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Istria Visit Diary

by paul spencer Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 01:05:58 AM EST

Istria is a little peninsula that forms the northwest corner of Croatia.  As most of the Balkans, it has been overrun by many of the major European invaders.  (Avoided the Ottoman Turks, but probably absorbed some of the refugees from points south.  The Serbian resistance that stopped the northern penetration of the Ottoman forces may be another factor in the recent nationalistic arrogance of the Serbs in the face of 'secessionary' movements - e.g., Croatia.) The Romans left stone memorials all over the place; the Franks left a lot of DNA; the Venetians colonized the area; the Austro-Hungarians 'civilized' it; and the Germans forced it into an alliance with the Serbs.

This, then, is a little travel diary of the you-really-should-check-this-place-out variety. Some of the reasons are: 1) it's beautiful; 2) it's inexpensive; 3) the food is local, simple, and delicious (Italian and, I suspect, Hungarian influence); 4) they are almost unassuming about the Roman artifacts that just sort-of lay around the place. They don't seem to have realized the tourism potential of the place - unlike the southern sectors of Croatia, such as the Dalmatian coast, Split, and so on.  At least in mid-April, there seemed to be about 10 of us turistas in the whole city of Pula.

 

 


The west coast and the south coast slide into the northern Adriatic - somewhat cool water temperatures, but blue and bountiful.  On the western edge the ground is deep red and rises at a leisurely pace in most locations.  On the southern edge it is fairly steep, and the mountains are fairly mountainous as you approach Rijeka (Fiume, not so long ago) on the eastern end of the peninsula. (Rijeka is not actually in Istria proper, but almost everyone seems to speak Italian and Croatian (?), which is a hallmark of the peninsula.)

 

 

 

We visited Rijeka primarily because my wife was born there in the house where her father was born, and who knows how many of the family prior to that. The elder son of Mirta's grandfather inherited, of course, and now two of his progeny own the house. So we braved the "Beware the Dog" sign (turned out to be a really well-mannered German Shepherd), and Mirta introduced herself to her cousins, known previously only by name. Had the usual coffee and a shot of something and met some of the local branch of her family.

 

West of Rijeka about 5 km is Opatija.  This is one place in the region that has some sense of itself in terms of tourism, but it's a kind of post-imperial-resort-town, we're-here-if-you-want-to-see-us, don't-bother-us-too-much-and-we'll-treat-you-well-enough, laissez-faire approach. The houses and hotels are old, beautiful, and maintained; the park is well-designed and clean; the ambience - take a look.

 

 

Pula is on the southwestern corner of Istria. It contains one of the best-preserved Roman coliseums in the world (there has been some rebuilding to accommodate concerts and such, but the main structure is about 1800 years old).  I think that there were a couple of traffic signs around town that purported to show the way, but I don't think that you'll find it by trying to follow their indications. Just go toward the western half of town and head for the Adriatic. Then you probably can't miss it. (We stopped at a bakery about one km from it, and the clerk wasn't entirely sure how to get there.)

 


 

Near the coliseum - everything in downtown Pula turns out to be fairly near to the coliseum - there is a museum of Roman artifacts, with a Roman arch leading into it, and with the unexhibited residue of artifacts lined up around the courtyards: column parts, column heads, sarcophagi, sculptures, urns. Rather like our front flower garden - "there's a hole, put that new one in there."

 

And in the backyard there's the unadorned remains of a Roman amphitheatre.

 

Then there's the mosaic floor from a Roman home? Public bath? Now you can get a kind of schematic map of such sites in Pula, which probably contains 4 street names - which is fairly useless anyway, because the streets don't have signs. The mosaic floor is number 11, as I recall. You ain't going to find it using the map. There is an Information office near the quai that you can find. There they told us to go two blocks along this line on the map at which point you will be facing an Optometrist's shop. Go around to the right, turn left between the office and the parking lot, then left again through the alley, and you will see a large doorway (no doors). The floor is inside - sort of. When you get to the large doorway - which seems to be part of some kind of tenement building - there is a sign about 0,5 m square that says something like "Roman mosaic floor". Go inside and on the right there is a low concrete kneewall with some steel balusters holding a steel rod at about the meter level. About 2 m below your feet, there is a beautiful, well-preserved mosaic floor perhaps 10 m long by 7 m wide. On the back wall there is a segment of plastered brick wall that looks like part of the original room.

 

 

 

On the way we passed this building with two youngsters kicking a soccer ball on what was probably an ancient walkway.

 

Had a nice breakfast at a dockside cafe and took this picture, looking west.

