Skrip - the first settlement
Roman sarcophagi lying by the road through the hilltop village of Skrip are the first sign that this place was inhabited - and was important - long before the present houses and churches of the little town were built here. Walk around the base of the massive Radkovic Tower and you'll find evidence of an even older settlement. The tower shows three distinct stages of construction - at the bottom level, massive Illyrian blocks, above them distinctive Roman masonry (thought to be the walls of a wealthy man's family mausoleum) and finally, the 16th century defense tower raised by the islanders against the invading Turk.
The threat of the Turk was very real and so the tower is not the only defensive structure in the village - Cerinic Castle near the church is the largest fortified building on the island.
Amateur archaeologists will enjoy a wander through the village, identfying the remains of the different stages of settlement. The Illyrians may have left just their wall which extends a short way beyond the Radojkovic Tower in a north-easterly direction but of the Romans there is considerably more evidence. Apart from the sarcophagi and the masonry in the tower I've already mentioned,
across from the cemetery you'll find a dressed-stone pond (the lovka), one of several they built in the area and the museum contains not only sculptures and other artifacts but it also gives you the chance to see the inside of the mausoleum in the base of the tower.
There are other pleasures to be found in a walk around Skrip - gardens bursting with fruit and flowers, ancient olive presses set into the ground, views across the surrounding countryside, the sound of chickens clucking, sun on old stone walls, the pretty curves of a baroque church facade - timeless sights and sounds that are part and parcel of village life.
Brac's other ferry port
Sumartin, at the very eastern end of Brac, is only 30 minutes by ferry from Makarska on the mainland. 15th century refugees from the hinterland of Makarska came here to escape the Turks who had invaded their lands. They brought with them their dialect and their customs both of which survived thanks to the isolation of the place they settled from the rest of the island. The date of their arrival in the area known as Sitno on 11th November, 1464, was recorded by the Fransicans monks who led them here.
The lands around Sumartin were owned by the abbey at Povlja so the new settlers were forced to turn to the sea to make their livelihood. Once land-locked people, they became fishermen, sailors and ship-builders and these crafts are Sumartin's main occupations to this day. As well as the ferry that plies back and forth to Makarska several times a day, the harbour is home to a sizeable fishing fleet and traditional wooden boats are still built in the boatyard across the other side of the bay.
Holiday makers will find an attractive little town with a couple of good beaches nearby and a small number of restaurants, cafes, bars and general services. The Franciscan monastery dates back to 1747, the parish church of St Martin is early 20th century. The monastery museum houses an important collection of documents and early books and a small collection of furniture, paintings and other monastic artifacts. You really need a car to stay here though as there is only a very limited bus service away from the town to other places on the island.
The eastern end of the island
Sumartin and Selca lie just a few kilometres apart but seperated by a high hill, St Nicholas's Mount, at the eastern end of the island.
Inland Selca is known as "the town in love with stone". Everything here - houses, pavements, walls, stairs - even the gutters under the eaves - is built of the fine white stone from the surround quarries. It gives the town an appearance of being rather newer than it really is, an impression added to by the bright, white Church of St Cyril - the town's most prominent building. Built in 1919 in a completely alien Gothic architectural style that is at odds with the landscape, it looks like a transplant from the New World. The old parish church of Our Lady of Selca built in 1775 is much more at home with its simple facade and little campanile.
Two of Brac's tiny 10th century churches are to be found on the hills outside Selca - St Nicolas stands on the hill between Selca and Sumartin whilst others, St. Cosimus and Damianus, and St Thomas can be found more remotely on high Smrcevik to the south.
In actuality, although the town has a long history, much of what we see today is relatively new. Having seen hundreds of its people emigrate in the late 19th/early 20th century and many buildings fall into disrepair as a result, some 90% of the town's buildings were then destroyed in 1943 when the town was razed by enemy attack. Recent years have seen better times, population growth has followed the redevelopment of the quarries and today the town has an air of quiet prosperity.
There are some interesting monuments around the town - figures of local importance of course and, not too surprisingly in a Catholic country, Pope John Paull II. More unusual, and a point of pride for locals, is the bust of Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Selca's monument to him, erected in 1911, was the first anywhere in the world!
