Istria

I arrived in the small artisan village of Grozjnan inland on the Istrian peninsula around 3:30 and had a nice walk around, then inquired about a place to stay.  Most hotels and the like are already closed for the season, but one was open and offered me a room for 36 Euro.  The problem was that the bathroom smelled of mildew, and I’d been spoiled in Greece (and Lithuania last year) at having lovely accommodations for 30 USD or so.  So the place didn’t seem worth it to me.  I’m too much of a penny pincher.  Some habits die hard.

In any case, I’d found a really nice cafe which was decorated with beautiful furniture from Indonesia.  It had a lovely ambience, and really good jazz playing on the radio.  The young man working there seemed very nice, and I told him I’d probably come back in a few hours (at dark) and write.  Then I headed to Zavarsje Piemonte, a small historical town about 15 minutes away.  I wound through vineyards and firey-leaved autumn trees, and found myself at the town at dusk.  Signs in various languages gave historical information about the town.  Apparently it had been a town of approximately 900 before WW II, but due to the fact that many of the residents were part of the resistance (fighting fascism and Nazism), they were killed, deported, tortured, or exiled.  Today, only 40 people remain, and most of the homes have fallen into disrepair or were damaged by war and were never rebuilt. In any case, it felt like a ghost town, and I felt sad imagining the people who used to fill the streets and squares with laughter and talk.

I found out later that many of the hill towns in Istria were home to the resistance.  Interestingly, many of the mountain towns in Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, and Greece (to name a few) were also home to resistance fighters.  Something about independent self-sufficient people who think for themselves and don’t appreciate being controlled.  Not surprising, really.  I spent as long as I could in Zavasje, till I could no longer see much, then headed back to Grozjnan and went to the cafe.

I ended up having a really interesting conversation with the young man behind the bar, who grew up in a nearby town and lived his life here.  He said that his grandparents told him a lot about their lives, and still collect eggs every morning and do chores that aren’t necessary for survival, but which they continued to do throughout their life.  It reminded me of Babcia, my paternal grandmother, who every day woke up at 5am and spent the day feeding the animals, getting eggs, watering garden, doing housework, cooking, even after she moved to America with her daughter and son-in-law and no longer had to work.  It had been her life, and it seems that she never wanted to change.  I guess we’re all creatures of habit, and prefer to continue our lives unchanged even when it involves a lot of physical labour.  He told me that they only got telephones in the 1990s, as well as televisions, and that until the 1980s had continued their agricultural traditions which had been unchanged for centuries.  He reminisced about how things had been, even in his short life (he was born in 1996).  Though he was born after the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, his parents and grandparents told him about the nature of the conflict.  Apparently Istria was very affected and there was a lot of fighting there.

I met some really nice French folks and one American traveling in 2 camper vans.  They told me how magical the town was.  After having driven to many other parts of Istria, I have to agree.  It retained an old world charm and authenticity, which became very clear after I headed to the coast to the Venetian towns of Porec, Rovinj, and Pula.  Now I’m on Krk Island, in the town of Krk, another Roman town that was later settled by the Venetians.  But backing up, I made friends with the 2 couples.  Karen, the American, and I talked at length about how to swing lengthy European travels.  She had purchased a camper van in France in her friend’s name, which was the way she got around the citizenship/residency requirements needed to buy a vehicle. Something for me to consider next time I travel for a chunk of time.  I stayed up later than I’d planned, as the cafe was lovely and comfortable and I was lulled into a false sense of security.  But the night was cold and wet, and rain was on the way.

I’d asked if I could camp on the floor of the cafe for a fee, but the young man said he couldn’t authorise this without his boss’s approval, who was currently out of the country.  I considered sleeping under the loggia where artists sell their  crafts during the summer, or in the portico of the church.  But both were brightly lit, in the middle of the town, and next to barking dogs.  I decided the forest was a better bet, and headed out of town.  I’d seen a small dirt road on the way to town, and drove down it a ways.  There were tires on the right side lining a field of sorts, and a fence.  I hoped that this was a farmer’s field that wasn’t going to be tended in the morning, as the road was too narrow not to block it.  I parked as far over as I could and set up my tent.  Thankfully the rain didn’t come till after I set up, and I crawled into my bed with my hat pulled down over my eyes and hoped for sleep.

