Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Pula Delivers Drama on a Historical Platter

Pula is a city on the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsula.  Saturated with history, architecture, culture, and tourist attractions, it is impossible to ingest all of it in one day.  In fact, I found 2 days to be inadequate and would very gladly go again (and again, and again...)

Much of the 'new town' was built during the no-nonsense, no-frills  communist days and is nothing to write home about.  The 'old town' is the draw.  Framed in the shadow of the ampitheater built by Caesar Augustus in the early years around the turn of the millennia,  it beckons visitors to enter its many mysteries and to lose themselves in a time-warp of ancient proportions.  And the crazy thing is, as remarkable as the attractions are, they are understated to say the least.  Many are barely marked.  The onus is on you to diligently seek out what Pula is hiding; you will be well-rewarded when you do!

One of the most easily overlooked sites is the remains of this villa owned by 'Agrippina'.  A tiny sign points the way to 'Agrippina's house', and if you weren't watching, you missed it entirely.  Tenants casually drape their laundry to dry over the ancient foundations of a home occupied by a notoriously devious character from history.  Agrippina is rumoured to have killed 3 husbands in order to climb the social ladder.  The last she allegedly murdered was an Emperor,  to set her son, Nero, on the throne of Rome.  (Wouldn't you think a more substantial sign was in order for that?)

Flanking the large town square is the temple built to the gods and dedicated to Augustus.  Its history is fascinating.  Used at one point to store grain, it was blown up during the war and reassembled on its original post.  The main administration building of the city stands on the same side of the square.  In its back wall is incorporated part of the ancient wall believed to have originally been a temple to the goddess Diana.

Built in 1227, the Franciscan Monastery was closed when we got there.  Disappointed, we wandered in the tiny square, unsure what to do.  Just then, a man came to the great wooden door and looked out briefly.  My brother-in-law seized the chance and asked permission to enter.  What an opportunity!  The artifacts within, the church proper, the atmosphere were simply awe-inspiring.

The Triumphal arch has a story, too.  Built by a woman to commemorate the male members of her family who had avenged the murder of Julius Caesar, it fascinated me.  I remember thinking for the first time in my life as I slowly walked under its massive stone that reading Shakespeare had truly paid off!  Even though time has worn away much of the adornments, it remains a portal to another world, another time and place, a door into the lives and loves of a past people who were not unlike me in many ways.  Moments like that can't be bought or traded for any price.

Eating our lunch casually near the ampitheater was another such moment.  To be surrounded by such a deep history was like holding a jolt of strangely pleasant electricity.  It was all the more pleasurable for the sheer surprise of it, the unexpectedness of the delights it held.  It is like Pula opened up the ancient world for me like a time capsule; I cannot think of that place without a sentimental smile!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Medieval Motovun

Motovun is touted in the brochures to be the best preserved example of a Medieval village in Croatia.  You enter through an arched tower, the passageway of which is lined with ancient artifacts.  Emerging onto the stone wall, beautifully preserved,  a string of cafes and shops greets you.  Handmade jewelry, unique clothing and accessories, edible treats and Truffle delicacies line the main walk.  While the shopping is wonderful and the scent of Croatian delicacies are scintillating in themselves, it is the view from the wall that is truly breathtaking.

Freshly  tiled rooftops and their faded, older cousins drift in a mottled red sea to the valley floor far below.  Curving roads snake their way into the hills and forests which in November were richly painted in a tapestry of gold, magenta, and copper.   Quaint buildings and narrow and curving cobblestone alleys entice and beckon the traveler from the wall, daring an exploring foot to enter.

As in many villages, the 'old town' boasts a square, accessed through castle walls by curved archways.  Rambling leisurely between narrowly placed houses and up and down steep avenues is indeed a delight of fairytale-like proportions.

