"Ancient Art of Idling"
On the peaceful Adriatic island of Hvar,
people live like they're on a permanent vacation
and relaxation is the order of the day.
Story and Photography
Rachel S. Thurston
Full Page Travel Feature Article
appearing in The Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 23, 2006
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From somewhere nearby come the voices of angels. I think it’s my imagination but I see my mother has stopped to listen as well.
We make our way through the darkness to a tiny plaza and church. Above us, windows are thrust open to the night and from the warm light comes the voices of choral singers filling the evening air with song. We sit for hours absorbing the beauty of the music until we can no longer hold our heads up. Then we make our way back through town and up the 156 steps to our beds, where we dream peacefully among the scent of gardenias and orange blossoms.
We’re on the island of Hvar, fondly referred to as the “Croatian Madeira.” Instead of traveling to Italy where the Americans run in packs and the Euro has made inexpensive travel prohibitive, we’ve chosen the Mediterranean-like Dalmatian Region of Croatia. Among this tranquility, it is hard to believe that a brutal ethnic war ravaged much of this country only ten years ago.
Shortly after arriving in Zagreb, Croatia, we buy bus tickets to the city of Split along the central Dalmatian Coast. From there, it’s only a short ferry ride to the island of Hvar.
On the bus, I serendipitously take a seat beside Vibor, a Croatian rock star and keyboardist for the band “Soul Finger.” His long legs barely fit beneath the seat in front of him and his blond hair smells like his last cigarette. We talk about rock n’roll before I start grilling him on the Dalmatian Coast.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous there but more expensive than other parts of Croatia,” Vibor tells me.
“But isn’t Italy more expensive?” I ask.
“Yes, but at least in Italy you get service,” he says, tossing his long, unkempt hair and laughing. “In Dalmatia, all they’re selling you is the air and the sea.”
Arriving on Hvar Island
After a short ferry ride from Split to the island and town of Hvar, we step off the plank and into a small swarm of geriatric women, who like many others throughout Croatia, hope to rent us one of their private rooms.
In the eighty-degree mid-morning heat, they are all dressed alike: long black stockings, thick cotton skirts, and dark cardigan sweaters. It’s as if these Slavic Grannies have been taken from the ice fields of Russia and plunked down onto a Mediterranean island in the midst of summer.
Mom and I gingerly navigate our backpacks through the group of look-alike babushkas hoping not to break any of their hips. They call out to us in thick Slavic accents through dentures: “You need prrivate rroom? Verry nice. Verry clean. Gud vew…Kom!”
We guiltily walk through the mob shaking our heads, “Ne hvala, no thank you. Sorry,” and head towards a young man named Sasha. His family’s private rooms have been recommended to us by a friend in Split.
We follow Sasha up 156 steps through winding passageways, beneath balconies brimming with strawberry-colored geranium blossoms, between lines of fresh laundry hanging out to dry, and past bent, women tending to their sun-kissed tomato plants.
I find myself expecting to hear Italian or Greek, but instead, my ears are met with the full-bodied sounds of the Slavic-based Croatian language. Like a thick, meaty stew, it fills the mouth with its richness.
Our room is located above Sasha’s aunt’s house. Sasha hands us a large brass key which unlocks shuttered French doors on our balcony.
Stretching below us is the medieval harbor of Hvar town, a miniature Venice, where sailboats are lined up from the far corners of Europe, much like ships may have appeared several centuries ago when Hvar was a prominent port for the Venetian empire. Many of the red-tiled homes have shuttered windows spilling forth with flowers.
Beyond is a breathtaking view of the Adriatic Sea. The liquid shimmers in tones of turquoise, mint, and sapphire, becoming a milky jade along its edges where it meets land. The entire sea is sparkling beneath the morning sun like a spill of diamonds. The water ruffles in the wind like a wet peacock’s feathers and the scent of saltwater rises to meet us.
My mother grabs my hand and squeezes it, “I think I could stay here for a while,” she says softly.
