Falling Water

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Friday morning we packed up to drive to Plitvice National Park. Plitvice is a network of tiered lakes, where the rock formations have channeled the water to flow through waterfalls from lake to lake. We decided to take the more coastal road before turning inland. Such glorious scenery! First through the mountains (quite literally, as we drove through a three-mile long tunnel), the along the other side of Istria’s coast, then up the mountains and through mountain valleys.

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And finally, we reached the Park at about 1. We checked into the charming Plitvice Inn and met Lili, had a decent lunch down the road (a “grandmother-style” soup of vegetables and lamb for me, sausages and cabbage for Larry) and parked at Entrance 2 at the Park. Spent some time puzzling out the gift store map and the large billboard maps, where the numbers or letters on the trails didn’t really match up. The trail we decided on supposedly would take 5-6 hours, which seemed excessive for the distance. We walked down the hill, and took the shuttle bus to start trail H, working our way downhill. The colors, the green of the lakes and plants, the spray of the waterfalls–it’s absolutely amazing.

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The wooden walkways you travel on are very rustic, with no railings. And steps. Have I mentioned the steps? and no railings? No US-style building code here, no safety barriers or visuals to indicate steps. I think Larry has bruises on his hand from the number of times I had to grip hard to keep my nerve. Vertigo and I go way back, and with my recent vision issues, the depth perception wasn’t at an all time high either.

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But I did it, and very glad to have done so.

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Happily, the park wasn’t terribly crowded, and most of the time there were just a few people around. And yes, it did take us five hours, including the excruciating last climb up steep stone staircases and then another climb up a paved road to the parking lot. (why they don’t run shuttle buses from the parking lot I do not know–it would be to their benefit as it would get people out of the park faster and free up parking)

Fabulous dinner at the inn, with soup with knaidlach (think semolina matzah balls), an enormous platter of amazing vegetables, chicken, and mystery meats.  I would be happy to see those vegetables every night. Apple cake for dessert, and let’s not forget the slivovitz.

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We slept well.

Saturday was a very different story. Things started out OK, even though our plan to get to the Park at 7:30 didn’t happen. We did one of the trails from Entrance 1, one that would be a bit easier on my abused knee. And it was, except for us being joined by thousands of people, mostly coming in enormous waves from tour buses. The wooden walkways at times were truly dangerous, with people needing to get to the edges to pass each other.

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We eventually retreated to a quieter area, and did a bit more, relieved to be able to breathe again. Then Larry did a solo hour climbing one of the very steep small trails while I rested and people-watched.

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Ate the worst lunch ever (well, half of it) at the Park, and then we drove to our little sobe (guest house) near the Zagreb airport. Our host gve us wine made by a friend of his, and we spent an interesting hour in conversation. Tensions from the war of the 90’s still simmer, and Croatia is still recovering.

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And Even Slower

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Thursday was our last day in Istria. We’d really enjoyed the scenery and towns we’d visited inland, so decided to head northeast. The mountain scenery was lovely on the drive. The roads were almost empty, and it wasn’t until talking to someone later in the day we discovered in was Croatian Independence Day, so many people weren’t working.

Oh, want to buy the 20 million dollar yacht that sailed into Rovinj?

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I knew that Motovan is a town that gets the most guidebook mention and visitors, so figured we’d head toward the smaller places instead.

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The first was Roc, a tiny village on top of a hillside. It was eerily quiet as we walked around.

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The town has two medieval town gates still remaining, one has an overly whitewashed plaque giving the date 1064. And inside the gate are the remains of a Roman Lapidarium.

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We found the minuscule church of St. Anthony the Monk, closed up tight. We circled back to find the tourist office actually open, and the bored young man behind the desk went off to get the keys to the town’s two out of three churches, and gave us a nice little tour. He first took us to the 14th century St Roch Church, with frescoes of St. Anthony nad the Apostles.

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Inside St. Anthony’s are the Roc Glagolitic Alphabet frescoes, 14th century frescos using the local  Glagolitic writing that was developed in the 12th century.

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After Roc we visited Buzet. We parked near the town cemetery, and walked up to the town along the old walls. Or rather, climbed up the steep stone steps. In retrospect, we could have driven up, since there was some parking at the top in the village. Ah well, we needed the exercise.

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Another lovely, silent village. There was a woman washing her carpet on the Renaissance fountain, as you do.

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I’d found somewhere a reference to a nearby restaurant, so we headed toward Konoba Doline in Gradinje. For the first time in a restaurant, we were surrounded by people only speaking Croatian, large family groups having a holiday lunch. We started with a delicious soup of beans and vegetables, and then each had a pasta, made with homemade fusi noodles. Mine was tossed with truffles; Larry’s in a sauce (after the waiter and us tried three languages to find the word) wild boar. Both wonderful. We were offered a plate of two little pastries with the bill.  We were driving, so refused the grappa.

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For the afternoon, we lazed on a rock shelf town beach at Novograd. I loved this little girl who spent an hour silently maneuvering rocks, branches and water, trying this and that as she played.

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For dinner we ate up the street from the apartment, at the ten-table Dinocastiel. Very good octopus salad followed by a fish platter for two, with absolutely delicious fish and seafood. We enjoyed talking with a woman at the next table who owns a dance studio, in town for the Salsa Festival.

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A last gelato, and to bed.

Oh, for your amusement, a local advertisement. Is this a thing?

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Slowing Down

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One of the sights in Istria is the Limsky Kanal (sometimes called the Lim Fjord, although its more of an estuary than a fjord, as it wasn’t formed by glaciers. Think of it as a very deep ditch that empties into the sea.) We wanted to take some local roads, so Larry fed the destination into the GPS with instructions to avoid toll roads.

