until Austria-Hungary's collapse at the end of WWI. They are the ones who started the Hygiene Society of Hvar where sick folks could recover in the town that had more sunshine than any other in Europe. 

Venice called the island "Lesina" -- a word that described pine and oak forests that perhaps covered the island in their day. For the most part, these seem to have been replaced by scrubby brush.

This palace was built in Venetian Renaissance style. In the 19th century, the Austrians destroyed all but this loggia. We'd guess that the lions of St. Marks -- symbols of Venice -- were restored sometime after they left.

The loggia is now one of the fanciest Florida Rooms in the world and serves as a reception area for a hotel. The original palace was destroyed when the Ottomans visited in the 16th century. It looks over a small marina between the square and the harbor.

This was once a fortified governmental complex of five buildings but only the loggia and the 15th century clock tower remain. After the Turks left, Croat mason Trifun Bokanić rebuilt the palace. He lived on the island of BraÄ, just north of Hvar.Supposedly the empty flagpole at left was called the "Pillar of Shame" back in the middle ages when we had some. If you messed up, you were tied here while people spit on you. In Europe now, Hvar has sort of a Florida spring break reputation and water taxis will take you and your cooler to nude beaches near by. We didn't see anyone spit while we were here.

This side view of the Rector's palace shows the path through the city walls and a palace originally built right in the city's walls now being reconstructed. This arch was the main town gate and was called the Porta del Datolo because even then (as now) it has palm trees planted in front of it. Beyond this arch, the pedestrianized street rises to the Spanish fort.

This palace was intended to be the summer home of the family of Croatian Renaissance poet Petar Hektorović. (Remember that heavy fortress we saw earlier in the old town of Stari Grad)? His roofless residence has a much lighter feel with perhaps the finest Venetian Gothic windows in Hvar. Work stopped at Hektorović's death four centuries ago-- and never started back up! Like many noble palaces here, it's built right into the defensive walls of Hvar.

Perhaps it was unfinished because another noble built the building we see at left between Hektorović's house and the harbor, ruining his view. The family was the Paladinićs and the resulting case lingered in the courts. This was their summer home, kitty-corner from their winter home. Apparently the wealthy had two homes close to each other with better ventilation needed for the hot summers. Without a roof, the Hektorović summer home is superbly ventilated.  It is somewhat amazing that its walls have held up so long without a roof.

This view of the north side of Hvar's harbor shows an orphan church tower, most likely the work of Tripun Bokanić who rebuilt the Rector's palace. The French abolished its monastery in 1807.

The largest Dalmatian Square

Beyond the Rector's loggia starts the largest square on the Adriatic except for St. Mark's square in Venice. Second largest is a long way from the magnificence of St. Mark's but Hvar's square is quite pleasant and relatively empty while we were there. Trendy bars and restaurants stick awnings out from the rather simple structures that edge the square.

Another view of St. Stephen's Square, named after its cathedral which was rebuilt starting in 1560. It incorporates sections of the Benedictine church that preceded it. At the left of the bell tower is the bishop's palace, now a museum.

Even though Hvar was under Venice's thumb, in 1610 it agreed to give commoners equal political standing with the nobles -- a pretty radical idea for its time (and are we sure we have it today?) Contrast this with the "independent" republic of Dubrovnik nearby which required officeholders to be nobles.

This square was created in 1780 by filling in a marshy bay after creating a cistern to hold rain water and paving it with stones. The stored rainwater was then accessed through the ornate fountain at right. By then, Venice had moved its fleet and the town would languish until a century later when it became a tourist center.

Here the cistern cover frames the tourists idling in St. Stephen square. Nearby excavations show traces of a town from around the 5th century BCE.

Supposedly this water collection system still served the town until 21 years ago when a modern water system was installed. Still this 1520 font is much more elegant than a bunch of pipes.

St. Stephan Cathedral -- Part two

In this Venetian town, the tri-font cathedral facade resembles that of St. Zaccaria in Venice (as did the church of St. Stephen in Stari Grad.) The nearby island of KorÄula provided many of the mason/architects for Hvar's monuments. That was the case here: the facade was worked on by Nikola Karlić in 1541 -- followed by his fellow islander Ivan Pomenić nearly a century later. With its tower, the facade makes the exterior the quintessential Dalmatian church.

Above are some of the details of Nikola Karlić and Ivan Pomenić's facade. The statue is most likely of the cathedral's namesake, Pope Stephen, a saint from the 3rd century whose fashion contributions we discussed on the old cathedral in Stari Grad.

