VILA HERACLEA, Hvar, Croatia, EU

The Alluring Island of Hvar

by Elizabeth Manduca 

My flight left Munich and flew over the colorful patchwork quilt-like German farmlands. The terrain ended abruptly at the foothills of the powerful Alps. Jagged peaks broke through mounds of snow while billowy clouds perched on top. Bright green hamlets nestled in each valley. The mountains eventually gave way to the Adriatic Sea as we landed in Split, Croatia.

I took the Jadrolinija ferry that runs daily to the islands off the coast of Croatia. It is large and comfortable even in choppy seas. The one hour trip to Hvar passed quickly. Say “how are” very quickly and you will come close to pronouncing the name of this alluring island. Hvar is 42 miles long and six and a half miles wide at its broadest point.

 “Clear days and open nights on Hvar, it is impossible not to wish to be the sky:whole, brilliant, shining…”
– Danijel Dragojevic, Croatian poet

The ferry docked at a wide stone promenade lined with royal palm trees. Old, cream-colored stone buildings topped with orange terra-cotta roof tiles are built into the slopes of three hills. This amphitheater of land and buildings surround a sparkling azure bay speckled with boats. The highest of the three peaks is crowned with an intimidating, impressive Venetian fortress.

I was met at the ferry by the hostess of Vila Heraclea, Ana Omasic. She held a sign with my name on it and received me with a wide, welcoming smile. Her English is impeccable. English is the second language in Hvar. She took the heavier of my two bags. We walked about one block and climbed 72 wide stone stairs to a green wooden door set in a rock wall. A lemon tree loaded with bright yellow fruit hung over the wall; the smell of blossoms was intoxicating.

This fairy tale door with iron hinges opened onto a stone courtyard. Rosemary spilled over a rock wall, jasmine wrapped around a pergola and lavender scented the air. A fig and orange tree provided edible fruit and shade. A small enclosed pool and plenty of relaxing furniture completed what became my favorite oasis at Heraclea.

Vila Heraclea, Luxury in an Outstanding Location

Heraclea, a Baroque style villa (1612) and attached medieval gothic house fifteenth century underwent major renovations in 2009, according to the regulations established by the Institution for the Protection of Cultural Monuments. The name Heraclea refers to an island in the Aegean Sea. It was the name of many ancient cities, spanning from Turkey to Italy.

I prefered to think of it as the ancient festival honoring the divine hero, Hercules. While known for his incredible strength, Hercules was also famous for his hospitality. The location of the villa amidst Hvar Town’s many amenities makes it an excellent rental property. You are two stairways away from the waterfront promenade where fishing boats, yachts, sailboats, and ferries dock. Turn left or right and you will find great restaurants, shops, post office, pharmacy, supermarket, farmers’ market, cathedral, and historic landmarks.

When I first entered the villa’s kitchen, it wasn’t the huge table for ten, or the long white stone and wood island that caught my attention. It was the view! The fortress on the hilltop was perfectly framed with six glass doors. Spectacularly lighted at night, the fortress was built to keep out invaders.

 On the same floor are two bedroom suites, each with a full bath, television with satellite, and ample closet space; all tastefully decorated and well appointed. Most of the furniture was built by an Italian furniture maker. The large living room seats at least ten people. A fireplace is bordered by bookcases filled with books, magazines, and children’s games. Two comfortable armchairs make this room a homey gathering place.

Glass doors open to quaint white shutters which fold back to reveal a Venetian style balcony and spectacular views of the harbor, burnt orange roofs, and cobblestone alleys below. I drank tea while overlooking the harbor and noted the interesting textures of the buildings. I wished I were able to paint this scene.

The top floor of the villa has two medium-sized bedroom suites and one large master suite. A window opens to the sea and Pakleni Islands. A wise hostess has placed a padded bench in front of this window. Lovely original artwork adorn the walls in every room.

The lowest floor houses a sauna, large jacuzzi, massage room, and wine cellar which completes the picture of rejuvenation and, relaxation. A vacation rental guest could spend an entire enjoyable vacation inside the villa and courtyard only! However, the island of Hvar beckons.

The Stones EchoImage

Each footfall on the stone lanes echoes with stories told and untold. The stones’ patina has grown beautiful over time and shines with an old-world ambience. Imagine those who have walked here: Ionian Greeks, Romans, Venetians, noblemen of Hvar, Dominican friars, Benetictine monks and nuns, Franciscans, Austrians, and French of the Napoleonic era, friendly people, invaders, travelers, fishermen, the rich, and the poor. I wanted these stones to speak – what stories they could tell.

The Romans arrived on the nearby island of Brac (pronounced Bratch) in year 167 and began quarrying the strong snow-white limestone. They utilized this material to build cottages that became almost invisible in the stony hills. This high quality, 100 million year old stone was used for the Diocletian Palace in Split, Croatia, the Parliament Building in Budapest, and of the United States White House. The stone mines are still in operation today. Hvar still stands as a city constructed from stone.