Luckily I was able to sleep, as the night before I hadn’t so was quite exhausted.  I drove to the small town of Zavarsje Piemonte I’d explored at dusk the night before, musing at the drastic reduction in population since WW II.  Then I headed back to Groznjan and made the mistake of drinking a latte macchiato which I felt compelled to get as the young man had boasted of the excellence of their coffee.  It was Illy, which I’ve heard is great, but it’s really a blend of many coffees, and I’ve had better.  I did some emailing and my blog, then my French friends reappeared, and I gave them suggestions about places to visit in Greece.  They’re heading south for 10 months to overwinter in the warmest possible place.  Good idea I thought, as I crawled into my down bag in 37 degree weather.  I’m about done with camping, as I really don’t like freezing my ass off every night.  Or getting soaked.  Either way, it’s cold.

After wasting too much daylight, I headed to Motovun, which turned out to be quite a touristic hill town.  It’s pretty and quaint, and very much on a hill, but it was way too tourist for my tastes. I walked around for a while, after paying through the nose to park, then headed to the coast and Porec.  Porec was pretty, small and touristy, but deservedly so.  One of the small Venetian navy towns along Istria’s west coast, including Porec, Rovinj, Pula, Umag, Krk (Eastern side).  After walking a few hours, I headed to Rovinj, trying to see a few towns every day.  I got there and walked around at night, and was very impressed.  It’s a lovely town, and was too big to see completely in an hour or two, so I decided to camp nearby and come back to explore the next day.  I met a nice Indian young woman from New Delhi who wants to write about her travels.  She’s been “backpacking” for 3 months.  People say backpacking not to describe hiking with a pack, but staying in hostels and busing from place to place.

After a nice chat with her, I walked around till it got very dark, searching for a hotel or cafe where I could use the wifi and charge my phone (and hide out from the cold for a few hours).  Dark is now 6:30 – by 7pm it’s pitch dark.  The disadvantage of traveling in the fall.  It’s no longer light till 9pm.  I wasn’t far enough north this summer to enjoy daylight till 11 pm.  It turned out I was in Angel d’oro, a lovely boutique hotel in the heart of the old town of Rovinj.  They were very nice and let me sit in their sitting room while a large party of about 20 young Croatians had a wine tasting.  The hotel staff offered me a homemade brandy flavoured with lemon verbena and apple juice.  The brandy burned like Everclear, and I couldn’t taste the lemon verbena.  The apple juice soothed my burning throat.  I contemplated staying in the hotel at some point.  It’s normally 250 Euro but had dropped to 69 Euro in the low season.  Seems expensive to me, but they considered it a deal.

I wandered off about 10:45pm having identified a forested peninsula 4 miles away.  I drove there, but discovered the forest was closed, as many other parks in Croatia (a gate bars entry). So I drove on a dirt road, and finally found a place where I could pull to the side and set up my tent.  It seemed to have been used as a bathroom, and I got as far as possible from the imagined remains.  Had a fairly good sleep, but awoke early to cars driving by.  Woke and made my way to Rovinj.  On the way, I spied a car wash and decide the car needed it.  I also gave it a good vaccuum, which it also needed.  Unfortunately I’d damaged the fender the night before trying to turn around on the dirt road.  Damn.  I’d thought I’d done a good job keeping the car in fairly good shape.  Ah well.  It’s hard when you’re driving for 3months in places you’ve never been before.  Then I made my way to Rovinj and parked near some grand villas which turned out to be secondary schools, a home for the disabled, and a library.  How the mighty have fallen.  Villas to public commons.

I poked my head into the library and thought perhaps they had computers I could use.  Unfortunately they cost 5 USD per hour, which was more than I wanted to pay.  But the librarian, Sebastian, was nice enough to give me the wifi password, and we had a really good conversation about politics in the US and Croatia, and changes in Croatian life since socialism. As he explained, people here seemed happier before when they had less (and less choice) but had enough.  Now they all want TVs, cars, and fancy brands, and aren’t satisfied with the consumer goods from the past.  I just read a great review of Michael Moore in Trumpland in the the New Yorker, and was heartened at the way he cleverly included Trump supporters in the crowd and spoke to them from his heart.  A strong vote for Hillary, I told Sebastian.  He asked me whether it really mattered who won in the US, and I said yes, I think it does.  And talked about cabinet appointments, judicial appointments, executive actions, and other aspects of presidential power.

