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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.

April 23, 2006|Rachel S. Thurston | Special to The Times

Hvar, Croatia — 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 night to a tiny plaza and church. Above us, windows are thrust open, and from the warm light inside the voices of choral singers fill the air with song. We sit for an hour absorbing 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 amid 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's strength has made inexpensive travel prohibitive, we chose in May 2004 to visit the Mediterranean-like Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Dalmatia is the region along the Adriatic Sea that lies mostly in Croatia.

Amid Hvar's tranquillity, it's hard to believe that a brutal ethnic war ravaged much of Croatia a little more than 10 years ago. More than 200,000 people were killed in the conflict over ethnic, economic, territorial and political issues.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Dalmatian Coast: In a map accompanying an article about Hvar, Croatia, in the April 23 Travel section, Dalmatian was spelled incorrectly as Dalmation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 30, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Dalmatian Coast: In a map accompanying an article about Hvar, Croatia, in the April 23 Travel section, Dalmatian was spelled incorrectly as Dalmation.

In Zagreb, Croatia's capital, we bought bus tickets to the coastal city of Split. From there, it's only a short ferry ride to the island of Hvar.

On the bus, I serendipitously took a seat beside Vibor, a Croatian rock musician and keyboardist for the band Soul Finger. We talked about rock 'n' roll before I started grilling him on Dalmatia.

"It's absolutely gorgeous there but more expensive than other parts of Croatia," Vibor said.

"But isn't Italy more expensive?" I asked.

"Yes, but at least in Italy you get service," he said, laughing. "In Dalmatia, all they're selling you is the air and the sea."

In the town of Hvar (pronounced Huhwar), we step off the ferry into a small swarm of elderly women, who, like many others throughout Croatia, hope to rent us one of their private rooms. In the 80-degree midmorning heat, they are all dressed alike: long black stockings, thick cotton skirts and dark cardigan sweaters.

Mom (who's not yet 60) and I gingerly navigate our backpacks through the group of look-alikes. They call out to us in thick Slavic accents. "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 toward a young man named Sasha. His family's private rooms were recommended to us by a friend in Split.

We follow Sasha up those 156 steps through winding passageways, beneath balconies brimming with strawberry-colored geranium blossoms, between lines of fresh laundry hanging out to dry and past women bent over tending sun-kissed tomato plants.

Our room is above Sasha's aunt's house, and he hands us a large brass key that unlocks shuttered French doors on our balcony.

Stretching below us is Hvar's medieval harbor, a miniature Venice, where sailboats are lined up from the far corners of Europe. Beyond is a breathtaking view of the Adriatic. The water ruffles in the wind 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 their culture an ideal one for vacationing visitors.

In the five days of our stay, we never meet the owners of our room. Many of the stores we visit in Hvar Town curiously are closed from noon to 5 p.m. Despite their posted hours, some don't open at all. At others, employees are flat-out annoyed that we would bother them with our business in the first place. But most of Hvar's residents are helpful and relaxed. That relaxed attitude is one we come to adopt.

Although we could visit other parts of the island -- the towns of Stari Grad and Jelsa, the fishing village of Sucaraj and the fields of lavender, a major cash crop here -- we make a classic Dalmatian decision: to stay in Hvar Town, to do less and savor each moment more. Hvar is teaching us to take things more slowly and, because the high tourist season hasn't kicked in yet, it feels like we and the town's 4,000 or so residents have it to ourselves. Within weeks, Hvar's population will swell with travelers from Croatia and elsewhere in Europe.

Along the seaside promenade sits a row of swaying sailboats, each filled with groups of golden-tanned sailors and their international guests smoking cigars and drinking wine. It could be a Saturday or a Monday. No one seems to care. We are all on vacation here.

We delight in exploring the town's circuitous marble streets, where autos are prohibited and life continues much as it has for centuries. We cross an expansive plaza where pigeons fly past like a rain cloud. At 48,000 square feet, St. Stephen's Square (Trg Sveti Stjepana, in Croatian) is one of the largest of its kind in Dalmatia.

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