The island's history
It's appropriate that Brac's island museum is housed in what is historically the most important building on the island - the Radojkovic Tower complex in Skrip. The tower itself shows clearly three levels of stone masonry - huge Illyrian stone at the base, a Roman mausoleum built on these and finally the 16th century tower itself.
The Illyrian remains are of Cyclopean proportions, huge stones that formed the walls of a hill fort, part of the island people's defence against invading Greeks.
The might of the Roman Empire swept the Illyrians away and the island became part of their Dalmatian possessions. Villas and vineyards replaced the hillforts and bunjes of the Illyrians and whilst slave labour cut the white stone of Brac from the quarries, rich men lived comfortable lives here - the number of fine Roman tombs and sarcophagi around Skrip bears witness to that. The grandest tomb was constructed sometime in the 3rd century AD on a base of the Illyrian walls - a cube of finely dressed stone surmounted by two huge stone arches. Legend says it was built for one of Diocletian's ex-wives, or maybe for her and her daughter - the quality of the workmanship is certainly high enough for such an exalted burial but the empty chamber we see today is not giving any clues. A little ladder and a low door in the museum gives access to the mausoleum.
The rest of the museum is given over to a small but significant collection of Roman and mediaeval exhibits as well as the usual collection of furniture, folk artifacts and photos found in provincial museums. Although only a copy - the original is in the Archaeological Museum in Split - the Povlja Lintel, a 12th century church lintel, is of major significance as its lengthy inscription (along with the contemporary Povlja Charter) is the earliest use of Cyrillic Croatian script yet found on the island.
Birthplace of an Empress?
The dedication of Skrip's parish church to Sveta Jelena (St Helena - the mother of Constantine I) tells of an old island tradition that the saint was born here in Skrip. True or not (other villages on Brac also claim the honour but in fact Bithynia in Turkey is more the usually accepted place by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches) it's a nice little legend and the church that bears her name is a particularly pretty one as befits an Empress and the mother of the man who officially turned Rome to Christianity.
The present church dates from 1768 and its curving lines and mellow creamy stone make for an harmonious contrast with the solid grey strength of the Cerenic castle beside it. Sadly, since two of the valuable altar paintings - the work of a pupil of Tintoretto, were stolen, the church is nearly always locked.
The little Church of the Holy Spirit in the cemetery at the other end of the village is much older, dating back in parts to the 9th century and to lie on the foundations of a 4th century AD Roman temple. It took on its current appearance in mediaeval times. Look carefully at the graves nearest to the church and you can just make out symbols of their occupants livelihood carved into them - anchors for sailors and chisels and hammers for stonemasons.
Bol - on the south coast
The only town on Brac's south coast, and the only town on the island not tucked away into a sheltered cove, Bol is the the island's most popular holiday destination and one of the earliest settlements. The choice of such an unprotected stretch of coastline for the settlement is easily understood once you know that there is a fresh water spring here - a most precious thing on an island almost completely without fresh water.
Bol's other treasure is what brings the tourists - the magnificent beach at Zlatni Rat, arguably the most beautiful - and certainly the most photographed beach in all Croatia. Looking down on it all is Vidova Gora - the highest point on all the Adriatic islands -and, to complete the picture-postcard -perfection of it all, Gothic and Renaissance houses stand side by side with cafes, restaurants and galleries around the harbourside where pleasure craft bob in the clear waters. The 17th century Baroque Church of Our Lady of Carmel is usually closed but do take a look at the carving over the door . A representation of an angel hold Veronica's veil, it is a relic from an earlier church on the site.
The town lies between Zlatni Rat (at the western end) and the Dominican Monastery to the east on Glavica, now a small peninsula though it was once a small island. A pinetree-shaded 2km pathway to Zlatni Rat is lined with small stalls selling souvenirs and the usual tourist tat - fun for browsing and you're bound to find something you just can't leave behind. For more up-market mementos, the shops and galleries along the harbour front have plenty of choice.
..or two ...
Like Pucisca, Lozisca has a lovely, elegant bell tower that stands tall over all the houses, but this is an inland village, no harbour here, rather steep sides of as rocky ravine where the houses, in their serried ranks, one row above the other, all face south to catch the sun. Unlike most of the island's churches, Lozisca's Church of SS John and Paul was only built in the 19th century, but the bell tower is regarded as undoubtedly the loveliest on the island.
