15 May 2022. I look with a niggling dismay at the vehicle. It’s old and large, a bulky 1980’s minivan that clearly has seen better days. Still the deal is too good to pass up. We hand over 500 Kuna (about $70-80 depending on what currency you’re using), climb in and follow the taxi driver down to the town where he hands us off to another man who takes us down a winding alley to the best breakfast ever.

We’d gotten up and out of the apartment early enough to catch the 9am high-speed ferry from Split to the island of Hvar, a fifty-minute ride over the clear blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.

We walk off the ferry, along the dock and into the spacious open square of a Medieval town with the elegant style of the Venetian Empire stamped all over it.

We don’t linger. We don’t really have a plan except to see some of the island; a friend had recommended the town of Stari Grad as being less crowded than Hvar town, S wants to go to a beach, and we all want to explore the island a bit; that’s about it.

So we’re looking for a way to get around the island. A taxi stops for us at a crosswalk. S spontaneously asks the driver how much it would cost to hire him and his wagon for the day. The conversation goes back and forth. Although his English is fairly good I think he’s a bit puzzled as to why some foreigners would want to hire him to drive around the island. Hvar town has a reputation as a place for rich yachties and party people; and people who would follow the normal channels for renting a car. After our experience in Dubrovnik we’re reluctant to do that. I imagine he’s never been asked before what he would charge to be hired for the whole day. Anyway, understanding dawns! Would you like to rent a car? My wife has a car for rent! For only 500 Kuna! Seriously? Such a totally different experience than the one we’d booked and paid for online for our trip to the Peljesac Peninsula.

The taxi driver takes us to their place of business (which is mainly quad bike rentals) up on a ledge above the town. There we take possession of the above-mentioned magnificent old brown 1980’s minivan. It seats eight! S drives. Her driving has always scared both me and Don, but I must note that neither of us, nor L, step up to offer to drive, so we have no grounds for complaint. Poor S! Doing all the driving, all day, over some very challenging roads. I confess I don’t think any of us ever really thanked her, just periodically screamed at her for going too close to the edge of the cliff. Not fair – neither the cliff nor our ungracious lack of appreciation.

We hand over our 500 Kuna and sign a single simple form for the rental. The taxi driver’s wife shows us a map of where to go and explains about some roads that are closed. Saying we want breakfast first we follow the taxi driver back down into the town. He sets off at a fast trot while we follow like ducklings. He sees a man on the street and calls out to him. We are handed over, like the passing of the baton in a relay race. We follow man number two down a series of side streets (read cobblestoned medieval alleys) and he deposits us here:

It’s the courtyard of a high-end guest house, and under this bright yellow awning that bathes everything in a soft golden light, we are served breakfast. The man has a quick word with the woman there and leaves. In short order the most fabulous breakfast arrives: fresh fruit, individual glass flasks of granola, yogurt, bread and butter and three flavours of homemade jam, milk, juice, scrambled eggs, cheeses, local home-cured bacon, local honey, and tea and coffee. And superb tiramisu. Dessert after breakfast! Why not? It is one of the best meals we have in Croatia, one of the best breakfasts anywhere ever. And a deal at $20 each. At the end of the meal we are each given a small bottle of distilled lavender oil.

Making our way back to the minivan

we climb in, and I do mean climb, and begin our journey. We are travelling on the “old road” between Hvar town and Stari Grad, a winding narrow brute of a road that climbs up from the sea. Our first stop, about six kilometres away, is the ancient, crumbling, almost abandoned hamlet of Brusje, population 150.

Clustered together are rows of stone residential and farm houses, some renovated and inhabited,

many abandoned and disintegrating,

all of them roofed with the same type of s-shaped pantiles used in the Mediterranean since the days of the Roman Empire. There are olive trees, wild red poppies, ancient grape vines, and beautiful views across the water to the islands of Brač, Šolta, and Pakleni. There are buildings that have nothing more than their walls still standing, and others where clearly nature is winning.

Walking past one of the ancient stone walls I see an opening into what would have been the lower story of a home.

Ever curious I have a look inside. A huge press, several wicker-covered glass flagons, a couple of huge wooden barrels, an old metal funnel. It seems to be the remains of what once was a wine-making endeavour, long since abandoned.

After our brief exploration of Brusje we climb back into the beast on wheels. We drive. All around are views of the land; the ever-present sea; the rock walls in geometric patterns across the landscape.

They are drystone walls built by hand without mortar, carefully, painstakingly, a labour of love and necessity. They make room for planting, they help retain the soil in this dry land, and they protect the plants from the strong winter winds. Historically people lived by cultivating grapes, olives, and rosemary for essential oils, all planted within the protective embrace of the stone walls.

