Knowing there must be more to Croatia than the fact it was formerly a part of the now-defunct Yugoslavia, and that Croatian soldiers were responsible for inventing the glorified noose known as a necktie (a fact I’ll try not to hold against them), we’re off to investigate!
The skies in Amsterdam are wet, and with Croatia Airlines on strike we’re travelling on a low cost carrier replacement called ‘Livingston Air’. Skeptically boarding the plane our confidence withers further, noticing the cockpit door ajar and seeing the captain sitting in his seat studiously reading a large instruction manual!
Elated to have the landing gear kiss the tarmac of Zagreb’s airport, we hoof it across the street into a smoky pub, and receive slurred directions to our pre-booked B&B. With our time clocks out of sync, we jettison our backpacks and bus to Jelacica Square in town for a wander under the downward glare of grotesque gargoyles crouching on rooftops and looking as if they’re ready to pounce.
After a much needed eight hours in a bed we collect our rental car, a less than opulent Opal about the size as a Costco shopping cart. Somehow we squash in the luggage and ourselves for a soggy five hour drive over tunnel laden roads to the Istria peninsula. Polished to a shine by use, the cobbled streets in the city of Rovinj host centuries-old stone and stucco buildings smothered in brilliant bougainvillea blossoms; helping justify this former fishing village’s reputation as one of the most photogenic of all Mediterranean towns.
Respecting the ingredients of the sea, we dine at Anchoras Restaurant, neatly sculpted into the rocks in a sea-kissed location with waves dancing along the shore. Swallows swoop overhead in a sky drowned in yellow as the setting sun casts its soft rays across elderly pastel buildings. A few optimistic cats sit glued beneath our table yearning for any scrap offerings. According to Croatian legend, a fish should always swim three times; first in the sea, then in olive oil, and then in wine. Yup, I think we’re going to like it here!
Out on a day trip, we stop for a glass of wine at a quirky and romantic little jazz bar called Kamene Price, in the hill town of Bale before pushing on to the town of Pula for a wander about its 2000 year old colosseum. This stunning stoned spectacle is one of the world’s best surviving Roman amphitheaters, and to us equally as impressive as its sibling in Rome.
Completing today’s ‘hat trick’ is a stop in Vodnjan, in the center of a famous olive producing region in South Istria. We are told the best extra virgin oil is not sold in stores, and so using a little persuasion, we acquire directions to the crème de la crème of oil makers who only sells her stash privately. Knocking on the large wooden doors of an old house just outside of town, we’re greeted by a woman who speaks no English.
We convey our message of wanting to purchase some of her oil and she nods, taking us down steep stairs into her cellar. Enormous stainless vats of oil cover the floor, and dozens of diplomas confirming the quality of her product decorate the walls. Scooping oil out of a voluminous vat, she proceeds to bottle, cap, and label it for us right on the spot! These little spur of the moment discoveries are the tonic of travel.
Strolling along a seaside path with a fragrance of pine trees back in Rovinj, we park our bums on the rocky Adriatic shore and caress our glasses of wine while watching the traditional wooden fishing boats chug back into harbor as the sun begins bathing in the ocean.
With a pewter sky full of incontinent clouds, we start today in the bland town of Porec; oddly pronounced as ‘porridge’. I suppose my animosity towards the town can be expected, given my disdain for porridge as a food source; while it may be a perfectly suitable meal for a bear, I find it nothing more than a slimy vegetarian mush capable of provoking my stomach lining to hurl itself into the back of my throat. In fact, I consider the slop to be a gruel and unusual punishment!
Picking up strawberries and apricots in the market, we leave for the mountaintop town of Motovun. However, with zero road signage, we’re forced to stop in one of the villages for directions. I find an older guy and point to the town on the map. He splays his hand wide to form a five, and mauling his English, barks out ‘kilo’, followed by ‘flush-flush’, while waving his hand as if he were dispersing a foul odor. We later learn he was trying to tell us to turn at the river, and chuckle at the use of ‘flush flush’ to try and convey water.
Motovun overlooks the Mirna River, and wandering through the small 13th century town, serial shopper Christine spots a shop selling truffle oil. Quickly she gathers a bag of bottles for gifts, but to my delight they only weigh a few of ounces each; a most unusual departure from her normal voluminous acquisitions.
After our charming days of roving about Rovijn, we motor through a countryside vibrantly painted red with fields of poppies; and over anorexic and bendy mountain roads, including the one from Sej, fittingly signed as ‘Serpentina’ due to the road’s directional pattern mimicking the path of a soused snake.
