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.)