Coming up: my online travel writing class for Catapult in mid-April.

Local Voices Croatia: Siniša Matković-Mikulčić, Secret Hvar

I met Siniša Matković-Mikulčić, founder and owner of Secret Hvar travel agency, a few summers ago when a friend introduced us during my research jaunt on the island.

Siniša took me to hidden spots I never knew existed, even though I spent several summers vacationing on Hvar in the 1990s. I could tell he loved and lived the island, in every way possible. So, here goes a Hvar chat with Siniša.

Tell us a little about Secret Hvar.

I believe there’s a real difference between tourists and travelers. Secret Hvar is a company that serves travelers. Tourists pass through, see and do the tourist things, have some fun and leave. Travelers also pass through but in a different way. They feel the place, stop to breathe its air and touch its culture, taste its food and drinks.

Having worked in different hotels in Hvar I understood that tourism on the island is changing very fast. In the past we had large groups of tourists staying for two or even three weeks. Nowadays people come to Hvar for two to three days.

To keep up with the times I decided to start my own agency which offers daily tours for small groups as well as individuals. The most popular tour, Hvar Off-Road, is a mixture of culture and adventure. People are starting to call it a “five-senses tour”, since it really shows them the beauty of Hvar. They can hear my stories about the island’s rich historical and cultural heritage. They can touch and see that all of that is real. They can smell different plants growing on the island. And, finally, they can taste the local food and wines.

As a young boy I was fascinated with local history. I grew up in the old part of Hvar town, inside the city walls, just below the fortress surrounded by historical places. I think people can feel that when I’m telling them stories about Hvar, those stories are coming from the heart. I give them the insider experience.

I call my agency Secret Hvar because I want to share my knowledge about hidden parts of the island which are not listed in guidebooks, those places that are rarely visited by tourists and even some of the locals don’t know they exist. Many of these spots are inaccessible by regular tour buses or rental cars. I want to tell the stories and legends known only to islanders. I want visitors to experience the real Hvar.

In recent years, Hvar has become known as Croatia’s party island. I know you’ve been actively promoting the other sides of Hvar, such as culture and adventure. Tell us your top picks of alternative Hvar, so to speak.

Last year an American tourist who booked my Hvar Off-Road tour through his cruise ship asked me why we promote Hvar as a “party island” when we have so many other things to offer. Unfortunately Hvar became known as the place to party in recent years and it is very difficult to change that image overnight.

The parties are organized for only one month during the high season. But we live and work here all year long! Hvar island is so much more than just a party island. We have three things on UNESCO’s list, for example. The Hora or Ager is the best preserved agricultural field in the Mediterranean dating back to ancient Greece. Next to it is Stari Grad, the oldest town in Croatia, founded 384 BC by ancient Greeks.

We also have a 500-year-old tradition called “following the cross”, a procession which runs every year on Maundy Thursday. It takes place in six villages in the central part of the island. In each village, the procession starts at 10pm and moves clockwise. The processions never meet on the road. Each comes to the church of the neighboring village, where it stops to pray and sing. Then it continues on to the next village, all night long, just like that. Until they come back to their own village at 6 or 7am.

There’s another thing on the UNESCO list, the lace made of fiber from agave leaves, which are handmade by Benedictine nuns in Hvar.

This year we celebrate 400th anniversary of the oldest public theater in Europe, which is situated in Hvar town. And let’s not forget that Hvar was the main Venetian harbor on the eastern side of the Adriatic and it was on the crossroads of merchant routes. The influence of Italian Renaissance was very strong in Hvar so it became the center of culture in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Another thing: our wine-making tradition of more than 2500 years. Plavac from Hvar island is one of the best wines in Croatia. Every year winemakers from Hvar come back from international wine fairs with medals. The gastronomical scene of Hvar is also very good, showcasing some of Croatia’s best restaurants.

There are also many activities, such as sailing, sea kayaking, diving, climbing, hiking, off-roading, biking, windsurfing…. As you can see, Hvar island is much more than just a “party island”.

You’re in the business of making Hvar’s secrets available to visitors. Would you share your favorite recent discoveries on the island?

I already mentioned that I grew up in the old part of town so all those historical and cultural monuments, all those aristocratic palaces are part of my life. But every day I’m surprised to discover something new, some inscription in stone that I didn’t see before…

Recently, for example, I discovered prehistoric Illyrian burial mounds and ceramics. I’m lucky to have an archaeologist as a friend so every day I’m learning something new about my island.

Can you describe a typical ‘Hvar moment’?

He, he… a typical Hvar moment is for sure a coffee break on the main square. During that time, you can forget about finding people in their offices. Life on the island is stress-free, everything moves slowly.

Give us your view of tourism on Hvar and in Croatia. Where does it stand, where is it going?

In recent years, visitor numbers are close to those in the 1980s, when tourism was at its height. Unfortunately many people saw this new rise of tourism as an opportunity to make “fast money” by building apartments for rent. So now we have so many apartments but they are full only in the high season.

There are some crazy ideas to build even more. So in that way it is not sustainable. We wanted to move from so-called “mass tourism” to “quality tourism” but by building new apartments we are going where we have been during 1970s and 1980s when we had mass tourism.

I think that we do need more luxury villas with pools because we have less than required. What we also need for sure are better connections with the mainland, an airport and direct flights from the States to Dalmatia.

Luckily, our visitors are doing a great job promoting Hvar to their family and friends. My greatest satisfaction is to have returning guests.

Which three places on Hvar do you consider the ultimate tourist traps?

There are just places that I can recommend more than others. To the people who want to enjoy the real Hvar and relax, I suggest avoiding the high season (July and August). The so-called low season is very nice. You can enjoy Hvar as it really is, you don’t have to wait for a table in restaurants, you can enjoy talking to locals who are not so busy as they are during high summer.

Give us a few of your favorites on Hvar.

Now you put me in an ungrateful position, since all restaurant owner are my friends. I will tell you a few of my favorite places to eat: Zlatna Školjka, a slow food restaurant owned by Ivan Buzolić, a demanding gourmand with extensive knowledge of cooking in ancient times.

I love Gariful, the best fish restaurant on the island. Stori Komin is a restaurant in the abandoned village of Malo Grablje, 6km from Hvar town owned by Berti Tudor who prepares the island’s best peka (meat prepared the traditional way under the bell-shaped lid which is covered with live coal).

Konoba Menego in Hvar Town serves tapas-style meals. In Stari Grad, I recommend Stori Mlin and Eremitaž. Don’t miss Kokot in the village of Dol; their lamb and home-made cheese is just delicious. There’s also DiVino, a restaurant with an amazing vista out to the islands and a really good wine list.

My favorite hotels are Villa Nora in the old part of Hvar town and Hotel Park. There are also so many nice private accommodations.

The only thing I can’t tell you is my favorite beach. That’s a small hidden beach, my favorite place to relax and read a comic. Luckily, on Hvar island we have many nice and hidden beaches so everybody can find their own.

Which month on Hvar do you love the most?

May is for sure one of my favorite months. Lavender is in bloom, the nature smells nice, there are people from all parts of the world but still it is not so busy. September is also very similar to May, but instead of lavender there is the wine.

Would you share your three secret spots elsewhere in Croatia? Places you love to go when you’re not on Hvar.

Vis island is one of my favorite places, a still somewhat secret Dalmatian island which has strong tourist potential. I also think the Dalmatian hinterland, known as Zagora, is an amazing place. Every time I go there I’m very surprised with the beautiful nature and historical heritage.

But my very favorite place is still Hvar island with the small archipelago (called Pakleni Otoci) in front of Hvar town. There are still many secrets to uncover there…

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