Although I had visited the southern area of Croatia, I had never been to the top left-hand corner – which is almost a part of Italy as it is so close to Trieste – and so when an opportunity arose to explore a new area I was very excited.
- My father will probably be able to meet you at the airport. His name is James (*)
- Oh – many thanks!
I thought how curious it was that Penny was married to a man named James and that her father’s name was also James, but then perhaps “James” is a name frequently found in Croatia. I had met the trim taut and terrific P and her slightly older but very sprightly husband when they were in Chiang Mai earlier this year and was looking forward to seeing them again and to exploring their city – Rovinj.
James emailed me to say that he would send a company driver to meet me – and after my top-to-tail flights from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Vienna to Zagreb to Zadar to Pula, I was exceeding glad to see a man holding up a piece of paper with my name on it. In his limited English the driver told me that he would take me to James who was still working in his surgery.
The surgery was frantic, but eventually James appeared – the man I had met in Chiang Mai – but I was not sure where the other James was. My luggage was loaded into James’ huge Mercedes car and we set off to the apartment I was to use during my visit to Rovinj. En route he told me that Penny would not be able to see me as she was studying in Italy, but that his wife was looking forward to meeting me …
If I was confused before this statement I was even more so then.
We collected the apartment keys from his home, where his wife climbed into the car.
- I thought Penny was studying in Italy
- She is
- So who is this?
- This is Sarah – my wife
- But …?
There are not two men called James – only one. James is the husband of Sarah and the father of Penny. The slight age gap between assumed husband and wife but in reality between father and daughter now explained itself. Suddenly all became clear to me – and also to James and Sarah who clearly believed me to be some sort of latter-day village idiot … and kept looking at me strangely … as if I might, after all, make off with the family silver.
Despite these misgivings, the apartment was superb, with wonderful views over the Old Town of Rovinj to the fortified hilltop with its huge Sixth Century Basilica of St Euphemia – patron saint of the city – and whose bones have been interred in a large sarcophagus behind the high alter in the church for the last 1,217 years.
I guess I can be something of an heretic and suggest that they may not really be there after all this time … but if one were to become a Raider of the Lost Arc and pry open the sarcophagus to find out …
I doubt the locals would let you live to tell the tale.
Red Sunset at Night?
We may all pay for our sins one day, but in St E’s historic home, you also pay for the privilege of stumping up the umpteen steps of the campanile (twenty kuna), to buy a votive candle (two or three kunas depending on size of sin or of candle), and for the very wealthy or the very sinful, there are sandstone blocks for sale (at a whopping 12,000 kuna) to be used in the massive restoration that is currently underway in this UNESCO-listed building.
James told me that the statue of St Euphemia on the top of the campanile used to rotate – blown this way and that by the ocean breezes.
- If she is facing out to sea then it is safe for the fishermen to go out. If it is facing inland, then they must return to the port.
I think she is now stuck in the one position – she must have had her mouth open at a funny angle when the wind blew and is now forever stuck in one place … but fishing goes on … and there are scores of superb seafood eateries in the city of Rovinj.
On my first night in their town, my rather bemused hosts treated me to a wonderful monkfish in fresh truffle sauce, and I was to find that the area is famous for its truffles, wines, tobacco, olives and fish stews. Another day I ate at Ancora (= anchor) Restaurant, sitting at a table perched just a metre or so above the spritzig sea waters, with a view to St Katarina Island, and with fishing boats and island ferries and water taxis coming and going – and a revolting fat cat scrounging under the diners’ tables.
- I hate cats
Most of the streets of Old Rovinj are cobblestoned, and if I was feeling very nasty, I guess I could have plucked up one or six and asked (kindly) for the cat to leave me alone.
The town walls and the old town houses are tall and the streets are narrow – very similar to urban landscapes I have come to love in other parts of Croatia – Split, Dubrovnik, Hvar and Korcula. Window shutters adorn most windows, and doors are often old iron-studded affairs. As an Australian – who comes from a country that is millennia old and with a civilisation stretching back for many centuries, but whose European “occupation” is barely two-hundred years old – it is marvellous to stroll past buildings that have been there in one form or another for more than a millennium.
