Stari Grad, Croatia – What to Know Before You Go

A month ago what I knew about the island of Hvar could fit into a rakija shot glass. Hoards of revelers ferry here in July and August to party, dance, see and, mostly, be in scene. Celebrities from Beyonce to Ellen and Portia have been spotted here. The largest city, Hvar Town, is Croatia’s epicenter of ultra-hip. That’s what I knew.

The party island perception has served to keep us away, even after spending nearly nine months, traveling the country. When a housesit opportunity arose in the village of Stari Grad, we could have easily shrugged it off. We had recently passed on a sit in Italy’s famed Puglia region and another in Spanish hot spot Majorca. Neither opportunity felt like us.

There was something about the Hvar listing we couldn’t shake, though. We could see ourselves living in the place described -a centuries old dwelling in the center of the old town, stylishly redesigned and run as a bed and breakfast (closed to guests in offseason). Top floor terrace overlooking the town’s red tile roofs and chimneys. A couple of snuggly cats and new kitten. We were intrigued and began researching. Two clicks and we discovered Hvar is Croatia’s sunniest spot and ripe with vineyards and cycling trails, enough goodness to overcome any apprehensions.

We’ve been living here three weeks now and have hardly experienced a down moment. We’ve traversed cycling and running routes through vineyards and olive groves and skirting the Adriatic’s cool blue waters. We’ve experienced the joys and toils of harvest, volunteering for short spurts in a winery and for olive harvest. We’ve made friends, locals and other travelers alike. We even hosted a dinner party just ten days after arriving, with guests from Croatia, England, Italy, and the U.S. – that’s how easy it’s been to plug into life on Hvar.

Along the way, we’ve learned a few things about the island’s culture and people, Mediterranean history and wine production.

To give you a taste, here’s 11 Snaps + 11 Bits:

Stari Grad moves to its own rhythm.
Hvar Town and Stari Grad are very different towns. Everyone says Stari Grad, which means “Old Town,” is more relaxed and low key, even in August. Now, in slow season, it feels a world apart from its bigger, glitzier sister down the road. The town was founded in 384 BC when Greek settlers looking for a better life, (like every immigrant before and since), sailed into port. Where is Croatia’s oldest settlement? You guessed it, Stari Grad! Established the same year Aristotle was born. How about that bit of trivia?

Religion and fishing go together like sardines and garlic.
Stari Grad is home to stunning churches and dominating bell towers, but a tiny church steals the spotlight. The novelty and beauty of the Church of St. Jerolim’s is a front door opening to the sea, sending fishermen off, just as it has for centuries, with a prayer of calm waters and welcoming boats home with hopes of fresh-catch-loaded nets.

Ancient farming plots provide a living window into history.
Generations of farmers have worked the island’s plain, known as the Adriatic’s most fertile patch of ground, basically unchanged since first designed by Greek settlers in the 4th century BC. Thankfully, UNESCO has recognized the Stari Grad Plain for its cultural and historical importance, ensuring its preservation for future generations too. The best way to see it is on foot to grasp the simple genius of the equally-sized plots constructed using stone walls and pathways. The Plain is dotted by informative signage, in Croatia and English, explaining the historic significance.

Dining in a restaurant becomes an intimate affair. 
The countdown began almost as soon as we arrived. Almost every restaurant owner or shopkeeper we encountered said something like, “6 more days, then we’re closed until Spring!” Even in late November, people still have to eat, so a handful of restaurants remain open year-round. In Stari Grad, that means one: Damira Restaurant. By design a few additional restaurants open one night per week, so these family-operated places aren’t competing against each other for winter’s small business but also ensuring there’s somewhere for everyone to go.

We were told to consult the newspaper to see which restaurants were open which nights. Hilariously, we can’t be bothered. If we’re going to dinner, we’re going to Damira. No fuss, no decisions. Oh, and it helps that the food is amazing and staff engaging. We have arrived to the point where we don’t look at the menu – actually, they no longer offer us one – we say, “What should I have tonight?” and the experts decide what to bring.

An astonishing bounty grows here.
While spending a few hours with a family of farmers and restauranteurs, I began imagining a Portlandia skit. For everything we tasted, discussed, or even looked in the direction of, someone said, “I made/grew/created that.” Those sugar-coated almonds? Yep, we harvested the nuts. That delicious goat cheese garnished with olive oil and oregano? Yep, our goats, olives, and herbs. The range and quality of of foods, wines, oils, and herbs produced on Hvar is mind-boggling and inspiring.

