An Ear for Croatia – Hvar, Croatia
Opera in the morning, cicadas in the afternoon, in the evening folk songs and retro pop. Every hour of the day seems to have its own melody in Hvar Town. It’s like a song contest.
Hvar Town is the capital of the island of Hvar, one hour by catamaran from the city of Split. This place has become the most fashionable tourist resort in Croatia, for many reasons: its medieval charms, central location that’s ideal for island hopping, coupled with a healthy climate and a long tradition of tourism, starting 1868 with the Hygienic Society of Hvar.
Between 1420 and 1797, the Venetians put their unmistakable mark on the town, only interrupted by a Turkish onslaught in 1571. Today’s annual invasion of tourists is more peaceful in spite of its vast numbers. Budget travelers arrive by catamaran, whereas the rich ones arrive on luxury yachts, their own or rented; quite practical as none of the existing hotels can match the standard of the magnificent pleasure crafts.
The port has its own lively melody of impatient shouting and pushing, with a quieter undertone of solid wealth radiating from the line of yachts. Their mere size and shining glass, plastic and chrome seem out of place in this small harbor, too small for the normal ferry boats, which use the port of Starigrad instead. Some visitors find the local atmosphere more pleasant during the off-season, before July or after August, when there are fewer celebrities around.
This part of the port, the Riva promenade, is actually where you would be likely to run into celebrities at night, in the famous Carpe Diem cocktail bar, sprawling on oriental cushions and humming the DJ’s groovy sounds. The bartenders are trained to get so close to the customers that they can read their lips, or rather read their minds and make their lips pronounce the names of exotic and extremely expensive cocktails. In Carpe Diem, the bartenders seize the money while the customers seize the day.
Suddenly one morning, the quiet is broken by a piano accompanying ladies singing opera. Apart from the time of day, it sounds natural that strains of opera should pour out of the Venetian Loggia; nowadays part of Hotel Palace in the heart of town, at the end of the bay. The lady singers apparently use its ballroom for practicing. Two painters are also present, Marin and Marinka, exhibiting their own pictures, some of them depicting the spectacular square just outside: Trg Sv Stjepana, St. Stephen Square.
|Cathedral and Well|
Hotel Palace and the Arsenal opposite mark the lower corners of St. Stephen Square, the surface of which was a swampy affair until the paving was laid in 1780. Its foremost eye catcher, though, is the Cathedral of St. Stephen at the upper end, with a trefoil facade, built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The rows of houses on either side coexist in harmony despite differences in size and ornamentation, several containing cafes and restaurants at street level. There is also room for a pharmacy, a medical center, kiosks and a tourist information office.
The Square has its very own sounds, a constant whispering of history, at times dramatically drowned out by chimes from the four-storied campanile. A circular well from 1520, once resounding with splashing water, has grown silent now. The noise from the tourist establishments is negligible, as if they have adapted themselves to the overall quietness, more obvious at night. Like in the rest of Hvar Town, cars are banned, so the only motor noise is produced by low-voiced luggage trolleys.
Local painters favour the Square, which they often combine with the Arsenal’s huge arch, because the two of them play well together. It can be enjoyed in the gallery of Iva Boras on the actual Square, where her father Ivo contributes with local motifs. On the first floor of the Arsenal, up the outdoor flight of steps, there is another gallery, almost overshadowed by an elegant little theater, the first municipal theater in Europe equally open to all classes, built in 1612 and still in use.
Opera has certainly sounded on many occasions from the stage of Hvar Theater, and it is in fact possible to hear opera tonight, not here but in the courtyard of the Franciscan Monastery. Two ladies will entertain with opera and sacral duets, hopefully without disturbing the Last Supper, pictured in the refectory on an eight-meters-long painting. That explains why those ladies were practicing this morning. The monastery is situated on the next bay, after Carpe Diem, close to a little beach.
|Fortress and Hotel Palace|
Another promenade could take you westwards past Hotel Adriatic, allowing you to admire the yachts at a distance, backed by the harmoniously shaped southern district. Under shady pines and cypresses, never-tiring cicadas will sing for you and ladies approach you with tiny bottles of lavender oil, a fragrant herb whose lilac flowers dominate the countryside of Hvar. A pebble beach soon appears, sporting an impressive row of old white changing huts. The lovely bay is disfigured, though, by a concrete monster from the communist era, Hotel Amfora, also the home of a casino.
Hvar has another melody in store for you, one in which the wind and the setting sun perform together. That is the Venetian fortress, Fortica, on top of the mountain, with city walls climbing towards it from either side. Steps from St. Stephen Square lead you upwards, past aristocratic mansions housing intimate restaurants, through a belt of greenery, and then Hvar Town lies before you, a medieval beauty, complete with the Pakleni Islets in front of it; a pine-covered archipelago accessible via taxi boats, some of it reserved for naturists.
Riva, the main promenade, is busy with people at night, strolling under the palms while pondering the pretentious names of the yachts. When hungry and thirsty, many pick the terrace of Hotel Slavija, Carpe Diem’s neighbor and contrast. A lady singer on keyboard and a guitarist, The Legino Band, have an international repertoire, inspiring middle-aged couples to an after-dinner dance. Slavija is a perfect market for the town’s flower-selling girl, a self-assured young lady with style, tonight in a thin black dress and with ribbons in her hair.
In Santa Barbara Cafe, two elderly men with forceful voices sing their hearts out in sentimental folk songs, after drowning their shyness in Karlovacko beer. They win today’s imaginary song contest – and so do the other contributors, for the songs and melodies complement each other. All of them are indispensable pieces in a very special mosaic: Hvar Town.