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 noticing the cockpit door ajar with the captain sitting in his seat busy reading a large manual!
Elated when the landing gear kisses the tarmac of Zagreb’s airport, we hoof it across the street into a smoky pub, and receive slurred directions to our B&B. With our time clocks out of sync, we bus to Jelacica Square for a wander about town, with grotesque gargoyles crouched on the rooftops looking down on us as if they are ready to pounce.
After a much needed eight hours in a bed we collect our rental car. The less than opulent Opal is seemingly sized for gerbils, but we somehow squash in the luggage and ourselves for a soggy five hour drive on tunnel laden roads leading to the Istria peninsula. Polished to a shine by use, the cobbled streets in the town 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 the ancient pastel buildings. A few optimistic cats sit glued beneath our table in hopes of an offering. 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 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 the town Vodnjan, the center of a famous olive producing region in South Istria. We’re told the best extra virgin oil is not sold in stores, and with 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 the old house, we’re greeted by a woman speaking 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 diplomas decorating the walls confirm the quality of her product. Scooping the oil out of a voluminous vat, 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 take a bottle of wine for a stroll along a seaside path with a fragrance of pine trees hanging in the air. On the Adriatic shore we take a seat on the rocks, and caressing our glasses of vino, watch traditional wooden fishing boats chug back into harbour as the sun begins bathing in the ocean.
With a pewter sky full of incontinent clouds, we begin our day in the bland town of Porec, oddly pronounced as ‘porridge’. I suppose my dislike of the place is natural, since I loathe porridge almost as much as Brussel sprouts as a food source. 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. A gruel and unusual punishment!
After buying strawberries and apricots from a market, we 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 who can’t speak English, but when I point to the town on the map, he splays his hand to indicate five, and says ‘kilo’; followed by ‘flush-flush’ while waving his arm towards an intersecting road. We later learn he was trying to tell us to turn at the river, and chuckle at his 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 and quickly gathers numerous bottles for gifts. Fortunately they only weigh a few of ounces each; a most unusual departure from her normal voluminous acquisitions.
After our delightful days roving around Rovijn we motor through a countryside vibrantly painted red with fields of poppies. Many of the anorexic and bendy mountain roads, including one from Sej, are fittingly signed as ‘Serpentina’; likely due to the road’s directional pattern which mimics the path of a soused snake.
Five hundred kilometers later we arrive in Zadar, a coastal town built around Roman ruins. Un-wine-ding from the long drive we sip our drinks while people watching from under the shade on a seaside promenade lined with pink Tamarisk trees. Nearby, a seventy meter long Sea Organ has been built by an architect into the seashore. 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 feeding the car a diet of 1100 km of roads, we abandon our bug splattered Opal in Split, and bus to the World Heritage site of medieval Trogir. Our suitcases bump along worn cobbled alleys on the way to our hotel, where sadly our room is so small that there’s probably more space inside a ventriloquist’s suitcase!
With the teensy room a stranger to function, we console ourselves by sipping wine and listening to the iPad belt out some good old Bob Segar tunes. With the music bouncing off the room’s old stone walls, two puzzled pigeons land on the sill of the propped open window and peer inside with interest.
Wanting some island time, we 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 gorgeous, including the two-legged variety who peacock about with pleasing, perfectly positioned protuberances. Shoehorned into spandex stretched dangerously taut over their considerable assets they 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 and religious crosses swing back and forth from the bus mirror as it careens around the corners on squiggly roads 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, with a cute little one eyed dog we’ve named Cy padding along at our side. However, with the weather accelerating from a drizzle to a full on nozzling, we duck into cozy wine bar to try and dry; mysteriously witnessing a flask of wine evaporate while awaiting the next bus.
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, tile-covered cement stairs, launching my teacup into the air over the handrail before loudly smashing to smithereens on the tiles below.
Tumbling awkwardly down half a flight of unforgiving stairs, far more than a whimper escapes my lips, as I’ve wrenched my back and my shins look they lost a knife fight with a midget. Damn, I need this about as much as a giraffe needs strep throat!
On the positive side, the uncooperative Croatian sun makes a rare appearance so we take advantage and hike up to the Spanish Fortress above town; rewarded with a hand-glider’s view of the ancient walled remains that descend 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 Hvar, we board the futuristic looking ‘Krilo Jet’ which has the looks of a sinister catamaran. We hop over to Korchula Island, former home of Marco Polo, and find the crystal clear sea is teeming with fish; but sadly the clouds, holding a rumor of rain, have once again kidnapped the sun!
Overnight rains have enhanced the intoxicating scent of the pine forests, and in all their prickly glory the spiky cactus plants are awash in a sea of red flowers. At a pretty bay called Blue Lagoon we settle down for a picnic; and while soaking my injured leg in the salty sea, we nibble on tasty apricots, figs, and cheese.
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 bellow a disturbingly venomous monologue that would surely have any churchgoers shaking in their pews! It’s abundantly clear he catches the essence of my tirade as his face crumples and he backs off like 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 sell his armor!
After ferrying to the town of Orebic we wander along the tree lined shore into town, stopping at an old church with a vast and vibrantly painted eight foot high egg. Christine poses beside the gigantic embryo for scale and I use my camera to shoot ‘egg-zilla’, hoping not to be pecked to pieces by a protective prehistoric seven-story ‘mother-clucker’ lurking nearby that’s concerned we may want to consume her offspring!
Our last side trip from Korchula is to the fishing village of Racisce, whose diminutive population totals 447. Stopping for a pint at the local pub we locate most of the men, and Christine quickly draws 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 to spend the last of our holidays. This magical Croatian location offers a wide promenade along a deep blue sea with pools of green, and is fringed with giant fronds of palm trees whispering in the Adriatic Sea breeze.
Cobbled streets lead to old stone houses climbing back from the sea, as well as many tasty little eateries where there is no worry about getting a carbon monoxide entrée from traffic, as the tiny town is totally pedestrianized.
At Villa Andro, the owner Andrusko welcomes us with homemade grappa while offering a brief orientation of his villa, which has been in his family for hundreds of years. The family also owns the adjoining Posejdon restaurant, offering a romantic dinner setting, with the sea licking at stone walls mere inches from the tables. With the setting sun casting a yellow pathway, the lights of Dubrovnik’s old town merrily twinkle across the bay.
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 their 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 quickly make our 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!
Back in Cavtat, still thinking about my n-ice cream, 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 enjoy swapping travel tales before heading off 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.
While hiking to the end of the peninsula we unexpectedly become 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 armada of clouds? There is just enough time for some exciting photos before the strange enigma evaporates.
With my leg still too sore for chasing pavement, I opt for a swim in the Adriatic Sea. Without testing the water I just strip down and dive in; a few shocking nanoseconds later resurfacing in an attempt to remove my testicles that have just become intimate with my tonsils!
Gasping from the frigidity of my stupidity, I hurl myself out of the sea like a breaching whale, with my eyes flung wide! I need warmth pronto and accelerate my quivering extremities back to the villa, hoping an alcoholic frolic on the terrace may help do the trick!
With our mostly restful days in Croatia all but evaporated, our last seaside dinner at Poseiden is indeed a memorable one. As gentle waves lap up near our toes, we are savoring a meal of chicken breasts smothered in gorgonzola, when suddenly we find ourselves disbelieving what we see in the sea.
There is a large rock 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. The entertaining exercise comes off like a synchronized water ballet, with the fish wriggling about vertically to eat, and actually slapping their tails back and forth out of the water. Christine and I enjoy a great chuckle as it appears the finny fellows have learned we are leaving the enchanting little town of Cavtat, 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, or 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