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.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Going for Groceries, Croatian Style

One of the highlights of the day, whether we were exhausted from the excitement and exposure to new and mind-blowing experiences or not, was getting groceries at the end of it.

Grocery shopping encompassed a wide range of experiences.  It started with the foreign sign on the door, and continued within, as the tones of the Croatian language swirled around and among us like notes from an intriguing but unfamiliar  song. We enjoyed the 'looks' we would get as we spoke English among ourselves.  I especially enjoyed seeing children chatter incomprehensibly with a parent as they shopped.

I loved to try to 'read' the labels on everything, using what I learned of pronunciation rules from my handy 'cheat' book.  I'm sure that more than once I shocked an innocent passer-by as I stood stock-still before an especially impressive and difficult label, carefully sounding out the letters in my attempt to conquer the tongue twister -  often out loud!

It was great fun to find a familiar brand name and try to translate the few Croatian words I recognized from the box.  If I found a box or package that was familiar I would often collapse into giggles as I tried to read the list of ingredients.  It was so hilarious to see 'Lays' chips, or 'Uncle Ben's' rice in so familiar and yet starkly different forms.

Then there were the packages that completely stumped us - labels without a helpful photo of internationally recognizable contents.  Trying to figure out which product was actually tuna and not some variation of salad or stew was always interesting.  More giggles would erupt as we realized our errors after frantically looking up product names in our handy Croatian dictionary.

Price tags were also a source of general amusement.  The exchange between Canadian dollars and Croatian kuna was about 5:1, so prices appeared unreasonably 'expensive' until you factored in the currency difference.

Most fun was the opportunity to try new things.  I fell in love with cvapcici (ch-vap-chi-chi), for example.  A spicy sausage formed out of ground beef, these little tasty treats were in every meat department.  I brought back some spices and tried to make some after I got home, but they just weren't the same somehow.

It was so much fun to be completely unfamiliar with proper procedures, in an entirely new social situation, and be forced to watch and copy the actions of the 'locals'.  When in Croatia, you go for groceries Croatian style - and love every minute of it!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

In Which I Storm a Castle

In the town of Svetvincenat (St. Vincent), a history buff finds fresh fodder for a ripe imagination.  The lovely town square is bordered by its Renaissance church, Venetian bell tower, and administrative loggia, all dating from the 16th century.  A tiny chapel built in the 14th century is decorated with valuable frescoes.  The town well dominates the central area of the square.  It is first mentioned in ancient texts from 965 AD, so its roots evidently reach deep into history itself.

The town is situated in the midst of pastoral greenery - olive groves, vineyards, small farms, and livestock producers live in the surrounding countryside.  Approximately 100 varieties of mushrooms also make Svetvincenat their home.

The piece de resistance is the 15th century castle which dominates one side of the square.  It boasts several towers - two round, one square.  Formerly luxurious living quarters overlook the square in regal austerity.

The castle door used to be approached over a drawbridge - in modern times, one walks over a much less romantic dry ground approach.

Intrigued, we walked around the entire castle's perimeter.  Wherever there were tiny apertures, I peered longingly at the interior.  Several times I expressed my wish to enter, and was feeling rather dejected that the gates were shutting me out.  I wanted to explore this fascinating edifice!

This castle was the center of a politically intriguing and varied history.  Changing hands often between the various powers that be, it played an important role over the years.  The stories it could tell include Templar Knights, monks and ancient abbeys. It may even have been silent witness to the torture and stake death of a young woman accused of witchcraft!

 Built earlier, there is an inscription over the door labeling 1485 as its 'official' origin.  It is named after the Grimani family, 2 sons of which married the daughters of the previous lord, who had died without male heirs; the Grimani boys are credited with reconstructing its walls after the castle was  damaged in the 1500s.

When we had walked its full extent, my brother-in-law was amazed to note that the gates were now open!  We wandered inside, and saw a crew busy at work on a major restoration project.  Not knowing whether we were allowed in or not, we stormed the gates boldly and entered without a shot being fired!

The crew kept to their tasks, apparently unalarmed at the Canadian invasion.

It was easy to imagine the servants scurrying about within those massive walls, and visualize stiff ballgowns, cannon fire, and  political intrigue in secret passageways!  In close proximity to the past, I found myself once again thinking of  the variety of human dramas that those ancient stones have participated in over the centuries.

Not wanting to disrupt the crew's labors, we took a cursory look at the work in progress and at the views within the walls.  We slipped furtively to our car unnoticed, our mission accomplished.

