Saturday, 23 June 2012

Home Sweet Home

Croatia has some distinctly positive features.

One of them is the climate!

This first shot shows the amazing view right out my sister's front door.  She and her husband have purchased a stone house in Istria and go twice a year to relax and enjoy the amazing things Croatia has to offer.

Along the flagstone terrace, there is an outdoor  fireplace which can be used for most of the year.  Just steps from the front door, it was a lovely place to sip tea in the morning sunshine.  It is such a relaxing spot!  Rosemary, roses, almond trees - treats for every sense, all add to the ambiance.

 One highlight of the day was always a stroll to the nearest village, along a stone fence-lined curving road.  In the spring, the acacias are in full sweet bloom, perfuming the air with their aroma.  In the fall, the views of the multi-coloured leaves through the trees, rolling hills, and homes nestled in copses of  brightly glazed forest were among the sweet sights.

This shot gives an idea of the rolling hills and beautiful roadways in the area.  Tiny fields of barley, vegetables, and vineyards dot the route.  To a prairie farm girl, the fields looked like play plots!

In all the time I was visiting this charming area, we were never more than 50 miles from 'home sweet home', my sister's delightful house.  There was so much to see and do every day, we were always busy - but as there is a surprising adventure around every corner, we never had to venture far to find it!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

In Through the Gate

Croatia is full of interesting and inviting doorways and gates.

This one is in the town of Sveti Lovrec, which I fell in love with (you can read about it here.)  It marks the entrance to a private garden lined with olive trees overlooking the lavender fields.

Don't you just want to go in?

Another gate in this quaint little village that I had to go through to see what was on the other side was this little gem.  I have no idea now how old that wall and gate were, but I do know it outdated me by a long-shot (even with another birthday added today!)

On the other side was a tiny ancient stone chapel.  The gate was marked with emblems and the tiny square it opened into was simply adorable.

When you see it, it beckons wandering feet, doesn't it?  You can't not explore in these amazing little villages!

And who doesn't like a castle entrance?  This one is the entrance into the old town square at Bale.  We first happened upon it at night, and our first glimpses by street-light and stars ensured a return visit the next day!  I imagined coming home after work and strolling home through a castle gate each evening.

Do the residents think it's as cool as I do - or are they simply used to it?

This lovely doorway is on one side of an old church in Pula.  That quiet corridor certainly invites repose, doesn't it?

Where I live, we don't tend to have fascinating gates and doorways like this.  So whenever I saw one, my camera was busy!

Some private entrances led to tiny little courtyards draped with greenery, with potted geraniums on each stone step.  Others hid amazing little cafe bars or shops.

Whatever the function, Croatians really know how to go in through the gate....

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

My Favourite Croatian Foliage

Croatia is so beautiful.  (Have I already told you that?) To a Canadian gardening fanatic, everywhere we went, there were foliar favourites.  Some were because I had never seen them before.  Some were just because.

One favourite was definitely the palms.  There were many different cultivars of palms planted most often on properties by the sea.

And we all know you can't go wrong with a palm by the sea...

Or ivy clinging to a ruined castle wall....

Or olives on an olive tree, representatives of a rich harvest of oil to come...

Or kiwis ripening in the Mediterranean sun on a carport support....

Or ripe persimmons cloaked in magenta hoods on trees dipped in scarlet....

Or grapes dangling from a sun-kissed vine....

Or fig leaves dazzling the eye in well-veined splendor...

Isn't Croatian foliage fantastic?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

You Know You're NOT in Canada When...

Maybe a good portion of the fun of being in Croatia were the things that were so - un-Canadian.  Different.

And by extension, those things which were so distinctly not from my Canadian experiences were that much more interesting because they were out of the scope of any previous experiences.

Case in point - you know you're NOT in Canada when you are walking along on a cobblestone street lined with shops on the ground floor which are operating out of buildings built in the 12th-14th centuries.  So NOT Canada.