I took down his email and promised to write.  Unfortunately his email bounced, so I’ll have to try to email the library if I want to get through.  I bid farewell and walked into town, going to the cathedral where I saw the female saint’s remains in the sarcophagus.  A nun had just unlocked the door and was allowing a group of pilgrims to view the body, so I did too.  No photos. I was tempted, but knew better.  I found a nice atelier with fresh water pearls, and decided to splurge on a necklace.  Just a strange shaped pearl and a few small ones.  Then I decided to buy another pearl necklace with a long strand of gray and pink pearls.  I found out that the pearls are from Macedonia (probably FYROM), and are cultured.  So much for locally made goods.  After getting a good look around, I headed to Pula.

Pula is a real town.  Unlike the old town of Rovinj, which is purely a tourist attraction, Pula is seedy, funky, and more of a univerity town.  Its historical center is only a few square blocks and is falling apart. From the Roman period, only the amphitheater and a small temple survived the ravages of time.  Many of the old villas near the center were destroyed during the world war from aerial bombardment.  I parked in the best spot I could find and made my way toward the nearest hill to look around.  Ugly apartments and big industrial buildings cluster around the historical center, and I walked down to try to find the amphitheater.  It’s pretty, though I’ve seen much nicer in Arles and Nimes.  And the theatre/stadium in Orange, with its preserved front wall, far outshines it.  However, it is beautiful.  I have to make an effort not to compare places, as I get jaded and don’t appreciate new ones as much if I’m always comparing them to old ones.

I finally found the old forum, literally the center of all commerce in the old Roman town, and admired the columned temple.  Then I made my way back to the car, where to my dismay I found (yet another) parking ticket.  I added it to my collection, wondering whether I’d get 20 letters from various municipalities demanding money when I get home.  We’ll see.  I headed to Rijeka, which I’d been told was nice.  After 45 minutes, listening to Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, which I’d been listening to recently, I saw the city of Rijeka.  It was too big for my liking, and as it was already 4:30pm, I decided to continue on to the island of Krk, now connected to the mainland by a bridge.  I paid my toll (36 kuna) and crossed.  It seemed very rural and full of scrub and rock, when I spied a huge monstrosity of a shopping center.  It’s a shame how tourism can transform authentic and quaint places into another Las Vegas.  Which used to be quaint and picturesque not long ago.

I drove on, and decided to turn off from the main city of Krk, heading stead for Malinska.  I drove to the ferry by mistake, and turned around.  It was dusk, but as I drove into the tiny town of Malinska, I detected singing and guitar playing.  It turns out that Saturday is wedding day in Croatia, or at least on Krk, and I ended up coming upon not one but two weddings that night.  I felt a bit awkward gawking, as this was a very local affair, with only locals and family.  I stood quite a ways back and watched, feeling a bit wistful that I wasn’t part of such a tight community where everyone knew eachother.  The downside, I’ve also discovered on this trip, is the small town effect.  Older women in particular appear to know or at least want to know everone’s business.  It would get old really fast, I imagine.  In any case, I probably stood there for an hour, observing the communal jug of wine (or brandy) that everyone drank out of, the greenery over the church door, the 2 oboe like wooden horns that led the procession from the church, and the joyous singing and dancing that accompanied the accordion and guitar serenade in the square outside the church.

Driving past Rijeka, I noticed a lovely castle on a hill and wished I could easily get off and explore. But the road wound perilously above the castle on pile ons and there was no exit in site. I also spied some pretty houses on a steep hillside facing the sea that reminded me of Marin County. I decided to continue on to Krk Island, as Rijeka had the look of a very industrial port, and I was more interested in quaint and small, not large and polluted. In any case, I drove on, and got to Krk at dusk.

