My little quest to see world heritage – places that deserve special protection for future generations – has provided some truly amazing experiences I’d never even have considered otherwise. 10 days ago, I was in central Croatia to explore four of them.

However, I seemed to be glued to the beaches! So how to explore AND relax? How to have my cake and eat it, too? (Note to self: cake – meh, not that inspiring; need a more scrumptious metaphor.)

Thoughts from the beach:

Heritage, beach. Active, lazy… I don’t want to choose. I want it all! As always! But how to make the incompatibles... compatible?

Well, here on the coast of Dalmatia, I don’t even have to think about it. I CAN have my… satay and eat it, too. I’m on the island of Hvar just now, where I have loitered on the beach, wandered through Stari Grad’s old town, cycled through the ancient Greek heritage-listed landscape, then come back to the beach. All before lunch.

In nearby Šibenik, Trogir, Split… just the same: quaint old towns, lovely harbours, world heritage, and stunning Adriatic beaches (sand or pebble, or little coves with rocky platforms, your call). All the metaphorical satay in the world, lined up just next to each other.

Stari Grad Plain

Here on Hvar, you’ll find no less than five examples of world heritage. One is Stari Grad Plain, an agricultural landscape of olive groves, vine ranks and little stone shelters and walls.

The panorama I see before me, was cultivated 2400 years ago, by Greek settlers from the island of Pharos. It’s unclear to me whether we’re talking about the present-day holiday island of Paros – or the little island of Pharos in the Nile Delta, just opposite the city of Alexandria. (You will have heard about Pharos, the lighthouse of Alexandria – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)

The Greeks here on Hvar, used a geometrical system to divide up land into plots called chora, with stone walls marking the bordersThis landscape has been maintained, virtually unchanged over the millennia.

These landscape sites provide a rather different experience than wandering around historic towns, seeing a specific building, some creative architecture or impressive engineering. Different, in that they cover a large area with boundaries that aren’t that defined – or at least with boundaries not so easily seen. Whether you’re walking or cycling or you’re out on a boat, you’re in the middle of it – but you’re not really seeing it. It requires more of an overview; it’s perhaps best viewed from a helicopter to be properly appreciated. I’ll admit, these sites are not my favourites. I enjoy biking through, but I do question their OUV (outstanding universal value, the very core of the World Heritage Convention).

Cleverly then, the old town of Stari Grad is within the boundaries of the listed site. Also founded by the ancient pioneers from Pharos, Stari Grad (then called Pharos; they might have been homesick), is one of Europe’s oldest towns – and my favourite part of the site.

2402 years ago, the Greeks sailed into Stari Grad bay and set up shop. Today’s Stari Grad is a picturesque little town, with stone houses, narrow cobbled streets, small town squares, and lots of restaurants and cafes. Also, cool little bars are hidden in those alleys.

I crossed from Split to Hvar on an old Norwegian ferry, taking about two hours. (A one-hour crossing by catamaran is also possible, but then setting ashore at another side of the island.) Depending on how many people are on board, though, it could take an extra hour just getting off the ferry, so if you want to do a day tour, take the early boat. I did – and had plenty of time to rent a bicycle, check out the landscape, Stari Grad town, and also hang about at one of the island’s beaches for a good while.

However, if you have time, charming and laid-back Hvar is worth a longer stay. Tip for your romantic holiday, folks.

Intangible heritage

I mentioned Hvar has five UNESCO sites. The remaining four are on the list of intangible heritage; not as well-known as the list of physical properties, perhaps – but just as interesting. The intangible list comprises oral traditions, performing arts, local knowledge, traditional skills – such as the whistled language of Turkey, horse-riding games in Iran, falconry in 18 different countries, coaxing rituals for camels in Mongolia, the manufacture of cow bells in Portugal, lavash (flatbread) making and sharing in Azerbaijan/Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan/Turkey/Iran, Arabic coffee as a symbol of generosity in Saudi/UAE/Oman/Qatar, tight-rope walking in Korea, worship of ancient Hùng kings in Vietnam, sand drawings in Vanuatu, traditional boat-building in Norway… all kinds of intriguing and unusual stuff – and some wonderfully weird.

So it’s all about experiences, rather than sights. I haven’t explored this much, but am increasingly interested.

What’s around the corner?

These are the four intangible ‘sites’ on the island of Hvar:

Stari Grad Hvar Croatia


unesco logo

Stari Grad Plain is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more heritage sites around the world.