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 http://www.istra.com                                                                                

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