January 25, 2018 – Continuing our look at 2018 European Best Destinations nominee, the island of Hvar, a visit to the oldest town on the island – some same in all Croatia – Stari Grad.
Of all the settlements on the island of Hvar, none has a richer or more fascinating story than its first capital, Faros, better known today as Stari Grad (which means ‘Old City’). For it was here that the Ancient Greeks arrived in 384BC to found their colony on the island, naming it after the island of Paros from where they had sailed.
From those humble beginnings, Stari Grad has grown considerably and is today a stunningly preserved old town with its pedestrianised cobbled streets, with a surprise around every corner. Its inhabitants have survived the Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians and the Socialists of former Yugoslavia, and what you find today is one of Dalmatia’s most fascinating towns, full of tradition, heritage and beauty.
And when mentions the word ‘heritage’, look no further than the town’s very own UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stari Grad Plain, the largest fertile field in the Adriatic, which was divided and cultivated by the Ancient Greeks some 2,400 years ago, and which is farmed pretty much the same way today, with olives and grapes the main crops, both of which are thought to have been brought to the island by the Greeks from Paros. In a nice gesture and fascinating trip back in 2004, an expedition of locals in a traditional sailing boat returned made the return journey to Paros from Stari Grad, with olive trees and vines from the town’s fields, returning them to their ancestral home. You can see the video of the journey (in Croatian) below.
The old town streets of Stari Grad breathe history, and now matter how busy the island gets in the peak of the season, there is always time and space inside the old town. Timelessness. The town has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, with several major infrastructure projects, as well as a cosmetic makeover in time for the 2400 birthday celebrations of Stari Grad back in 2016.
The harbour has always been a key focal point for the town, and here is where perhaps the most progress has been seen. An extension and upgrading of the riva has turned Stari Grad into one of the most popular sailing destinations on the island in just a few short years, and the day bay which first attracted the Greeks is now sheltering an increasing number of nautical tourists each year.
In addition to a quality berth, nautical tourists demand a certain quality on land, and here too Stari Grad is moving very much in the right direction. The opening of Apolon a few years ago perhaps was the start of the revolution. A luxury restaurant with boutique private rooms overlooking the harbour, Apolon was the first 4-star accommodation in Stari Grad, and as more discerning guests looked for alternatives to the peak season party in Hvar Town, Stari Grad has slowly come onto the radar for those looking for a combination of luxury and tranquility. Others are following Apolon, and the much anticipated Four Season Hotels resort just outside Stari Grad will be one of the top resorts on the Adriatic once completed. On the other side of the town, just past the ferry, the luxury Olive Bay Resort will offer a combination of luxury villa and 5-star boutique hotels. The main Helios hotels have just been taken over by Valamar and will soon be upgraded to 4-star status.
Visitors to Stari Grad from Hvar Town are often surprised by how quiet Stari Grad is by comparison, but Stari Grad was once the major settlement on the island (and, if things continue to progress the way they are, it could once again rival Hvar Town as the island’s top destination). Celebrity visits to Hvar Town make the headlines each summer, but it was to Stari Grad that Edward and Mrs Simpson came for lunch after abdicating the British throne in 1936, and where the wife of an assassinated US President came waterskiing in 1964,
Stari Grad has seen a small but steady increase in the number of foreigners deciding to relocate here over the years, and it is without doubt the best place on Hvar for full-time living. For here is the ferry, the court and the heart of business on the island, as well as the town which has the most restaurants open all year. Never too busy during the summer, never too quiet in the winter (compared to other parts of the island), and with the best access to the mainland, this historic town founded by the Ancient Greeks has a very bright future.
When to visit? Given its more flexible opening times of the town’s restaurateurs, Stari Grad perhaps offers more options any time of year, and even in peak season, it still seems to have time and space while other destinations are going crazy. Perhaps one time to explore would be in mid-September, when a relatively new festival, Days in the Bay, is held, where the harbour comes to life over the course of a few days, a combination of food, wine, sailing and concerts. Sample the atmosphere in the video below.
Want to learn a little more about Stari Grad? 25 Things to Know.
Not voted for Hvar yet as 2018 European Best Destination? You can do so here.