Motovun has a brand of humor all its own.  When we arrived at the entrance to the road that led up steeply to the village proper, a parking attendant asked us politely whether we wanted to park 'upstairs' or not.  (In my opinion, only the valiant with calves of steel would dare to park 'downstairs'!)

It was not far from here that we happened upon a man and his dog in the act of truffle-hunting.  It was a thrill to watch as the dog 'pointed' a truffle, and his human counterpart dug with his truffle-scoop to reveal a valuable specimen for his pouch.

This little spot makes an ideal side-trip.  It is one more place among the many in the area where the past and the present collide, where ancient meets modern, where old and new peacefully co-exist.

It is one more chapter in the book that tells the magical story of Croatia.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The Buzet Truffle Festival

The town of Buzet is nestled romantically on a hill at one end of a flat-bottomed valley, deep in truffle territory.  Every year in November, it hosts the Truffle Festival, a trade show showcasing local products, and of course, the coveted white truffle.  There were demonstrations, a cooking competition, a band of local musicians, roasted chestnut vendors, and numerous other delights available to scintillate the senses.

Black truffles are more common than white, and can be found at any time of the year.  White truffles, on the other hand, can only be harvested for the fall and winter season.  They are highly prized, and are sold for exorbitant amounts of money to restauranteurs and foodies.  They have a distinctive, earthy and rich flavour.  Shavings commonly top pasta dishes, or are made into condiments and aromatic oils.  They are absolutely delicious!

Truffle hunters guard their territory with religious fervor.  Their dogs, so valuable in their ability to sniff out these musky, fungal-like delicacies,  are treasured and treated like a member of the family.   During the Festival, shows involving dogs finding truffles are very popular.  We were amused at the dog show.  When the audience clapped and smiled, we did as they did.  Of course we had no idea what was going on during the entire proceeding!  But, when in Buzet, as in Rome, you know....

The tradeshow displays in the large white tent were absolutely fascinating, not to mention delicious!  There were large haunches of prsut (the delectable  Croatian version of prosciutto ham) being sliced paper thin with a practiced hand to release its full flavour.  Each selection had a unique aromatic artisan taste, depending on the method and place of curing, and the heirloom recipe, handed down through many generations.

Tables were stocked with local wines, jam, acacia honey, freshly pressed olive oil, and numerous other traditional treats, as well as handcrafted items. The piece de resistance, however, was this lavender seller.  I was admiring her products and the labeling when I realized that her products came from Sveti Lovrec, the village I had been so seduced by earlier.  When she revealed to me that her products were all handmade from the very lavender fields we had been exclaiming over, I was sold.  Thrilled and gushing volubly about my purchases, the vendor invited me to pick her lavender if I were in the area next summer.

"When is that?  July?" I inquired.

"No, no.  Yoo-lee," she replied.  Never had 'July' sounded so good...

When I think about that day, the richness of the experience, the tasty Croatian delicacies I sampled, what I learned and saw and smelled and lived - I am again reminded of why the land of Croatia has become so near and dear to my heart.

Learning to Mime, Croatian Style

We approached the village of Sveti Lovrec from the back, through fields of lavender.  My first view of the church was its backside; even I as a novice could see that this was extremely old.  (Our observational skills were later gratified by learning that it dates back to the 6th Century.)  The charming loggia opens onto a tiny square, complete with a typical well structure.  Delighted, our goal was to get into the building.

I approached a smiling middle-aged woman in the next street.  "Obazavam ovo mjesto!" ("I love this place!") I ventured.  Gratified, she burst into a torrent of Croatian.  All too soon, I was reduced to miming - my Croatian stock of tidbits gleaned from a phrasebook having been utterly exhausted.  Eventually, I understood that she was pointing me down the street to get the key from someone.  We accordingly headed in that general direction, no further enlightened than before.  Our way was lined with quaint buildings, tiny patches of 'paprika' (brilliantly-coloured peppers) growing in unusual spots, and inviting pathways marked with iron gates.