No hustle, little bustle
Vibor the rock star was right. The Dalmatians know how to take it easy. The same trait of languidness that makes them poor business owners also makes them the perfect culture to visit for vacation.
In the five days of our stay, we never meet the owners of our room. Many of the stores we visit in Hvar town are curiously closed from noon to 5 p.m. Some decide, despite their posted hours, that they won’t open at all. At others, employees are flat-out annoyed that we would bother them with business in the first place. But most of Hvar’s citizens are relaxed and helpful.
Although we have the option of traveling to other parts of Hvar island to visit the towns of Stari Grad, Jelsa, the fishing village of Sucaraj, and the lavender fields (which we learn won’t be in bloom until June), we make a classic Dalmatian decision: to stay in Hvar Town, do less, and savor each moment more. Too often, we’ve crammed our trips into Olympic-level itineraries: Hvar is teaching us to take things more slowly and, because the high tourist season hasn’t kicked in yet, it feels that we have the town largely to ourselves.
We delight in exploring the town’s circuitous marble streets where autos are prohibited and life continues leisurely much as it has for the past several centuries. Hvar town is home to a little over 4,000 people, (over a third of the 50-mile long island’s total population) but during the summer, its population swells to accommodate European and Croatian travelers. Along the seaside promenade sways a row of sailboats, each of which are filled with groups of golden-tanned sailors and their international guests, smoking cigars, drinking wine. It could be a Saturday or a Monday. No one seems to care. We are all on vacation here, including the Dalmatians.
We cross an expansive plaza where pigeons fly past like a cloud of rain. One of the largest old squares in Dalmatia (over 48,000 square feet), St. Stephen’s Square, was originally a water inlet that was filled in to accommodate foot traffic. Today, the plaza is lined with cafes and provides the perfect resting point for explorations of Hvar Town. Centered around the plaza are Hvar’s stone buildings which have been bleached into shades of lemon and vanilla by the sun, wind and saltwater, contrasting sublimely against their red tiled roofs.
In the past 1500 years the island of Hvar has been ruled by the Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Slavs, Venetians, Austrians, and French. Surprisingly, despite the ravages of invaders and war, the Dalmatians have managed to absorb the best of these cultures into their architecture and cuisine. The Venetians gifted Hvar’s citizens with extraordinary stone-carving skills which they have used to ornament the town’s buildings. Antiquity abounds everywhere you turn: the sixteenth century loggia in front of the Palace Hotel, the turn of the century 16th/17th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral at the eastern end of the plaza, and a seventeenth century arsenal along the waterfront, which was once used as a repairing and re-fitting station for Venetian ships. Adjoining the arsenal is the one of the oldest public theatres in Europe, built in 1612, where plays are still performed to small audiences.
In the late afternoon light, we stroll along the promenade south of town and accidentally stumble on to one of the town’s most humble and gorgeous constructions, a fifteenth century Franciscan monastery. Even the cypress outside, along the shore, is said to be nearly three centuries old!
When we return to town, we find a quaint deli just a block east of the plaza: Cured hams hang from the ceiling and translucent bottles of red and white wine are stacked beside glass jars stuffed with olives. My mother, much bolder than I, interrupts the owner, a rosy-cheeked and silver-haired rotund man, to ask if she can photograph his jars of olives.
His conversation with another man halted, he gives my mother a head-to-toe survey before breaking into laughter.
“Why not photograph me?” he asks with characteristic Dalmatian humor. “Aren’t I good looking enough?” he asks, placing his hands on his hips and doing a little hip swivel like he’s modeling.
Before sunset, we climb the steep, short path to the Fortress Spanjol Citadel, a sixteenth century fortress constructed by the Venetians on the site of a medieval castle and originally built to withstand attacks by the Turks. From above, the view is extraordinary: we have the perfect view of Hvar Town and the wooded islands of the Pakleni Archipelago strung across the Adriatic Sea like velveted emeralds.
