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Hvar : A Golden Island in the Adriatic Sea

August 10, 1986|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

HVAR, Yugoslavia — Picture an island whose chief crop is lavender, whose history traces to the prehistoric Illyrians, whose architecture can best be described as Venetian gothic. Draw this fabled place with a flourishing sweep of nature's paintbrush and color it gold.

The wheat-colored stone walls and marble-smooth streets of the town of Hvar glint in the sunlight, golden as the lavender oil that is processed for French perfumeries and other customers of the exotic.

The climate is perennially kind and warm. Pine trees and cypress shade your path, rosemary and sage give a tang to the balmy breezes, and here and there will be the scent of laurel, or a whiff of jasmine or pittosporum. To feast the eyes, deep purple bougainvillea hangs over gateways and high walls, bending toward you as if to share secrets.

The ancients are said to have called this the Isle of the Blessed. Today, this is where the Germans go to the beach. In fact, so many Germans make this their vacation destination that most menus are bilingual, in Serbo-Croatian and German. Second place for numbers of visitors goes to the British.

The main square of Hvar wraps around its harbor, and many of the town's restaurants and cafes have ringside seats for the mesmerizing views of sunlight glinting on the water, small brightly painted boats bobbing all around the edges, the occasional visiting sailboat and ferry from the mainland.

One morning began with a cup of cappuccino at a cafe on the south side of the harbor. From the north came a fine tall sloop, at least 40 feet long, in full sail to catch the whisper of a breeze. Then an efficient tack, a synchronized lowering of the sails and tossing of lines, and the boat slid to a halt. Four of the healthiest and probably wealthiest of blond Dutch youths stepped onto the quay and strolled to a nearby table for coffee and rolls. They looked as if they owned the world, and who could deny it?

The town square of Hvar is said to be the largest in all of Dalmatia.

In front stage, center, is the elegant Palace Hotel, once a count's palace and to this day a study in neo-Renaissance style, at least in its facade and its high-windowed banquet hall. And the bell in its clock tower dates from 1564. Doubles here range from $62 to $82.

The bell towers of Hvar, in the cathedral on the main square and in the other churches, are considered Dalmatia's most beautiful. The cathedral, reconstructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, still includes architectural elements and furnishings from yet older churches that stood on the site.

Venice controlled the island from 1420 to 1797 and left a legacy of architectural splendor as well as a treasure of paintings, sculptures, gold and silver, tapestries and books that are still under the guardianship of the town's churches and monasteries. Also on the square is the oldest theater in Europe, dating from 1612, where performances are still held.

The combination of white and wheat-colored stones and the irregularity of architectural design make the town square a visual feast. As late afternoon deepens into evening, the piazza fills with people. Shops open after a long midday siesta, cafes come to life, church bells ring out, children dart by on an endless game of tag, women selling lavender oil and lace set up their booths along the edges of the scene.

The newest and biggest hotel in Hvar is the Amphora, a 10-minute walk from the square and facing its own strip of beach. It has 380 rooms plus disco bar, cafe, Olympic-size indoor pool, sports hall, saunas and even a bowling alley. All this for $54 to $72 a night for a double. The smaller Pharos nearby, with 180 rooms, charges $44 to $54. There are a few other hotels as well, and for budget travelers there are plenty of rooms to let in private houses, starting at about $8.

Tours around the island go to Starigrad, site of the former Greek colony Pharos, and to the villages of Vrboska and Jelsa. On the way are the lavender fields and stunning hilltop views of Hvar and surrounding islands.

The lavender bushes grow in willowy clumps between rows and rows of rocks that crisscross nearly every hillside on the island. Tons of rocks must be pushed to the edge of any field before the poor soil can be cultivated for its yield of lavender or vegetables or grapes for the wine that most families make themselves.

A popular pastime for visitors is the fish picnic, an affair organized by Atlas Tours from a corner office in town. They collect a boat full of people and sail to a small bay on the northern side of the island for a day of swimming, sunning, general cavorting and wine-drinking, and an all-you-can-eat outdoor banquet of fresh-grilled fish.

But the minute you get off the boat, you are served pickled herring and a shot of slivovitz, a plum brandy that does a good imitation of wood alcohol, although everyone recovered sufficiently to down vast quantities of Dalmatian wine with lunch.

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