The coastal city of Split is one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Croatia. Like many of the towns dotting the coastline, it is improbably old, dating back to the time of the ancient Greek explorers and even before. The tie throughout time is the sea and its influence cannot be overstated. As great as the city of Split is itself, it’s also a gateway to exploring many of Croatia’s 1,200 islands, including the popular summer retreat of Brač.
I was in Croatia as the guest of Croatian Tourism, to explore and share this fascinating country and amongst the many high points, the city of Split was a personal favorite. Split is as Mediterranean a city in feeling as one will ever find, even if it lies on the Adriatic Sea. A massive seaside promenade known as the Riva spans the length of the old town and it’s where everyone, locals and tourists alike, congregate to eat, drink, socialize and of course people watch. Walking through town it was sizzling hot as I explored the Roman Palace of Diocletian and wandered through the intricate maze of alleys and streets that make up the city. Waking the next day though I could feel the sudden change in temperature, not uncommon for June and as the ferry to Brač bounded across the channel, the cool sea breeze was a welcome respite to the warm not-quite summer day.
Brač is only a 45-minute ferry ride from Split and if you’re not part of a tour group, then renting a car is a good idea for your exploration of the island. The ferry can accommodate hundreds of cars and even in the peak season it’s not an issue to travel with your own transportation. If you’re not interested in renting a car, cabs line the port at Brač in the hilariously named town of Supetar (You’re a Supastar! And yes, apparently I’m 12 years old).
With Supetar in the rear-view mirror, the car navigated the twisty roads with ease as dark clouds rolled in over the valleys providing a natural sunshade as we drove towards Bol. Bol is the most popular tourist town on the island, but as I learned it’s not the only star on Brač. The island is 396 km² in area and has just as long a history as Split, maybe even longer. Driving around I noticed a seemingly infinite number of stones, intricately arranged into farming plots. This style and the plots themselves date back to the Greek and Roman farmers who had to unearth tons of rock before they could even think about cultivating the shrubby land. Like most areas along the warm Aegean Sea, olives are the chief crop along with wine and goat cheese.
Brač is a lot more than just staring at some rocks and as I drove into Bol I instantly understood why everyone told me to visit the island. There are any number of cheesy travel writer adjectives I could use here: quaint, charming, hidden treasure and picturesque all come to mind. And while I avoid these at all costs, they’re kind of appropriate. The town is centered around a small harbor, packed with boats of all sizes, from the simple skiffs locals take out to fish to the yachts millionaires skipper to explore the islands. Hvar, the island of the rich and famous can be seen from Bol and it’s common for people to travel back and forth on day trips.
Walking through town I noticed a strange but predictable dichotomy in architecture. Five hundred year old buildings compete with small shops selling trinkets and collectibles. The power of the sea governs this town and statues dedicated to the men who for generations fished the waters and the women who supported them are featured prominently. It’s not the harbor side restaurants or amazing (STUNNING) views that many people travel to Bol for though, it’s to visit the #1 beach in Croatia.
Zlatni Rat (“Golden cape”) was rated through popular vote to be the best beach in the Croatia, and after visiting I could see why. The beach is a horn around which the wind and sea rush past. This strange quirk of geology has resulted in crystal clear blue waters and a sandy beach, a rarity in this part of Croatia where rocky coastlines usually rule the day. I was there in the shoulder-season, June, and the beach was still busy by 11am. On its busiest day of the year more than 5,000 people crowd the shores to bask in the warm summer sun.
Sadly, many people will travel to Brač just to see Bol and then promptly leave. That’s of course a huge mistake. Personally, my most enjoyable experiences were made possible only by driving around and exploring tiny, almost forgotten towns.
Everything on the island is old, as in millennia old and the hardy people who call it home take great pride in the traditions their families have employed for generations. The small but exhaustive history museum is a little out of the way and involves navigating seemingly endless serpentine roads, but it’s well worth the effort. Located in the oldest part of the island, Skrip is barely a town but housed in an old fort is the Brač Island Museum, a look at the people of the island through time.
Those snaky roads became my constant companion during my day on the island and if you’re afraid of heights or get nauseous you may want to look the other way. The drive is part of the experience though and I found incredible beauty in the verdant hills and rocky outcroppings. Those mounds of Grecian stone aren’t the only rocky features, Brač stone is everywhere and is known throughout Croatia as the best stone available. Diocletian’s Palace in Split was even made with it. The stone commandeers a high price because of its strength and beauty and you can take your own piece of the island home with you thanks to the many stone trinkets sold in the island’s gift shops.
Hidden at the end of one of these twisty road is another harbor town, no less beautiful than Bol in my opinion, but one that many tourists have not yet found. Milna enjoys many of the same qualities as Bol: a beautiful port lined with sailboats, a long history and beautiful architecture. Like many other places that sometimes get overlooked, the residents of Milna are fiercely proud of their little village and will take any opportunity to share its beauty with strangers.
Sitting at lunch with some of those proud locals we chatted as they happily devoured multiple plates of fresh seafood, caught earlier that day. Walking along the promenade I met with local shopkeepers, including a woman whose family makes wine, olive oil and soaps on the island. The wine may not have been the best I’ve ever had, but it had soul and character; flavors that can only be imparted through patience and pride, pride in the product and pride in the island.
The last port of call for anyone taking a day trip to Brač is where it all started – Supetar. Because it’s next to the ferry port, many visitors spend their time here, even staying over night at one of the resort hotels. The city is named after St. Peter, not an American Idol, and is not totally unlike the others I visited that day. Old buildings, warm people, restaurants and bars facing the water and of course the stunning views.
As I left on the late afternoon ferry I couldn’t help but think about the best part of Brač. More than visiting a beach or museum, it’s all about experiencing life; understanding Croatian island life and why everyone loves to vacation on them. There’s a slower pace of life on Brač, there probably always has been. I can just imagine the elite of the Roman government relaxing there to get away from the intrigue and pressures of court life. Just as much as things change, they stay the same and it’s that permanence and steadiness that makes Brač such a great place to visit.