((Skip to weddings)) Though I felt awkward gawking, I felt that as a kind of anthropologist I needed to observe traditions that were not for tourists sake first hand. It was one of the driving factors of my traveling, really, to see the bit of culture that hadn’t yet been swallowed up by the anonymity and uniformity of the McDonaldisation of the world. So despite my discomfort and noticing how older women kept turning around and looking at me, I stayed. I really liked the folk music they played and sang with their whole hearts. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they’d drunk from the ceramic pitcher, which I’m sure contained alcohol, whether wine or Croatian brandy. The first and only other time I’d been in Croatia, I’d experienced their brandy. Each small village makes their own flavour, some plumb or peach, others apricot. I’d been served lemon verbena brandy in Rovinj. It certainly packed a punch, and I could barely swallow a drop of the fire water without sputtering.

Another thing I saw was that many of the people had bags of candy, handfuls of which they threw into the crowd. Kids scrambled to pick up the hard and chewy candies. Some, who hadn’t collected any, were given bags which adults filled. I assumed this was a tradition too. Small pieces of the cake were served to everyone. A woman came up to me and offered a piece, and I felt it would be rude to turn down so I accepted it. It was a wonderful nut cake, tasting of ground chestnut or hazelnut. Chestnut cake is a particular delicacy in Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, as my friend Tamas told me. It was certainly his favourite. They also served slices of panettone-like sweet bread with raisins which is called ….. in Croatian. I found out later that this is a tradition at weddings and some other festivals in the year.

I visited Vbrnsk the next day and talked to a very informative lady working in a bakery who spoke English. She told me that one of the most important days of the year is June 24. On this day they attend mass at 10:30 then hound the bakery for the delicately sweet raisin bread for the occasion. On June 29, St. Peter’s Day, the community jumps over a bonfire, similar to what is done in some places on summer solstice (or the saint day closest to June 20). Christianity cleverly folded in many of the traditions practiced prior, devising a reason pertaining to the Bible rather than the original nature-based one.  Different countries have preserved more or less of their pagan past.

I drove on to Krk city after it had gotten dark and was getting too cold to stand still and watch. It was only a few more miles, and I found a parking place near the old walled town center. It looked like a lovely little historical village, and I was excited to explore it. I walked along marble paved streets, a hallmark of Venetian conquest, and marveled at the narrow passageways and alleys. I heard music and singing and followed it till I found.. another wedding! I found out later that weddings always happen on Saturdays in Croatia. I’d missed one in Vbnsk, which the lady in the bakery told me was very special because all the women in the wedding party wear their traditional costumes which have been handed down to them from grandmothers and great grandmothers. It’s a shame I hadn’t seen that. I gawked at the second wedding party, though they didn’t linger for more than 10 minutes. Maybe they’d been making merry for quite a while before I came. They gathered for a photo, which the other group had done, then the guitar and accordions struck up some folk songs and the women hiked up their evening dresses and did a kind of can can in their high heels, just like I’d seen at the other wedding. Most of the men stood in a circle with their arms over each others shoulders, alternately drinking from the pitcher and singing.

It was a sight. It seemed that the bride was not allowed to dance with the groom, at least in the first wedding I’d witnessed. She danced with everyone but the groom, it seemed, having a great time. He seemed like he had to work hard to find someone to dance with, and wasn’t too pleased with the idea. The second party, after a bit of music, started to process and wind their way down the narrow alleyways from the Frankopan family castle on the sea front to their cars. They were led by 2 horn blowing young men, which sounded more like oboes than horns. Perhaps they were reed instruments. In any case, they climbed in their cars when they reached the town wall and an impressive honking caravan broke the quiet night. I walked all about the town in search of wifi and finally settled on a nice cafe restaurant with great cake and a raging fire. I ordered cheesecake and spent the next few hours writing my blog and looking for a place to stay for the following days preferably in Krk city. I booked a place through booking.com and drove off in search of a place to camp. After driving inland from the sea along one of the roads that criss cross the island, I found a large tree, much larger than any I’d seen, and felt it was a sign. I pulled down the small dirt road and discovered an old series of houses and pens made completely of boulders that abound on the island.

