June 26, 2019 – As tourists fill up the roads, beaches and bars in the summer heat, meet one ancient and relaxed island destination with its own cooling system, where time stands still.
It is a strange feeling walking around a tourist island where you used to live, looking at towns and villages where you used to know every shop and bar but have not visited for years. Especially in the searing heat of 30 C – far too hot for this pink Englishman. The thought of heading to Stari Grad on Hvar in the midday sun for some meetings was not one I relished.
But then I remembered something about Stari Grad – just how cool it was. Not in the sense of stylish cool (it is very much that as well), but a haven from the heat.
Stari Grad has a timeless quality where nothing seems to change, and yet things are changing very nicely, as the destination retains its historic charm while upping the level of quality. It is one of the most underrated destinations on the Adriatic, one of the most vibrant island towns 12 months a year, and a destination which is not exposed to the mass tourism one experiences elsewhere. It has always been for me the heartbeat of the island, home to the main ferry, shopping area and court, to name but three.
And walking around the idyllic old town for the first time in years, I fell in love again and noted that while nothing had changed, a lot had changed.
The abundant squares in various locations of the old town, which was founded by the Ancient Greeks 2400 years ago (along with the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stari Grad Plain) have changed little over the centuries. They are connected by a warren of cobbled pedestrianised streets where you can easily get lost, but not for long, as the old town is perfectly sized to explore without getting disoriented. Cyclists were a constant theme as I wandered round, as tourists took advantage of the space and slow pace of life to explore.
Stari Grad’s deep bay has long made it a favourite port of call for sailors, ever since the Greeks sailed in in 384 BC, and the extension of the riva in recent years has made it a magnet for sailing companies, whose shiny boats coexist peacefully with the local fishing and taxi boats.
The 2400 birthday a couple of years ago was accompanied by some upgrades to both the infrastructure and parts of the old town, including a repaving of Hektorovic Square, which gaurds the entrance to the famous fortress and fishpond of famous 16th century Croatian writer, Petar Hektorovic.
Coffee o’clock any time of day.
So much space, such a delightful chilled pace of life.
And also a chilled place to walk in the midday heat. The old town of Stari Grad has always been much cooler than any other place on the island for me, a wonderful and relaxed place to walk around with its alleys to explore, and several degrees cooler than out on the waterfront. And with most people at the beach during the day, walking around the ancient squares and alleys not only keeps the heat at bay, but gives you the chance to see authentic Stari Grad without having to share with many others.
A lot of the restaurants have been there for years, and new ones are springing up. Apolon became the first Hvar restaurant to make the Michelin guide last year.
What has increased a lot in recent years are the artisan and local product shops, such as Za Pod Zub – done with passion and love and adding to the already considerable charm of the town.
I really liked the signage too, nothing brash here, just stylish advertising of stores that added to the ambiance.
Stari Grad has long been known for its artistic scene, and there are several art galleries, art shops and numerous museums here. What to do when it rains on Hvar (if we can remember back to the days of rain)? Stari Grad would be my top recommendation, as it offers a lot of indoor cultural activitiy.
The magnificent cathedral on St Stephen’s Square.
15 years ago, as a real estate agent, I almost sold this building to a foreign buyer who wanted to open a Thai restaurant there. He was put off by the statics of the building after learning how it had been damaged by a bomb in World War II.
And here it was, 15 years later, totally unchanged. Timeless. And a snapshot of the history and stories contained within every stone of this wonderful old town.
A lot of things had changed, and a lot of things had not. And while there were many new eateries I did not recognise, it was heartening to see the place I used to refer to as the hearbeat of Hvar continuing to thrive. Pizzeria Marko was the main meeting point for lots of the resident expats back in the day – great, affordable food and run by lovely people. And it was great to see that at Marko’s – like elsewhere in Stari Grad, some things had changed and nothing had changed.
I visited in late June and had much of the old town to myself, a far cry from the mayhem of the mainland coast which followed.
Want to learn more about Stari Grad? Here are 25 things to know.
For more about the island, check out the Total Croatia Hvar in a Page guide.