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 when noticing the cockpit door ajar, with the captain sitting in his seat studiously reading a large 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 nearby, pre-booked B&B. We jettisoning our backpacks, and with our time clocks out of sync, bus to Jelacica Square for a town 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 vehicle; a less than opulent Opal about the same size as a Costco shopping cart. Somehow we squash in the luggage and ourselves for a soggy five hour drive over tunnel laden roads leading to the Istria peninsula. Polished to a shine by use, the cobbled streets in 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 the 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. Later, we push on to the town of Pula for a wander about a 2000 year old colosseum. This white 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 at all.
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 decorate the walls confirming the quality of her product. Scooping oil out of a voluminous vat for us, she proceeds to bottle, cap, and label it right on the spot! These little spur of the moment discoveries are the tonic of travel.
Returning to Rovinj, we bring along bottle of wine for a stroll on a seaside path with a fragrance of pine trees hanging in the air. Taking a seat on the rocky Adriatic shore, we caress our glasses of vino while watching traditional wooden fishing boats chug back into harbour as the sun begins bathing in the ocean.
With a pewter sky full of incontinent clouds today, we start off in the bland town of Porec, which is oddly pronounced as ‘porridge’. I suppose my dislike of the place is natural, since as a food source, I loathe porridge almost as much as Brussel sprouts! While it may be a perfectly suitable meal for a bear, I find porridge nothing more than a slimy vegetarian mush capable of provoking my stomach lining to hurl itself into the back of my throat. If I may say; I believe it to be a gruel and unusual punishment!
We buy strawberries and apricots in a market and leave for the mountaintop town of Motovun. However, with zero road signage we’re forced to stop in one of the villages to ask 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 odour. 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 strolling 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. Many of the anorexic and bendy mountain roads, including the one from Sej, are fittingly signed as ‘Serpentina’; likely due to the road’s directional pattern mimicking the path of a soused snake.
Five hundred kilometers later we end up in Zadar, a coastal town built around Roman ruins. Unwinding from the long drive, we sip a flask of vino while sitting a seaside promenade and people watching from under the shade of wispy pink Tamarisk trees. Nearby, an architect has built into the seashore a seventy meter long Sea Organ. The unusual instrument is a system of tubes producing ‘music’ by using the movement of the wind and waves. A pretty cool idea from a most interesting ‘organ donor’!
After feeding the car a diet of 1100 road kilometers, we abandon our bug splattered roller-skate in Split, and bus to the World Heritage site of medieval Trogir. Our suitcases bump along behind us over worn cobbled alleys as we plod on to the hotel. Sadly, when seeing our room we are dismayed to find that in terms of space, 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. As the music bounces off the room’s stone walls, two puzzled pigeons land on the sill of the propped open window; inquisitively peering inside.
Wanting to explore some of the island, we take a ferry boat to Hvar. The island is a collection of old stone houses built into hillsides overlooked by a 16th century Spanish castle. The town scenery is really gorgeous, including the two-legged variety. Peacocking about with pleasing, perfectly positioned protuberances, and shoehorned into spandex stretched dangerously taut over their considerable assets, the appear to give 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 from 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 and engage in a wetly walk around the harbor, quickly joined by a cute little dog padding along at our side and wearing a medical lamp shade over his head. The poor little guy has only one eye, and we name him Cy. The weather soon accelerates from a drizzle to a full on nozzling, so we duck into a cozy wine bar to try and dry, while a flask of wine magically evaporates.
This morning at our pension I suffer a bad fall during an ill-advised, barefoot trip outside with a cup of tea in hand. During this ‘insanitea’, my clumsiness is taken to a whole new level as my feet suddenly slide out from beneath me on the wet-from-rain, tile-covered cement stairs. This launches my teacup into the air and over the handrail before 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 unforgiving stairs. I’ve wrenched my back, and my shins look they just lost a knife fight with a midget. Damn, I need this crap 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 looking ‘Krilo Jet’ which has the looks of a sinister catamaran, and hop over to Korchula Island, former home of Marco Polo. The crystal clear sea is teeming with fish, but sadly, clouds holding a rumor of rain have once again kidnapped the sun!
Along a beachside path, in all their prickly glory, cactus plants flaunt 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 interrupt our stroll for a picnic,with a pleasing mix of apricots, figs, and cheese; while I soak my injured legs in the salty sea.
Walking past a 12th century fortress 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 have churchgoers shaking in their pews! It’s undoubtedly clear 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 want to part with his armor!
Ferrying to Orebic on the Pelješac peninsula, we wander a tree lined shore into town, stopping at an old church with a vast and vibrantly painted eight foot high egg. Christine poses beside this gigantic embryo of some husky hormonal hen, while I shoot ‘egg-zilla’ with my camera; hoping not to be pecked to pieces by a huge protective ‘mother-clucker’ possibly lurking nearby that’s 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 palm trees whose giant fronds whisper in the Adriatic Sea breeze. Another plus of this cute town is that while sitting outside at any of the little eateries, there is no worry about getting a carbon monoxide entrée from the traffic, as this tiny town is totally pedestrianized.
Andrusko welcomes us to Villa Andro with his homemade grappa and offers a brief orientation of his villa, which has been in his family for hundreds of years, along with the adjoining Posejdon Restaurant, where the sea licks at stone walls mere inches away from the tables. 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 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 we remember!
Back in Cavtat, hosts Andrusko and wife Tatiana invite us to join them in the 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.
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 when 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; I just strip down and dive in. A few shocking nanoseconds later I’m attempting to remove my testicles that have just become intimate with my tonsils!
Gasping from the frigidity of my stupidity, with my eyes flung wide, I hurl myself out of the sea like a breaching whale! I need warmth pronto, and accelerate my quivering extremities back towards the villa, hoping an alcoholic frolic on the terrace may help do the trick.
With time in Croatia all but concluded, our last seaside dinner at Poseiden is indeed a memorable one. Gentle waves lap up near our toes as we savor our meal of chicken breasts smothered in gorgonzola, when suddenly, we find ourselves disbelieving what we see in the sea.
A large rock lurks just inches under the surface of the water only a few feet from our table, and a school of fish begin attacking algae on top of it in a fantastic feeding frenzy. With rapt fascination we watch fish standing on their heads as they wriggle about vertically, and actually slap their tails back and forth out of the water during their feeding. Christine and I enjoy a great chuckle, as it appears the finny fellows have become 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