These shops are accessed by ancient heavy doors and odd mis-matched floor levels; their wares are showcased in windows which are set into stones too ancient to date.

You know you are NOT in Canada when you are wandering among Venetian palaces from bygone days.  Windows from fairy tales peep curiously at tourists below.  In Croatia, the Venetian influence is everywhere.  History links Venice to Croatia through numerous political and social ties stretching back hundreds of years.

Doorways, windows, 'Romeo and Juliet' balconies - all cry out with a Venetian voice and point to the heavy influence of the city across the Adriatic.

The stones used in construction have been carved from the very earth - a readily available and incredibly useful resource springing from its bowels.  The variations in style and structure testify to the creativity of masons from Medieval days to modern times.

The stone itself is beautiful - but when coupled with greenery, the effects can be stunning.

Many homes had vines crawling along and over doorways and windows to shade the occupants in their comings and goings from the intense Mediterranean heat.  Window boxes filled with brilliant geraniums added a touch of whimsy to cold stone fronts.

Grapes, kiwis, passionflowers - we saw many of these growing luxuriously around doorways.  In November, the kiwis were hanging, plump orbs of sweetness - a tempting treat!

One last example of architecture I had never seen before - covered parking lots!  In Canada, these would be torn apart by the sheer weight of snow and become ridiculous.  I can just imagine a city worker's complaints at having to clear the snow from the parking covers!  You know you're definitely not in Canada when the covers over the cars are to protect vehicles from blistering in the heat of summer!

Each example of 'This is SO not Canada!' was special to me.  Each spoke of another time, another place, and as pupil, I was delighted at the course offering.  I determined to take in everything, devouring Croatia, ingesting its delights - I wanted to remember!  (Did I ever study this hard for my REAL exams? )

Friday, 4 May 2012

Canadians Don't Know How to Eat Raw Beef

We Canadians aren't really that much into eating food raw.  Unless it grew in a garden, we tend to frown (in an extremely friendly and polite manner) upon eating foods like meat raw.

Sushi has caught on as a new fad lately - but even then, may times the shrimp in the roll has already been battered and fried, and you can choose rolls that are packed with fruit and veggies and pretend that you are really eating real sushi, when you aren't.

That's just how we Canadians are.  We work and play safe.  We eat 'safe', too.

So when my sister announced that we had been invited to her neighbor's for a Croatian treat she had whipped up for our last evening, I little thought it would be raw.

Or more specifically, raw beef.  I like my raw beef to be lowing in a pasture, grazing on the hoof.

We were all seated when the dish was placed proudly in front of us.  My sister smiled encouragement at me.

"You'll love it.  It's called 'beef carpaccio'", she whispered.

"Beef -?" I whispered back.

"It's raw beef, sliced super-thin, drizzled with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, and herbs," she hissed through her teeth.  "It's delicious!"

Yeah, right.  Now I was stuck grinning idiotically at my hostess, thinking there's nothing for it, old girl.  Just try some and hope you don't gag and puke at the table.

I grabbed the utensils and dug in, thinking to take a moderate sample before going 'whole hog'.  Or 'whole beef', for that matter.

But in my haste I grabbed a pile of slices that were hopelessly entwined with each other, and ended up taking a good third of the plate with my first scrape.

Great, I thought in a panic. Now I'm in for it.

Smiling, with my stomach in my throat, I hoped that everyone would just ignore me as I took my first bite.

Ha.  Dream on.

Instead, knowing that this was my first go, being a 'raw beef virgin', so to speak, everyone turned to watch my fork move to my mouth like it was the first lunar landing in slow-mo.

I chewed.

I smiled.

I conquered - and reached for seconds.  And thirds.

It was absolutely delicious...

I don't know why we don't eat raw beef here.

Maybe Croatian cattle are just happier than their Canadian brothers - look at where they live - and produce a better raw product.

All I know is that meat was pure paradise, a party for your mouth.

(Anyone know where I can find some raw beef?)

