Best Road Trips: Old Road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad
Patchwork stone walls, oldest library, forest fires, lavender festival, restaurant with two sea views. And some sheer drops. The Old Road to Hvar has it all
One of the best road trips in Europe, combining stunning nature and sea views, history and a challenging drive that is not for the fainthearted, is the old road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad on Dalmatia's best-known island, Hvar.
It is an absorbing twenty-five kilometre drive, taking in near abandoned stone villages, which house, among other things, the oldest island library in Dalmatia, a lavender festival and the scars of the devastating European forest fires of 2003.
Throw into the mix a restaurant with a north and south-facing sea view, the path to the island's panoramic views from its highest point, an intricate stone terracing in the surrounding fields, and some of the scariest driving conditions in Europe, with unprotected sheer drops the norm, and all the ingredients are there for an unmissable adventure.
Brusje: Oldest Island Library in Dalmatia
Driving past the main Hvar Town car park, ignore the left turn to the town and take a right instead, along a road signposted for Brusje and Selca. The road is winding and climbs steadily, offering excellent sea views towards Split, before reaching the first village on the road, Brusje, a stunning example of a Dalmatian stone village, where even the ruins seem exotic.
A combination of the spectacular sea views, proximity to Hvar Town and authentic Dalmatian surroundings made Brusje one of the most sought-after villages during the Croatian property boom in 2004, as foreign buyers sought their piece of Adriatic tranquility in the sun. Although very quiet and partially abandoned, this belies the village's reputation as an intellectual centre, boasting the first library on a Dalmatian heritage, as well as a literary pedigree which can be further investigated on the village website. Mains water was added to the village in 2008.
Velo Grablje: Home of the Lavender Festival
The road straightens after Brusje, and drivers can relax a little and enjoy the scenery, in particular the spectacular stone walling that exists at every turn, resembling a chess board at times, as islanders throughout the ages have cleared the stony land to make it more fertile.
A right turn to Velo Grablje takes one to the village of the same name, a sparsely populated community, with excellent southern sea views. A rough road continues to the abandoned village of Malo Grablje, which some claim to be a village founded by descendants of Henry VIII. An interesting annual event hosted by Velo Grablje is the lavender festival, which takes place every year in June.
Restaurants on Hvar: Konoba Vidikovac and Two Sea Views
The road is much quieter since the new Hvar - Stari Grad road was opened via a straight and well-lit tunnel several years ago. Prior to that German tourists, Italian caravans and Zagreb holidaymakers competed with local drivers to get to their destination on a hopeless inadequate road - overtaking on blind corners, never advisable, took on a new meaning with the sheer unprotected drops into the patchwork stone walls below.
The only place of refreshment along the way is the ideally located Konoba Vidikovac, a charming restaurant offering traditional Dalmatian fare, perhaps most memorable for its choice of excellent sea views - north-facing from some tables, south-facing from others.
Selca: Forest Fire Survivor
The road continues past a cemetery with excellent views again (a feature of cemeteries in Dalmatia, prime real estate in every location) and a sign for a bicycle route to the right leads to a rough road and access to the peak of the island, with outstanding panoramic views.
The main road continues to another semi-abandoned stone village, Selca, whose outer buildings still bear the scars of the savage forest fires of 2003, severe enough to feature by name in a report on European forest fires in this correspondent's edition of the International Herald Tribune on a flight back from Japan.
The views from Selca take in the Rudine Peninsula and the neighbouring island of Brac, as well as the incoming ferries to Stari Grad, with which Selca is twinned. The winding road only takes a few minutes, but can seem a lifetime to motorists less than comfortable to the challenging conditions it offers. And then, as quickly as it started, one of the best road trips around is over, as a T-junction brings the car to the main Stari Grad ferry terminal.