And I think the comment I overheard from a terribly British woman, while strolling along the waterfront is somehow relevant here:
- It’s nice, actually, that there are not too many English people here …
Some of the bric-à-brac on sale – stone axes, old military medals, rusted religious iron works, amber in all shapes and sizes, wind-up gramophones and bayonets still speckled with Ruskie blood perhaps – in the Rovinj harbour Friday flea market possibly dated from the same era. By contrast, in the fresh fruit and veg market just around the corner, were generous offerings of all sorts of olive oil, honey, strawberries, olive-oil soaps, gooseberries, truffles fresh, truffles bottled, truffles as sauce and truffles for Clint Eastwood:
- Lissen buddy – no-one truffles with me. Go on. Make my day.
I took local buses here and there to visit the nearby towns of Pula and Poreč where the sense of history is palpable in the world’s best-preserved early Christian cathedral and the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatre.
Drifting through the countryside en route to these towns was like puddling through Monet’s or Pissarro’s palettes: olive drab trees, patches of brilliant red with fields of self-sewn scarlet poppies, lush greens of grape vines, splashes of purple or white lilies, bunches of bright yellow gorse bushes and the more subdued yellows of harvested wheat fields. Sprinkled through this gentle maelstrom of colour were the almost colourless man-made buildings: lovely old dry-stone walls, houses and barns made out of the soft creamy-coloured stone, and circular rustic huts with conical stone roofs that echoed the lusty singer Madonna’s infamous bras.
Thumbs Up? No! Thumbs down!
Pula is possibly famous for many things – it has a huge ship-building yard, magnificent plane tree-lined streets, an ancient cathedral with its slightly tipsy free-standing campanile – but it is probably most famous for the superb Roman amphitheatre dating from the first century AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian.
The Venetians raided Pula (as they did most of the Mediterranean ports at some time or other) and stole many of the massive blocks of stone from the amphitheatre, but it has been very sympathetically restored. I wonder when a building’s renovations take it to the point when it is no longer a First Century building … but a Twentieth Century building with a few bits that may date back to the beginnings of time …
The UNESCO World Heritage building – according to a French tour guide speaking to a group of bored teenaged French school kids – used to seat twenty thousand happy chappies and lassies watching Christians and other guests being chomped on by lions and panthers and assorted carnivores … before the spectators tottered off to have their own lunches … McDiocletian hamburgers with truffles, perhaps. The arena now seats just a few thousand in considerable discomfort (bring your own blow-up cushion!) and is used for concerts, a film festival, operas and theatrical extravaganzas. Underneath there are still a few of the tunnels that fed man and beast into the arena and outside there is, of course, the Amfiteater Hotel and Restaurant serving steak and frites for the gladiators’ mates who survived the games.
A relative newcomer to the world of Croatian antiquities is the cathedral complex built in the Sixth Century at Poreč by Bishop Euphrasia. As far as my extensive research has been able to reveal, His Lordship Euphrasia was no relative of St Euphemia of Rovinj, or of St Euphemism of wherever.
Like many powerful people or those who want others to think them powerful, (Donald Tump again?), Euphrasia tore down a couple of earlier churches that had been built after 313 AD when Roman Emperor Constantine had granted Christians permission to worship, and thus they duly did, and thus they did multiply, and thus they did flourish, and become numerous and thus our old friend Euphrates or whatsisname built the three-nave church that, with few modifications, still stands.
In 1997 it too was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and today shows visitors several collections of superb mosaics, a stone tomb or two, a marvellous carved and restored (and modern) stone column capitals, some lovely vaulted stone ceilings, and a campanile with four or five huge bronze bells. Visitors are allowed to climb the many timber stairs up to the bell platform – but are warned of the times when they may find themselves going batty in the belfry. When the bells are rung, they are no more than a metre above the heads of those lucky enough to be enjoying the superb views over the city from the bell tower platform.