We hit a dead end at the remains of an ancient castle tower with another well hidden in its recesses.  To our left was an eye-level terraced garden, walled in stone.  A woman was busy among the vivid vegetables, quietly singing to herself.  Unsure where to turn next, we retraced our steps to the square and inquired of the women sitting there.  One woman helpfully switched to German and then Italian, and couldn't hide her disgust when we could follow neither - but kindly persevered.  I had never known shame for not knowing more languages before - but I felt it then!  She eventually pointed us to the house with the singing gardener.

 I boldly approached the garden door and asked the man within in my growing stock of mime moves for the church key.  Actually, I tried the Croatian word 'church' (or so I thought) - later realizing that his blank look had much to do with my butchering of the word!

The woman of the house, somehow understanding what we wanted, smilingly walked us to the church.   I tried my last phrase - "Vrt moj hobbi!" ("Garden my hobby").  My sister and I had noted those words on a library book cover; now they came in handy!  She immediately beamed over us and blithely spilled out a new torrent of Croatian.

I had made a friend.

The church, while not magnificent, holds some excellent old frescoes, and was well worth the effort to gain admittance to.  Our guide would take no payment, and declined having her picture taken.  I don't know her name, and in time even her face will be erased from my memory, but she in her kindness and smiles gave me so much.  That entire episode has been imprinted on my heart, become a part of who I am becoming.

Thank you, church key lady.

As we wandered about the village, we saw so many things which intrigued and charmed us.  Haystacks in stone alcoves.  Impossibly narrow and twisting streets.  An abandoned villa with a balcony we dubbed the 'Juliette'.    A tiny ancient chapel visible through a stone arch in a Roman wall.

Sveti Lovrec was a pure delight.  Everything about it for me is draped with a halo of romance and adventure.  It was so much more than a starched and professional tour.  It was far beyond a brochure.  It was a slice of human drama placed in an incredible context.

It was one more page in the album that is Croatia.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

"They Speak Pretty Good English!"

I wasn't expecting it.

The castle, I mean.

I was too enthralled by the winding road, the lazy hills covered with a crazy kaleidoscope of colours, the charming valley vista.

So when we rounded that last corner, tears sprung to my eyes unbidden.

I had never seen a castle in 'real life' - only in my imagination or on t.v.  And I didn't realize until we had rounded the corner that Dvigrad in all its glory was just ahead...

What a lovely surprise!

Built during Medieval times and abandoned when the plague struck, the castle has a romantic and illustrious history.  It was a thrill to clamber about its ruins, lone sojourners intent on absorbing so ancient an air.  Standing upon a staircase leading to the remains of the church, I was struck by the way my footsteps echoed among those hills as so many had before mine.  I was amazed at the ancient floor, laid down so many years ago - its lines and patterns were intact.  Lost in my gentle reverie, I only absently returned a reply to my sister's observation.

It was then that I received my second surprise.

I received a compliment from a stranger.

A child, at that.

I had noticed an American couple with their two young children enter the ruins just after us.  At our brief interaction, one child called to his mother, "Hey, Mom!  Those guys speak pretty good English!"

How proud my primary teachers would be at that pronouncement...

And at that moment, the past and the present collided.  The fresh young voices somehow reached life into the stones and left their vibrancy tingling in the air.

It was such a delight to ramble among rocks and meditations.  I wondered about the births and deaths and daily lives of a people who had made their homes here.  I wondered about the jealousies, the mis-communications, the humor that those walls had been witness to.

Returning to our car full of pleasant thoughts and sensations, I filed this moment in my heart as another quaint page in the Croatian album....

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Croatian Linen Lady

Not far beyond the magnificent hammered gold splendour of the Euphrasian Basilica in Porec, fresh from the religious thrill of the reverent silence in her womb,  twisting around the curved expanse of cobble, we found the Croatian linen lady.  When we first saw her, she sat at a quaint table across from the door of her shop, winding ribbon around her needle.  I hadn't spotted her yet when my eye was caught by the linen tableware draped in her window.  I was just exclaiming and showing my sister the intricate patterns of crochet and ribbon embroidery when she came across to greet us.
A lovely place to crochet!