Five hundred kilometers later we reach Zadar, a coastal town built around Roman ruins. Unwinding from the long drive, we sip a flask of vino on a seaside promenade, people-watching from under the shade of wispy pink Tamarisk trees. Nearby, an architect built a seventy meter long Sea Organ into the seashore, and the unusual instrument is a system of tubes producing ‘music’ using the movement of the wind and waves. A pretty cool idea from a most interesting ‘organ donor’!
After racking up over 1100 road kilometers, we abandon our bug splattered roller-skate in Split, and bus to the World Heritage site of Trogir. Our suitcases bump along behind us over medieval cobbled alleys as we plod on to the hotel where we are dismayed upon seeing our room, as there is probably more room inside a ventriloquist’s suitcase!
With the teensy room a stranger to function, we console ourselves with a bottle of wine and listening to the iPad belt out some good old Bob Segar tunes, and as the music bounces off the stone walls, two puzzled pigeons land on the sill of the propped open window, inquisitively peering inside.
Wanting to do some island hopping, we ferry over Hvar Island, a collection of old stone houses built into hillsides overlooked by a 16th century Spanish castle. The town’s scenery is really gorgeous as are its women. Peacocking about with pleasing, perfectly positioned protuberances, and shoehorned into spandex stretched dangerously taut, they appear to give bedrock solid credibility to the local Mediterranean Diet!
Now where was I? Oh yes, on a bus headed for the fishing village of Vraboska. The driver is smoking a pipe attached to a cord around his neck, and religious crosses swing back and forth on the mirror as the bus careens around the corners of a squiggly road resembling a varicose vein I once had removed from my leg.
Denied of sun, we become one with our raincoats for a wetly walk around the harbor, joined by a little pooch padding along beside us with a medical lamp shade over his head. The poor little guy has only one eye, and so we name him Cy. As the weather accelerates from a drizzle to a full on nozzling Christine and I say goodbye to Cy and shelter from the sky to try and dry in a cozy wine bar until the next bus arrives.
This morning at our pension I suffer a bad fall during an ill-advised trip outside barefoot with a cup of tea in hand. My feet suddenly slide out from beneath me on the wet-from-rain, tile-covered cement stairs and launch my teacup into the air and over the handrail; loudly smashing to smithereens on the cement floor of the apartment’s lower level.
Far more than a whimper escapes my lips as I tumble awkwardly down half a flight of the unforgiving stairs. I’ve wrenched my back, and my shins look they just lost a knife fight with a midget. Damn, I need this stair mugging about as much as a giraffe needs strep throat!
Later in the afternoon the uncooperative Croatian sun makes a rare appearance, so we seize the opportunity and hike up to the Spanish Fortress above town. Our reward is a hand-glider’s view of the ancient walled remains descending towards the glittering green sea and quaint fishing harbour far below.
Back at the room, our B & B hostess Ivanka has been worried about my leg, and in a lovely gesture, brings us Band-Aids, a baked cake, and homemade soup. Ah yes, this perfectly palatable prescription is just what the doctor ordered! She smiles, and pointing to my legs, says ‘you vill allvaise remember Hvar’.
After four days on the island we board the futuristic and sinister looking ‘Krilo Jet’; a catamaran taking us over to Korchula Island, former home of Marco Polo. The crystal clear sea is teeming with fish, but sadly the sun is once again a stranger, having lost its struggle with the clouds.
Walking a beachside path, we pass cactus plants in all their prickly glory flaunting a flowering sea of red, and the air is soaked in the scent of pine forests and seawater. At a pretty bay called Blue Lagoon, we stop for a picnic with a pleasing mix of apricots, figs, and cheese while I soak my injured legs in the salty sea.
Back in town some jerk blindly opens his car door, bashing it into my already painful leg. Utterly unable to edit myself after the blunt force trauma, I let loose with a disturbingly venomous monologue that would surely have churchgoers shaking in their pews! Without doubt he catches the essence of my tirade, as his face crumples and he cowers as if I have pictures of him with the neighbour’s goat. Fook me, I wonder if there is a medieval knight around who may be willing to part with his suit of armor!
Ferrying to Orebic on the Pelješac peninsula, we wander a tamarisk tree lined shore into town and stop at an old church with a vast and vibrantly painted eight foot high egg. Christine poses beside the gigantic embryo of some husky hormonal hen, while I shoot ‘egg-zilla’ with my camera; hoping not to be pecked to pieces by a monstrous ‘mother-clucker’ possibly lurking nearby and concerned we may be aspiring to make an oversized omelet out of her offspring!
