Istria: 28 – 30 August 2017

We left Zagreb at 8am and it took 30 minutes to exit the city – so much for Zagreb being quiet! But it was the Monday morning rush hour after all. The journey south-west was a little monotonous if we are being honest and nothing like we had expected. The sky was grey with the promise of rain and the three and a half hour journey to the Adriatic coast was punctuated only by a coffee stop at a motorway McCafe and a much anticipated visit to Rijeka, which we had read was a particularly underrated place and full of hidden gems. In reality it turned out to be an hour-long traffic jam and we had to abandon our visit before we lost the will to live.

After climbing gradually to this point from Zagreb we began to descend to the sea and the town of Pula, the outskirts of which are dominated by rough-around-the-edges concrete apartment blocks with huge patches of missing plaster. Newly washed clothes hang from balconies and washing lines strung between apartments like decorations on a Christmas tree. You get the impression that everything is still in the process of construction or possibly demolition. The traffic slowed and more queues ensued and the rain finally came.

We eventually found our next destination: another apartment building in the throws of construction, or so it seemed. We went to investigate and were greeted by a rather dishevelled man who looked like he had awoken from a sleep of at least a week in his clothes. He was tall and solidly built with greying, unkempt hair, thick brows and had many days of stubble on his chin. His English was only marginally better than our Croatian so we didn’t get his name. But he reminded me of Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show. Maybe he was Croatia’s Sam the Eagle, its national symbol, proud and a no-nonsense kind of guy. He spoke slowly in particularly Slavic, guttural tones (think of Goran Ivanišević, the Croatian tennis player and you’ll be about right), greeted us with stern nods of his head and shook our hands tightly. We gave him our names.

“Ah Rachel,” he said, a sign of recognition. “You Scotteesh?”

“No, English,” we replied and explained that we came from the north of England, quite near to Scotland.

“Yes, Scotteesh,” he grumbled and began to beckon us onto a path around the side of the building, apparently showing us to our apartment.

After walking a few yards we turned to find him bent down tending to some bushes so we waited. He didn’t come and seemed oblivious to our presence. Not quite knowing what to say, we waited another minute or two before deciding to find our own way.

After locating our apartment and unpacking a few things we heard a knock on the door. Opening the door we were greeted by a man who was not Sam the Eagle. This was the owner of the apartment and he welcomed us to Pula! So who was Sam the Eagle?

Later, I went outside to the car and there was Sam cleaning what can only be described as an abomination of a car. It looked like it had been the target of a rocket attack, was covered in a thick layer of dirt and the door hung open to reveal that the interior was stripped bare of any internal covering – it was just a bare shell. He was naked apart from some very small and very tight black trunks that looked like Y-fronts. Sam the Eagle in Y-fronts – imagine that. Inside the car was a creature that appeared to be a cross between a pit-bull and a brown bear and it growled in the same Slavic tones of his master and looked very threatening indeed. The Eagle calmed the beast with some growls of his own.

I opened the boot of my car.

“Von car, von vife iss best,” said Sam.

I noticed that he was cleaning his car without water, just a spray can of polish and trying to brush the thick dust from his roof.

“Sorry?” I asked.

“Von car, von vife,” he repeated, “iss best, iss natraal.”

After a period of silence that felt like an eternity, all I could think of saying was “Ha, yes, one wife is enough for anyone” and stuck my head in the boot of the car.

“Old car, young vife iss good.”

I had the urge to climb in but thought better of it.

“Not many vives like Muslim. Iss not natraal, iss preemeeteev.”

His face wore a look of disgust; his mouth turning down at its corners; his brow furrowed. For a moment I considered reminding him that the war was actually over and everyone was trying to rub along together nicely, so why not let bygones be bygones. Didn’t he have a TV or read the news? I thought better of it as I could tell the subject was not up for discussion.

Just then Rachel appeared.

“See, like you, young vife iss good.”

Now I knew he was crazy.

“You Engleesh have von vord for everything, von vord,” he said and we just stared. No words seemed appropriate at this point.

“Like Keeng and Qveen.”

More staring.

“Ha, I joke,” he laughed, “you haff marrny – you velcome here, don’t vorry.”

The eagle turned and I knew the conversation was over. We realised later that Sam is just some bloke who lives in the basement of the apartment block with his beast-dog and about five cats.

We visited Rovinj and Porec in one day while staying in Istria. It was a very full day and the most satisfying since arriving in Croatia. It’s worth noting the very changeable history of this western coast. Its history goes back at least two millennia. The Romans appeared here in the 3rd century BC but after AD 539 Istria came under Byzantine rule. Later, after a number of tribes ruled the area it came increasing under the influence of Venice in Italy in the 13th century and Venice is only a short distance north and west of our location. You can easily get a ferry across to Venice from here. After Venice fell in 1797 came the Austrians and the French and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was superseded after WWI by the Italians taking control in occupied Pula, where we are staying now. Post-war deals were done and there was an influx of Italians from Mussolini’s Italy and many Croats left. Italy did not treat Istria well, banning Slavic speech, education and culture until Italy was humbled during WW2 when Istria became part of Yugoslavia. There was, of course, a more recent war in this region but the reason I’m telling you all this is that, when visiting Rovinj and Porec you can really see and feel the influence of change. You can see it, touch it and walk upon it. The first hint of this came on our trip from Zagreb, when the road signs started including place names in Italian as well as Croatian. We’ve noticed that many people speak Croatian, Italian and German. Menus in restaurants use many of these languages. Even Sam the Eagle said goodbye to us this morning in Italian.