"Hand-made, Madame, hand-made.  Beautiful, beautiful - hand-made," she cooed in her marked accented English.  "Good price, very cheap, very cheap."

I wasn't looking for tablecloths, but I couldn't resist seeing her wares.  She unfolded cloth after cloth, each pattern lovelier than the last.  Reds, greens, blues, lavenders, all marched in various formations across the fabric swaths.  I hesitated.

"Very cheap, Madame, very cheap.  Hand-made, Madame, see.  Beautiful."

I had to agree.  I was entirely captivated by the quality and creativity of her workmanship.  I knew that back in Canada, a similar hand-made product would cost a fortune.  I simply thought of the little room left in my suitcase for the journey home as I shook my head reluctantly.

Realizing the value of this woman's work, I again sought out the piece from the window that had sung its siren-song when I had first spied it there.  My eyes lingered on the pale green and blue ribbons knotted into flowers, on the delicate crocheted pattern dancing lightly around its edge. Now, she bargained in earnest.  Showing me a gorgeous round tablecloth which matched, she offered me a reduced price for both.

Now, she didn't know me.  She didn't realize that I was just shocked into silence at my good fortune.  If she had, she could have saved herself some valuable breath.

Seeing me quiet and hesitant once again, she added a small runner of the same fabric and pattern to my little stockpile. "For Madame, no kuna," she smiled.

That did it.  I was sold.

My sister also purchased some lovely pieces, seeing my good fortune.  We were all smiles as we took her picture and exited the shop.  As we were leaving and congratulating ourselves on our shopping acumen, she trotted after us.

"For you, Madame - and you, Madame," she explained as she patted a sachet of lavender into our bags with a smile.

That really did it.

She'll never know how close she came to getting a very Canadian kiss on her very Croatian cheek.

The entire experience had the savour of adventure, of old-time Europe, of a way of life so foreign to mine.  I smile as I record this story because the magic was so much more than the bargain.  It was the entire moment.

We wandered past her shop, through the ancient arch and out the Roman gate, heading for our car.


Now, that is why I travel...

Friday, 24 February 2012

Maldiferous Misstep

Vrsar, on the coast south of Porec, is a quaint village known for its marina.  Lined with yachts, the walk around the bay is infused with sea and salt,  palm and pine. The church spire sits majestically at the apex of the steep hill, proudly surveying her neighbours and the sea far below.  Close by are the mussel beds of Lim fjord.  Fishing boats ply their trade along the marina; their catch is snapped up by restauranteurs filling their customer's wish lists.

 One of my favourite haunts in Vrsar is Trost, a restaurant situated at the very brink of the sea, boasting stunning views both of the stone houses hugging the hill, and the marina dressed in its yachting best.  It was here that I tasted my very first shark, succulent scampi, fresh calamari, sea bass, seafood risotto.   Delightfully prepared on the large marble hearth, grilled to perfection on the coals, it remains the best seafood I have had to date.

The village above does not top the list of must-sees for 'quaint' or 'old' in Istria - but is well worth the stop.  The vistas are engaging and the streets twist and curve capriciously at almost impossible angles, winding their way in a series of steps and steep sections to the top.  I stopped under a spectacular tree to take in the tranquil Adriatic, a pleasant place in which to count travelling blessings.  Or to try to scrape what a dog left behind from the bottom of your shoe, which was my task on one visit.  So mesmerised was I at the beautiful sights, so taken by the sea and sensory overload, I turned my eyes everywhere but down, to my profound regret.

We had to double-bag my shoe and stow it in the trunk to head home that night - and we could still smell it! That darn shoe caused me no end of grief for the remainder of our trip - I couldn't seem to remove the smell entirely.