I began my journey with a walking tour of the main town. The wide stone promenade encircles the waterfront for four miles. Our Lady of Grace Franciscan Monastery built in 1465 sits on the harbor walkway. The floor is paved with headstones of prominent people. One wall frames a dramatic life size painting of the Last Supper. Arrangements of white flowers adorned each altar. Concerts are held in the main courtyard during the summer. An attached museum holds valuable artifacts.

Trgsvetog Stjepana, or piazza, in the center of town is the largest stone square of its kind in the Dalmatian region of Croatia. Restaurants, popular outdoor cafes, and shops line both sides. Children kick soccer balls from end-to-end. Polite dogs amble along while cats snooze in the windows and people stop to chat with their neighbors.

Magical Music

At the end of the square is the Katedrala sv. Stjepana, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in a Venetian Renaissance style. The bells in the tower clang and peal with a rich sound throughout the day.

As I walked through an alley on Good Friday, I heard a group of men singing. I followed the sound until I found the men dressed in brown robes singing in a small square. A priest in white vestments led them through the alleys to the piazza. This music was both magical and mystical. I couldn’t help but fall in with the crowd making their way to the cathedral. Attending mass was a wonderful way to meet the people of Hvar, hear their language and listen to them sing. To my utmost surprise, at the end of the mass, the cathedral doors opened and over fifty men marched in singing and carrying huge lighted scepters. The procession reversed direction and headed for the piazza with the entire congregation following. Tourists, including me, lined both sides of the square listening quietly and respectfully.

At the west end of the square is the Arsenal built in the early 1600’s; it is one of the most important examples of naval architecture in this area. It was capable of housing an entire ship of the Venetian fleet for repair! Above the Arsenal, in a grand room, was Europe’s first public theater. Hvar was a cultural center for many centuries.

Bikes and Hikes

My husband, Mark arrived a few days later. We rented bicycles and rode around the entire waterfront promenade. The cobblestones were a bit bumpy, but with fat tires, the bikes handled them. The spring temperatures were comfortable and places uncrowded. Although there are no beaches along the promenade, access to the water is quite easy. Jetties and tiled walkways bring swimmers into the clear water. Places to put chairs in order to sit and enjoy the sun were plentiful. Hvar has the most hours of sun of all the Adriatic islands, a fact not lost on a sun-starved northerner like me.

We continued to the seaside park, Pokonji Dol, frequently stopping to take pictures of the white cliffs descending to the sea. Great bouquets of brilliant red, yellow, and purple spring flowers in full bloom crept down stone walls and cliffs.

We visited the Benedictine Monastery, which is registered with UNESCO in the category of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nuns weave dried agave leaves into original patterns of exquisite lace. Pieces were lovingly displayed in picture frames. There are only a few places in the world where this difficult artistic tradition still exists.

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From there we trudged up a long, stone stairway to the gate at the head of the fortress road. Despite many switchbacks, the tarred road was actually an easy climb. It was lined with cacti, agave plants and wild flowers. Deep red poppies grew out of cracks in rocks and walls.

The fortress remains in good condition with many stairways, chambers, and excellent lookout places. There is a cafe, art studio, and an area where summer concerts are held. The musical sounds pouring down the hillside were surreal. We continued our hike upward, with Ana as our guide, to the highest local peak, Fort Napoleon, a garrison built for Napoleon’s troops. A section of Vila Heraclea’s garden is a protected landmark. It is the place where an oven was used to bake bread for Napoleon’s troops. Although there is a hiking trail up the rocky cliffs, we chose the road. The height of this vista shows the shapes of beautiful islands surrounding Hvar. Visibility must be close to 50 miles on a clear day.

Wine, Culinary, Agricultural, and Island Tours

Ana arranged a tour of the interior of the island. We visited vineyards, two wineries, plus lavender and rosemary fields. Our enterprising, gregarious tour guide, Ante Lacman, made the entire day very memorable. He told us a great deal of historical information. Visitors can arrange any type or length of tour with his company, Hvar Tours.

Ours began on a skinny but solid brown stone road that snaked its way around the mountainside. Let’s just say there was no room for error … Ante stopped often so we could photograph breathtakingviews of sharply descending cliffs and ocean inlets.

Ancient Greeks and Romans produced wine on Hvar starting in 300 BC. Taking advantage of very little rainfall, today’s vintners plant grapes starting at the top of the steep slopes and descending all the way to the sea. Distinct soil composition, light reflection from the sea, limestone, and salt spray all have different effects on the final cask of wine.

We visited both the Dubokovic Winery, a small family business and the Tomic wineries, a more commercial venture. Both places provide excellent wines, food, and hospitality. My favorite was a sweet wine called First Kiss.

We drove through the Stari Grad Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Miles of walled vineyards, olive orchards, and agricultural fields have remained unchanged for 2400 years!

From there, Ante took us to an (almost) abandoned village called Malo Grablje. We drove down a steep stone trail into a valley of stone houses in various stages of ruin. Vegetation was taking over in many places. I was so surprised to learn that this was our lunch site.

