It seems an eternity ago (actually it's been six years). Peter and I were touring Dalmatia for the first time, to prepare what was then Peter Sommer Travels' imminent expansion into Croatia. I vividly remember a moment when we were sitting on the seafront of Split (just below the walls of the great Roman Palace of Diocletian) with one of our local contacts, poring over charts and brochures and potential cruise routes and timings. Having gone through all the more familiar names and sights more than once, Peter looked up at the sea and the outline of land visible on the horizon and asked: "That's Brač, isn't it? Should we go there? Is there much to see?". Our local friend, startled for a split second (also a Split second, if you will!) replied "Oh, Brač! Yes, you certainly should". And so we did.
Are you familiar with the Island of Brač? If you've not travelled to Croatia, that's unlikely. Even if you have pondered a trip to the country and especially to Dalmatia, on its Adriatic shore, you're much more likely to have come across more famous names, like the great historic cities of Split, Dubrovnik/Ragusa, Trogir or Zadar. Among the region's many islands, better-known names include Hvar with its summer party scene and its UNESCO-listed ancient Greek field system, Korčula with its enchanting and increasingly popular Old Town, or even little and remote Vis, of recent 'Mamma Mia' fame. It was the same for us. Of course, we had read up on the country's history, of course we knew of its main sights, and of course we had studied its geography in advance. We knew that Brač exists, but we had no idea what a wonderful place we were about to discover.
Brač (the name rhymes with 'batch' or 'catch' as pronounced by a British person) does indeed dominate the horizon as seen from Split, and no wonder: it is the largest of Dalmatia's islands by area (396 sq km or 153 sq mi) and by population (about 13,000), and also the tallest, as we will see. Although it is true that other islands are more famous and perhaps more spectacular at times, even on this initial wintery visit Brač managed to rapidly occupy a portion of our minds - and also of our hearts.
In spite of that direct line of sight, we did not actually go to Brač straightaway. Instead, we travelled southwards down the Croatian Mainland all the way to Dubrovnik and then returned northwards by island-hopping up the Adriatic, visiting verdant Mljet, beautiful Korčula and historic Hvar. On this rapid but intense exploration (the first of multiple over a short period of time), Brač was actually the final island we set foot on. Having familiarised ourselves with Dalmatian landscapes, seascapes and townscapes, Brač revealed itself as a perfect precis, both a panorama and a summary of what the country has to offer, equally well-suited to be an introductory experience in those islands, so-to-speak an opener, or to present a conclusion of sorts if visited near the end of a cruise.
The island may be the largest of its group, but at no more than 40 by 13 km (25 by 8 mi), we can't really say it's a very big place. It is remarkable what diversity of beautiful landscapes, what wealth of history and what a great number of specific points of interest can be found within its shores, including more than half a dozen historic (small) towns, each with its own distinctive character, but all united by a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, inviting the visitor to relax and enjoy.
Approached from the north, Brač presents itself as a long and idyllic shoreline indented by a series of small inlets, usually starting with a pristine beach or a harbour settlement at the shore, continuing inland as a narrow cultivated valley overlooked by rolling hills covered in dense forests of cypress and pine. Most of the island's historic harbours (Sutivan, the island's capital and main ferry port at Supetar, Postira and Pučišća) are on this coast, which looks towards Split and its mountainous continental hinterland.
Arriving from the south, the traveller gets a very different impression, a mostly uninhabited craggy coast below a sheer wall of steep limestone mountain, with just one narrow coastal strip and a single town (Bol). The west of the island is different again, dominated by two deep gulfs overlooked by unforested open landscapes, all focused on the harbour town of Jelsa. And once one enters Brač, the interior has more aspects to offer, such as a seemingly forgotten and virtually uninhabited landscape of deep valleys or gorges in the southwest, or the mountain plateau of Vidova Gora, with its large forest of black pine.
Let's stay at Vidova Gora for a moment. At 778 m (2,552 ft), this coastal peak is the highest point on any Adriatic Island. There are two ways to get there. One is on foot, by ascending a steep path from the town of Bol, walking among cliffs and rocks with a gradually opening view across the sea. The other takes a road through the afore-mentioned plateau and its quiet forest, where you may come across herds of sheep or goats, or even the odd mule, before finally reaching the cliffside and its astonishing views.
Those views have made Vidova Gora a key location on our cruises in Southern Dalmatia, as they take in most of our itineraries between Split and Dubrovnik, including the south coast of Brač itself with Bol and its famous 'Golden Horn' beach, beyond it Hvar and especially the Stari Grad Plain with its extraordinary field system, further away Vis, Korčula, Mljet, the mainland's Pelješac Peninsula and much of the Dalmatian coast.
There is a lot of history on Brač. Prehistoric Illyrian strongholds are scattered throughout the island. The north coast has Roman limestone quarries, one with a carving of burly Hercules still in situ at Rasoha, and there is an interesting Early Christian basilica from the Late Roman era by a lovely beach at Povlja. The arrival of the Croatians' early Slavic ancestors during the early Middle Ages is attested in a few places, especially at the Dragon's Cave high above Murvica, where mysterious carvings may reflect aspects of Slavic pagan myth and religion. The re-Christianisation of the Croatians is richly present, in the form of countless small chapels from the last centuries of the first millennium AD, some with inscriptions in the Glagolithic script, the earliest Slavic alphabet. There are multiple museums devoted to this long past, the finest being at Skrip, an idyllic little village at the very heart of the island, atop Illyrian remains.
The later Middle Ages (including the times it spent under Venetian and then Hungarian rule) are omnipresent in Brac. Churches with fine Italianate steeples are found in all major settlements. They and numerous monasteries reflect the characteristic faith of the island, the most famous being that of Blaca, set on the side of a deep and remote gorge, its whitewashed roofs a beacon across time and space. The less peaceful aspects of history are represented by many small fortifications and tower houses, especially in the towns.
All these monuments demonstrate the island's incessant ability to remake itself from the beautiful local material, the Brač stone the island is rightly famous for. Already quarried by the Romans (the Palace of Diocletian at Split is built from it), it became a major export during the Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century, when this fine-grained limestone made its way to famous buildings in Zagreb, Vienna and Budapest (but not to the White House as a common rumour claims). The atmospheric graveyard of Supetar, the island's largest town, contains many fine and intriguing sculptures in Brač stone, made by the local sculptor Ivan Rendić (1849-1932), in a distinctive style that one might describe as a Croatian Art Nouveau or Jungendstil (the 1899 belltower at Ložišća, shown above, is his design as well). In Pučišća, near the largest of the still-active quarries, there is a school of stone-carving, a fascinating place to visit and witness this ancient craft.
There is much more to experience on Brač, countless more sites and monuments and scenes to enjoy. The island's produce is also a wonderfully rewarding field to pursue: finding a local konoba (an informal wine restaurant) serving Brač's deep and tanny red wines along with home-cured meats and pickles is a happy moment, as is its seafood (not least its famous tinned sardines), and I have fond memories of its olive oil, tasted at a traditional oil press along with homemade bread and fruit preserves. Once, we went to a small hut in a forest clearing on Vidova Gora's plateau and watched our local host carefully prepare the traditional peka, meat and vegetables cooked slowly under an upturned metal dome buried in charcoal!
Just like we have often found on our cruises in the Aegean's Greek Islands, while much of an island can be seen in a day-long visit during a cruise, there will always be more to discover and rediscover, so the first tour is an open invite to come back and see more. Of course that applies to Croatia's islands every bit as much, and certainly to Brač: so far, every time I've been there has been an enriching experience, revealing new aspects of the island.