Being the Clumsy Traveller, there had to be something amiss with my visit-but the accoutrements of Vrsar can't be stained or overpowered by a dog (or a 'clumsy traveller' misstep)...

When I return to the area, it will be among my first stops!

A Mediterranean Cruise

Porec Marina
The day dawned bright and fine.  My sister and brother-in-law and I headed to the Porec marina to board our boat.  We had booked a cruise earlier in the week, and the day had finally arrived!

Slightly flustered by the time we had parked and retrieved our gear, we approached the dock.  Apologising for our lateness, we took time to look around us.  We were the only guests to be seen.  This was the last tour of the year - the boat would be stowed for the winter in other quarters, so we were feeling fortunate indeed.  Some time passed.  We asked our convener whether more guests were expected?

"Oh, yes, of course," he replied in his delightfully accented English.

So we waited.

About an hour had gone by before we saw them - a group of Italian tourists.  My sister and I remarked to each other how very 'different Europeans were than Canadians in regard to timekeeping'.  They duly boarded and we were finally on our way. The day and spectacle were much too fine to be dampened by a late start.

Our boat at Rovinj

The scene was delight personified.  As Porec shrank behind us, the rugged and rocky coastline grew in front, revealing mysterious and deeply shaded copses of Mediterranean pine.  The sea sparkled, arrayed in its Sunday best.  Azure blue met sky blue and set off dazzling green and pale gray to perfection.  In time, we drew in to Rovinj, a gorgeous port city.  The 'old town' rose steeply above the sea before us and bewitched us with its dreamlike prospect.

Rovinj's old town arch
We had an hour, we noted  by our watches.  The sailor who spoke to us had made an error in reading his watch, I saw.  He was off by an hour.  Shrugging it off, I turned my face to the joys before me and left him behind.

We entered the 'old town' through its arch.  Everything I saw was a pure delight.  My senses were pleasantly crowded with scents and sounds and sights that were all new, all entrancing.  We wandered up the steep  and twisting cobblestones to the church far above us.  The vista from the churchyard was breathtaking - the pines couldn't have been more green, nor the sea more blue, than on that day, at that hour.  The cup was indeed full to overflowing!

We realized that time was running short, so after a quick stop in the lovely church, we descended onto a picturesque street.  A woman was leaning out an upper window, hanging her laundry, when the church-bell rang.  That moment is forever imprinted on my memory - the sun, the sea, the sound.  Tears in my eyes, I reluctantly turned my feet to our boat after stopping in the bustling market.

When we got to our boat, none of the passengers had arrived yet.  Again, we pondered the mysteries of the Italian timekeeping.  We waited near,, and then on the boat, for an hour before the others guests trickled back.  Our meal of fish and salad was served, and we were off.

We made a stop in Vrsar, a delightful coastline fishing village on a hill, before heading back to Porec. (More on Vrsar later!)  When we arrived back in Porec, flushed with sun and sea and memories of beauty fresh upon us, we made an important discovery.

The sea view from the hilltop church at Rovinj
The day before, the time had changed.

By one hour.


We had been an hour early all day...

So, my apology to the acumen of Italians everywhere regarding their ability to read a watch.

We have certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of this gaffe...

One more delightful human comedy which flavours our trip with character and colour...and has become one of the many delights of Croatia.

Taking the Plunge

  One day, as my sister ran an errand, I was once again on my own with the sea.  The natural rock formations were enhanced by a series of fairytale bridges and pathways which beckoned with a seasoned hand.   I was wearing capris, and the morning was fine, but the breeze off the sea was capricious and cool.  I accordingly sought a situation in which I could have my fill of the sea-view, but which was also tucked in out of that breeze's grasp.

I found it in the guise of a staircase leading to the water.  I would just ensconce myself in its alcove and my heart would meet contentment fully.