I melted into the evening shadows, reflecting that it is a lot easier (and a lot more fun) to storm a castle than I had imagined!

Recollection Collection

There are a number of photographs which are a faithful record of the heart and soul of Istria, but which aren't attached enough to a story to stand alone.  They appear here as a collection of visual impressions of that beautiful area.

Fig trees are everywhere.  It was 'smokva' (fig) season in early November, and fresh figs were plentiful at every market.   They were among our favourite snacks.  We always had some in the car to munch on as we headed out on our day trips!

I loved the signage.  Tiny villages tend to run together in endless strings in some areas, planted one on top of the next like a bountiful kitchen garden. Signs like these indicated when you had passed through one community and were removed from its town limits.  I thought it was so cute!

Every sign we passed was a language opportunity - my sister and I struggled to practice our growing store of Croatian by reading everything we could.  

Before my experiences in Croatia, I had only sung about roasted chestnuts at Christmas!  Vendors selling these tasty treats were common at festivals, markets, and along city streets.

Mealy, warm, and delicious, they were the perfect accompaniment to a touristy stroll.  Chestnuts of excellent quality are produced throughout Istria.

Rural areas are dotted with tiny, almost secretive fields and vineyards accessed by winding trails lined with stone walls, like this one.  Many of the walls have been in existence for generation upon generation, their origins hidden in the memories of ancestors long-forgotten.

Acacia groves lend a deliciously aromatic perfume in spring.  Tiny lizards dart about on the sun-warmed rocks.

We were fascinated by the car-ports.  Where we live, a garage is important to keep vehicles out of the snow.  Here, the only requirement seems to be protection from the hot Mediterranean sun.  Each parking space was prettier than the last.  Most were draped with overhanging vines - this one hung heavy with ripe kiwis.  I couldn't shake the thought that the lovely tile and stonework would be dangerously slick in Canadian winter conditions!

These experiences opened my eyes to the role culture plays in our development.  No wonder travel is such an education; we create the opportunity to view and live beyond our own cultural norms.

When you travel, open your eyes wide!  Compare, contrast, expand your horizons.  The world is waiting!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Pirate Caves on the Limski Kanal

The Limski Kanal looks much like a fjord -  rocky cliffs smothered in forests rise steeply from a sparkling blue Adriatic sea.  Located between Vrsar on the north and Rovinj on the south, the canal is host to mussel farms at its narrowest end, at the point where waves hug the inner coast.

Our first glimpse of the 'pirate cave' was from the vantage point of our tour boat, which chugged us from Porec to Rovinj for some splendid sightseeing.  There are numerous caves in this area, rumoured to have been  utilised by pirates in the not-too-distant past.  Evidence links these caves to much older occupation - Ice Age relics have been retrieved which indicate human use up to 12,300 years ago!

Boat rides are a popular tourist activity in the Limski Kanal.  Nearby Vrsar, with its well-appointed marina, attracts the yachting set, who like to stop by the Pirate Bar located in one of the caves on a hot afternoon.

 There are scores of biking and hiking trails in this area, and we heard that some of these caves were also accessible by land.  The cave we were seeking, dubbed the 'Pirate Cave', is arrived at by dint of an incredibly steep stone staircase, winding its way down the cliff like a droll snake whip.  That staircase was indeed a curiosity in itself.  From time to time, the sea in its sparkling finery peered at us between majestic trees.

After the winding descent, we reached the cave proper.  A pirate-themed bar is perched at an alarming angle atop the cliff overlooking the sea from the cave mouth itself.

The cave, devoid of anything material save a small band platform and some graffiti, is a large enough opening to hold numerous guests.  One can clamber around on the rock floor, worn smooth and slick by thousands of visitors, enjoying the different angles and viewpoints of the sea.

The outhouses are clinging so precariously to narrow passageways and cliff-sides that I had a hard time not imagining scores of drunk folks slipping to their deaths!  In Canada, any potential hazard is so well-marked.  Here, no signs warned of the pitfalls of a misstep on the way to the loo.  I was forced to conclude that either Croatians have a better center of gravity and balance than all other races, or that the rabbit-trail pathways are a good way of weeding out weaker genetics. (!)

Day was just making its first farewells as we stood upon that height, smelling the sea and enjoying its glittering jewel-tone waves.

 We wondered at the expense and effort of lowering supplies down that treacherous staircase.  We wondered at the oldest occupants of the area from days long past.  We gaped at the view.  We admired the biking trails through the forest above the sea.

