Sunday, May 8, 2011

Istria

This last Sunday, May 1, Lucia and I hosted a potluck dinner for Larry and Judy Moneta, who used to live in our apartment when Larry was a Fulbrighter here. Coincidentally it was the 46th anniversary of the first time Lucia and I met (a blind date), which made for a bit yet more celebration, as if we needed an excuse. In the pic many of you have already seen, I am holding a bottle of fine Croatian bubbly been poured during the cavorting. And by the way, we were very excited to see most of our local Fulbright crew, among others.

Thirty six hours later, Lucia was winging her way back to Los Angeles—far earlier than we had initially planned—to visit her mum Giannina, who is approaching 96 and is not doing well. Elena and John have long been doing the heavy lifting in terms of her care, and Lucia feels she is needed. I wish Grandma Varni, Lucia, Elena, and John the very best as they deal with the moment, and I wish the mommies a Happy Mother’s Day.

Meanwhile, all of a sudden I am a bachelor without my loving wife. It would seem the party’s over. Well, not quite. :) To begin, those of you who have scheduled visits here, please don’t change your plans! I will be in Croatia until early July (tentatively the 10th), whereupon I head back to Austin, take a shower, and then head to D.C. to tell the new Fulbrighters that they need to understand the difference between Ulaz and Izlaz, Vilajmovka and kruh, and Slavonia and Slovenia. I will be in Dubrovnik next week, Albania in June, and likely Belgrade somewhere in between. And besides, my quest for the perfect pašticada and rakija is still on-going. The tension between staying in this wonderful place and getting home to see my bride is palpable, but the chance to get a new dog—Pivo—may tip the scales.

So, Lucia and I took our last Croatian trip only two weeks ago, which was for Uskrs (Easter). As most of you know, the Catholic and Orthodox Easter coincided this time around, which made things in this region all the more exciting. We had a wonderful time. Lucia’s friend since the fourth grade—the irrepressible Nancy—was here to visit, so we decided to hit the road for the Istria and the coast. If you don’t know where it is, grab (no, likely Google) a map. Think Venice, then make the short trip across the Adriatic, and shift slightly south to the peninsula of sorts called Istria. Trieste, Italy, and Velvet’s Fulbright home of Koper, Slovenia are at the northern end and Pula is at the tip in the South.

We drove, but the distances are not great. The ultimate destination was the coastal town of Rovinj, but there is so much to see in between. The actual driving time from Zagreb to Rovinj may be four hours or so, but we stopped along the way many times that day. The countryside is gorgeous and the weather was fantastic; big puffy clouds and cool breezes. A jacket wasn’t needed. People like to say that the Istrian landscape and people are very Italian, but I prefer to say that select parts of Italy across the water are very Croatian. Rolling hills, scattered villages, vineyards, olive trees, and small old churches are framed now and then by stone walls that may have been abandoned three hundred years ago and may still yet provide some kind of service, maybe by keeping the occasional wandering horse or cow at bay. The only blot was the occasional ironically challenged and too-serious-for-their-own-good bicyclists, but at least they were quiet and don’t pollute.

We stopped briefly at Hum, although we inadvertently took a back road to get there. Such mistakes are sometimes very lucky. At times I thought we were literally going through backyards of the locals, but just when we thought we may be on the wrong road, a hand painted sign with an arrow would pop up, directing us to Hum, which is a town of (as advertised) 17 people. It has purportedly been the Guinness World Record holder for the smallest town in the world, which is less important than its history and beautiful simplicity. As is so often the case, the graveyard told so many tales, including its integrated Italian-Croatian history.





Our next stop was the stunning Motovun, where we wandered for several hours and settled on a light lunch. The town is perched high on a mountain in the middle of a beautiful valley, a bit reminiscent of Orvieto, Italy, if you have ever been fortunate to be there. Along the way to Motovun, there were several other castles and settlements that were impressive in their own right.





Rovinj is lovely. It is a tourist town, of course, but that doesn’t totally overshadow the fact that people live there (maybe 15,000). It is on a small peninsula with water surrounding it on three sides. Winding and narrow cobble stoned streets—complete with the ever present drying laundry (hardly unique in Croatia) hanging out the windows of higher floors—lead up a hill to St. Euphemia, which is stunning not only in its own right, but also because of its location, looking out to the town and sea. The town has a functional port, with fishing boats plying their trade, mixed in with the little tour boats that take you through the island. We took one of the latter for a few hour tour of some of the islands for which Croatia is so well known, and the guy took one look at me and figured I was ideal to taste his homemade Rakija. He was right. It’s nice to share a common cultural bond, in this case good Istrian Rakija.

The bused-in tourist crowds were just starting this time of year, but they weren’t too bad. It would seem they came from nowhere around mid-morning and by eve they were gone. Many of the tourists were Croatian and few were German, but it seemed as though most Italians. In fact, the Italian influence is palpable in this town even before the tourists, in terms of food, language, and whatever metric you choose. Funny, sometimes we would hear someone speaking what we thought was Italian, only to realize it was Croatian; the cadence seemed from the other side of Adriatic.





The food in Rovinj was very good, but at least from where we went, it wasn’t quite at the level we found in Split, or even Šibenik. Don’t get me wrong, the fresh caught fish from that morning was brought to your table so you could choose the kind you wanted, and it was grilled to perfection, but the accoutrements weren’t quite as good. Of course, our case is limited to a very few returants! But I think the frutti del mar we had in Split on the fall was the best we have ever had and the grilled calamari in Šibenik was like no other we have ever experienced. And by the way, seafood is amazingly fresh on the Croatian coast and it is cheaper than in Zagreb and the U.S., but make no mistake, this is not small coastal town Mexico or Thailand; you pay developed world prices.

We celebrated Easter at St. Euphemia and had a fine meal near the water. The next day we headed down to Pula, which is less than an hour away.


It’s an industrial town and some folks don’t think much of it, but we enjoyed the afternoon. There is an impressive castle on the hill, but the historical feature Pula is best known for is its arena, which is one of the largest and best kept amphitheaters from Roman times. Nasty old lions ate Christians there, and gladiators fought to the death, while more recently is has seen cultural performances by ancient groups, including Sting, Elton John, and Sinéad O'Connor.

The trip home from Pula to Zagreb was, thankfully, as uneventful as can be. And by the way, the main roads, tunnels, and bridges are state of the art in Croatia. Yea, the rural roads can be sketchy, but the main highway infrastructure is first rate. The EU awaits!

Leo
Zagreb