Monday, 23 April 2012

A Roman Ampitheater in Pula

The arena in Pula is one of the best-preserved examples of Roman ampitheaters in the world.  Some sources say that a visit here is a better investment than lining up to see the giant in Rome.

It is a must-see.  Add it to your bucket list...

Built from 27 BC -68 AD, during the reign of Caesar Augstus, it dominates the waterfront of the city of Pula.  Hugging the Adriatic, it is an imposing sight.

Established as the cultural, political, and social center in the area, the arena drew crowds to its various sponsored events.  It gave a heightened value and worth to ancient Pula as a site frequented by Emperors and high-ranking officials.

As we arrived, there were numerous tours entering and ogling the perimeter.  Guides speaking every language outed its characteristics in their various tongues - and yet, it wasn't crowded.  We were free to peek and prod and enjoy as much as we desired.

Beneath the floor, tunnels radiate to hidden rooms, holding cells for animals from the gladiator days.  This ampitheater was on the gladiator circuit, and hosted many public fighting events in its hey-day.

Tours of these tunnels are hosted on a tight schedule during the busy tourist season.

Seating inside the arena remains today, a modern equivalent of the ancient arrangement.  Originally, shops and stores were located beneath the seats.  Four towers, preserved as icons of Roman engineering, contained cisterns which were filled with perfumed water.  A huge canopy could be spread over the arena proper to shield spectators from the hot sun or the rain.

In 681, an order was given forbidding the pitting of prisoners against one another in death matches, and the use of wild animals.  Some sources cite Germanus to be a Christian martyr doomed to a terrible fate within the arena walls.
Stone from this site was systematically stolen for other building projects through the intervening centuries.  At one point, the site was all but completely buried. A Venetian senator proposed the removal of its materials to Venice, where it could be rebuilt. A headstone marking the decision of Gabriele Emo, another Venetian senator, to allow the edifice to remain intact stands reminder of an important intervention regarding Pula's best interests.

The arena saw intermittent and varying uses through the centuries.  Today, it is a venue for concerts.  Seating 20,000, it sponsors a full line-up - you can take in rock concerts, ballet, theater, and even a film-festival!

If you are planning a trip to the area, I urge you to check out the concert line-up - an open-air show in a turn of the millennia venue is just not something you get to take in every day.  You can find concert information here.

My thanks for the concert photo go out to the Croatian National Tourist Board.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Terra Magica

Croatia is indeed 'Terra Magica' - a magical place.

I want to introduce you to Klapa music today!

Klapa music is native to Croatia.  Usually a choir group consisting of 8-12 men, these groups sing folk songs praising local Istrian cultural phenomena. Many villages or communities have a Klapa group, and they support them with local pride.  Competitions pitting these Klapa groups against their neighbouring communities create good-humoured animosity and friendly rivalry between towns.

Klapa has always traditionally been a capella - but more modern variations are adding instrumentation.  Group members often accompany using guitar or mandolin.

If you have been following my blog, you will notice many typically Croatian images in the video.  This particular group, Klapa Motovun, hails from the Medieval village of Motovun, which I have written about previously.  In order to really get the most you can from the video, here is a brief Croatian language lesson.

Some of the typical local products are:

1.  Tartufi - truffles!  You will notice a basket of huge black truffles near the end of the video.  These are the rare delicacies found near Motovun - that basket must be worth a fortune!
2.  Vina - local wine, of course!  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and there are several grapes indiginous to the Istrian peninsula that the producers pride themselves on.
3. Kazuna - this is referring to the quaint little stone house that is so tied to Croatia's history.  I have written about these here.
4. Maslina - olives!  Silvery trees cling to the rocky soil all over Istria.  Freshly pressed olive oil of very high quality is an Istrian export the people take great pride in.
5. Boskarina - a breed of extra big, horned cattle that figure porminently in Istrian histroy and culture.  I haven't written about them yet - oops! - but I have eaten them.  Yum!