I set up my tent near the stone wall for he encampment and fell asleep, vowing to explore it by foot the next morning, which was Sunday. And looking forward to sleeping in a bed the following night after a week or so of camping.  Next morning I awoke, and true to my word, tromped around the rocky walls and sheep pens.  I felt like I shouldn’t be putting my foot in by invading someone’s home from years ago, but curiosity got the better of me.  I found a small hut with a corrugated roof that appeared to have been a dwelling place.  I wondered whether the people who had lived here had moved closer to town, or whether they lived here till they died and then their children moved to town.  In any case, the land was heavy with the ghosts of the older generation.  I could almost see them sharpening their scythes, picking the olives, or herding their sheep. I felt sad that their way of life has mostly disappeared, at least here.  I’d seen people living that way in rural Greece, and probably there were still some living that way in Croatia too.

I explored the neighbouring rock walls and pens, imagining that this area had been a small village in the not so distant past.  At least the land is still being used.  Curren owners have set up beehives within the stone walls where sheep had been penned.  I hugged the large tree that stood near the road in front of the dwelling I’d visited.  I imagine that it is 200 or 300 years old as trees don’t grow fast in this part of the world, particularly this type of tree.  I had a few hours before the apartment that I’d reserved on booking.com would be ready.  I drove randomly down various roads, and found a tiny road where I was greeted by 2 hobbled horses slowly making their way to greener pastures.  At first I thought they were making a break for it and thought I should tell someone.  On the way back however, I saw that they had indeed found a patch of green, which was in particularly short supply on the dry scrub filled island. As I drove further down the road, I noticed that many people were cutting olive branches and had spread plastic sheets under the trees to catch errant olives.

It seemed that this day was in fact THE day to pick olives on Krk.  As I drove to Vrbnik, I saw everyone along the road picking olives.  I had read that previously 250,000 hectares of the island had been covered in olive trees, while today, olive trees cover approximately half the previous acreage (125,000 hectares).  I noticed a lot of scrub brush and non cultivated plants growing on the island.  I think that in the past, people lived with and tended their olive trees with extreme diligence.  I remember visiting Gokceada, a Turkish island which had been Greek until after WWII.  An acquaintance’s mom lived in one of the small towns on the island, and he showed me the community’s olive grove, hundreds of years old and gnarled with age.  Each person was responsible for caring for some number of trees in the grove, and would regularly water and prune the tree.

In Vrbnik I met the nice lady in the bakery who filled me in on local traditions in between a steady stream of customers coming for their bread and goodies after Sunday mass.  She was the one who told me that there had been a wedding there the night before, and that the women had all worn the traditional costume of the village.  It’s a shame I didn’t see that.  But I did enjoy walking around the old town, which was really beautiful.  Hundreds of years old and ringed by a stone town wall built in 900, the town is a treasure trove of beautiful stone buildings.  The largest and most impressive was the palace of the Frankopan family, who had ties with important European rulers.  There is some thought that they are descendants of the Frangipani family from Rome, one of whom went to Venice and was given the island of Krk by the Venetian government.

I decided I needed to spend more time here when I wasn’t so burned out on travel.  Istria and Krk were both much too beautiful to be seen through the eyes of a 6 month jaded traveler.  I do my best to appreciate the places I am seeing, but I don’t always feel like I’m really doing them justice.

I returned from Vbrnik to look for the apartment I had found on booking.com in Krk city.  It was a tiny room, just room for the bed, but I washed my clothes in the sink and hung them to dry on the line before setting off to explore the old town. I had wanted to watch TV but of the 800 channels none were in English or even had subtitles. As it was Sunday much of the town was closed but I walked around anyway and enjoyed the ambience.  It was overcast and rainy, and I headed to Punat after a few hours, the neighbouring town that the woman in the bakery in Vrbnik told me about (she’s from there).  It is lovely, and I walked around and along the marina to the point and back, up to the top of the town and through the small alleyways.  I liked it – a combination of tourist town and real village.  Was there for sunset. I made my way back to Krk, got a piece of cake at the cozy cafe/bar that I’d found the night before, and charged my phone and wrote more of my blog. Then I headed back to the hotel and tried to sleep.  For some reason I had a horrible night.  I think it was because I had a stomach ache.  It was a shame, as I wouldn’t have a bed again till I got home November 1.