 A small restaurant named Stori Komin is nestled amongst the ruins. It is owned and operated by a man named Berti Tudor. Berti cooks Croatian meals and organizes cooking classes for visitors. It was a treat to eat such unique food in this mysterious setting. However, Ante had also arranged for Radovan Marcic, a famous Croatian masterchef, culinary judge, and author to join us. Radovan shared his immense knowledge of local foods and discussed his project for saving these recipes. One of his most popular cookbooks is translated into English and titled Enjoy With Me. He is truly a delightful gentleman.

Outer Islands

A day to be long remembered included the boat trip to Palmizana, on one of the outer islands.Palmizana is home to twelve charming summer houses, each with its own bright color palette. Paintings and furniture match the chosen color scheme. Two restaurants sit in a subtropical botanical garden that faces the sea. The Meneghello family has owned and lovingly developed this area for many years. Long time patrons of the arts, they display paintings and sculptures in all of the buildings. A substantial and impressive collection of ancient amphorae (Greek jars and vessels) encrusted from hundreds of years under the sea was collected by Juraj Toto Meneghello during his diving trips. They are displayed in one of the restaurants.

We enjoyed lunch on an outdoor patio lined with Birds of Paradise plants in full bloom. Small tortoises wandered through the gardens. Iva Bozicevic, a charismatic waitress, served us octopus and shrimp salads, grilled sea bass and grilled vegetables. This was an exceptional meal, one of the best of our trip. Meneghetti prize-winning wines from Istria were excellent.After lunch, we went for a swim, much to the amazement of the locals who don’t enter the water at least until June. Ana called me brave.

                                 “…it is essential to live together, at one, with nature, in a          different and more decent way…with reciprocal giving. Enhancing nature through human creativity with the human spirit and soul…it is possible to create human paradises on a human scale, places in which human beings can find reinvigoration and the rest they need.’’
– Dagmar Meneghello from ‘Palmizana, The Saga of the Quintessence.’

Hvar Gastronomy

We discovered fresh meals artistically prepared, accompanied by knowledgeable service in the restaurants on Hvar. The waiters paired excellent local wines with each course.

At Restaurant Passarola a paste of black truffles, burrata, and a small and dense pasta from Istria, domaci makaroni were memorable.

At Giaxa we tasted Dalmation Brodeto, a fisherman’s stew, and the Hvar parfait with almonds and raisins.

At Gariful (translated Carnation), we were served a wonderful lamb dish and a perfectly prepared beef steak. For my birthday, the waiter turned off the restaurant lights and presented me with a beautiful strawberry and chocolate mousse with a sparkling Roman candle shooting fireworks out the side! Later while on a wine tour, a couple at our table mentioned this event. They had been in Gariful that night and had enjoyed the fireworks as well!

Divino offers a four to six course tasting menu. The waiter, Mario Kolumbic, asked if we had allergies or chose. The chefs then sent out course after delicious course of their choosing. The first night we sampled beef and duck courses. At the invitation of the owner, Anamarija Barbaric-Kersic, we returned to eat some superb fish courses. The presentation of the food was simply beautiful.

Nonica is a sweet cafe and bakery specializing in traditional recipes handed down from grandmothers. Each treat we tried was delicious. An outdoor seating area is available for drinking good coffee or sharing pastries with a friend.

Farewell to Hvar

Hvar is a great town built throughout the ages by many hands — an interesting dichotomy. While it has all the conveniences of modern society, one can feel its permanance; a refreshing change from the world’s transiency.Many brilliant ideas from resilient people have emerged from this part of the world. The first tourist society of Europe was developed here. This is not surprising given their culture of hospitality.

Whether your stay at Vila Heraclea is for your wedding party, special event, or or for a family retreat, family and friends, you will find a welcoming atmosphere. Beginning in the summer of 2014, three newly renovated apartments connected to this villa will be completed. They will have their own entrances and can be rented separately or included with the larger villa.

While Vila Heraclea is an historic building, it feels like home. This is an important criteria to owner, Goran Hanzek. His philosophy is to create a sublime atmosphere for his guests. He is creating a series of short stays with a focus on wine, cooking or art. You will be able to meet with the winemakers, master chefs and painters. His excitement for creating a unforgettable stay is admirable.

Visiting Hvar in the spring offers cooler weather and a quieter town. Late spring brings the flowering of thousands of lavender and jasmine plants all over the island. Summer is hot and the town is alive with visitors and sailors from all over the world. The fall continues to be busy, but the cooler temperatures can be a relief to some.

Ana, the hostess, is simply special. She attends to your needs in a straightforward and timely fashion. She is knowledgeable and gracious with a quick wit. I learned much from her during my stay.

Hvala (thank you) to Goran Hanzek, the owner of Vila Heraclea for my stay, the delicious bottle of Meneghetti he sent for my birthday, the photo tour of the meticulous renovation of this lovely building, and the unforgettable trip to Palmizana. I will not forget your vrlodobro (very fine) part of the world; it has certainly changed mine.

Category Placement

While we have listed this property as Outstandingly Located Vacation Rentals, it can also fall under the category of Ultra Luxurious, Family Focused, Super Romantic, and Vacation Rentals for the Wine Connoisseur as well as Unusually Unique Vacation Rentals.

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