Jelsa may be just a little town in the middle of Hvar Island, as a popular song has it, but it boasts a wide harbour and attractive stone waterfront. Once a fishing centre, in the 19th century Jelsa had an important fleet of trading sailboats, some of which were even ocean-going, and was part of the enviable fishing epopee which lasted some fifty years, plying its trade to Lampedusa and around the Mediterranean.
Although fishermen, farmers and tradesmen made up the majority of its population, Jelsa established the first Croatian library on the Dalmatian islands.
This picturesque settlement, which is exposed to the northerly wind called the ‘bura’, was first mentioned in 14th century historical records as a port three kilometres away from the village of Pitve, which was situated on the northern slopes of the Gozd hill. Although Jelsa itself counts among the newer of Hvar Island’s settlements, there are signs of human habitation dating back some 5000 years not far away.
There is fresh drinking water in Jelsa, which has its own springs, a relatively unusual advantage for a place in the centre of a Dalmatian island.
Despite being smaller than Hvar Town and Stari Grad, the Jelsa Council covers the widest area of the Hvar local authorities. Its main asset is the ring of several villages surrounding Jelsa, which have a rich tradition of agriculture. Twelve settlements in all belong to the Jelsa Council.
And Jelsa has another plus: many wonderful beaches are within walking distance, more than any other settlement on Hvar, which makes it an ideal place for a summer holiday without having to rely on a car. If you do come by car, it means you can easily get to yet more fabulous beaches further afield, including those on the south side of Hvar.
The Hotel Jadran was the first to open in Jelsa, back in 1911. It comprised 14 luxuriously furnished bedrooms, a restaurant, bar and reading room. However, it was only in the 1960s and 70s that a bigger hotel was built to cater for tourists on a larger scale. Jelsa’s main claim to fame at the time throughout former Yugoslavia was its disco-club, the first in the region. Nowadays it is the only place on the Dalmatian islands which can boast of having its own superman cartoon character, Lavanderman.
In 1868, at the time of national revival amid rising national awareness, the first Croatian library was opened on the Dalmatian islands. In 1878, the library gained the right to fly the Croatian tricolour flag. In 1880, Jelsa’s school was among the first in Dalmatia to introduce teaching in the Croatian language. The library carried various daily newspapers, and became the centre of political life in Jelsa. It was transferred to the new Town Hall on February 1st 1896, when it held a celebration in honour of its founding over a quarter of a century previously. The Town Hall itself was only given the right to fly the Croatian flag later, in 1907.
Points of interest
The Cross-bearer’ Square
When you walk around Jelsa, make sure to take in the Cross-Bearers’ Square in the very heart of our little town, in front of the parish Church of Mary’s Assumption. This square has a special pride of place, the memorial statue in the centre of the square is the work of the distinguished contemporary sculptor Kuzma Kovačić, from Hvar. and honours all those who have participated in the traditional Maundy Thursday ‘Za Križen’ (‘Following the Cross’) Procession over the centuries. . It is particularly important for all those who have carried the Cross in the traditional Maundy Thursday Procession called ‘Za Križen’, which has taken place annually over several centuries.
The ring round Jelsa
Although it is smaller than Hvar Town and Stari Grad, Jelsa’s Council region covers a larger area thanany other local authority on the island. Jelsa’s biggest asset is the circle formed by the villages around it, which are rich in farming traditions. Altogether 12 villages belong to the Jelsa Council.
Half a century of discos on Hvar
The first disco on Hvar, and indeed in the whole of Croatia and former Yugoslavia, was opened in Jelsa in 1964. Called ‘Amphora’, it was situated in a small fisherman’s cottage close to the ‘Pumpurela’ breakwater. Jelsa was ahead of the game. Disco dancing in Opatija, a popular northern resort, only started in 1967, when the ‘Disco Club 57’ opened, while in Split revellers were entranced from 1969 by two gramophones blaring out simultaneously in the ‘Arcada’ and the ‘Semafora’.