The cathedral bell tower was completed in 1532 (before the facade.) It echoes the prototype built 25 years earlier by the Franciscan monastery across the bay. (Why do you need a lightning rod in Europe's sunniest spot? In case God's aim is off the mark when he strikes at the sybaritic 3-S tourists. "True story!")

Priestly vestments, gold crosiers, and other treasures are kept next door to the church in a museum made from the bishop's palace.

Let's go through the low relief bronze doors to see the interior of St. Stephen Cathedral. These are the work of Kuzma KovaÄić who was born in Hvar, in 1952. Many of the scenes appear to be of the life of the saint who would eventually become Pope Stephen, whom this church honors. (Most of us were inadvertently familiar with KovaÄić's work as we had Croatian kuna coins in our pockets with his initials "KK" on them -- and had used them to get a little low relief ourselves in some of the pay toilets in Dubrovnik.)

Somewhat small for a cathedral, St. Stephan's has a Venetian baroque interior with its nave and two aisles. This was built in stages during the 16th and 17th centuries on the foundations of a monastery. The pulpit is from the 15th century.

The side aisles create smaller but open chapel spaces including one with the family tomb of the writer Hektorović's family. The side altars are typical Baroque assemblages of inlaid marble beneath oil paintings framed in multi-colored marble Corinthian columns. Most paintings are by Venetians and 8 of the 10 altars here are 17th century products of the workshop of Alessandro and Paolo Tremignon who are perhaps best known for their Palazzo Labia in Venice. Above, the angel in the painting holds another framed oil of Christ being laid in the sepulcher.

The wooden choir stalls are from 1572 (the year after the Ottoman Turks came by) and suggest that the cathedral canon was fairly small. These are the work of Venetian Marko Anto and were restored in 1888.

This stonework rising above a relief of the apostles may have been from an earlier cathedral. At top is a Passion scene of the flagellation of Christ which is by (or at least in the style) of an important Croat sculptor Giorgio da Sebenico best known for his masterpiece: the cathedral at Å ibenik.

Above is a replica of a medieval baptismal font dating from the 9th century. This high hexagon is decorated by braided reliefs typical of Croatian wattle or "pleter." The braided cross is called the Croatian Cross and dates as a symbol over 1000 years. The original is in the archeological museum at Split.

Next to the baptismal fount along the marble sanctuary railing, in ironic juxtaposition, we find modern sound equipment that could use a little braiding or some other organization. It demonstrates that Hvar Culture now includes modern liturgical singing.

Climbing the Streets of Hvar

Let's look at some of the typical streets of Hvar including the Tex-Mex restaurant advertising here. These steps climb up to the Spanish fort. Most of the town has been pedestrianized.

Some ways of making money from the tourist trade are ingenious. Above is the flower of the Aloe plant the leaves of which produces a spidery sap that can be spun into thin threads...

...that nuns in this simple convent weave into incredibly detailed lace and sell to passers-by. (Photos inside were not allowed.) European lace making has been going on since the Renaissance -- often by nuns and noble women. Hvar's Benedictine convent is the only site for aloe based lace which UNESCO characterizes as part of Croatia's "intangible cultural heritage" in an obvious attempt at saving lace. Aloe lace making started in the mid 19th century. If you'd like to see more, check out the Croatian Ethnographic Museum's excellent 10-minute video by clicking here

The nuns forbid pictures inside their convent but I found this one on the web, taken by a fellow Picasaweb user named Cory who was in Hvar the week before us. (Not much other information is given). Despite UNESCO's best intentions, this may be a dying art. All postulants at the convent are required to learn the craft but it's not clear there is any other strategy to transfer the knowledge of this craft. Given how few nuns there are in the world, should they be making lace for tourists?

Let's walk through parts of the old town -- filled with medieval, Renaissance and Baroque mansions. Venice's winged lion makes frequent appearances in this town that it ruled for many centuries. Here he looks rather ugly but not as ugly as...

...this juxtaposition of an old iron "X" bar to help the building survive earthquakes next to an air conditioner.

Most of the older homes project beams to support balconies and window ledges which may have disappeared. Door decorations such as these are not uncommon.

Stations of the cross lead out from the St Francis Monastery (now a museum). These were built by the commander of Venice's Adriatic fleet which was stationed in Hvar for centuries. Today these are scrupulously maintained and integrated into the streetscape in this nation where 88% of the population are Roman Catholic -- and unlike in Italy across the Adriatic, most of these practice.

Religion was often the glue to hold the sense of nation together while 30 different foreign powers tried to rule this island. As we see from its Roman numeral...