Along the path, it is no surprise to find a Dalmatian man selling bags of dried lavender, scented soap and tiny vials of scented oil. The island is reputed to have some of the best fields of lavender in Dalmatia, and Hvar Town is lined with vendors selling it. It is a surprise, however, that instead of soliciting our business, he presents us with a gift: several postcards of Hvar.
His name is Matko. His teeth are crooked, his hair ruffled and dry from the saltwater, and his face is prematurely wrinkled by years spent as a fisherman. He has traveled the world, he says, and knows exactly what it takes to make a man happy: a boat, a dog, a girlfriend, a home by the sea, and a job that requires as little work as possible.
“I lived in Northern Europe for many years,” Matko says. “And I think, ‘Why?’,” gesturing down the mountain toward the town, “I live in paradise. I come back here and say, ‘Never again.’ I tear my passport into 16 pieces and say ‘Never again will I leave!’”
He leans toward us and his impish grin melts into a sublime smile. “I have a small home by the sea. I have a boat, a dog and my girlfriend who lives with me. We don’t need to lock the doors or close the windows. I fish when I want. I go out on the boat when I want. I feel peace here,” he says, motioning around us.
We like him immediately and, before we part, we ask if we can hire him to take us by boat to the Pakleni Islands the following day.
As the moon rises into a violet-washed sky,we make our way down the steep marble staircases that wind throughout the oldest part (or Groda) of Hvar town. A few tables have materialized along the passageways and young couples sit by candlelight laughing over glasses of wine. Mother and I are planning a late night dinner of bread and cheese in bed when we hear a man’s voice shouting in German, Italian, then English.
“Pleaz, you must come inside!”
We turn to see a curly-haired man dressed in a red apron with a sock cap on his head. He stands hands on hips with his feet planted shoulder width apart. “You must come visit a typical Dalmatian Wine Cellar! Don’t worry, just take a look,” he gestures magnanimously down a dim walkway.
We follow him into a cozy room where four thick wooden tables with benches sit beneath simple wicker lamps. The lighting is dim and the sound of recorded Croatian chanting fills the small space like a whisper. Giant cured slabs of prosciutto and cutting tools hang from the ceiling. A few black and white photos of a family during the early 1900s are scattered across the walls asymmetrically. The ambrosia-like scent of baking bread drifts toward us from the open kitchen.
Another man, apparently one of the owners, emerges from the kitchen. He has short dark hair and wears a gauzy puffy poet’s shirt and a long red and white jester’s cap. We later learn it is the Hvar national garb.
“Welcome to a typical Dalmatian cellar,” he says, gesturing to the photographs. “This wine cellar has belonged to my family for many generations now.”
His name is Dinko and he says the restaurant, “Tavern Menego,” is named after his grandfather, Dominiko. His grandfather, nicknamed “Menego,” operated this wine cellar for much of his life and sold locally produced wine to the islanders.
The menu is simple but mouthwatering. Its items are written in German, Italian, Croatian, and English. Most dishes are based on a few fresh ingredients. Mom’s sweet white wine, called Prosek, is a Croatian dessert wine and has a pleasant hint of walnuts and honey. My house red wine is light and fruity, made by Denko’s in-laws on the nearby island of St. Clement where they run a restaurant. We feast on eggplant, sweet zucchini, and bell peppers marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and herbs, and we dip crusty bits of homemade bread in rosemary infused olive oil. I order a sampler of fresh goat, cow, and sheep cheeses complimented by spiced olives while Mom enjoys the traditional “Dalmatian Bread” which is stuffed with seasoned anchovies, onions, and tomatoes. For dessert, we have hot tea and a plate of pinwheel cookies layered with ground hazelnuts and cinnamon and sprinkled with powdered sugar. We decide there and then that we must return the next night.
As we are leaving, we grab Dinko’s attention and tell him what a special place he has.
“You feel the magic don’t you?” he whispers with a smile.
A hike, and dinner
The next morning, Matko is late to pick us up but, to his credit, he is as cheerful as he was yesterday afternoon.