We didn't know at the time that the 1958 movie 'The Vikings' starring Kirk Douglas had been filmed in the Lim Bay.  The setting was perfect for swashbuckling adventure and loot and bands of brigands!

If you are ever in the area, it is an interesting place to visit!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Kazun Country

Dotted among the olive trees and vineyards of Istria, and concentrated mostly in the areas surrounding Vodnjan, you see many kazuni.  A kazun (pronounced ka-joon, with the central sound being similar to the 's' in measure) is a tiny round structure, constructed with a dry-stack technique out of the readily available flat stones so plentiful and abundant in the fields.

Most of them are tiny, only allowing 1 or 2 people to comfortably sit inside.  They have been used over the centuries to store food and other supplies safely out of the elements for those working in the olive groves and vineyards, and there is no reason to suppose that they were not built for this very reason during the time the mighty Roman Empire ruled with its iron fist -this is when they originated all over Europe.

Similar to the 'hiska' in Slovenia, the 'clochan' in Ireland, the 'graubuenden' in Switzerland, and other like sites in Spain, Italy, Scottland, and Germany, it is presumed that they were an encouragement of Rome, used in Istria in particular as storage facilities for workers producing the world-class olive oil so prized by Roman markets.

They are often found built into an adjacent dry-stacked stone wall.  I was told that the dry-stack technique was a result of the ease of movement for herds of Boskarina, an Istrian breed of cattle, as well as sheep and goats.  Shepherds could simply remove stones form a wall in an area in which they wanted to pass through, and close the gap behind themselves.

Declared national monuments, there are laws protecting these cute little structures all over Istria.

Stone fences are very commmon, especially near Vodnjan; marking the division of property, many of them have remained in place for generation upon generation.  Their foundations may be Roman, or even pre-Roman, with layers added throughout the years as farmers cleared their fields of the ever-present stones.

Often, the winding roads themselves are watched over by ancient border fences.  Many have kazuni built into their corners.  It is fun to try to spot them around every bend and twist in the road.

Shepherds today still watch over their animals in un-fenced areas.  These sheep were herded by a retired gentleman, who spoke such fast Croatian and Italian, we could only pick out a few words!  We gathered that his sons produced cheese just down the road - or  was it that his sheep produced sons up the hill?  Either way, the chat by the side of a
narrow Croatian road, with fall foliage exploding in colour, stone fences and kazuni in the area, became in itself another wonderful travel experience.  It was like entering another era, a slower paced existence, to the days of the prairie pioneers where I grew up back home.

To read more about Istria's kazuni, check out  (a site which includes information on the nearby Slovenian stone structures as well) or , which will give you detailed information including maps of kazun locations.  

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Zavrsje: The Fairytale Ghost Town

Deep in the heart of olive oil and wine country lies a town that has to be seen to be believed.

Nestled atop an impossibly steep hill, the stone edifices of Zavrsje mask incredible secrets.  You would never know to look at it that the strings of creeping ivy were hiding history itself.

The town is marked by a Romanic bell tower, complete with guard posts.  This tower is the local Pisa - unaccountably, it leans!  It is built within the walls - crumbling now, but formerly double-width and fortified to the hilt - of an 11th century palace. 

A visitor may arrive through the remaining palace gate on foot (although it was evident that one of the locals was using this tiny aperture as a driveway entrance!)  Note the coat of arms above and to the left of the gate.   Imagine living within the walls of an 11th century palace!  Originally built by the Contarini family, this hilltop fortification must have been an imposing  feature of the landscape in days long ago.

Above the gate and to the right, an ancient relief of Ariadne and Bacchus still clings to the ancient stone.  In the intervening centuries, Ariadne has unaccountably grown a full green head of hair and a 'living' shield.  With the gentle breeze disturbing her tresses, she gave the eery impression of being very much alive and consumed with curiosity regarding the events beneath her, within her stony glance.

Just outside the town gate, a gorgeous 16th century chapel quietly dominates the hill.  An altar built in 1476, designed for this chapel, is now on display at the Louvre in Paris as an artistic masterpiece.  It has been abandoned for the more modern church down the hill, but someone still lovingly tends the flowerpots by the front step in an act of pious devotion.  The result is fanciful and pleasant, to be sure.

