Joshua Levine fell for the beauty of Croatia’s Dalmatian islands as a wide-eyed college kid. When he returned decades later to buy a house, he found that nothing—and everything—had changed.
In 2003, I bought an old stone house on the Croatian island of Hvar from a fellow named Mikšić. I agreed to pay his asking price in cash, but when I inquired about bringing a certified check to the closing, there was polite laughter. A piece of paper purporting to represent money isn’t really money, he told me, as an adult would disabuse a child of a silly notion. Which is how I found myself on a flight to Split with a big wad of cash rolled up in my sock, like a proper grown-up.
Before Communism blew itself up in the early 1990s, much of Eastern Europe came to this stretch of coast to play. In summer, the Serbs would make a beeline for the beaches of Yugoslavia, which in those days encompassed Croatia and its immediate neighbors. (Even after the Balkan wars turned friends into enemies, many sober-minded Croats still missed the Serbs’ wild parties and big tips.) Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians rattled down in their Ladas and Škodas. East Germans packed up the camper, hit the beach, and promptly took off all their clothes, which explains the abundance of Croatian beaches designated FKK, or Freikörperkultur, for Germany’s nudism movement.
I first stumbled into this pinko Eden during a college road trip in the 1970s. On the ferry over from Italy, my roommate Charlie and I met two East German girls—I can only think of them as a single unit called Gisele-und-Erika. When we docked in Dubrovnik, they took our sweaty hands and led us straight to the nearest FKK beach.
When I came back 30 years later, much had changed. The Balkan wars of the nineties hadn’t reached the islands, but they had killed the buzz all the same. Now, instead of German nudists, I found English real estate speculators. I wasn’t the only dreamer with a sock full of money: it seemed half the U.K. was going from village to village, pale-faced and floppy-hatted, looking to convert the profits of their real estate bubble into a slice of sunshine. You could still get a very nice stone house for $60,000, but prices were climbing week by week.
This suited me fine. I wanted what they wanted. I had moved to Paris from New York not long before and sold my apartment in the West Village. The rocky islands of the Dalmatian Coast seemed to represent a rare chance to get in on a real estate bonanza in an undervalued paradise. While the Spanish, Italians, and French were trashing their coastlines with overbuilding, no one had laid a finger on Croatia’s 1,244 magnificent islands. You could still read their history, frozen in stone. In the big port towns, the Venetians had marked their dominion with graceful Renaissance churches. The Hapsburgs had left stolid Neoclassical civic centers and a tradition of complex bureaucracy. In the hills, the villagers had built thickwalled houses with small windows to keep out the sharp north wind.
The islands still look pretty much the same as they did back then, aside from some more recent Communist cinder-block development. There’s virtually no industry, just mile upon mile of craggy limestone ridges speckled with olive trees, grapevines, and perfumed pine, lavender, and rosemary. And surrounding everything, water as clear as a windowpane—the same water that had dazzled me when Gisele-und- Erika dived into it naked so long ago. I decided to do my house-hunting on the island of Hvar. It’s easy to get to from Split, where there’s an international airport; it’s one of the larger and sunnier of the Dalmatian islands; and it has long enjoyed a terrific word-of-mouth reputation as a vacation spot, going all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks.
Finding an empty house for sale wasn’t hard. Over the years, many islanders had left to find work on the mainland or emigrated to places like Australia, so the trick was finding a vacant property’s owners. A lot of the older stone houses had been handed down through many generations, and it was not unusual to find a tiny place owned by 17 cousins who were scattered around the globe. To get a clean sale, you had to track down all of them—even the ones in the outback.
There was also a lively trade in houses abandoned during the war by their Serb owners. The thinking was, “Who’s to know? They’re never coming back.” I’m pretty sure I looked at some of these houses, my guide a menacing giant named Scarpa, who wore two rings in his massive ears and rode around on a little motor scooter, like a malevolent circus bear.
I was thrilled to come across the Mikšić house in Rudina, a tiny village just up the hill from Stari Grad, Hvar’s secondlargest town. The place needed work, but the stonework was solid. It overlooked a generous garden and, beyond that, the sea. A short walk down the hill was a secluded cove—perfect for sunning, swimming, or night-fishing for octopus (which my neighbor, Bortul, kindly offered to teach me to do).
Best of all, Mikšić was the property’s sole owner, although he turned out to be a handful all by himself. The Dalmatians can be crusty and disputatious, and like many island people, they tend to look funny at anybody from beyond the water’s edge. The fact that I met Mikšić’s price simply meant that negotiations were just beginning. I never understood the various objections he raised, but over an anxious summer I came close to losing the house several times.
