Island Brač / Blaca Hermitage – a pearl in the rocky desert

Few parts of the world are marked with restless times to such extent as the Balkans in its full geographical entirety. Blaca Hermitage on the island of Brač is a consequence of these frequent conflicts and uncertainty.

What made Mila Gojsalić, a young and beautiful girl from Poljica, enter one of the Ottoman camps in 1530, reach the powder magazine and  blew herself up together with the whole camp?
Poljica, an area in the hinterland of Split on the right bank of Cetina, one of the most beautiful Mediterranean rivers, has, since the end of the 13th century had a special status. The Statute of Poljica, one of the first Croatian legal documents, the Constitution of the Republic of Poljica, was the basis for the freedom of peasants and small feudal lords from their counts and higher authorities. Freedom based on common law was threatened by the Ottoman conquests.

Refugees lead by Glagolitic priests

This made Mila Gojsalić, a young and beautiful girl from Poljica, enter one of the Ottoman camps in 1530, reach the powder magazine and she blew herself up together with the whole camp. About twenty years later, the exhausted people from Poljica could not defend themselves any longer. They chose to be refugees, and were lead by their Glagolitic priests, who communicated their religion to the people in the Croatian language and in the old Slav Glagolitic script.
They fled to the island of Brač, under the protection of Venice. The prince of Brač granted them the land in the uncultivated, infertile and remote part of the island. This is where they continued to live, abiding by their own laws and customs. Several colonies developed and the one that lasted the longest was the one that was last formed – the Blaca Hermitage.

Entering desert Blaca

A monument to freedom

Today, Blaca Hermitage (blaca (cro.) – a puddle of water) is a monument of exceptional value, dedicated first of all, to human work and the yearning for freedom, even if it meant living on dry rocky land, cut off from the world.

Church on the rocks

In 1553 three Glagolitic priests were given a permission to live in a cave hidden in the deep and remote water-worn ravine, which was, an hour’s walk away from the Blaca cove, on the side of Brač that faces Hvar.
Thirty people followed them into exile, and this is where they started the life of their community that would last for four hundred years, up to 1963 when the last priest, the head of the community, died. The path that was used a long time ago can still take you to Blaca Hermitage. The Hermitage is four hours hiking from Bol and a little less from Nerežišće, a place at the centre of the island. A few years ago a gravel road that will take you near the Hermitage has been built. Even today, you can go there only by foot, carrying the weight by yourself or on a horseback. The road takes you to the church and the houses that are squeezed at the foot of a huge cliff, like pigeons hiding in the eye of an invisible hole in the crags.

Faith overpowers doubts

Blaca Hermitage suddenly unveils when you arrive by foot, as if it wants to catch you unprepared. A high rocky wall and, above it, almost as if it will carve itself in the cliff, there is a distaff-shaped church-tower with two bells. And then, through the pomegranate garden surrounded by rocks, macchia, seemingly impenetrable barriers, we approach the door to enter the yard. The church devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with the statue brought from Poljica in 1551
It is hard to imagine the first refugees, hermits here, led to the unknown and left in a cave to find their way around any way they could. And they did, and they survived, thanks to their diligence, work and, of course, good management. Also, thanks to the rules they agreed upon, perhaps even on the first night as they pondered upon their destiny around the fireplace in the cave. Is it better this way or would it be better to have converted to Islam and joined the Ottoman army in their conquests, to divide the war booty? Who knows if they pondered over these thoughts on that first night, frightened by the mere echo of them in their minds?

The fireplace in refugee colony

Personal property was rare in the Hermitage. Everything, more or less, belonged to the community. Everybody was under the obligation to work, and everybody had an assurance to be guaranteed food, accommodation and four shirts, trousers and two pairs of shoes a year. The economy was taken care of by a priest, the community’s prior.
The thirty members of the community and their Glagolitic priests decided jointly upon everything else. Every evening, after a dinner they had together, each person filed a report on what he or she had done. The plan for the next day followed. It remained that way for four hundred years. Each member could leave the community whenever it pleased him or her. He or she was not in debt with anyone, unless he was a priest, who had to pay back the means invested in his education. Maybe the success of Blaca Hermitage had made, in comparison to some other refugee colonies, originates from the fact that all the priors came from the same family.

Blaca observatory

An uncle would educate a nephew to be a priest, who would then serve the community in the Hermitage. It stayed this way until 1963, when Nikola Miličević, a Croatian poet and professor on the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, had decided not to become a priest and, therefore, not to maintain his ancestors’ tradition. That is why the Hermitage was abandoned the same year, when Niko Miličević (a well-known astronomer who discovered two comets and an asteroid) died. Thanks to Don Niko, the American ‘”Astronomyic Annual’, an astronomy magazine from Greenwich in America, is still being delivered from Greenwich to the Blaca Hermitage!
After his death, the school run by priests even during the life under communism, was closed. In those days, the children from near-by villages paid for their tuition by bringing a piece of wood to school on a daily basis, although some of them walked for as long as several hours every day. They had to do it in order to keep the fire in the fireplace burning. It had not been extinguished since 1551, when it was first lit in the cave around which the refugees built the colony. However, after 1963, the cave was transformed into a tank for drinking water. Once a year, on Maundy Thursday, the fire would be ritually extinguished, only to be lit and maintained for a whole year again. The fireplace was a symbol of freedom, fellowship, and for the people of Hermitage, maybe even a link with their old fireplaces that were turned into remnants.

Piano arrived by sea

Blaca Hermitage achieved the greatest economic development during the 18th and 19th century. There was a time when they manufactured 60,000 liters of wine, had 3,000 olive trees, 1,000 sheep, 237 stone beehives and three ships that carried their goods all the way to Trieste. In the middle of the 19th century, they gained more goods through exchange of their own products than the whole of the island of Brač did. Priests exchanged their products for what they needed: library contents 8.000 book, and even piano reached the Hermitage carried uphill by 12 men for 10 hours!
They never sold their goods for money. They only exchanged their products for what they needed or wanted. That is how Don Niko, since he was an astronomer, could exchange a year’s production for a big telescope, which has been kept in the Hermitage to this day. They also wanted books, so their library contains 8,000 books. Even a piano reached the Hermitage – it arrived by sea and was carried uphill by 12 men for 10 hours. They had drunk 56 liters of wine that day, it is written precisely in the books. Furniture came from Vienna and it is still a part of their housing. After the great fire in 1774, which destroyed the Hermitage, everything was renovated quickly and carefully. The church devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with the statue brought from Poljica in 1551 was renovated and also extended. Weddings and christenings were performed here, and people from Poljica still go here on a pilgrimage once a year.

A monument to the love of freedom

Today’s museum exhibition displays the rifles they used to defend themselves from pirates or looters. Blaca Hermitage, a monument to human work, love for freedom and loyalty to the community, is also a tourist and cultural pearl of Brač. The island that became famous all over the world for its stone and stone masonry, in the heart of the rocky desert, a pearl – a refugee oasis that lived a life separated from everything else for 400 years.
A year after the death of the last priest, the workers – inhabitants of Blaca Hermitage, scattered and left the Hermitage to be enjoyed by travelers and visitors as if it was a cut diamond. And so nature slowly claimed back their terraced fields, vineyards, and olive -groves… Only the stone houses have been left to witness the life that thrived here, against all logic – supported by love, defiance and fellowship.

Written by Damir Konestra / Photo by

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