  Scenes are from Motovun, Pula, Groznjan - in short, places I have shared with you!  Enjoy a taste of Istria!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Random Reminiscences


I am aware that much of life outside Canada continues nonplussed by the presence of these scaly reptiles - but this Clumsy traveler has a motto:


Here I am with my 'snake stick' - ready to pound the ground ahead of me to dislodge any reluctant beasts.  One end is pronged like a fork - I'm not sure that I would have actually tried to corral a legless critter had I actually seen one - but I was ready.

Sort of.

Snake season was apparently over.  The locals who spied me with my snake stick likely needed surgery for their busted gut - but that's their problem.

This tiny roped parade of toddlers marched past as we were waiting for our Mediterranean cruise to begin (see the cruise post for the back story...).

Strings of tiny tots are cute no matter the location, don't you think??

I couldn't help but wonder what at the purpose of the day's outing - and at the marked difference between their little lives and the pre-schoolers in the area around home.  I guarantee they weren't going to the local grain elevator to see how wheat was handled...

This is a shot of the marina in the gorgeous town of Rovinj.

The Mediterranean sun waved in so friendly a manner at its Canadian visitors - we felt the warmest of welcomes and shed our outer layers after its handshake!

The variety and quantity of boats seemed endless.  Living as I do 2000 miles from the ocean, I couldn't get enough of boats and sea and salt-spray and fish and marinas...

In most villages, the remains of castle walls or Renaissance structures or Medieval enclosures created the perfect spot for a repository of hay.  these quaint haystacks were made more quaint still by their surroundings.

Often, a small herd of goats would find shelter in such a haven as this.  Honeycombed in an endless maze of openings and apertures and gates, walled spaces such as these added a quality of charm to back alleys and out-of-the-way nooks and crannies.

Near Dvigrad, in the parking area adjacent to the ruined castle, an unusual seating arrangement can be found.  After a small bird flew from this arbor, my sister, always on the look-out for something at which to laugh, made a singular remark as to its strange appearance.

"Hey - was that the partridge in the chair tree?" she joked.

Ha ha.

Funny how a simple snapshot can stir so many random reminiscences.

Funny how random reminiscences can be the highlight of your day...

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Glagolitic Alley

In central Istria, 11 monuments stand as a solemn tribute to an ancient script - together, they make up what is called 'Glagolitic Alley'.

Along the gently winding roads between Roc and Hum, various stone edifices mark the history of a script in common use from the 9th through the early 19th centuries.  Invented as a means of making the Latin scriptures more accessible to the local people, the alphabet consisting of 32 characters bridged a significant cultural gap.
 Credited to Constantine Cyril (from whom the term Cyrillian emerged), the system of ancient loops and swirls became the first written means of communication for eastern Slavic peoples.  As written language always does, it had the power to define and capture culture in new ways.  A written script gives a force of unity and identity as very few other factors can.

The Glagolitic script eventually gave way to the modern Cyrillian alphabet, still used in many Eastern European nations today.

A drive through this area in November is stunning- the autumn breezes paint foliage in both reverent and spirited hues which capture the viewer's vision.  Each curve hides another gorgeous vista, each seemingly more breathtaking than the last.

Knowing that these rocks and hills were among the first to witness the birth of a language so long ago lends them an extra charm, mysterious and wise, an age-old stoic acceptance of the evolution of human thought and nation-hood.

This is a chart of one form of the ever-evolving Glagolitic script.     Jewelry and souvenirs marked with variations on the theme make for distinctly Croatian keepsakes.  I was able to purchase several necklaces in Hum marked with the scrawled characters on lovely stone pendants.  A glagolitic souvenir is the quintessential purchase in central Istria.

My thanks goes to the author of Ancient Scripts for the use of his Glagolitic graphic.

Check out more about the history of this language here:

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Mad for Mushrooms

We heard that there was a mushroom festival on in an Istrian town - and headed over for a peek.  Tables were imaginatively laid out on mossy beds, 'planted' like fairy rings in creative clumps.