Despite the grandeur of its beltower, the village was always poor and saw massive emigration during the latter part of the 19th century until quite recent years. This depopulation has meant that the village has retained much of its traditional character as so many buildings are deserted and empty and there has been very little new building for a very long time.
You'll pass Lozisca on the way to Milna - Brac's main sailing centre. To get into the village you have to take a detour across the ravine but even if you only stop for a moment to take in the sight of the village across the valley, I'm sure you'll agree, it's one of the most impressive sights on the island.
...and even older
The village of Postira was founded in the 16th century, but right beside the parish church of St John the Baptist lies evidence of a much older settlement here - the foundations of a 2-aisled early basilica, most probably the church of a monastery that occupied this land in late Roman times. Ruins of Roman country villas in the area support the knowledge of this early occupation.
The layout of the church can be seen quite clearly - the two aisles of the church leading to the apse and, to the side, in a seperate section - the baptistery - the cross-shaped font sunk into the ground. In these early days of Christianity, baptism followed the example of Christ's baptism by immersion in the waters of the River Jordan. Adult converts had to be baptised before they could enter the church itself, so the font was housed outside the main body of the church. It was only when the whole populace was Christian that the practice of infant baptism saw the font being brought into the church itself.
This area of the island is particularly liberally scattered with the remnants of building of this period - Brac was famed for its olives even then and what could have been more pleasant for a retired Roman soldier that living in a villa on this beautiful island surrounded by an olive grove?
Churches old ...
On the high plateau in the centre of Brac, the village of Praznica is known to have been in existence by the 12th century. Its parish church,dedicated to St Anthony the Abbot was begun in 1400, and even in this most rural and isolated (as it would certainly have been in past centuries), populated by shepherds living in scattered simple houses, faith and affection for their beloved saints saw the building a fine church with some beautiful adornments.
Brac's patron saint is St Jerome (born in this region, he is credited with devising the ancient Croatian script) and the church at Praznica has a elaborate, if naive, side altar dedicated to the saint. The carving of Jerome has a Croatian -style church outside the cave and the fine painted ceiling sets some of its scenes in a local landscape
- Historical Travel
Tiny chapels ...
There are literally dozens of tiny chapels to be found on Brac - some in the towns and villages, others in really remote places out in the countryside. Dedicated to a positive calendar of saints, many date back to the 9th and 10th centuries, tiny stone buildings, often situated on hilltops, often on the site of an even earlier church (and sometimes with evidence of a pre-Christian cult shrine).
St Peter's Chapel in Nerezisca may not be the oldest - it was built sometime in the 14th century, - but the sight of a tiny pinetree growing on its apsidal roof makes it one to seek out. Take a look too at the charming relief carving inside the church - the work of a local sculptor, it dates back to 1578.
- Historical Travel
Both the largest and the most protected of Brac's bays, Milna, on the south-west coast of of the island, has provided a safe harbour for ships since Roman times. It's been a good few hundred years since the bay saw a galley, nowadays it's home to a year-round marina and the island's main centre for the flotillas of yachts that cruise the Adriatic through the summer months.
The village dates back to the 16th century and, for the first few hundred years of its existence, grew prosperous on fishing and sailing. The grand houses built by the town's ship builders and captains that line the waterfront attest to the wealth that was once here, as does the splendid Baroque church. The twisting lanes further back from the water's edge are lined with the small stone houses of the fishermen, tradesmen and sailors who made their homes near their work. Here, as elsewhere however, 19th century emigration saw the town's population shrink drastically, though, with the growth and popularity of Croatia as a tourist destination, the old tradition of working with boats has returned with the yachts that use Milna as their base.
An odd quirk of fate saw Milna serve as the island's capital for a year during the Napoleonic Wars when control of Brac come under the Russian Tsar.
Milna's more a port of call for sailing holidays than a land-based destination - staying here would really be getting away from it all.
Visit a village
Whilst you could come to Brac and never move far from the beach nearest to where you're staying, it would be a shame not to explore the island. Just a single day spent exploring a few of the old villages will reveal some delightful spots and offer an insight into the island's long history. Even if you're not really into history, you can't help but be charmed by the beauty of the island.
