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Finding perfection on the Dalmatian Coast


Disembarking from a ferry with hundreds of hawkers trying to get your attention can be a daunting experience. The island of Hvar, off the Dalmation coast of Croatia is absolutely swarming with them. But when Croatia’s version of Johnny Depp offers you a room it’s an offer that is hard to refuse.   

Hvar

The room turns out to be right in the centre of town. It has recently been redecorated and is bright and cheerful. We flop onto the beds which are so soft we feel as if we are floating on clouds.

The old wooden shutters open out onto the courtyard below. We can see people relaxing with a morning coffee under the umbrellas at the various cafes which curve around the waterfront. Dozens of boats are moored in the harbour and the sun is beating down on the weathered marble ground. Hvar is known for its eternal sunshine. It is said that all the hotels and pensions offer discounts if it is cloudy and the rooms are free if it snows.

All the cafes, shops and hotels are set along the waterfront. Steep stone steps lead away from the water into the hills behind. Small alleyways twist and turn around the stone houses with their brightly coloured red, shingled roofs. The steps eventually lead to the imposing town fortress perched high upon the hills. It has sat guarding and overseeing the town since 1551. There is a museum and dungeon but the best reason to climb the steep stairs to the Venetian fortress is to see the panoramic view below. Through the trees we glimpse hundreds of red roofs glinting in the sun. The sea is beautiful and clear, almost turquoise in colour and completely still except for the wake of the boats pulling into the harbour. The Pakleni islands face the town. The uninhabited islands are scattered as far as we can see.

On our walk downhill we stop at a house that sells local produce. We sit on old wine drums in a small courtyard at the back of the house under vines. A lovely, smiling girl brings us homemade wine and marinated vegetables.

She tells us we are lucky to be here in spring which is the off-season. The island becomes so crowded in July and August that people start renting out their balconies and garages and the prices go up dramatically. Although the war in the 1990s put many people off visiting the country tourist numbers have been growing steadily in the last few years and with Croatia’s recent candidature for membership in the European Union tourism is likely to become even more lucrative. She explains that because the government thinks all the money is in Dalmatia the cost has gone up for the locals. The fee to park a boat in the port has gone up sharply in the last few years and this has been detrimental for some people who have not been able to afford the rise.

Hvar harbour

One day we manage to tear ourselves away from lazily strolling around the bay, reading in the sun and floating in the clear water. ‘Johnny Depp’ has offered to take five of us out on his speedboat for the day to explore some of the smaller islands. We spend the whole day on the water with ‘Johnny’ as our tour guide, all for the equivalent of £5.

‘Johnny’ tells us he was born on the mainland of Croatia and when he was a small boy his only dream was to live on Hvar. He says the island is constantly expanding and changing. A huge casino takes up half the bay and he points out the newer side of town which is modern and bright white and nowhere near as charming as the old stone centre.

We sail past the houses along the Hvar coast. Some of them sit right on the water and ‘Johnny’ says that during winter, when the island is virtually deserted, waves hit the windows. He is sad when he tells us that one very grand place overlooking the water is inhabited for only about ten days a year.

We sail past a perfectly round island with a lighthouse in the middle, past an old prison on another island, past one of the many nudist islands where lots of people have their gear off and an old fat man is fishing in the nude.

View of Pakleni Islands

An abandoned bathing pavilion hugs the water. It was once very grand and frequently used by the rich who visited Hvar. Now it is completely deserted and hasn’t been used since before the war in the nineties.

Most of the coastline is rocky but there are small stretches of sand amongst the rocks and pebbles. People are swimming near the shore and sunbaking on the sand. Small speedboats chug past us, fishermen are returning home with the day’s catch and a ferry pulls into the harbour. The sun is hot and I lie back in the boat letting the breeze caress my face. The water is so clear that we can see the fish swimming underneath us. I feel at peace as we glide through the water and I’m grateful that we trusted our instincts and followed this generous, interesting man from the port.

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