Peronospora, a downy mildew, destroyed the crops. People left the island. And then in the early 20th century those that stayed began growing lavender. It was so successful that lavender cultivation covered most of the island, and little Hvar became the 8th biggest producer of lavender in the world. Then a tax was levied on those that became wealthy so they left or turned to tourism. Then there were fires. In 1997 a fire destroyed 95% of the lavender that was left. Today it is grown in some areas for tourism. For a long time I thought that there was none at all grown, and that all the articles that mention lavender as one of the attractions of Hvar are just wrong. Alas we are there too early. There is lavender grown on Hvar, though not in large quantities, and every year in June there is a lavender festival. In the village of Velo Grablje.

This is the place where lavender cultivation began; today it’s continued by a small group of passionate people who wish to continue the tradition. It’s our next stop, though our experience there has little to do with lavender.

We go exploring. Velo Grablje is much like Brusje; a largely abandoned and randomly crumbling Medieval stone village.

And then the best thing happens. A narrow cobbled street between the buildings. A child playing, running back and forth across it. We say hello. S engages her in conversation. Asks about her toy, which is a water pistol.

And the next thing we know we are invited in for lunch. We don’t really understand it at the time, but this young couple belongs to the group of enthusiasts trying to preserve the lavender tradition on Hvar. For now they both work in Hvar town, but in what free time they have they cultivate and distil lavender. It is their passion.

I introduce to you Vanessa,

and Juri, who is barbecuing traditional Croatian sausages and zucchini,

and their three-year-old daughter Marietta who has the best fun ever squirting us all with water from a bucket once S has shown her how to work it properly. And Vanessa’s father Nicola.

We don’t mean to intrude, but they are so welcoming and friendly, and suddenly Vanessa is offering us a plate of sausages and zucchini and bread in their outdoor dining room, which is off the alley opposite where Juri is barbecuing.

And then she brings out delicious icy-cold homemade sage juice for us all to try.

They tell us about the lavender. They tell us that the fire of 1997, which destroyed 95% of the lavender, began as arson. They tell us that they are trying to bring it back. They tell us that there are only about 20 people living in their village.

It’s a joyous meeting for us. It’s the very best of travel, this spontaneous connection with the people that live there. All to soon it is time for us to be on our way.

We continue on the narrow road from the the high elevation of Brusje and Velo Grablje down to the sea, passing abandoned archaic villages, rugged peaks, pine forests, and ancient olive groves.

We are headed to Milna Beach. After all that driving S needs a swim. Just like Zlatni Rat, the shore is pebbles. Croatia really should not be known for its beaches. The water is blue and clear and inviting. It’s all very beautiful to look at, but not to walk on.

From Milna Beach we go first southeast and then northeast to Stari Grad on the new road. It’s still narrow and twisty and scary, but better than where we’ve been.

Stari Grad is one of the oldest towns in Europe having been established by the Greeks in 384 CE, probably because of the fertile Stari Grad Plain, so valued that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today Stari Grad is a pleasant peaceful town on the northwest coast of Hvar.

We wander the back streets, but honestly by now we’re pretty much travelled out for the day, and becoming quite jaded about narrow stone Medieval streets. Our day has already been so full.

From Stari Grad we return to Hvar town. If you look at a map you’ll see that we’ve only seen a tiny western portion of this special island.

We think we’re at the end, but our adventure is not over yet. First we have to find a gas station to refill the car, and then, in trying to find the place to return it, we get caught in a web of narrow one-way streets with little or no place to turn around even if we could. And no clear indication as to whether or not the streets are actually one-way. And then up a side street, trying to turn around in a very small space, suddenly, as if by magic, the woman who owns the car appears. What are you doing here? Um, we’re lost. She guides us back to her quad bike yard.

We tumble out of the vehicle, and walk down to the port for a cold drink and the ferry back to Split. We didn’t get to climb up to the Medieval Venetian castle and fortress,

but we did get to have a magnificent breakfast, and see some of the island, and best of all to meet a family who are working to bring Hvar’s lavender tradition back to life. A good trade in my opinion.

We are full to bursting, exhilarated, exhausted. It’s been one of the best travel days. Somehow we find the energy to walk back to our apartment. After that fabulous breakfast, and a lunch of traditional Croatian sausage and homemade sage juice, we have a very quiet dinner at home – ham and cheese and salad. And so to bed.

Next post: the incomparable Plitvice Lakes National Park.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.