The beach was deserted, I noted as I descended the stairs.  Ingesting the salt spray, delighted with the vista, I failed to notice that the tide was low, and that the lowermost stairs were encased in an ocean-film of salt slime from their immersion during high tide.

Without further ado (or warning), I took the plunge.

Sitting waist-deep in the sea without my prior consent, I endeavoured to extricate myself as delicately as possible, and with as much dignity as I could muster.

 After I had ascertained that no harm was done (other than giving my leather purse and sandals a good saltwater bath), I resumed my seat.  Glancing furtively about, I saw that I was as yet unobserved.  Safe, I began to giggle.  The giggle had turned into a steady stream of mirth by the time I had determined that if I removed my soaked lower garment, it would dry better.  The laughter grew as I waved my capris, an offering to the gods as it were, as a soiled white flag about my head.

When I heard a footfall on the casement above me, all laughter died away.  Subdued, I ceased the waving and sat like a docile tourist on my step - in my skivvies, with a crumpled mass of fish-doused cloth as my temporary covering.  As soon as the woman left, I quickly redressed and rejoined my sister.

Not far from the scene of my reckless 'swim', my sister pointed out the sign...

My soaked garment didn't take long to dry in the Mediterranean sun.  As we strolled along the seaside in Porec, I recounted in giggles the tale of my plunge.  We sobered as we realised what potential danger had been averted.  We grew thankful as we discussed what could have been, and was not.

And now, this day is a much-talked of memory between my sister and I.  A moment shared with a friend.  A humorous tale to tell anyone who wants to listen.

A page in the album that is my visit to Croatia...

Getting My Feet Wet

We arrived in Venice in the dark.  We retrieved our rental car, also in the dark.  My brother-in-law navigated the two and a half hour drive to the house he and my sister bought near Porec on the peninsula of Istria, also in the dark.  Consequently, the first Croatian sight I gained was a grocery store!

I loved it.  I loved the incomprehensible signs.  I was fascinated by the labels on tins and packages.  I was delighted at the furtive (or open!) glances in our direction when we casually spoke English among ourselves.  I loved paying using kuna, the local currency.

I loved being in Europe!

When morning kissed the sun awake, the delights tripled.  I loved the stone walls that guarded the tiny, twisting roads.  I drank in the way the olive trees in their silver dresses tried to out-do others dramatically clad in gold, bronze, copper, and crimson.  I thrilled to the way the gentle hills and the valleys separating them painted so lovely a backdrop.

And then we got to the sea...

My sister and her husband both had some errands to run - would it be all right if I wandered by the Adriatic on my own for  a while?

I would have loved to see them try and stop me.

The sea was tranquil and smooth.  The waves lapped at the pebbles on the beach in a teasing invitation to play.  Clear and dazzling in the warm sunshine, reflections gamboled and jostled for position.  I wandered about in this dream-world, getting my feet wet, contented to the core.

A sea-haze obscured my view of the 'old town' across the bay, but soon, as it cleared, I could see a herd of sails, white and ethereal - a class of sailboarders - take to the waves.  The spire of the Basilica, built in 586, towered over its compatriots on the shoreline behind them.  The spell was complete.  I was hooked...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Why Croatia?

Why Croatia?

This was by far the question most asked when I began sharing my travel plans.

Why Croatia, indeed?

Before I embarked on my amazing journey, the most obvious, the easiest answer was that my sister owns a house there.  The next was that I had always wanted to travel, to see Europe, to visit some of the places and spaces I had only read and dreamed about previously.

Once I actually got to Croatia, I had an entirely different answer.

Why Croatia?

Because I have fallen in love with it!  The quaint cobblestone streets.  The medieval castles on top of pointed kaleidoscope-coloured hills.  The markets.  The resilient and engaging people.  The rich Roman and pre-Roman history.  The music.

The food...mmmmmmmmmm.....

Now, I dream of going back to see what I already love, and discover what I haven't yet explored.

Why Croatia?

Read on, and maybe you'll see it, too...