The renovations went painfully slowly and cost far more than I ever figured. I suspected I was getting fleeced. Why was the forged-iron railing for my terrace so expensive? “The guy has to pound it and pound it!” came the unconvincing explanation from the contractor, a tanned and smiling former government official who, I learned later, was known for sharp dealing. True, I was a bit of an idiot, but you always end up paying for experience. And it was worth it, because the house eventually came damn close to what I had dreamed of. I almost feel like I’m watching the garden grow as I sit there: the olive trees have jumped a good three feet since I planted them, and the bougainvillea has to be cut back continually so it doesn’t murder us all.
In the years after I bought the house, the Dalmatian islands slowly began to awaken. On Hvar, big yachts started docking in the horseshoe harbor of the island’s biggest town, also called Hvar. The Venetians had turned it into a naval base in the 16th century to help them fight the Turks, and the fortress they built still looms over the town. Looking out from its battlements today, you can spy a more jolly armada. Ahoy, it’s Paul Allen! After the yachts came the clubs. Women’s heels got higher, and the restaurants got pricier. Before long, people started calling Hvar the new Ibiza. No, said others, it’s the new St.-Tropez! Thankfully it is neither, but the dull disco thump on summer nights does suggest that Hvar town is being absorbed into the jet-set ecosystem.
I had mixed emotions as I watched the changes in the town from my side of the island, about a 20-minute drive down the coast through a tunnel in the spine that splits the island in two. I rarely go there, but the real estate mogul in me welcomed anything that might boost housing prices. Party on, dudes, I urged silently. Just stay away from my side of the tunnel.
The villages on the south side, like Hvar, cling to the steep sides of the ridge. The weather is drier and hotter, and the sea is always at your elbow. The north side is shadier and gentler, rich with normal island life. There, summer nights are more likely to carry the sounds of traditional Croatian a cappella choirs (think of an intense barbershop quartet). Stari Grad just got its first boutique hotel, Heritage Villa Apolon, a pink Neoclassical villa on the waterfront. Four Seasons has announced plans to build a resort on Stari Grad Bay, which should give the town a boost without warping its low-key character.
But despite such steps toward the touristic mainstream, there’s little danger Stari Grad will go the way of Hvar town—its appeal is much too subtle for that. There has been talk for years, for instance, of building an airport on the island. I will be shocked if it ever happens. For the time being, there’s a new seaplane service from Split to the port of Jelsa, just down the road from Stari Grad. I picked up a friend there recently. The passengers looked very glamorous stepping onto the pontoon—all eight of them.
In general, I have to say that the bonanza that looked inevitable when I bought the Mikšić house now looks distinctly evitable. The Croatian real estate bubble was inflated by other bubbles; when those other bubbles popped, ours popped harder. There’s another problem, although I’ve learned to look at it more as a blessing. The Dalmatians can be maddeningly diffident when it comes to capitalizing on the natural gifts God has bestowed upon them. My friend Paul Bradbury runs a delightful blog called Total Hvar, which promotes the island he moved to from England and loves.
Many’s the time I have caught up with him at his regular café in Jelsa, furious at the local merchants who have defeated yet another of his sensible commercial proposals. Over the years, he’s started getting used to it. “I have seen foreign entrepreneurs come and go,” Bradbury told me recently. “They mostly fail because the locals like things the way they are. Once you embrace that, you’re half Dalmatian already.”
I thought about this over dinner at the house of a local guy I know named Borivoj, which is in the middle of an olive grove behind the village of Vrisnik. From there you can see many of the island’s northern villages: Svirče and Pitve in the hills, Jelsa and Vrboska on the water, then out to Brac island and the mountains of the mainland beyond. It’s quite a view.
If you know people who know Borivoj, you can get him to make you a traditional peka—lamb, goat, or octopus cooked for 24 hours in a bell-shaped cast-iron casserole. The dish can be greasy, and you don’t want to eat peka every day, but it’s hard to find a meal much more comforting. Borivoj told me he is planning to turn his little house into a restaurant next year. Or maybe not. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, and the greedy property developer inside me doesn’t either.
The Details: What to do in Hvar, Croatia
Hotels & Villas
Little Green Bay An old stone farmhouse restored by a chic Parisian brother and sister on a secluded bay. Hvar; doubles from $391.
Villa Apolon A funky pale-pink villa with rooms facing Stari Grad’s harbor. Doubles from $122.
Villas Hvar With an inventory of more than 70 villas, cottages, and apartments across the island, this is the main rental company on Hvar. From $623 per week.
Gariful Known for its “drunk lobster,” this fish restaurant along the harbor promenade in Hvar town is considered by many to be the island’s best. Entrées $34–$114.
Konoba Dvor Dubokovic A charming restaurant in the hillside village of Pitve that does a great octopus peka. Entrées $8–$60.
Palmizana Meneghello An island restaurant, art gallery,
and nature preserve 15 minutes from Hvar town. Entrées $11–$114.
Secret Dalmatia Whether you choose to stay on Hvar or hop around the adjoining Dalmatian islands, Alan Mandic and his crew can develop a custom itinerary that takes you to places you never knew existed.