 

We stayed in an equally unassuming, but clean and adequate, 2nd floor apartment on a bay, just east of Pula. 70 USD per night in the Spring and Autumn, a little more in the Summer. View is straight south, into the Adriatic, centered in a little bay with yacht club and fishing boats to the west.

 

About 6 km west of Pula, there is a village with a ferry that goes to Brijuni Island/National Park. Brijuni has some sense of itself as a tourist destination. The ferries (2) appeared to cycle at about one-hour intervals. There are small tourist 'trains' that take people on guided tours of the island, or you can rent electric golf carts. Next time that I go, I'll walk or bike. And I will go again, partly because the hotel charges only about 100 USD per night in the off-seasons.

Brijuni was the summer vacation home of Tito. For some time after his death, his home there could be visited; but, lately, the Croatian president has decided to utilize it, so it's closed to the public now. If you visit, you will know why it was attractive to such folks. We hit perfect weather there, but my guess is that it is mild and bright most of the time. The island is all sand beaches and rocky beaches with small forests and broad meadows. (The meadows and the golf course are 'mowed' by hundreds of European deer.) The quai is clean and has a craftsman's quality to it - regular, smooth-but-not-polished, closely-fitted blocks of - I don't know, granite? Same with the marble facade of the hotel and restaurant there. The water by the dock is clear to the seafloor, perhaps 5 or 6 meters deep.There is a small, ancient church on the other side of the dock area with a small reliquary door from about the 5th century. Of course, there are the odd Roman ruins here and there. What's my point? It is that Brijuni Island is one of the most relaxing, forget-about-the-state-of-the-world places that I have ever visited.

 

Twenty or so km north of Pula, and on the coast, is the town of Rovinj (Rovigno). Picturesqui, as my wife says. We heard a glowing account of the place from a German couple that we met at a coffee shop in Slovenia, so we dropped in for dinner on our way to Pula. If you go, ask the way to Chef Toni's place. Maybe all of the food in Rovinj is wonderful, but Toni is a sure bet. Best gnocchi that I've had, since the times when my Italian parents-in-law got it right. (Many stories of the many times that they didn't quite get it right.) Also, best pannacota ever.

 

 

 

 

As much as we enjoyed our entire trip, Istria is on the top of my list for a revisit. (Of course, w  will make time for Lyons - the gastronomical capital of the world, except for Toni's place in Rovinj.)

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The Serbian resistance that stopped the northern penetration of the Ottoman forces

Hm, I guess just the Croatians would have a few words about that...

No, Serbian resistance didn't stop the Northern penetration of Ottoman forces. The Ottoman Empire beat Serbia in Kosovo, and later went on to beat and conquer a third of the Kingdom of Hungary (whose king was also king of Croatia from 1102). However, what's true is that part of the border was the mountainous region that is the border of modern-day Croatia and Bosnia, and many Serbian refugees settled there, also serving as 'buffer people' who'd fight the Ottomans - the Krajnas were a result of this. However, resistance was provided by all the peoples under the Habsburgs along the border, as well as mercenaries from further West, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth further North and East. What's more, the Ottomans also fought the aging Venetian empire, which ruled much of the Adriatic Coast.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 08:40:05 AM EST
but one small adjustment. I was trying to say that the Serbs' opinion is that they stopped the Ottomans, (then retook Kosovo from them later). But I was trying to say it in shorthand, which rarely works.

Also, please note that the "civilized" term in the shorthand history of the place is punctuated in such a way as to show some skepticism concerning the role of the Austro-Hungarians - though I do like their architecture.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 12:41:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes OK, I guessed you meant "civilised" in a colonialist sense, but I think referene to this attitude would more apply to the Austria-Hungary takeover of Bosnia than former Italian/Venetian areas.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 05:16:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the Austro-Hungarians 'civilized' it

Well, with the area's long history of being under Rome and Venice (the Habsburg Empire got it only in 1848), it would be much more justified to call Austria and Hungary (and Yugoslavia and Croatia) the barbarian invaders :-) But what Austria-Hungary did was industrialization and belle epoque tourism development (Abbazia/Opatija).

3) the food is local, simple, and delicious (Italian and, I suspect, Hungarian influence)

I doubt it. The main food influences must be Italian, Croatian, Dalmatian (in that order).

At least in mid-April, there seemed to be about 10 of us turistas in the whole city of Pula.