Many families produce their own wine and rajika, everyone grows organic veggies from onions and artichokes to asparagus and everyone has a brother who’s a fisherman or lavender grower. Every aunt is a cheese-maker and sister is a baker. You eat and drink really well here.

Buying fresh catch is cultural immersion at its tastiest.  
Almost every clear afternoon, fishing boats pull into the harbor and within minutes are surrounded by an eager swarm of locals. In observing the ritual for the first week, we wondered how locals knew when to be there, the boats seemed to arrive at random. Then a local told us that “his go-to fisherman,” a cousin, would call on the way into port with a report of the haul, and word soon spread of the catch and ETA. While we haven’t developed a go-to guy (at least not yet,) we hit perfect timing one day and queued for our shot at the boat’s bounty. After being elbowed out of the way by a few old ladies, we pointed and stuttered as the fishermen did his best to understand what and how much we wanted. Walking away with a smelly bag of sardines felt like small victory.

It’s easy to get in on the action.
If visiting during late October or November, Hvar offers a different kind of fun in the sun – olive harvest! Everyone has a friend with trees, so ask around for volunteer opportunities or tours. Being in the groves with a local family picking olives, then sharing an alfresco lunch has been one the highlights of our time here. Read more about our day here. Participating in this centuries-old tradition, makes savoring the island’s award-winning olive oil even more delicious.

The island is a cycling and running lover’s dream.
You can cycle, run, or walk for kilometers along windy, view-studded roads with hardly a car in sight in off season. Check out the HvarLife shop at the ferry port where our friend Massimo keeps an impressive fleet of rental bikes, plus leads cycling tours all over the island. For cyclists, Matt’s recommended route is a 50-km ride from Stari Grad along what’s known as the “Old Road” to Hvar through the picturesque villages of Velo Grablje and Malo Grablje and waves of lavender fields and vineyards.

My favorite running route is an eleven kilometer stretch straight through Stari Grad Plain to the lovely village of Vbroska, continuing on along the waterfront to another stunning village, Jelsa. Buses run on schedule so it’s easy to hop on for the return to SG.

Local markets are the essence of practical.
Just about every village in Europe holds some type of outdoor market, usually weekly. For locals, these markets are not just a place to get goods, they also serve as social events and sources of community pride. Visitors get a peek into what the community produces and values.

A village’s market tells you a good deal about the place and people. In Stari Grad, there’s the one-stop shop, aka veggie/meat/cheese/olive oil/fruit van that rolls into town and parks near the bus stop every Friday. Who needs a grocery store, this guy has it all!

Then, from a distance one day, we spotted what looked like clothing racks in a town plaza. Excited to check out Hvar fashions, I beelined and soon realized every item was camo-covered. It seems we had stumbled upon a hunting gear pop-up, complete with knives, camp lights, and other manly gear. The very next day that space was occupied by, what I’ll dub, as a fire pop-up. Think: fireplace tools, axes, screens, and baskets. Wacky and wonderful practicality.

The island produces incredible wines.
Grapes have been cultivated and wine produced on Hvar since the Greeks first settled here (those Greeks thought of everything!). Today, it’s said that every family makes wine, which explains the range and quality spectrum. Be sure to sample the celebrated indigenous grape, Plavac Mali, from house wine varieties to the island’s higher end wineries.

Tomic Winery in Jelsa offers a lovely introduction with private tastings in their cellar. Dig deeper with a visit to Ahearne Winery. Jo Ahearne is the only master of wine producing in Croatia and she has created four of the most distinctive wines we’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Try the rose, named after her mother, Rosina, and the earthy and vibrant white, named Wild Skins.

Every open door presents an opportunity, Stari Grad, Croatia

Lavendar is in the air.
Hvar’s climate, soil, and endless sunshine make the island an ideal spot for growing lavender plants too (as if grapes and olives weren’t enough!) Even though harvest takes place around June, the product is omnipresent year-round thanks to dried arrangements, oils, candles, and any other concoction dreamed up. Oh, and speaking of dreams…we sleep really good here.

Planning a visit to Hvar? We’re happy to answer any questions and provide more recommendations. Oh, and we’ll be back too…very soon!

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