I had never seen so many mushrooms under one roof.

And not just the number of mushrooms, but the number of species was a novelty to me.  Each was different than its neighbor - there were dainty spindles, huge lumpy knobs, fragile stems no wider than a straw, enormous gelatinous masses of fungi - all marked carefully with both Latin and Croatian names.  And unfortunately for us, we couldn't identify most of them.

Fluency in the linguistic area would have been a definite asset in this situation!

There are more than 100 varieties of mushrooms in this area of Croatia - an incredible edible panorama!  There are many more that lurk in the forests and fields which are of the deadly poisonous type.  We were warned that one in particular mimics chanterelles so well that it takes a very seasoned veteran to distinguish between the delicious and fatal.

Mushroom picking without a trained guide could be disastrous to a vacation...

Several of the species laid out on the tables more closely resembled coral reefs than fungi to my untrained eyes.  Several were unrecognizable as a mushroom.  It was like entering another world, a world of fairies and gnomes and underground secret lairs, castles and dungeons and 'little people' of the forest.

The festival included a mushroom cook-off, and tasty smells drifted up from a lower floor, where presumably the local food gurus were preparing their mushroom delicacies unmolested by the enthusiasts gathered to look over the displays.
These displays opened my eyes to a world which had previously eluded me - now, when I go to a supermarket, I check out the stock of mushrooms.  We have tried several new varieties, using new recipes pulled from the internet.  They aren't Croatian - but they are new and different to our Canadian palettes, and I am glad for the travel which has broadened my food preparation horizons here at home.

Exposure to new things, new vistas, new horizons, expands our personal vocabulary in so many ways.

So here's to the lowly mushroom - long may it grace our tables and fill our spirits as well as our stomachs!

If any of you are familiar with the names of the mushrooms in these photos, drop me a line - I'd love to identify them!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

All-Saint's Day

In Canada, as October submits to November, our stores, houses, and communities are decked out in Halloween style: goblins, ghouls, rats on gravestones, symbols of everything eerie and evil come out to play.  In Croatia, the markets fill with flowers.  Blooms and baskets line every grocery store or place of business, in readiness for November 1, All Saint's Day  (or the Day of the Dead).  The focus was so strikingly different to me, that its image stands out starkly in my mind.

Churches, such as this old gem near the castle of Dvigrad, become the focus of entire families as people of all ages and walks of life carry the beautiful flowers they purchased the day before to the graves of their loved ones.  Churchyards come alive with beauty as the growing collections amass in a never-ending stream of quiet visitors.

A day set apart to mourn, remember, and honour their deceased relatives, Croatians make use of the state holiday to gather with family.

We happened to be in the vicinity of Beram on all Saint's Day.  We had hoped to see Istria's most famous frescoes in the tiny Beram church.  Not realizing what November 1st meant to Croatians,  we watched with interest as carload after carload of well-dressed visitors approached the graveyard with flowers.  When we realized what was happening, we understood that this was not the appropriate day to ask for admission to the chapel.  Instead, we followed people into the graveyard, in order to better understand the nature of the holiday.

The flowers and candles made a stunning display.  we wandered quietly, taking in unfamiliar names, reading inscriptions, quietly observing.

I remember suddenly feeling that I was intruding on something very private - something sacred.  It felt like our idle curiosity had no place in that silent mourning , in that time of personal honour.

We quietly retraced our steps and sombrely drove away.

I left thinking that a day set aside to honour family was so much more fitting, more cultural, more beautiful than a day set aside to decorate with witches and give out candy.  I loved to see the families together, placing their floral tributes with care, enjoying the gorgeous fall splendour.

I am not Catholic - I don't know much about saints. I don't even know that much about what I observed on that day in Croatia.  But I do know that it gave me a unique chance to glimpse a people who value family above all else, who exhibit strong principles of  a societal bond worth celebrating - and I am so glad that I was there to be a part of it!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Market Mania

In my time in Croatia, I developed a mania for the markets.