Rovinj is a feast for the senses and it would be easy to believe that we were in Venice or, at least, one of its islands. What a wonderful, colourful place it is with its boat-filled harbour, seaside restaurants and narrow streets filled with quaint little shops and art galleries.

You can easily get lost here as you wander down street after street just for the enjoyment of seeing their vibrant variety and, at every turn, you are aware of age and history.

Most of the crowds congregate in the harbour area so it’s nice to walk deeper into the town, up twisting streets into quieter quarters.

The centrepiece of the town is the Church of St Euphemia – the poor woman was tortured for her Christian faith and thrown to the lions in AD 304 under the Roman Emperor Diocletian and her tomb is here to see and touch within the church. There’s a metal, hinged door where, I expect, the body was slid inside.

You can really feel the weight of its history as you look on. One of the telltale signs of Italy’s influence on this region is the church’s tower, which is modelled on the tower in St Mark’s Square in Venice.

Standing outside you experience a fantastic view out to sea and some of the many islands off the coast of Rovinj.

After walking our legs off up and down the town we relaxed in one of the numerous, colourful, cobbled piazzas for a well-earned drink and a rest.

And later we ate lunch of fish and risotto on the edge of the sea – so close that our feet were getting splashed by the surf.

It was hard to leave Rovinj as it was certainly the highlight of our trip so far.

Porec, a little way up the coast, is another little gem for different reasons.

It has the lovely piazzas and narrow streets but what really makes Porec stand out is the choice you have from an historical point of view: real Roman stone beneath your feet and the remains of the temple of Neptune, which can easily go unnoticed unless you know it’s there; its few remaining columns looking forlorn and completely neglected but holding such meaning for those who care. I love the cobbled streets, so smooth and shiny from millions of pairs of feet and raised slightly in the middle, presumably to allow rain water to run to the sides.

Then there’s the truely enjoyable Euphrasian Basilica. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just another old church and decide against paying the entry fee. We are glad we took the chance to see it. It is enormous with many very interesting rooms. The entry ticket guides you from room to room before depositing you in the basilica itself, where you can see colourful Byzantine art – some of the best in Europe apparently. And we had already seen a whole array of mosaics from the 4th century.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower up creaking timber stairs for lovely views. I love to see the roof tops from above.

It was a memorable time after a wet and tiring day travelling from Zagreb the previous day. We returned home to find Sam the Eagle urinating in his driveway. Well, it was an almost perfect day.

As I write this we have returned from a day out cycling to Cape Kamenjak on the Premantura Peninsula, south of Pula, which is Istria’s southernmost point.

It is an uninhabited region but tourists make up for this many times over. It was very busy. You can park outside of the entry gates (you have to pay to go in with your car) and hire bikes, which we did. We were given mountain bikes without helmets and brakes that were less than efficient but we pressed on like everyone else as we expected easy, tarmac roads all the way down the peninsula. How wrong we were!

You can take the main drag all the way down the centre of this sliver of land if you want to navigate your way through countless cars and clouds of dust or you can go off road to either coast and hug the water’s edge all the way down. We chose to do the latter and found ourselves on a serious off road biking adventure. It was tough going and quite dangerous if you’re not too good with a bike or wearing the right gear. One middle-aged lady, wearing nothing but a bathing suit collapsed to the floor right in front of me, slamming her hip into the hard rocks below. I helped her pick her bike up and asked if she was ok but she was clearly shaken and must have been in pain from the fall.

The good thing about this coast is that there are many ‘beach bars’ all the way down with music being played and food being served. The heat was becoming almost unbearable and we stopped for burgers and water and sat a while and reflected on the ‘beach’ scene here. For me, a beach has to have sand and try as we may, we were unable to find a sandy beach the whole day. The local version of ‘beach’ is a bunch of rocks – very sharp, seriously dangerous rocks too. It’s funny to watch people flailing around, arms and legs in uncontrollable motion as they try to walk into the sea with bare feet; flesh being ripped from bone with every step. Then, once they’re in, they have to do the whole sorry dance again on the way out. They might try to look as cool as they can but it doesn’t work, believe me. But rocky beaches are all they have here so what can they do?

The off road scenery was lovely but it was a hell of a cycle ride and we got lost many, many times. Don’t Croatians know what a sign-post is? Please, if you’re reading this blog and you are in charge of signs in Croatia, please, please save a thought for the poor dehydrated, dust-smeared, vomiting, novice cyclists riding around in circles because you have either not bothered to install signs or the signs you have make no sense at all.

At one point, Rachel went all wobbly and ended up on her backside in the dust. I helped by whipping my camera out and catching the aftermath.

I must say that people in these parts are not worried about getting their kit off. I think there must be a local rule – you can take all your clothes off in public as long as you are over 70 years of age. There were plenty of older folk displaying pendulous breasts and meat and two veg today and that was just the men! Maybe that’s why people kept falling off their bikes.

We finally made it, somehow, to the very end of the peninsula and decided to strip off naked and jump in the sea – just joking, we weren’t old enough so we kept our bathing suits on and swam in the cool Adriatic before plopping ourselves down on the lovely soft sand, err I mean the razor-sharp rocks, but by this time we didn’t care.

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