November 13, 2020 – March 9, 2021 (Winter)
One of our go-to metaphors for our way of life is “the same boring lives we lived back home, only with a castle out the window.” There are few places where that is more accurate than on the picture-perfect Croatian island of Hvar.
We considered a few islands for our second month in Croatia, from Brač to Korčula, but ultimately decided on revisiting Hvar. Normally a sunny (and pricey) playground for the rich and famous, we enjoyed just a couple days here way back in our first year↗ of travel and decided, at long last, to give it the time it deserved.
Little did we know how long that would be.
The main selling point was the sheer walkability around Hvar town. It’s highly pedestrian-friendly, with boardwalks and trails sprawling in every direction. As a tourist hotspot, it was also more polished and cosmopolitan than usual for a town of its size. The diversity of choices in the local Konzum, for example, was astounding until considering it supports a peak population several times greater during tourist season.
East or west? That was the question that we asked each other most days. Walking west offered pristinely manicured parks and a stellar waterside walk. East was a bit rougher, following roads to the edge of town before switching to hiking trails that skirted between wave-scoured rocks and wind-bent scrub. Both had their merits.
Small pebbly beaches dot the coastal coves to the east. In summer they are crowded with sunbathers and beach bars, but during Covid winter we found only serene silence. The lone exception was Robinson Beach, where the owners were busy making improvements and the world’s friendliest dog greeted us often.
Walking into the sunset was the best way to end a day. The paths were easy to navigate even in dimming light. It helps that the sunsets on Hvar are spectacular.
Of course, there were other directions to take. The simplest (but not the easiest) was trekking straight up through town to the looming Spanish Fortress. So named not because it was built by the Spanish, but because at some point in its history a Spaniard participated in its renovation. The locals have a long memory for in and out groups. Our friends told us that some of the families going back over a hundred years were still considered “new in town.”
The fortress commands striking views. Sadly it was closed for the duration of our stay. We would have liked to wander on its walls more, but the castle was an ever-present fixture over the town.
Just up the road from the castle are overlooks many day-tripping tourists don’t have time to see. The Pakleni Islands make for a calming vista from our favorite bench. Additional trails snaked further inland or even uphill to a second (!) castle. Dubbed the Napoleon for its construction during a period of French administration, today it houses an astronomical observatory.
Like much of the Adriatic coast, Hvar has more than its fair share of (very well-fed and cared-for) stray cats. Danielle happily contributed to the problem, befriending kitties with store-bought treats and leftovers. One quickly grew to recognize her and would bolt from the brush when it detected our voices.
Often it would follow us as we found a sunset-facing spot. There were no shortage of closed bar patios or waterfront rocks to stop and take in the sea air.
Sunset was often “rush hour” on the boardwalk, but with the world still mostly shut we only crossed paths with the same locals every evening. Rounding the corner back into the harbor always felt as much like stumbling into a fairy tale as it did coming home.
There was also the rare (for us) charm of seeing the place as a local, day and night, autumn to spring, in sickness and in health. Hvar’s captivating sights only grew sweeter over time.
Winter weather in the Adriatic is entirely different from the continental climate around Zagreb↗. Snow is nearly unheard of; instead, the greatest challenge comes from fearsome winds that turn the beloved sea from friend to foe.
Though Hvar is semi-protected from bura winds sweeping down off the Croatian coast, the jugo (southerly) wind brings rain and waves that pound the tiny harbor. Crashing swells can hurl rocks above rooftops, inundate the sidewalk, and stop the ferries. At these times the sense of remoteness felt like a liability instead of an asset.
But these occasions were few and quickly forgotten. Even the storms end with a smile on Hvar.
Christmas was quiet thanks to Covid restrictions shuttering cafes and halting tourism. But the requisite Advent candles and Christmas tree could still be seen in the main square. For New Year’s locals dressed up in costume and relaxed in the sun. Even in the middle of winter many days were bright and warm enough for a light jacket.
We set up modest decorations and roasted duck and pork knuckle in celebration. With views like this any more felt like putting a hat on a hat.
On one February morning we woke to a surprise – snow! It was the first snow on Hvar in three years (a rare event indeed). The light dusting lingered just a couple of hours, but enjoyed the brief glimpse of a white winter.
Only a few days later, an intense and dramatic fog descended on the entire region right when we needed to head to Split↗ for some errands. We enjoyed seeing both Hvar and Split enveloped in a mysterious and beautiful shroud.
Inevitably, the famous Hvar sun would burn through the clouds. The sunniest island in Croatia never stayed gloomy for long.
Our hosts would have let us stay until May, but needed us out before the tourist season started in earnest. We started looking for new accommodations in March, and were set to move on by April. The remainder of our stay was spent counting down the days, trying as hard as we could to savor what was left instead of mourning what had passed.
The ferries, always so empty during our stay, started to become more crowded as the season approached. Another milk run to Split caught us off guard when the earlier return sailing sold out and we were forced to spend a few more hours on the mainland.
Soon enough spring set in. The sky grew brighter. The water clearer. The chill fell out of the air, and trees greened.
We went on a few longer hikes to celebrate. First was a trek to the seaside village of Milna. This was an easy one, simply following the coastal trails from Hvar further than ever before. Though at no point were we more than a couple of kilometers from either town, the trail still felt remote.
Returning through the interior of the island somehow feels worlds away. Arid hillsides are checkered with stone walls from ancient fields. Here we met even fewer people than on the coast trails.
However, we did meet parades of pine processionary caterpillars. Hundreds of newly-hatched critters blindly crawl in mesmerizing single-file queues. Their poisonous bristles cause nasty rashes if handled, so best to leave them to their own devices.
A final big hike took us to the abandoned hamlet of Malo Grablje and small town of Velo Grablje. These villages sit tucked up in the hills and valleys above Milna. We found many homes overgrown and in ruins. There is little in the way of residents up this way, let alone tourism. But Velo Grablje hosts an annual lavender festival that may help put it back on the map.
One of our favorite pastimes from our perch overlooking the harbor was watching the coming and going of the fishing boats. Using VesselFinder, we could spy on their routes and anticipate their return. They’d set out in the evening, follow the fish around favorite haunts for a day or two, and returned home to the relentless dive-bombing of seagulls hoping for a small taste of their success.
As the sun set on our stay in Hvar and we packed up for our move to Mokošica, we reflected on the privilege it was to have this place to ourselves for a season. We loved our time in a tiny port town, watching ferries and folks come and go, wondering where they all came from and headed off to as we lived our day-to-day lives.
But too soon it was our turn to move on, take those day-to-day lives over the horizon, and to become someone else’s wondering.