The first glimpse of Pucisca through the pine trees on the steep, winding road is idyllic - a picture book village at the end of a deep sheltered bay. The church of St Jerome dominates the town. Inside , you'll find a beautifully carved 16th century wooden altarpiece and the church treasury holds some important works also - including a 12th century charter, perhaps the most historic document on the island The Riva is lined with fine Renaissance buildings that tell of the wealth of the town in past times.
If you're here at lunchtime, you might like to try one of the restaurants, or, like us, you might prefer to choose your daily icecream (Croatian icecream is so good!) , wander through the streets a bit and then move on, leaving the old men dozing in their spot in the shade.
Up to the top
At 778metres, Vidova Gora, the mountain behind Bol, is the highest point of the Adriatic islands. Needless to say, the view from the top is quite spectacular - on a clear day you can see not only Bol and Zlatni Rat down below you and Hvar across the channel, but also to Vis and Korcula. We were told there are traces of an ancient church, Sv Vid, on the peak but we couldn't find them - not that we looked all that hard, the wind was blowing and the smell of roasting lamb from the small stone-built konoba soon tempted us in to its shelter.
The konoba is a new building constructed in the old way, completely of stone roof and all. The owners are very proud of their efforts to continue this tradition.
The Dominican's domain
Bol's eastern boundary is marked by the the tall belltower and dark pines of the Dominican Monastery. It's a lovely place, well worth a visit. The peninsula it stands on is known as Glavica and there is evidence that a church of some sort has stood here since the 6th century.
The tiny Church of Ss John and Theodore that stands near the front of the monastery dates to the 11thC but is built directly over that first church. From 1184 Glavica was the site of an Episcopal palace used by the Bishop of the islands of Brac, Hvar and Vis when he came to Brac. When the Dominicans came to Glavica in the 15th century they lived in the Bishop's Palace initially, commencing work on the monastery buildings and the church in 1475.
They dedicated the monastery church to Our Lady of Mercy and continued to build it in several stages from the 15th C on. The bell tower was completed in the 18thC. Don't miss the very beautiful painted ceiling under the choir whilst you're in there. The monastery's greatest treasure - an altar painting of the Madonna and Child by Tintoretto - has been moved to the museum.
The museum is well laid out and has a good collection of interesting artifacts - secular and religious - including prehistoric arrows and tools, some impressive amphorae and other items from Greek and Roman times They also own =an excellent coin collection that spans a thousand years and more of the island's early history. As you would expect in a monastery, there is also a fine collection of religious items, including the oldest Croatian mediaeval sculpture known. There is also magnificently embroidered regalia, a small collection of mostly 16th and 17th C Venetian paintings and some marvellous books and documents - including the artist Tintoretto's bill (he charged the monks 270 Venetian ducats - a fairly hefty sum in the 17th C).
Finally there are the monastery gardens, green and shady terraces overlooking the sea. A gate leads out to steps that go right down to the water but swimming from here is only for the monastery's guests.
Simple accommodation is available in the monastery guesthouse
Where shall we swim?
Bol's two beaches lie at either end of the town. Zlatni Rat - the Golden Horn - is Bol's best-known feature, a spit of fine white pebbles, extending 1/2 km straight out into the sea, backed by cool pine woods. the water so clear and still you can see every pebble (and little fish) perfectly. There's a cafe back in the pines and parking (30kn for the day) under trellissed vines. You really cannot come to Bol and not swim here at some time. Come here early in the morning and you will have the place virtually to yourself. Come later in the day, before the holiday season really gets in to full swing, and you will find the place pleasantly active. Come in high summer and it will be packed!!
The shape of the spit changes through the year with the wind and the wash of the sea so that, seen from the top of Vidova Gora, one day it may have a decidedly left-wards turn whilst at another time it may be quite straight or perhaps have a little curl right at the tip.
For those in the know, there's another option. Behind the Dominican Monastery at Glavica , there's another little beach, a pretty curve of white pebbles - maybe not as white or as fine as the ones out at Zlatni Rat, but the water is just as clear, and it's much more peaceful. This is where the locals like to swim.
A small word of warning - a warm current flows around the point here, parallel with the shore. It's very pleasant to float along with it, but it can be quite strong and you may find you have drifted quite a way from where you left your things. It's not dangerous - it won't carry you out to sea but swimming back against it may be more tiring than you think.
Skinny dipping is restricted to an area known as Paklina, further west of Zlatni Rat.