When you live full-time on a Dalmatian island, the off-season can be a bit of a challenge for entertainment. Indeed, it can be hard to meet anyone at all in winter – all restaurants in Jelsa were closed, as were many of the cafes, and the bura kept all but the hardiest of fat British bloggers off the streets.
But if you were desperate to see proof of life, the place to be each early evening was in front of the mayor’s office, where one could find the wisest heads of the community – always male – sitting on the bench which was allocated to them.
The same guys every evening, sometimes more than others, but always sitting in that prime location looking out to sea and majestic Biokovo through the Jelsa palm trees. I never saw anyone smoke or drink alcohol. But talk? Boy, could these guys talk.
I learned that the bench was a Dalmatian institution in every village, a font of knowledge, where one had to be invited to sit on the bench. One could not simply join them. So much conversation, so many olive picking techniques exchanged. There were known as the Dalmatian Google, the island Wikipedia. There was nothing that these guys did not know, or have an opinion on.
I could feel myself starting to get a little obsessed. I REALLY wanted to be invited to sit on the bench with the guys. Bench lifestyle seemed perfect to me – a cool place to chill at the end of the day, admiring the view and chewing the fat.
Local friends laughed at me. A seat on the bench? So young? And you a foreigner! No chance! Locals often had to wait almost a lifetime.
My mild obsession spilled over into my blogging on my Total Hvar portal. I was writing 5-6 articles a day back then, and content was a little hard to find some days. I started to write about the bench and how I had one remaining ambition in life. I had travelled, married a beautiful wife, had two gorgeous young children, loved my job, and I lived in Paradise. I only had one thing left to achieve in life.
An invitation to sit on the bench.
Local friends laughed, and I would walk past the bench wistfully, sometimes taking pictures. The one above is one of my favourite -I call it Rush Hour.
I just wanted to be part of the team.
Of course, I would fantasise when there was nobody around – if the bench was empty, it seemed, it was ok to sit.
And then one day, just 13 years after my arrival in this slice of Dalmatian heaven, something quite extraordinary happened.
I was late for an important meeting, the first meeting with the marketing guy from the proposed Four Seasons Hvar project. I could see him in the distance, and we made eye contact just as I was passing the bench. We smiled in anticipation of the handshake and greeting in about three seconds time when I heard a male voice to my right.
“Ugh, Debeli English,” grunted the voice (Hey, Fat Englishman). I turned, and the man motioned for me to sit with them on the bench. There was room for me on the bench!
But the timing was poor. What would this Australian guy think, and how could he take me seriously if I sat on a bench with some oldies instead of greeting him? What a dilemma at this potentially historic moment in my life in Dalmatia.
Sometimes, the heart has to rule the head. I smiled at my bench partners, shook hands with the Aussie, and said:
“Look, I know this is a bit weird as we have not even met yet, but do you mind taking a photo of me sitting on this bench with these guys. I know it sounds odd, and I will explain, and the beers are on me.”
He looked at me like I was a total nut job, but did as I asked.
It was one of the great life achievements of my sad little existence. And the Four Seasons never did get built.
News spread of my fine achievement. In ONLY 13 years, and a foreigner! My local friends were incredulous.
I blogged about it of course, and then the Jelsa bench started to attract a little bit of tourism for the town – the birth of a new type of tourism – bench tourism.
Rock bands jetted in from San Francisco to play on Dalmatia’s hottest bench, with the Jelsa mayor (second right) granting permission for Cellar Doors to play what we believe to be the first live concert on a Dalmatian bench by an American band.
And then the influencers and bloggers started to tread the path to the Jelsa bench, with the team from Chasing the Donkey one of the original pioneers.
The inbox was insane, with young Mariana contacting me from Sydney to ask if I could have a selfie with her on the bench. She was coming to Imotski, but made the trip to the island especially for the bench experience (yes, really).
Bench tourism was becoming a thing.
We even had Masters of Wine using the bench for promo material – Jo Ahearne MW, who makes excellent wine from Hvar grapes – highly recommended.
The wise old men even shared the bench on the occasion of the UNESCO Za Krizen procession on Maundy Thursday, as pilgrims who had walked the 22 km through the night rested after a sleepless night.