...this is the 12th station containing what appears to be a modern bronze depiction of the crucifixion. The station houses are much older, being built in 1720.

Franciscan Monastery

Backtracking through the stations of the cross, we arrive at its origin: the former Franciscan monastery. Built from 1461-1471, this served as a hospice for sailors funded by the captain of the Venetian fleet. It's outside the old town walls but on the harbor. (It got its own walls in 1574 but that didn't keep the Ottomans from doing their mischief in 1571.)

Marko Andrijićbell from the nearby island of KorÄula started (and his brother finished) the monastery's bell tower around 1500. It serves as a prototype for many Dalmatian towers and it is not by accident that the Cathedral tower built 25 years later on the other side of the harbor resembles it. Only two monks live here now. 

The monastery is a museum today -- not just because of what it holds, but because of what the architects included in the construction.

A modern bronze of Francis prays without birds in the outer garden, perhaps a work of the great Croatian-American artist Ivan Meštrović. This reflects the poverty promulgated by Francis...

...better than this much older lunette ...

...which, nevertheless, is quite lovely and well maintained except for the fuzzy angel on the right. Check the foliage below it. This monastery was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.This is a copy of the 1470 original by Nicholas of Florence which has been moved to Zagreb. Nicholas was a student of the great early Renaissance sculptor Donatello -- who pioneered this shallow relief sculpture (bas-relief) technique we see deployed here.

Its 15th century cloister is quite somber --check the decorated well at lower right and the sundial above. One of the two monks living here is the sculptor Jaokim Gregof who works in bronze. Are you wondering if those stations of the cross that lead to this site are his? Or maybe that Meštrović-ish sculpture of St. Francis?The courtyard is used for concerts in the summer and we found it bristling with white plastic chairs.

Inside the church we have a graphic novel's worth of icons including the scenes from the Passion at top. These twin altars frame the doorway where the larger outer chapel enters an inner chapel and serve, more or less, as a choir screen to separate the nave from the sanctuary area. Both these altar pieces and that showing in the inner chapel are by Francesco Rizzo Da Santacroce who did much work in Bergamo and Venice.

Here's a twisted view of what we had to settle for before the invention of Powerpoint. These Passion scenes line the top of the chapel in their Baroque frame. This is the 1607 work of Martin Benetović, a native of Hvar -- a town we were beginning to think had a lot of sculptors and writers, but not many painters.

The inner chapel has this elegant communion rail and leads to the tomb of an important Croatian Renaissance poet and playwright, Hanibal Lucić who died in 1553, about the time this church was built. He lived his entire life in Hvar -- and burnt most of his work. His son was able to save a bit of his work and publish it, including the first South Slav secular play.

Meštrović would probably appreciate this sculpture but the museum seems content to leave it sitting on the floor, at least for now.

Tourists love the old dining room. Like any good monks' refectory, it has its mural of the Last Supper, this one about 25 feet wide.

Not a fresco, this appears to be a set of canvas panels, some of them reasonably well restored. There is some debate as to the identity of the painter although many scholars think it's heavily influenced by the Venetian Palma Giovane who died in 1628. Palma did several religious works in Croatia including an 8-paneled altar painting in Hvar. Our guide thought that this was done by a local since it was unsigned. Venetians working here typically would sign their paintings.

The refectory leads to a small garden facing the harbor. It features this 400-year-old cypress with strips of red in its bark (which are not all that apparent in this picture.) A local story holds that the painting of the Last Supper was done by Matej Ponzoni-PonÄun who planted this tree at the same time.

Somewhat Deep thoughts (maybe!)

A parting thought: Unlike that Venetian city with a large plaza on the water, this is a real town with real kids herded by their teachers. (At least these didn't look like a tour group.) 

Although much of the Hvar economy is now somewhat tourist driven, the 11,000 people who live here also produce red and white wines that many consider to be Croatia's best; commercial fishing employs many as well.

The local tourist industry brags that it started in 1886 when the Austria-Hungary empire decided to advertise this location as a health resort. In fact, its roots are much older. During the middle ages, most European pilgrims to the Holy Land started in Venice whose galleys would take them along the shore for provisions and lodging. Hvar was clearly on the way.

Thanks for visiting this sunny but chilly island with us.

Thanks for visiting. See our overall Dubrovnik presentation by clicking here -- or visit all of our travel pages by clicking here.

Please join us in the following slide show to give HvarDefensive Walls the viewing they deserve by clicking here.

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Created on January 28, 2010

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