- I say, Bella, look at them great terra cotta –
- What, Arthur?
- Them terra-
… well … you get the picture … if not the headache.
Those seeking a bit more of a placid life can take the twenty-minute ferry from Rovinj’s Old Town over to St Andrew’s Island – or Red Island as the locals know it. Well – they probably know it as Crveni Otok since “Red Island” is still in English.
There is just one huge hotel – the Island Hotel Istra – on the island, and it is packed with elderly package tourists from Holland and Germany. There were very few independent travellers on the island, and even fewer younger than about sixty years of age. Meals in the vast eating halls were riotous and not very pleasant affairs so the peace and quiet I mentioned was not to be found there … but a short distance away.
Over a narrow isthmus, is Maskin Island, a tiny rocky outcrop around which one can jog in about ten minutes, or in twenty minutes if you stroll leisurely past scuttling vibrant green lizards, a cawww or two of nesting seagulls and the pretty grazing pheasants. I kept thinking of the old tongue-twister:
- I’m not the pheasant plucker
- I’m the pheasant plucker’s son
- And I’ll go on plucking pheasants
- Until the pheasant plucking’s done
Said quickly or carelessly this old rhyme can easily lead to unfortunate mispronunciations …
A Naturist Island
The peace and quiet of this lovely little naturist island, with its many rocky coves and jutting concrete jetties with hand rails into the chilly waters, was not disturbed by many things – just the cries of sea birds, the toots of passing ferries spotting naked nymphs and Sirens luring sailors onto the rocks … and the remarkably and unexpectedly angry outburst from a Dutch woman who descended from the coastal path like a vengeful Valkyrie:
- But that is my mat!
- I am so sorry madam – I found it tucked behind a rock where I was lying and thought it had been abandoned
- No – it is not right! You cannot do that! I would not do that! It is my mat!
- OK madam – please enjoy your mat
And she then rolled it up, tucked it under her arm, strolled three paces away, and sat on her husband’s mat, not using hers for the whole time that the three of us shared in some mutual physical and emotional discomfort, a naked rock.
I admit – she was quite right and I was quite wrong to assume an unused and unnamed mat tucked behind a rock was available to any passing body – but she did go on rather a lot.
The mat was not rolled up and tucked behind the rock next day … so I guess she had stored it in her in-room safe to protect it from marauding Australians.
While Brunhilde may have returned to Valhalla (with or without her mat) I returned the following day to Rovinj for my final night and stayed at the lovely little guest house La Casa di Loreto in Driovier Street, which was very handy both for the ferry from St Andrew’s Island, and for the very early morning Venezia Ferry the next day.
A smooth sailing up the coast brought us back to Porec where Customs and Immigration officials did their thing from the Croatian side of things, then we hopped onto our skates and zoomed across the idle Adriatic to Venice, where we arrived at St Mark’s Square, said hello to the flying lions and the walking pigeons, turned left across the Grand Canal and pulled in to the international port. The scores and scores of people who had paid for a day’s excursion to the city were allowed off the boat first … while those of us using it just as a sort of water bus to get from A – B had to wait for our luggage.
Unfortunately for most of the hordes on the ferry, there were just two Immigration officers available for EU passengers … and also two for non-EU passengers.
Australians and Kiwis and three of Donald Trump’s terribly misled supporters sailed blithely through Immigration and Customs – and I was on a vaporetto within minutes of docking, and heading for my lovely hotel on the Grand Canal … while the French and the Dutch and the Germans and the sun-speckled Brits straggled along in their sluggish queues. They may still be there.
I really enjoyed my time in Istria – but I think my favourite parts of Croatia are still the small cities and islands heading south from Split to Dubrovnik. They are also a bit warmer – or are my bones just getting older?
* All names have been changed for obvious reasons
Journey: May 2017
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship