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Stari Grad Plain, Hvar, Croatia
It’s unusual to come across something that is still being used the same way it was intended thousands of years ago.
Ancient palaces have become museums (if not just ruins); temples have been converted into churches (or vice versa); aqueducts have been replaced by pipes.
That’s why it’s quite astonishing to come to Stari Grad, on the Croatian island of Hvar, and realise that the plain that was established for agriculture in the 4th century BC is used today just as it has always been.
When Ionian Greeks arrived on Hvar 2400 years ago, they saw that the long stretch of flat land between the hills – the Stari Grad Plain – had arable land that would be perfect for farming.
They organised the plain into geometric plots that were separated with dry stone-wall boundaries. These were then connected to tanks and gutters that collected rainwater, which could then be redistributed as needed.
Because of this ingenious system, the settlers were able to produce grapes, olives, and vegetables in a way that was sustainable for the whole community. In the coming centuries, as cultures spread across Europe, this method of farming inspired agricultural practices all across Europe.
This masterpiece of land division and water management was so good that it didn’t just get adopted in other countries. It has also never been changed here. For 2400 years, farmers in the Stari Grad Plain have been using exactly the same techniques.
Visiting the Stari Grad Plain
When you visit the Stari Grad Plain today, you’ll still see the dry stone-walls lining the landscapes, dividing it into the main parcels about 900 metres long and 180 metres wide (with other walls subdividing some parcels even further).
Olive trees sway in the slight breeze; vineyards create lush green lines amongst the dirt; and the various other crops add to a tonal patchwork that extends out for kilometres.
I’ve come to Hvar with the main objective of exploring the Stari Grad Plain as part of the World Heritage Journeys of Europe project. It’s included in the ‘Ancient’ journey, which highlights World Heritage Sites associated with ancient inventions that are still relevant today.
There are a few ways to discover what the plain has to offer. You can explore yourself – by foot, bicycle, motorbike, or car. And you can visit some of the producers that are located in the area – wineries, restaurants, and other small agritourism businesses that farmers have established.
I decide to rent a bike (I would recommend this shop) and explore at my own pace, with no set route, just a general direction that I want to go (I’ll explain why in a moment).
I cycle along, the dirt roads leading me deeper into the Stari Grad plain. The dry stone-walls look particularly white these days, bleached by the strong sun perhaps. If I didn’t know how much they were still used, I would say they almost look ghostly.
I also notice other small buildings that have been built amongst the fields over the centuries. On closer examination, I realise they are chapels. There’s the Chapel of St Helena from the 15th century, and the Chapel of our Lady (Gospojica) from the 16th century.
You can tell that the more recent ones, like the Chapel of St Michael from 1886 and the Chapel of St Roko from 1889, are more modern. But they fit seamlessly into the landscape. The gods may have changed since the Ancient Greeks but the intention is the same – please look after me and my crops.
There are other small buildings on the Stari Grad Plain that are not quite as ornately decorated as the chapels. These small stone huts are called ‘trims’ and they are designed to protect the farmers from the elements, the sun in summer and the rain in winter.
Cycling in the middle of the day, I don’t see too many people working in the fields. The farmers here may be tough by they’re not silly. It didn’t take 2400 years to realise that it’s better to work in the cooler hours than the midday heat.
But later in the afternoon, as I take a random path that’s too narrow and rocky for cars, I come across quite a few people on their land, tending to their plots.
They smile as I pass and give me an appreciative smile. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see tourists here, but the majority won’t make the effort to get to know this ancient masterpiece like this.
The island of Hvar is a very popular tourist destination, but most visitors stick to the main towns and the coastline. Fair enough – they are beautiful and relaxing. But to get between some of the towns, you’ll need to pass by the Stari Grad Plain anyway, so why not take the time to discover more about it.
It’s not going to be the only thing that you’ll see on Hvar, though, so let me tell you a bit more about some of the other things you’ll find around the Stari Grad Plain.
The town of Stari Grad is the oldest in Croatia and its name literally means Old Town. It was the town founded by the Greek settlers who arrived here in the 4th century BC, although they originally called it Paros.
It’s not quite as glitzy as the town of Hvar, which is where you’ll find the best nightlife and the people who are keen to ‘be seen’. Stari Grad is more laidback and the most historic part is included in the World Heritage Site designation.
There’s still lots of activity here, though, with lots of moorings for people sailing along the Croatian coast (including tour groups like my friends at G Adventures, I notice). That means plenty of restaurants and cafes along the bay.
It’s also a good base, with a central location and some good accommodation. I’ve got some suggestions for where to stay in Stari Grad at the end.
Stari Grad Museum
To get an overview of the island’s history, it’s worth popping into the Stari Grad Museum. It is quite small but you’ll find exhibits that cover millennia of history.
There are archaeological remains from the times of the first Greek settlers, cargo from a Roman merchant ship that was wrecked on the coast, items from wealthy landowners in the 18th century, and a replica of a captain’s room that shows the evolution of seamanship.
The top floor has an art gallery which offers a modern take on the island through the eyes of different artists.
Perhaps a bit unexpected is Tvrdalj Castle, which is actually a large home used in the 16th century as a summer residence by poet Petar Hektorovic. Many of his poems were about Stari Grad and the fishermen who worked here.
His house is a piece of art in itself. In the interior courtyard is a pool surrounded by a vaulted terrace. On the other side, there’s a garden which was once used for growing herbs and medicinal plants.
Look closely and you’ll find lots of artistic flourishes throughout – snippets of poetry carved as inscriptions, for instance. In his mind, this was a space where nature and people lived harmoniously.
The Dominican Monastery
From the garden of Tvrdalj Castle, you can just see the Dominican Monastery, another of the main sights in Stari Grad. Incidentally, it is where Petar Hektorovic was entombed and some of his poetry is carved into the walls here too.
There are two parts to a visit to the Dominican Monastery. The first is the main church, which was originally constructed in the 15th century but rebuilt in 1896. It has five ornate altars that have been added over the generations and each is interesting in its own way.
The other important part of the monastery is the museum, which has an excellent collection of historical pieces and art works. The highlight is a piece called ‘The Lamentation of Christ’, which was painted by Venetian artist Tintoretto around 1559.
It’s always a bit of a thrill to find such important artworks in small unexpected places, but that often happens with World Heritage Sites.
On the other side of the Stari Grad Plain is Vrboska, more of a village than a town. It’s set around a small bay with a few boats moored and some lovely restaurants and cafes by the water.
It’s picturesque enough to justify a visit, and it’s also a good place for a bite to eat and a drink. You’ll be able to see everything that’s available and make a choice depending on how you feel.
But the highlight of Vrboska is just a few minutes away from the waterline, up a hill behind the houses. It’s St Mary’s Fortress-Church, an incredible religious building that was built in the 15th century and then had huge buttresses added to it about 100 years later so that residents could shelter in it if there was ever an attack.
You can see it from the outside, which is how you’ll get the best view of the fortifications. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see inside – but it was closed when I visited and I can find absolutely no information about when it’s open.
Follow the coast for about four kilometres from Vrboska and you’ll reach Jelsa, a bigger town that is just as charming. It has a population of about 4000 people and is a popular spot for tourists to use as a base.
The centre of Jelsa is full of historic buildings, including the Church of St Mary from 1331 and the Church of St Mihovil from 1463. You’ll also get a sense of the wonderful renaissance architecture in St Ivan’s square.
While it’s not big, you can easily spend a couple of hours just exploring the sites of Jelsa, as you climb up the steep streets and staircases for views across the water. But it’s also a wonderful place to relax, have a drink, and get into the spirit of the Croatian island’s way of life.
And, finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the coastline of Hvar island. There are lots of specific places you could head for – but you don’t really need to. Just go to any stretch along the water and you’ll find beautiful views, shady rest points under the trees, and great spots to go for a swim.
While the Stari Grad Plain doesn’t technically touch the water, you just need to take the coast road between Vrboska and Jelsa to discover some great spots for a dip.
From Stari Grad town, follow the water in either direction and there are also relaxing spots to rest and swim.
Or, go on a little adventure and take one of the roads leading north from the plain and you’ll eventually hit the northern coast, where it’s peaceful away from the tourist resorts.
How to spend a day around the Stari Grad Plain?
A day isn’t really long enough to do the Stari Grad Plain justice but not many people will come to Hvar for a single day anyway. This is an island where you come to relax and you’ll need a few days to do that properly.
Having said that, you may want to spread your time across the island of Hvar, spending some days at the beach, exploring Hvar town. So if you want to dedicate a full day to the Stari Grad Plain and surrounds, here’s what I would suggest.
Start in Stari Grad town and visit the Stari Grad Museum, Tvrdalj Castle, and the Dominican Monastery. Then hire a bike from this shop for the rest of the day.
There are lots of ways to cross the plain, but I would suggest taking the road called Put Gosopjice, which turns into dirt just before you reach the 16th-century Chapel of our Lady (Gospojica).
Follow this road the whole way east across the plain until you reach Vrboska, which you can explore for a bit. This may be a good place for lunch.
Then cycle along the coastal road, winding past the small beaches and rock platforms, until you reach Jelsa. It’s worth having a look at the sights here for an hour or two, and stopping for a coffee or a drink.
From Jelsa, you’ll need to cycle along the highway for a little bit until you reach the plain again. But from there, you can choose to ride any of the paths you like, making it a bit more of an adventure, until you arrive back in Stari Grad.
How do you get to Stari Grad?
The best way to get to Stari Grad is to catch the ferry from Split. The main company serving this route is Jadrolinija and they have several crossings each day (the exact number and times depend on the time of year). See timetable here.
The ferry takes 2 hours and costs 39 kn (US$5.80) per passenger . It costs 250 kn (US$37.20) per car.
If you don’t have a car, it’s an easy 30 minute walk along a coastal footpath to Stari Grad town from the ferry terminal. Or you’ll be able to get a taxi when you arrive (it’s not cheap, though, as the taxi drivers know they can make an easy buck here).
Where to stay in Stari Grad?
There are a few parts of Hvar island where you can stay – including Hvar town and Jelsa. But I think Stari Grad makes the most sense. It’s where the ferry arrives, it’s central to access different parts of the Stari Grad Plain, and it’s a charming place with lots of places to eat and drink.
Most of the accommodation in Stari Grad is in local apartments. There are lots of them, and they’re all quite similar, to be honest. Have a look at the options here. Which one is best for you, will depend on what you’re looking for.