The village of Velo Grablje, on the sunny island of Hvar, was recently at the center of attention on one of the Adriatic's most popular destinations, as the world turned its collective gaze to the village's most famous export: Lavender.
The Voice of Croatia's Tomislav Šikić spoke with Ivan Zaninović from the Pjover Association, the organizers of the tenth Lavender Festival - a carnival of educational workshops, culinary delights, traditional culture, and the unforgettable aroma of the enchantingly fragrant lavender flower.
The story of lavender on Hvar began back in the late 1920's when local resident Bartol Tomičić desperately sought to make a living after a blight devastated the island's grapevines. It was a struggle at first, to say the least, and actually, quite a gamble for Tomičić to use his remaining arable land to plant a little-known flower on such a large scale. But as it turned out, Hvar's sunny and dry climate made it ideal for growing the resilient lavender flower. And less than two decades later, by the middle of the 20th century, Hvar was producing 10 percent of the global supply of lavender oil. At the same time-like many things-the beginnings weren't so easy for the forward-thinking farmer. Residents first mocked Bartol for turning to lavender to provide for his family.
"At first they laughed at him and thought he was crazy for planting this strange wild grass. But once they saw him earn his first profit then they all started to plant lavender," said Ivan Zaninović.
And with increasingly large portions of the island's population turning to lavender production, Bartol literally changed the face of the island, as the centuries-old tradition of building stone walls without the use of mortar took off. Although, as mentioned above, the construction of such walls existed for hundreds of years, the need for more arable land for lavender created a modern boom for the unique stone walls, as one could not exist without the other. Here's how Ivan explains it:
"Basically, people would dig up the stones and use them to build the traditional stone walls in order to keep the fragile topsoil in place. This also gave the parcels of land solid demarcation lines-thereby establishing people's plots of useable land. In this way, we can say that every stone has been touched by human hands. Just imagine how difficult that must have been."
Lavender was king… until it wasn't. During its golden reign, the flower and its precious oil made many residents quite wealthy. As Ivan puts it, if the harvest was bountiful enough, the rewards of months of hard back-breaking work often resulted in a king's ransom for the diligent villagers of Velo Grablje.
"For example, after one season's harvest, my family was able to purchase an apartment in Split. So you can imagine how valuable it was, and at the same time, how much hard work it was too," said Ivan.
When lavender was at its peak of production and profitability after the Second World War, the long and destructive arm of socialism was washing over Croatia like the deadly blight that wiped out the grapevines only two generations earlier. This marked the beginning of the end for the lavender industry.
During the former Yugoslavia, there were lots of incentives for people to work in state-run companies. Farmers were encouraged en masse to trade in their traditional ways of life on the farms and villages of the islands around Croatia, for work in factories-which were often a long way from home. Propaganda at the time had them convinced that such work would provide a level of insurance and financial stability that farming simply could not.
And even after the fall of communism, the decline of the industry continued to be compounded by people chasing the modern conveniences being offered in the big cities on the mainland. Ivan said that two major wildfires in the 90's destroyed the remaining profitable lavender fields and put an end to the industry on the island of Hvar.
Ironically, the final death knell of the lucrative lavender trade was the business which today brings in the most money to the island: tourism. The summer season is also the time when lavender is harvested, but the lack of labor, which had been increasingly drawn to tourism, really impacted the ability to harvest and produce the valuable essential oil on a significant scale.
But luckily, despite the setbacks, people have once again gravitated to the skills and knowledge that made these small communities so great and so special. Thanks in large part to people like Ivan Zaninović and the Pjover Association, over the past twelve years Velo Grablje has once again shifted its focus to lavender and the traditions of their grandparents. Lavender and tourism is now a match made in heaven: not only are the sun-drenched arid hills above the Adriatic Sea bathed in the divine smell of lavender, but tourists are flocking to Hvar and its small villages to see firsthand how this small flower is once again putting Hvar on the map.
"Today's tourists are very interested in traditions. Many people have turned to eco-villages and the promotion of domestic products and traditional ways of life. We believe that our eco-village is a great opportunity for further economic growth," said an optimistic Ivan.
The Pjover Association continues to work tirelessly to revive the lavender industry by making it appealing to younger generations who see some profit in providing tourists with a little culture-albeit in between their cocktails and time on the beach.
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