What is it about old buildings that gets us so excited? The thought of bricks and mortar laid down 500 years ago, or 2,000? Stari Grad is the original settlement on Hvar, founded by the Greeks in around 385 BC. Their colony – called Pharos – subsequently came under Roman control in 210 BC and then the Byzantines took over before it was settled by Croatian tribes in the 8th century.
Stari Grad lost this pre-eminence in 1240 – when the Venetians encouraged the citizens to move to Hvar Town, the new administrative capital of the island – but it is still the main port.
South and west of Stari Grad the fertile farmland has been placed on the Unesco World Heritage list as one of the few places in Europe where the ancient Greek system of field division remains almost unaltered. Groves and vineyards are divided by a grid of dry stone walls. Bunches of grapes curl across these walls, catching the autumn sunshine.
The town itself curves around the harbour, with cafes and restaurants bowing across the ancient stones of the promenade to the hundreds of small boats moored. Stari Grad doesn’t have the glamour of Hvar Town but it is becoming more popular with the yachting set.
So what is there to see while wandering through Stari Grad? St Stephen’s Church with its Venetian campanile was our first port of call after being dropped off on the outskirts of the old town by the bus from Hvar Town.
It was begun in 1605 on the site of the abandoned 11/12th century cathedral – the bishop moved to Hvar Town in the 13th century at the behest of the Venetian rulers.
Look out for the gravestone relief sculpture on the right hand side (as you face the cathedral), which speaks to us from Roman times – winged Eros leans on his upside-down torch in a classic symbol of death.
There is a pleasant piazza in front of St Stephens and this was once a community focal point. The houses surrounding the square have plenty of ancient stones to get excited about. The house on the west side has several large stone blocks from the original city walls of Pharos built into it. The bell tower also used stone blocks from the ramparts of Pharos – this was once the entrance to the Greek city.
A few streets away is more evidence of the ancient city walls – a fragment from the 4th century BC wall is preserved in the 11m-long inner cellar wall of the Gramotorov house. This has been nicknamed the Cyclopean wall because the 19th-century observers thought the huge stone blocks could only have been raised by giants.
In the Moria Gallery you can see one of the geometric mosaic floors from a 2nd century BC Roman Villa Urbana. Quite a number of these have been discovered in Stari Grad although they are mostly covered over. It is interesting to think that some of these Roman villas would have been adapted from the original Greek houses from the 4th century BC!
The main delight in Stari Grad is of course getting lost amongst the ancient streets. This is a little square called Skor reached through with vaulted passages and was once the shipyard of the town. The houses often have stone coats of arms above the door – once belonging to noble families.
After a promenade along the waterfront turn in at the piazza lined with restaurants and palm trees to see the Tvrdalj. This was a summer house built for 16th-century aristocratic poet Petar Hektorovic and the peaceful cloister and garden is very beautiful.
A true Renaissance man, Hektorovic designed the fortified villa himself. The central building represents the world, the pond is for creatures of water, the dovecote is for creatures of the air and the garden is for creatures of the ground. On the eastern side were special accommodations for travellers and the poor.
There are two other churches and chapels to have a look at in amongst the warren of medieval stone houses. The chapel of St Rocco (the patron saint of Stari Grad) has a lovely façade with cupids. Another Roman mosaic – this time of a bath house – was discovered here in the late 19th century.
Just before you get back on the bus wander through the Dominical Monastery, built on a 15th-century foundation that has the unusual feature of a fortified tower. This was built after an attack by the Turkish warlord Uluz Ali in which the monastery was ransacked and burned. The monastery museum holds some very old Greek inscriptions from Pharos.
And so it was time to jump back on the bus back to Hvar Town. But not before watching a tense game of boules at the edge of the car park. It was like being transported to the south of France. I hadn’t known that this is also a traditional Croatian game. It was certainly hotly contested, with the measuring tape pulled out several times!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to Stari Grad?