Our last side trip from Korchula Island is to Racisce, a fishing village whose diminutive population totals 447. Stopping for a pint at the local pub reveals where most of the men hang out, and Christine immediately gathers their attention as the only ewe in a bar full of rams. Whoa, easy there boys!
Returning to the mainland, we zigzag the roads to Dubrovnik and switch buses for the last 15 km down the coast to Cavtat, our last port of call. The magical Croatian location has a deep blue sea with pools of green, and features a wide promenade fringed with the giant fronds of palm trees whispering in the Adriatic Sea breeze. Another plus of this cute town is that while sitting outside at any of the little eateries, there are no concerns about getting a carbon monoxide entrée from the traffic, as the tiny town is totally pedestrianized.
Andrusko welcomes us to Villa Andro with his homemade grappa, and offers a brief orientation of his villa which, along with the adjoining Posejdon Restaurant, have been in his family for hundreds of years. Adding to the romantic setting, the lights of Dubrovnik’s old town merrily twinkle beyond the bay as a setting sun casts a yellow pathway across the sea.
During a day trip to Dubrovnik, dubbed the pearl of the Adriatic, giant swallows swoop by overhead as we stroll atop massive stone walls that have protected the ancient city for over a thousand years. However, as the morning lengthens squadrons of tour buses begin to arrive, disgorging yammering, flabby-paunched albino cargo that swarm about town reminiscent of a great wildebeest migration.
Tour buses worldwide are regarded by locals as ‘Cows To Be Milked’, and one of the main reasons we avoid them as if they are radioactive! We make a quick getaway to the Laped area of town where Christine stops for a cappuccino and I spy black chocolate gelato. That’s right, not dark chocolate, but black! I am unable to contain my Croatian elation with the luscious licker. Sometimes it’s the smallest details that stick!
Back in Cavtat, hosts Andrusko and wife Tatiana invite us to join them in their lush garden for fresh squeezed orange juice and homemade almond apple cake. We regale each other with travel anecdotes before Christine and I head out for another romantic dinner under the mammoth pine trees at Posejdon, with the sea licking the shore mere inches away from the tables.
Leaving the restaurant we’re startled by a missile in furry trousers, hurtling past our legs. We’re told the animal is a type of marten called a’ kuna’. Apparently, centuries ago its skins were highly valued and used for payments, and later when coins were minted, Croatia’s currency was called ‘kuna’. This is a most unusual sighting as kuna are now so rare that even our host has never seen a live one in 72 years living here.
Hiking to the end of the peninsula we are unexpectedly paralyzed with awe, witnessing the rare sighting of a waterspout tornado. Spiraling down before us out of the ominously storm-stained sky, the eerie sight looks like a giant grey squid doing ballet pirouettes with its tentacles reaching for the sea. Was that Toto and Dorothy I just saw being swept up into the clouds? Before the enticing enigma evaporates there is just enough time for a photo, which will provide a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.
With my leg still too sore for chasing pavement, I opt to go for a swim in the Adriatic Sea, and without testing the water just strip down and dive in. A few shocking nanoseconds later I’m hyperventilating and attempting to relocate my testicles, which have shriveled to the point of becoming intimate with my tonsils!
With eyes flung wide, I hurl myself out of the sea like a breaching whale. The frigidity of my stupidity has me gulping for oxygen like a spent salmon, and I need warmth pronto! Accelerating my quivering extremities back to the villa, I’m hoping an alcoholic frolic on the terrace may help do the trick.
With our time in Croatia all but concluded, our last seaside dinner at Poseiden is indeed a memorable one. Gentle waves lap up near our toes, and while savoring a meal of chicken breasts smothered in gorgonzola, we suddenly find ourselves disbelieving what we see in the sea.
Only a few feet from our table a large boulder lurks just inches under the surface of the water, and a school of fish begins furiously attacking the algae growing on it. Our gaze is riveted on them as they appear to be standing on their heads, as they wriggle about vertically, slapping their tails back and forth out of the water while ripping chunks off the top of the rock. Christine and I enjoy a great chuckle as it appears the finny fellows are aware of our upcoming Cavtat departure and have come to wave goodbye!
So there you have it, Zagreb-Rovinj-Bale-Porec-Pula-Motovun-Zadar-Split-Trogir-Hvar-Korchula-Vraboska-Lumbarda-Vodnjan-Sej-Racisce-Dubrovnik-Orebic-Cavtat. Nope, not a stuck keyboard, nor any type of spectacular vernacular; simply a list of towns visited during our wanders through the delightful country that is Croatia.
Did we enjoy ourselves – you bet your kuna!
Mark Colegrave June 2013