We head toward the nearby Pakleni Archipelago, a chain of eleven wooded islands, only three of which are inhabited. We pass a nude beach, amused by the sight of an intrepid group of sixty- and seventy-year old men and women hiking with walking sticks along a small hill, wearing hiking shoes and nothing else.
Matko takes us to a nude beach of our choice on the nearest island, Jerolim. As Mom luxuriates in the sun, I explore the paths. When we return to the boat feeling fully relaxed, we find Matko asleep on his back—like a Croatian Buddha—his hands folded across his chest, hat pulled down over his eyes.
For lunch, we ask Matko to take us to the island of St. Clement, where Dinko’s in-laws run a restaurant and vineyard named “Restaurant Dionis.” The largest of the Pakleni Islands, St. Clement is largely uninhabited except for the small villages of Palmizana and Vlaka, where the restaurant should be.
Matko has never heard of the restaurant before but we have time and he’s up for an adventure.
We pull up to Vlaka but the dock looks abandoned. There are no signs of human habitation save for broken beer bottles, a winding dirt path, and signs advertising two restaurants, one of which announces the “Restaurant Dionis” but which doesn’t include any directions for how to find it. Broken beer bottles crush under our feet as we make our way in search of the restaurant.
We must have made a wrong turn through the trees because we end up on a private porch where a dozen German vacationers sit laughing and enjoying a large breakfast.
We excuse ourselves and continue walking in another direction through a stand of giant prickly pear cactus and under a canopy of trees. After another 10 minutes we emerge on a veranda overlooking an unkempt field of grapevines and a donkey cart filled with hay.
There are no signs, doors, or menus. The only sign that this is a restaurant is the surreal presence of a group of Irish and English tourists boisterously clinking glasses of wine and sharing travel tales. We take a seat at one of the tables by a row of geranium plants and a tiny olive lizard darts across my feet.
An unnaturally tall man with shiny black shoes floats towards us. He clasps his hands neatly and stands before us, his thin dark hair hanging like fringe over one of his eyes.
“Do you have food?” I ask.
“Could we see a menu?”
He gives us a blank look and then his face lights up. “We do not. I am the menu.” He straightens up even taller.
“OK. What do you have?”
“Do you like artichokes?” the waiter asks us.
“Yes, I do.”
“Well then, I recommend the artichokes fresh from our farm.”
“OK. Do you have anything else?”
“Maybe you like octopus salad?”
My mother perks up.
“Good then,” he says and disappears before we can ask for more options.
He returns with our food and a pitcher of tart, freshly squeezed lemonade. He must have decided that we are also thirsty and prefer lemonade.
We dip crusty bread into olive oil and I enjoy a casserole dish of baked artichokes in a creamy garlic fava bean sauce. Mom and Matko share a bowl of octopus salad mixed with apple slices, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, and fresh garlic and olive oil.
We notice there are no other employees at the restaurant. The tall man is cook, busboy, host, waiter and cashier wrapped up into one. Although he is the only person working the restaurant, he never seems rushed. He continues to float from the kitchen to each table with grace and purpose.
After lunch, Matko takes us between more islands and, at one point, instructs us on the Dalmatian art of fishing for an octopus. Mother and I lie stretched out will full stomachs on the bow of the boat, its aluminum hull warming our skin: Hvar has taken hold of us both and it’s impossible to refute our new-found calm.
Matko kills the engine and we sit in the silence for an untold number of minutes, swaying with the wind swell and listening to the lapping of water against the boat’s sides. I peer down to the ocean floor, remembering how Matko has told us that the Adriatic’s water is so clear that you can read newspaper print from its surface.
“What do you think the secret to happiness is, Matko?” I ask, breaking the silence.
He smiles and is silent for a moment, although his face reveals that he has already pondered the answer to this question.
“There are two secrets to happiness: the first is health and the second is peace. This is where I am happy,” he gestures to the islands and sea, “I live in paradise!”
And although we are only visitors, we feel the magic, too.
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