Life was good. Perfect even.
And then disaster struck.
The bench in Jelsa – an icon of Dalmatian tradition, a paragon of virtue, and a database of the most fascinating bits of information – was sent into permanent exile. For something called progress.
The iconic white bench was removed to make way for a new restaurant under some quite questionable circumstances. There were a couple of solutions offered to appease Jelsa’s Google Brigade, with benches on the street the permanent solution.
And for a time, the bench was banished to another part of the waterfront entirely. But I had to laugh at this presumably paid feature on the clever and influential people who came from Jelsa, including the current Prime Minister and Minister of Health. But the lead photo? The brains from The Bench.
Partly due to the fact that I was outraged at the removal of the bench, and partly because the whole deal with the restaurant seemed a little fishy, I did quite a lot of research on the awarding of the tender for the restaurant, which caused quite a furore when I published. So much so in fact, that the mayor announced he was suing me in a public meeting, see above. He never did, and the article I published remains one of the best researched on my time in Croatia, and one of which I am immensely proud.
But boy, fighting for bench freedom is a dangerous task.
And then, a few years ago, the Jelsa Tourist Board let their website domain lapse, and I managed to pick up Visit Jelsa and use it to promote bench tourism, as well as a polite request to transfer ownership of the website if only we could have our bench back.
But there was much more to the culture of the bench than what one found in Jelsa, and I found myself seeking out benches of all kinds on the island.
Chilling in Svirce at the first Boganusa festival.
And then I went in search of the best bench view. Is it this one high above Hvar Town?
Or this gem on Korcula?
As we learned in the first article in this series, do not try and change Dalmatia, but expect Dalmatia to change you.
But sometimes change does come, and a teenager from Solin became an overnight sensation, as Ivan Mrvos presented the smart Dalmatian bench 2.0. Imagine what the wise old men from Dalmatian Google would come up with on this type of bench.
I started to expand the concept of bench tourism beyond the shores of Hvar, and I went off in search of unusual benches, or those in spectacular settings for bench tourism. The biggest I have found in Dalmatia was this beauty in Trogir.
And it was hard to beach bench tourism with a view in Dubrovnik.
But for posh benches, the two-tier benches of Imotski are beyond impressive.
Some of my favourite benches in Dalmatia are these on the island of Zirje. With no bar open on the island in the winter, this IS the social life and gathering point in front of the small supermarket.
A supermarket like no other I have seen in Croatia – 50% alcohol, mostly beer.
With a very handy bottle opener attached to Bench 3. That is what I like about bench culture in Dalmatia – it is adaptable to the specific needs of the day.
It should be pointed out that the bench is primarily part of Dalmatian culture, and not really as important in other parts of the country. But it should also be pointed out that when a weird foreigner starts writing about his love of benches, the inbox can get quite colourful.
Probably the most unusual bench submission in the inbox – and the only all-female one – on bales of hay in Medjimurje.
Extreme bench tourism in Rastoke.
And, of course, I kept my eyes out for bench tourism trends on my travels throughout the land.
Vinkovci, the oldest continuously inhabited town in Europe, probably took the prize over Trogir as the biggest bench I have seen in Croatia.
And Vinkovci DEFINITELY has the coolest bench of all – the only bench I have seen where you can switch the view. Check it out in the video above – beyond awesome.
International bench tourism on the Danube – the morning view to Serbia from Dalj.
Religious bench tourism was a new departure – the fabulous cathedral in Djakovo.
Or mass Mass tourism in Ivankovo.
Slavonia seems to have benches for religious bench tourism in very random places, this one in a field in the middle of nowhere.
But imagine my joy when I discovered the first bench MUSEUM in Koprivnica-Krizevci county.
How cool is that?
Bench life in Croatia. For solo thought or intense debate, it is an essential part of the mix.
I accept that I may be a little more passionate about the bench than most, but trust me; there are worse cases out there than me.
Take this chap, who came up with a calendar for the Benches of Redditch calendar, a town near Birmingham in the UK not known for its bench tourism.
Imagine the calendars he could produce of Dalmatia…
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