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Visiting the island of Hvar in Croatia we didn’t expect to be hi-jacked and dragged off into the wilderness.
Within an hour of arriving at the Hotel Podstine in Hvar we are sitting in the sun, overlooking one of those perfect rocky coves that Croatia does so well, clinking beers with Sime Fio. Sime (pronounced Shee-may) is possibly the most affable hotel manager I’ve ever met. No, let me re-phrase that, Sime is one of the most affable people I’ve ever met.
After spending time in Zadar, Krk and Plitvice we’d already come to the conclusion that the Croats had a directness, passion, friendliness and mischievous sense of humour that was right up our street.
Being a Scottish islander I have an inbuilt reserve that means I rarely click with people immediately. The people we met in Croatia turned this trait on its head. Sime Fio exemplifies this.
The second time we meet him, on the way to breakfast the following morning, he calls us across to reception.
“I’ve spoken to the tourist office in Hvar Town, they’ll put together some information for you. Then, when you come back, I’ll take you on a walk into the hills and we’ll have lunch at a friend’s bar. After that we’ll go and taste some wine,” a beam splits his face. “I’ve hi-jacked all your plans haven’t I? Don’t worry, it will be good.”
We don’t have any say in the matter and what’s more, we don’t care. We’ve already sussed that Sime is a man who has a passion for Hvar and who seems to have connections with everyone. He is the sort of dream person you want to meet when you travel.
He is also a spellbinding teller of stories; each one accompanied by a wide grin so that we are never quite sure whether there is a bit of poetic licence going on. He insists each tale is 100% true.
Driving into the hills we pass terraces dissected by a strange patchwork quilt of broad stone dykes.
“What are those?”
“Hmm,” Sime frowns. “Everyone asks that. I don’t know.” Then he laughs. “Farmers pile them up when clearing their fields. You wouldn’t believe how many stones are in one pile.”
He goes on to tell us how he offered to clear a pile of stones for his father in exchange for something he wanted. He thought it would take a couple of hours. It took a week. His father got the better of the deal.
We stop at the last remaining lime kiln on Hvar and start our descent to the coast with Sime regaling us about life and politics on the islands.
When we talk about a map we saw detailing the winds that blow over the islands, Sime tells us all about one that makes you so crazy, there’s a law that politicians aren’t allowed to vote for anything when it blows.
Asking about metallic green beetles we saw in Hvar town, Sime says he used to tie a string around them as a child, explaining “we were too poor to have balloons.”
“A friend who was diving for fish once saw a pair swimming above him. He managed to harpoon one but the other escaped.”
The idea of a scuba diver emerging from the sea with a harpooned wild boar slung over his shoulder is wonderfully surreal.
The walk takes us through olive groves and past half forgotten hamlets; one, so the story goes, which was once the abode of a Tudor, the beginning of Hvar’s relationship with the British.
The midpoint of our route is Konoba Lambik where Sime’s good friend Mate (surname Tudor as it happens) and family present us with a feast of food and and alcohol. There’s no-one else except us and we’re treated like part of the family.
Over lunch Sime and Mate do what people do all over the world, they shake their heads at political follies – putting their world to rights – and reminisce about old times. Old times for Sime and Mate’s generation includes the Croatian War of Independence. It’s a personal subject. It’s private. It reinforces how lucky we are not to have grown up in a country that experienced such conflict.
Sime tells us about Mad Jack Churchill, the only British soldier to kill a German soldier by using a longbow. Jack and his small band of commandos were based on Vis, launching attacks on the German garrison on Hvar with the help of the local resistance. On one occasion, now firmly entrenched in Hvar folklore, Mad Jack marched into battle waving a claymore and playing the bagpipes.
The locals loved him.
“Crazy Scottish,” Sime laughs.
And then both Sime and Mate start talking about Braveheart.
“We like the Scottish… and the Irish,” Mate puts his hand to his heart. “They are like us, they have passion.”
That explains the sub-conscious connection then.
Sime leaves us after a long lunch to return by car for a meeting back at the hotel whilst we amble leisurely through the groves and pines that decorate the coastline; our heads full of stories of Hvar and its people.
It has been the most enjoyable hi-jacking.
Many people know Hvar only as an island that attracts the rich and famous or as one that is popular with the partying yachting fraternity. Thank to Sime and friends, our lasting impression of Hvar is something quite different altogether.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+