Within the town gate are scenes from Hans Christian Anderson, of the Brothers Grimm.  Fantastically arranged abandoned houses from the 16th through 18th centuries line mysterious and dreamy cobbled streets.  Ivy clings to every conceivable orifice in imaginative dream-scape designs.  This romantic staircase, curving up to an arched and vacant doorway, captured my senses completely.  Every direction I turned was an ethereal spectacle.  Empty windows framed with crimson foliage marked streets dotted with cavernous rooms, long empty, long disused.  I couldn't hep but imagine the delight I would have had as a child in exploring the endless nooks and vine-draped crannies of the other-world landscape.  If a knight in full regalia had trotted up on his horse and asked the way to the enchanted princess, it could not have been a more fitting remark in that fairytale haven.

I have never had such a strong urge to paint as I did that day.  I gaped, mouth wide, and I was aware of it, but couldn't stop myself.  At one point I remember standing in one spot, turning in a complete circle, and just absolutely drinking in the sights, like one who had been parched for days.  It was too beautiful and hallowed for ooohs and aaahs.  It demanded an offering of mute homage, a melding into the mysteries of time and place.

And little did I know that the best was yet to come!

The day set for our visit happened to be a Sunday morning.  As we descended that mythical hill, I could hear faint music.  Enchanted, I came to a stop at the open door of this church.

A service was in progress.  The music was strange and unfamiliar to my North American ears.  The words were indiscernible.  But the combination of the land of princes and princesses of long ago that I had so recently vacated, along with the reverent tones of those sacred notes, drew tears of worship from my eyes.  It was a hallowed moment, a time of deep sensitivity to my surroundings, an instance where my spirit was easily stirred by the invisible and unseen.

  In close proximity to the church was a sign, describing the various investments projected for the area, with future monies ear-marked from a speculated arrangement with the EU.  Now that Croatia has become the newest member of the European Union, it may be possible that Zavrsje is destined for a major reconstruction and restoration venture.  Will the restored palace retain its romantic air?  Will progress disrupt the beauty and spirit which defines Zavrsje?  Only time will tell.

Either way, this off-the-beaten-trail town is definitely worth the visit!

My thanks to the Tourist Board of Istra County for some useful information.  Check them out at                                                                                

Monday, 12 March 2012

I Fall in Love at Groznjan

Groznjan is a little hill town within Medieval castle walls.  Motovun is amazing, Hum is delicious in its tiny quaintness - Groznjan stole my heart.

My apologies go to my husband - whom I love dearly.  I mean no disrespect.

But oh, how I love Groznjan!

In the 1950's, this town was all but deserted.  Then, a small band of artists decided to make their homes here, and it became a colony of art and music that has flourished to the present time.  Packed with art shops and painting galleries and musician's studios, summer brings flocks of tourists to feed on the poetry and spirit of art energy flowing in Groznjan's very veins.

Summer concerts are commonly offered, which send pure notes of musical manna echoing among the stone cottages and shops.  Artists flaunt their wares along every secret side street.   Dainty inner squares sport magical pathways sprouting off in multiple directions.  I was often conflicted, because each inviting alleyway was more delightful than the last, and I didn't want to miss anything!                                                    

An art-shopper's paradise, the jewellery, pottery, paintings, and sculptures produced in Groznjan are a tempting mix indeed.

Cute little courtyards are lazily watched by a stunning variety of shuttered and lace-draped windows, each more beautiful than the last.  Cobbled and dotted with a myriad of stone benches and pots of flowers, it was pure heaven to wander among the ancient stones under the Mediterranean sun.

This charmer was for rent!  I was mesmerized by its character, its position overlooking a garden on the edge of the hill itself.  I could imagine staying here for the summer, rubbing shoulders with gifted artisans, relaxing and enjoying a fresh gelato while listening to violins at dusk.  That mental picture is so delicious!

Even late in the season (mid-November), there were still visitors here.  Many shops had closed for the season, but the ones which were open were lots of fun to browse through.

We ate a picnic lunch at the bottom of the hill while the streets above were being swept clean for guests.  We thought we might have to bypass the town altogether (we were on a tight schedule that day) but waited.  Am I ever glad we did!

Even the sewer grates of the town were pretty - as I took some photos of them, I was laughing to myself.  I've never taken pictures of sewer grates at home!

One more detail of interest to note: the cutest ATM machine in the world is in Groznjan.  Recessed into a stone wall and down several stone steps from the street level, even the business side of the town was pretty!
Being an artist myself, the idea of an artisan village was  new and refreshing and fascinating to me.  The hilltop perch, the Medieval castle walls, the artsy-craftsy feel, the relaxed atmosphere, the charm of the streets - all will draw me back for another visit to the town that stole my heart.