Along Croatia's Adriatic Coast, the summer tourism season is very much marked - with a reason: especially in autumn and winter, the weather changes dramatically from sunny to one with strong winds (Bora, Yugo). In summer, the Western coast of Istria (and the island chain before it) is packed, too. Opatia also wakes from its slumber, and serves as port for miriads of boats taking tourists for round trips to the islands in the Kvarner Gulf. (Highly recommended should you visit again, BTW.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 09:05:19 AM EST
the Habsburg Empire got it only in 1848

Correction upon checking: that was only when it was organised with other areas further North into a province called Küstenland ( = coastal land); most of the area belonged to the Habsburg Empire - with a Napoleonic Empire intermezzo - from 1797, parts of it in the North much earlier. Chewck maps over the millennia here [page in German].

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 09:30:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As for your photos, they bring back memories... thanks!

On the way we passed this building with two youngsters kicking a soccer ball on what was probably an ancient walkway.

That's the Temple of Rome and Augustus (yes, that old). 15 years ago, that was where I re-found half my family, who got lost. Myself I didn't get lost, I had a map that was usable unlike yours :-) I am also surprised to hear that about street names; maybe they didn't put up new ones after changing street names, or maybe for preservation reasons, I don't know.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 09:12:07 AM EST
I noticed This two part Series of travel and historical experience in the former Yugoslavia. The perspective is not exactly pan-European or positively "leftish", but the story and illustrations are telling.
by das monde on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 10:27:57 AM EST
After reading part one, I have to wonder about the kind of people these guys attract. I don't doubt their experience, and it definitely makes for an interesting read, but it sounds like they got the wrong taxi driver, bitter over being denied a visa.
by lychee on Thu Jun 12th, 2008 at 04:41:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice, thank you. The island of Krk is also a great place, recommended for the next time you go.
by lychee on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 11:45:39 AM EST
Next time we're doing the whole country, including Zagreb and the Plitvice National Park.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 12:45:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whole country? Then also visit Zadar (where I spent two of my early years), and on the way down to Dubrovnik, don't miss Slapovi Krke (Krka Falls), which comes close to the Plitvice Lakes!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 05:20:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The whole place, including Slavonia? :D If you time your trip right, you can catch a traditional dress festival in Đakovo ("Đakovački Vezovi"). I think they still hold it every summer.
by lychee on Thu Jun 12th, 2008 at 05:07:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And Cres (climb the highest hill above its name-giving city for an unforgettable vista!) and Rab (the name-giving city is the most beautiful IMO) and Mali Lošinj and Ilovik...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jun 12th, 2008 at 08:44:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They don't seem to have realized the tourism potential of the place - unlike the southern sectors of Croatia, such as the Dalmatian coast, Split, and so on.  At least in mid-April, there seemed to be about 10 of us turistas in the whole city of Pula.

My experience of Dalmatia was in the summer of '97. Low cost, and once you got south of Rab, few tourists. Split and Dubrovnik had some, but the rest was empty. The locals had this sort of 'tourists! yay! we love you! tell your friends!' attitude. A couple of the cities were so empty it was eerie - just us and the bullet holes and the 'kill Serbs' graffiti. Plus it was dirt cheap. And of course absolutely stunning. Rab was somewhat marred by the presence of large numbers of Austrians who gave the distinct impression of not caring for non-whites, but otherwise awesome trip.

Best part, staying at the home of a retired Yugo airforce general and his family. He was a Bosnian Croat, his wife, a Serb. There were also a couple Italian guys who made some awesome Bolognese for us all. Then a young 'Muslim' couple from Tuzla joined the house to the immense joy of our hosts (first Bosnian Muslims they'd seen in a while). They celebrated by giving us a free meal of grilled fish (great), homemade wine (meh) and homemade grappa (amazing). After some of that the general broke out into some old partisan songs from his youth, joined by the Bosnians who remembered them from school.

by MarekNYC on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 12:04:14 PM EST
but he sang mostly Puccini tenor arias. When the Germans took over Fiume (now Rijeka), they brought all of the boys and men together and told them that they were going into the army. My father-in-law (15 years old) and his best friend went out the back door and up into Mount Maggiore (sp?). Hid out and lived on hand-outs from the farmers until they met up with some Partisans. Captured twice and escaped twice - second time from the big prison in Belgrade. When the Allies bombed the city into partial rubble, they damaged the prison enough to allow the survivors to escape - dodging the guards as they ran.

The homemade wine - what I had was drinkable, but not very. Grappa - not my taste.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 12:54:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you can expand on that, it would be a story worth a diary!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jun 11th, 2008 at 05:22:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So Kusturica isn't the only last Yugoslav...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jun 12th, 2008 at 08:45:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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