The Town Hall
The imposing building standing alone on the waterfront, facing the open sea and the mainland, is Jelsa Council’s Town Hall. In the 1890s Jelsa was at the peak of its economic and cultural development. The original Town Hall and Public Reading-Room / Library were situated in a limited space on the Pjaca, and the decision to create a special building for them was taken in 1894. The residents got together, and thanks to Jelsa’s prosperity at the time the members of the Library offered the local Council an interest-free loan of 9,400 forints, on condition that the loan was repaid within 14 years, and the Reading-Room was granted the use of the ground floor for 50 years. The library remained in the Town Hall building until the whole building was destroyed by fire in 2003. After the fire the building was completely rebuilt and refurbished. It now houses the Council offices on the upper floors, a fine multi-purpose hall on one side of the ground floor, and a cafe / restaurant on the other.
Church of Our Lady of Health
The church dedicated to Our Lady of Health is situated on the Račić hill overlooking Jelsa, and dates back to the 16th century. The original church was built on the site of a Medieval chapel in 1535, and was a votive church for mariners. Its current appearance overall dates from the 19th century, and major renovation works were completed in 2013, including landscaping the surrounding area and planting the slope leading up to the church with olive trees.
The Juraj Dobrović Gallery
The artist Juraj Dobrović, who was born in Jelsa on January 29th 1928, gifted his family house together with his collection of paintings to the town. The house is also home to Jelsa Council’s Museum. Juraj Dobrović was part of the international New Tendency avant-garde movement. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and São Paulo in 1973. His works are to be found in important museums and private collections in Croatia, Europe and other countries over the world. In the 1960s he was at the forefront of European geometric art and Neo-constructivism.
Even on the hottest days, the Jelsa park is cooled by a light breeze, and you will find some relief from the summer heat under its tall trees. The park was established in 1870 on an alluvial plain, and is one of the biggest and most beautiful in Dalmatia. It contains pines, palms, oleanders, laurels and other Mediterranean plants. In 1923 the park was embellished with a statue of Jelsa’s long-standing Mayor, Captain Niko Duboković (1835 – 1912), by Ivan Rendić.
Pjaca (Piazza) – The Square of Croatian National Revival
The Pjaca is Jelsa’s centrepiece, and was created by stages between the 16th and 19th centuries. On its west side is a freshwater stream called the ‘Slatina’ which flows into the sea. In 1934 a drinking-water fountain was built in the centre of the square, which functions to this day.
The square teems with cafes, ice-cream parlours, restaurants and little shops, and is a favourite meeting place for locals and tourists alike. It’s a centre for catching up with the latest local and international news, chat and gossip.
St. John’s Chapel
The miniature octagonal Baroque-style chapel of St. John is situated on a small square off the beaten track surrounded by tall houses, and is one of Jelsa’s most beautiful historical buildings. Dating to the end of the 17th century, it is special because, despite its small size, it contains a diversity of styles. The chapel was one of two centres which formed the nuclei for Jelsa’s future growth. Around it the settlement’s oldest houses are preserved intact, including some of those which belonged to Jelsa’s wealthy ship-owners.
The First Croatian Library on the Dalmatian Islands
In 1868, at the time of national revival amid rising national awareness, the first Croatian library was opened on the Dalmatian islands. In 1878, the library gained the right to fly the Croatian tricolour flag. In 1880, Jelsa’s school was among the first in Dalmatia to introduce teaching in the Croatian language. The library carried various daily newspapers, and became the centre of political life in Jelsa. It was transferred to the new Town Hall on February 1st 1896, when it held a celebration in honour of its founding over a quarter of a century previously.
SEAFARING – The Golden Age of Hvar’s Sailing Ships
In the middle and second half of the 19th century, Jelsan ships were sailing around the Mediterranean. the Black Sea, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and venturing into the Pacific. Despite its small size, it was a true ‘world trading fleet’. In the middle of the 19th century Jelsa was flourishing, its harbour was built, and the malaria-ridden swamps of its coastline were drained. Duboković family in Jelsa had the greatest share in the 19th century seafaring activities.