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Imagine water so clear you can see shoals of fish darting around your legs. Imagine a long sandbar stretching out as though it is taking you to a peaceful haven far away from a busy world. Imagine protective pine trees, surfers, and passing cruise boats, all under a warm sun and blue skies. Imagine a place where all your stresses can drift away with the breeze. Imagine Zlatni Rat.
Zlatni Rat, often known as the Golden Horn because of its shape, is one of Europe's most famous beaches. In 2009, it was named by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten best beaches in the world. It deserves the title. Situated in laid-back Bol, on the island of Brac, Croatia, Zlatni Rat is certainly a unique treasure. Quite simply, there is no other beach quite like it.
Zlatni Rat sits a short walk west from picturesque Bol Harbour, along the tree-lined promenade. As you approach it, tantalising glimpses tempt you through the trees. Although on photographs it may appear to be a stretch of silky white sand, Zlatni Rat is actually a pebble beach. In fact, many Croatian beaches are pebble, but this should not deter you, not even if you have children. I took my oldest son to Croatia twice - once when he was four and then again at seven. There was no mention of sand. He spent his time filling buckets with 'interesting' stones and attempting the impossible task of trying to catch a fish.
Pebble and shell beaches are also the perfect formula for crystal clear waters. Paddle in the clean shallows, don a snorkeling mask or try your hand at kite surfing, windsurfing, or jet skiing. You could hire a pedalo and give your legs a workout. Or, if you're feeling lazy, simply sit back and watch the yachts and surfers. And don't forget to wear high factor sunscreen; Zlatni Rat is a deceptive sun trap. The breeze from the Adriatic can easily fool you and give you the impression that the sun is not as hot as it really is.
The phenomenon that is the Golden Horn is really quite interesting. It is unique and ever-changing. The current from the tide and wind shapes the 'horn' so that the tip can bend one way or the other. As a local guide informed us, apparently it can actually disappear altogether, but it will always return. Zlatni Rat is half a kilometre long, from the coast to the tip.
Head for the Woods
During summer, Zlatni Rat bears all to the Mediterranean sun. The shady pinewoods offer respite and another side to beach life. Under the cool shelter of the trees, there is just as much going on as on the beach itself. You will find people buying ice-cream and drinks at the laid-back cafe as music plays; a small children's playground and a basic canteen-style outdoors restaurant with great lunches at bargain prices. Zlatni Rat is happily lazy. There is no need to rush - here, stress is redundant. Spend a couple of peaceful hours, or while away the entire day and head back when the sun sets like a golden furnace, bleeding onto the horizon.
Nestled before the Bolska Kruna mountain range, Bol is both pretty and quaint. It is an ancient seaport dating back many centuries, and its harbour is choc-a-bloc with boats of all kinds. Little fishing boats and luxury motor boats are moored at dusk and the water shimmers under the evening lights. At night Bol is stunning. The illuminated quayside is abundant with low key bars and restaurants from which you can look out over the water whilst relaxing over a meal or a drink.
In June, the summer festival begins—a colourful programme of music and entertainment. We visited during a busy food event, with tasty dishes being cooked up in the most enormous frying pan I'd ever seen!
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The Dominican Monastery
At night, Bol sparkles with life, but there are still places to visit during the day. We visited the Dominican Monastery and the Church Of Our Lady of Mercy, located in a peaceful spot to the far east of the harbour. The Dominican Monastery was built around 1475, on the site of a twelfth-century episcopal palace. Part of the site is now the monastery museum, the main attraction being Tintoretto's altar painting of Madonna with Child and Saints. Tintoretto was one of the greatest Venetian painters and the Madonna with Child dates from 1563.
I'm not sure a stay on Brac would be complete without a trip inland. It is a fascinating experience, for Brac has a long and colourful past. Historically, inhabitants of the island faced difficult times. The first known settlers were the Illyrians and then the Romans. They were forced to move inland because of the constant threat from Dalmatian pirates. Living inland, though, meant that they had no water - apart from a few water springs around the mountain range near Bol, Brac does not have its own water supply.
Nowadays, there is a pipe from the mainland to supply fresh water but this is quite a recent development. In the past, there was not even a stream from which to obtain water. Rainwater could be collected, but Brac has a very dry climate in summer and rainfall is sparse. Instead, the islanders invented a drink called 'smutica', which is a mix of sheep's milk and wine (sheep were plentiful on Brac despite the terrain). This strange drink was not very healthy when consumed too much but perhaps made the settler's hard lives seem a little rosier!
Brac is famous for its white stone, found in abundance. It was used to build the Diocletian Palace in Split and has even been used for the White House in Washington and for other landmark buildings. Quarrying the stone was one of the main occupations on Brac. In the past, it was back-breaking work, though inhabitants were strong and hardy, with plenty of stamina.
In many areas, you can see the stone piled at the side of the road. These seemingly untidy piles are there because the stone has to be broken up and moved before the land can be used for farming. Even when this arduous task is completed, growing things does not get much easier as the poor soil is not very fertile.
Skrip: Brac's Oldest Settlement
Skrip is thought to be the oldest settlement on the Island of Brac. To visit it is a fascinating experience. Steeped in history, it was surrounded by an old stone wall built by the Illyrians; there are ruins of the wall remaining today, as well as the derelict remains of ancient houses.
The landscape around Skrip is beautifully rugged - hilly; rocky; sometimes sparse and sometimes tree-covered. It leaves you with a real sense of how hard inhabitants must have had to work just to survive on this difficult land. Though Skrip does seem like an old, forgotten ghost town, there are still a few residents today.
We visited the ruins of the Fortress, with its pretty gardens; the Parochial Church of St. Helen (Helen is thought to be the daughter of Emperor Constantine) the Church of the Holy Ghost and the Museum of Brac, which is situated in the Radojevic Tower, built during the times of the Turkish Invasions. The museum contains many ancient artefacts. After departing the museum we visited a little courtyard garden where local women were selling olive oil and a pretty kitten dashed about our legs!
Pucisca: The Stonemasons' School
The city of Pucisca is home to the internationally renowned Stonemasons' School. You can take a tour of the school and even see the students at work if you visit during the correct hours. The white marble stone is beautiful and famous around the world. As mentioned before, it has been used for many important buildings, including the White House. It takes a student four years to graduate from the school, and to obtain a place there is thought of in very high regard.
The Mysterious Pine Tree of Nerezise
The Horizon Is Calling
To visit Brac, we had to catch a ferry from Split as the island does not have its own airport. The journey was definitely worth it. It is beautiful and clean, with its stunning 'Golden Horn' beach, laid-back lifestyle, and friendly people. Brac, though popular, especially in the height of summer, remains unspoilt by tourism. Our tour inland was fascinating - Brac is much more than a beach holiday. You can be as active as you like, or you can do nothing at all. The history of the island is fascinating - it even kept my then seven-year-old son interested!
Then, when you have seen all there is to see, you can look across the shimmering Adriatic where the dark outline of Hvar, the land of lavender, beckons to you. Come on, can't you see it? It's calling you; inviting you to discover its own treasures. It's so close it would be a shame not to go. A short boat ride can take you there, but that's another trip.....