It is shortly after sunrise when on the dusty mountain road towards the small village of Humac, I am struck by the first rays of the sun, reflected from the sea level beyond the horizon. A few hours later, the scorching sun warms the breeze, so it barely cools my body burning from stepping on the pedals of my bike. At the edge of my sight, the top of a steep slope is revealed. And a narrow path turns into blown dust in the wilderness.
The peak of the island slope carries a ridge piece of the plain. On a plateau between old olive trees and brick vineyards, scattered stone houses grow out of dry stones without a binder. Carefully worked flat stones shine in the cloudless seaside sky like polished chrome. And dry stone walls spread all around. They quietly tell the stories of the first shepherds, which no one has been listening to for a long time.
In this emptiness, I am the only one who hears this deafening silence.
Many of the foundations of the houses date back to the Old Stone Age—for thousands of years, the inhabitants of Humac raised cattle and grew vineyards; today, this settlement is breathless. It comes to life only one day a year. To St. John and Paul, patron saints of Humac, when the inhabitants return to their roots.
Stone walls reveal the way of life of ancient generations for many centuries and their unique, intimate relationship to stone. Today, drystone walling techniques seem to be disappearing, and mortar is creeping in.
On a parched slope, reaching all horizons, the soil is so fragile and thin that my footprints will disappear faster than I can take the next step. For those whose livelihoods depended on fertile fields, conditions were difficult, and labor was struggling. But where the hillside formed into terraced fields, the indigenous inhabitants found a way to satisfy their desire to survive.
While the former inhabitants of the caves in the European hinterland with the advent of agriculture built the first wooden shelters, wood was difficult to find along the Mediterranean Sea. Also impractical. Due to frequent periods of drought and resulting wildfires, wooden buildings were fragile. It is precisely these challenges that lead the people to understand the landscape in which they live.
For many generations, the island’s inhabitants have cleaned the land of stones to protect their stone dwellings from sea winds. And the stone walls have captured the modest viability of the already poor soil.
Dry stone walls crawl across the island like a voracious snake. It grows the more stones penetrate the surface after heavy rain washes away the remnants of living soil into the sea. It binds the backs of steep slopes from the captivating coastal wind and retains the soaked soil. Otherwise, it would disappear below the surface in an instant.
People here have managed to turn the stone and the sea into a life-friendly home with acceptable conditions in a harsh environment. In short, they took advantage of what lay beneath their feet.
As I pass across the other side of the island, a narrow path leads down into the valley. At its foot, the red tile roofs of the stone houses of the village of Velo Grabje, once set in lavender fields, penetrate between the dense mantle of pine trees. I’m not here by any chance.
The island of Hvar is famous for its fading purple fields. However, there were times when lavender was a local curiosity rather than a tourist attraction. Velo Grabje, a settlement with five inhabitants, was the place where its recent romantic past began.
How could a village with such a small number of people significantly impact a large area?
After many disasters and crises of the vineyard, the conditions for its cultivation on this island became more and more unfavorable, and the inhabitants were forced to look for a new crop for their livelihood.
It was Barba Borto, a resident of Velo Grabje, the first man who plant lavender on Hvar. Borto had only three shrubs in his garden, which he sowed with great vision. Although everyone laughed at him decades ago, his flowers gradually turned the whole island purple. Lavender flowers paid bills to local farmers and financed generous houses. Until recently.
The lush lavender fields look so natural that it is easy to overlook the ancient wisdom needed to grow this crop in a burning and windy climate.
Every summer, the glittering deep-purple flowers of tens of thousands of lavender shrubs bloom on otherwise faded slopes. The lavender covers the island in a purple canopy and pours the sweet scent of flowers into the air. And I get off the saddle of my bike to get closer.
Tiny purple flowers absorb the sun’s rays like voracious grasshoppers in a meadow, and the wind dares shy pale green stems into a very close embrace – to join a theatrical performance at a dance floor. I found myself moving with them in the rythm although I’m not invited. The award comes immediately.
The enticing earthy scent rubs against the ground dust, and the breeze blows it into my nose. Once you get that distinctive purple dust in your blood, it never comes out.
Despite the deep purple color, the summer on the island is getting paler.
The inhabitants of Hvar are finding an easier way of living. They emigrate to the mainland and rent their houses for tourists who come for the summer holidays. Only a few of them live through the land culture. However, emigration is not the only and not the greatest threat to Hvar’s flowering heritage.
Due to climate change, the risk of fire has increased in recent decades throughout the Dinaric region; a large fire in 1997 destroyed almost all lavender fields. Only a meager five percent remained. The biggest devasting wildfire in recent times—in 2003—even touched buildings in the surrounding villages. At temperatures of almost 40 degrees Celsius, without summer rains, these fields are constantly threatened. Wildfires engulf everything the sun-dried soil has to offer.
For an island-loving purple, new hope blooms.
More and more young women and men who—with respect to the village of Velo Grablje— are finding a way how to communicate their past with the outside world. Lately, Hvar’s lavender richness and traditions have been renewed for new generations and tourists craving authenticity.
The sloping sun illuminates the newly planted shrubs at the island’s mountains fields with evening rays in the late afternoon. Timid purple flowers sprout nervously like prey wary of a predator. Young lavender, at least those that grow in wide fields, is conspicuous in the vast country, mainly devoid of purple.
It is increasingly common to see new lavender in old flowerbeds. And somewhere there, on a mountain plateau, in new lavender orchards, I see a picture of a lingering past trembling in the ripping air.