I also didn’t sleep well because I was thinking about changing travel plans to suit the weather.  Rather than rushing to Dubrovnik, Plitovice and Krka National Parks, I thought I’d wait for better weather (it was supposed to rain for the next few days).  Weather looked better in s France, so I resolved to head there as fast as possible.  I stopped in Oppatija just west of Rijeka, the old resort town of the Adriatic, popular especially in the mid 1900s.  Very posh, lovely gardens, old and quaint.  It inspired me to visit Monaco, which I did, but it was so built up and the traffic was crawling through the town, so I decided not to stop.  In Oppatija I went into the tourist building, which had a very interesting display on resort buildings that were never completed throughout Croatia.  Some of them were huge affairs, but most were tasteful and classic.  I enjoyed the varied architecture of the hotels near the main gardens by the sea, and though it rained pretty steadily the entire time, I had a nice walk about there.

Then I drove straight through to Italy.  at the border I unfortunately forllowed another car around a long line of trucks and ended up crunching the right fender of the car while trying to avoid getting hit by an oncoming truck.  I called the insurance company the next day when I had wifi access at a toll highway gas station.  I don’t like having to report every incident to the Europass unit.  It reminds me when I was in elementary school and school kid and was punished in front of the class by the teacher for cheating on a test.  I never did that again, that I can remember anyway.  I decided to head to Lago di Garda, but after crawling through traffic for an hour and only having gone about 10 miles, I changed my mind and headed for Genoa.  I hit a horrible corridor where traffic away stopped.  It was night, and had been raining for hours.  I pulled over at a gas station and had an espresso (something I never do, especially not at night).  I wrote my blog as a note, since there wasn’t any wifi, and then finally got back on the road an hour later when traffic was moving again. I decided to stop in a tiny village in the mountains north of Genoa.  It was raining, and I decided to sleep in the car.  It was a first, and I slept in the back seat, stretching my legs out as much as I could toward the front seat.

In the morning I woke, having slept in, and made my way down the hill. It was a beautiful location, in contrast to all the power plants I’d seen since Milan.  I was horrified by the senses industrialisation of northern Italy, and decided I’d leave as soon as possible.  But as I was near Rapallo and Portofino, I decided to make a 20 mile detour, and headed to Santa Margarita and Portofino.  I also hadn’t been able to find a bankomat as they call ATMs here, and had to press a button to get an IOU at one of the toll booths. The road all the way was not very scenic till I hit Santa Margarita, but because of the rain I decided not to stop, but headed straight for Portofino.  I parked in town and walked down to the tiny harbor, bought the most expensive cookies of my life (25 Euro for a small bag of 10 bite size cookies), and admired the scenic bay.  I snapped a number of photos, then jumped back in my car and drove toward France, which I felt couldn’t come soon enough.

After hours, I crossed the border and descended into Monaco.  As I mentioned, traffic was a snarl and it was all big high rises. There was a castle on a promontory, but parking would have been next to impossible and having amassed almost 20 parking tickets, I didn’t feel like adding ot my collection.  I had also thought about visiting Cannes and St. Tropez, but saw that Cannes was a big sprawling city and I wasn’t in the mood to find my way to the center.  I decided to bypass St. Tropez as well, and headed finally for Salon de Provence, which I had been recommended.  It had a lovely historical center, and I enjoyed walking up and down the avenues, and purchased some tarts for tomorrow’s breakfast. I was happy to be in familiar territory, as being in Provence gave me the sense that I was home.  It was warmer too, and after a long visit, I made my way back to the camp I had used near Eygaliers.  I decided to sleep in the car again, and had another relatively good sleep.

Next day I awoke and decided to visit Costa Brava, the northern coast of Spain in Catalonia. I first learned of the area this summer from my father’s cousin Janusz who headed there for 2 weeks afte I’d visited them in Switzerland. And because Beata, my ex-husband’s niece, said it was a balmy 72 F when I’d been getting rained out in Croatia and Hungary.  I was desperate for sun and willing to drive for two straight days to find it.  The night before I had gone to McDonald’s to get more info about the region.  I’ve found that in many countries, McDonald’s is the only place I can count on getting wifi.  And sometimes at a snail’s pace. Armed with the name of a few towns, I set off.

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