Almost every town has its own Trznica (Terz'-neetsa, with the 'z' sounding like the 's' in 'measure'), or market.  Most have a simple roof over a courtyard area, open to the Agean air.  To one with an artistic eye, they were simply paintings on a living canvas - one that included brilliant shades of colour, aromas of sea and earth and sky, and a living canvas of ever-changing produce and places and human drama.

 I loved these markets for the slice of European life they offered a travel-starved small-town Canadian girl. The strings of blazing paprika (peppers) interspersed with garlic and onions were deliciously edible eye candy that I had never had the pleasure of seeing before in that form.  Rows of gleaming bottles filled to the brim with local wines, olive oils, homemade rakija (stiff flavoured alcohol), figs, mushrooms, fruit - the list of wares was as endless as the lines of friendly merchants.

It became a game of sorts for us to learn enough vocabulary to be able to ask for 'Jedan jabuka, molim" (one apple, please), or "Tri rajcisce" (three tomatoes), and make ourselves generally understood.  The produce was picked daily, fresh from the farm, absolutely delicious, and in top condition.  It was fun to create meals from the variety of foodstuffs available at the trznica.  Most vendors were very accommodating in our language blunders, and seemed genuinely pleased with our small efforts.

It was a delight to wander through the other areas of the market as well - the trays of unusual and incredibly delicious cheese ('sir') were hard to pass up.  Each vendor sold a variety unique to his/her area, created with ancient and secret family recipes handed down through the generations.  I absolutely feel in love with some of these cheeses!

The fish markets were also fun to explore.  Most of those critters were entirely unfamiliar to me.  I love seafood, and live 2000 miles from the sea - so to poke around at the fishmongers' hang-out and see the daily catch, different each market day, was an exciting novelty!

Here at home, I don't go to our local 'Farmer's Markets' much because I grow all of my own produce in my own garden.  There definitely are no homemade cheeses or freshly-caught fish to sample.  There isn't the babble of languages and community of such a range of cultures to rub up against, either.

When you have the chance to travel, don't always 'eat out'.  Take the time to mingle at the market.

You may just develop a market mania, yourself!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Euphrasian Basilica

In the community of Porec, an ancient church complex named the Euphrasian Basilica graces the Adriatic seacoast, its bell tower commanding and defining the old town's skyline.  Built in the year 586 AD on top of an even older church site, it includes the church proper, residential apartments, and several other buildings, one of which presently houses artifacts in a museum-type gallery.

The complex is entered through a wide avenue stretching beneath a hammered-gold medallion and richly ornamented lintels in an ancient gate.

The intricacies of line and pattern are worth a closer look - imagine the cost of labour in our present economy to produce such artistic elegance!

Within the basilica itself, the richly ornamented apse is a true work of art.

Details of saints and apostles, martyrs and Biblical figures grace every surface.  Mother-of-pearl inlays add stunning elegance to the decorative motifs lining the walls and ceiling.

Beneath the floor level, remains of ancient mosaic tile work can be viewed.  Still proudly boasting its precision, the minuscule tiles in their detailed placement are a tribute to unknown craftsmen.

A smoothly worn entrance marks the passage of time in its surrender to the thousands of feet which have polished it in a centuries-old shuffle of reverence.

A loggia marks the basilica's courtyard.  Each supporting column is topped in a differently carved pattern.  Remnants of carved stone mark the passage of important people and occasions through time and are displayed on the perimeter of the courtyard.

Visitors enjoy the sights in hushed awe and reverent whispers.  The sense of silence  here is complete, heavy with age, pregnant with significance.

Behind the basilica, the mosaic floor of an even older building is presently undergoing study and restoration.  Tours are given regularly in the summer months.

The Euphrasian Basilica complex is a must on your list for the Porec area - a place where cultural tradition and religious aspiration can inject some of its history into your modern soul.