I think we succeeded. Just out of the Rovinj city limits, we turned onto a gravel road that wandered through olive groves, zucchini fields, and the occasional junkyard. Just around a turn I spotted an old building and we jumped out to see what it was. According to the sign, it is the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, an 8th-9th century church, one of “the most significant of the Istrian Field Churches.” Open to the sky now and surrounded by birdsong, weeds and wild thyme.

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We drove on, encountering the occasional biker and luckily no other cars on the narrow road. We got onto another road that Google Maps didn’t acknowledge, and crossed through some heavy forest before emerging in a village.

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Eventually we got to Limski. The road leads to the end of the Kanal, where there are two restaurants, a souvenir stand (because you can’t go for 1 kilometer in Istria before buying honey, grappa or truffle products), a couple of kids in pirate hats, two tour buses, and a guy selling tickets for boat rides. We had considered taking the boat from Rovinj to the Kanal, but as it involved stops at a “Pirate Cove” and took four hours, I figured it would drive Larry to homicide. So we took this cute one-hour boat, with a cheerfully casual captain who showed us all the fish, oyster, and mussel farms along the quiet shores.

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We ate lunch at one of the restaurants, the Viking. I have no idea why its called that, were the Vikings ever in Istria? In any case, we started with a half dozen of the oysters. We both decided we preferred the brinier tang of our east coast oysters. The platter of mussels we had next was fantastic though, as was the seafood risotto we shared.

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The clouds had cleared, so we headed back to the beach we’d found earlier in the week. Just lazing on our rental-supplied mats (necessary, as Istria’s beaches are rock and gravel) reading and snoozing. Leftover linguini and shrimp for dinner, leftovers at home are never this appealing.

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The Romans Were Here

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Tuesday started out cloudy with the threat of rain, and the tour buses and campers were pouring into Rovinj. This town is lovely when the visitors are at a manageable level, but trying to cram another few hundred people into the narrow streets and seaside promenade makes things damn unpleasant. We fled.

To Pula, where the crowds were almost as intense, but at least they’re more spread out. Pula boasts several remainders of the Roman occupation, and is the largest city in Istria. Entering the city is a bit depressing, as Soviet-style grim apartment blocks are the first thing you see, and then a huge shipyard. I had marked several parking lots on my Google map (I always spend a good period of time setting up maps for where we’re traveling, it really helps manage the “where the hell are we, what’s interesting in the neighborhood, where can we park, and where can we eat lunch” stress. Usually. More on that later.) We followed the shoreline and parked in a lot near the Market, wedging the car into the narrow space the attendant indicated. I was amused that one of his functions was to get cars into and out of spaces when the drivers couldn’t manage it.

We walked down the pedestrian zone and found the Temple of Augustus. Larry peered inside and quickly decided it wasn’t worth the kunas for admittance, so we admired it from outside and went in search of a borek. Unlike every other town in Istria, there did not seem to be a bakery on every corner in Pula. Found a bakery, no borek. The horror.

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As we continued uphill, we saw the top of the 1st century Arena, the 6th largest amphitheatre in the world. Workers inside were busily setting up for a musical event for that night, so the space was taken up by trailers, equipment, and scurrying men. Huge space, with a beautiful view of the sea beyond. Those Romans knew how to pick real estate.

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We continued on, ticking off more antiquities on our list–the Gemini Gate, beyond which were the tunnels dug to shelter people during WWII, and then called into use during the war in the 90’s. We decided to not visit the nearby archaeological museum. We followed the streams of hot, sweaty people wearing headsets through the pedestrian zone, and finally found a borek. Lots of people sitting in the cafes, and we stopped to admire the Triumphal Arch of the Sergii  built in 29 BC.

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I had really wanted to see the Roman mosaics that my map told me were near the market. We walked over, and looked round in confusion at the supermarket and office building at the address. We called up Google World, and yup, that was the corner we were on–no mosaics in sight. We walked around a bit, asked in a shop, and still no mosaics. My guidebook said it was near a particular church, but Google Maps couldn’t find that church either.

Ah well, we were at the Market. We went into the fish pavilion, which was filled with many vendors and a dizzying variety of fish and shellfish. Here you see Larry wondering why he can’t get sushi-fresh tuna at home for $10 a pound.

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We got a pound of shrimp, and then went outside the the produce area, picked up some vegetables and fruit from a lovely woman whose Italian was better than my English. And oh yeah, they sell honey, grappa and truffle products as well.

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Walked through the Arch back towards the car. And look–a little sign pointing the way to mosaics. We turned left, and found ourselves in a parking lot with another confused couple. Saw a handmade sign pointing left, and crossed the lot toward an ugly green apartment building.

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And there in front, 3rd century Roman mosaics just as they’d been uncovered after the Allied bombing in WWII. In the middle of the floor is a mythological scene of the “Punishment of Dirce” Amphion and Zethus are tying Dirce to an enraged bull, since out of envy Dirce had been cruel to their mother Antiope. Families, what can you do.

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(And now Larry is emailing to update Google Maps, which I had no idea was crowd-sourced. Interesting and rather concerning.)

By now it was hot and sticky, black clouds were forming overhead, so we collected the car (which needed me directing Larry inching out of the parking space that now was almost totally closed off). As we followed the road back up to Rovinj, I had noticed a group of newly constructed stone huts, similar to the trulli of Puglia that we’d seen last year. We stopped for a photo (in between the German tourists pouring off a tour bus) and to read the sign–they’re called Kazun , a traditional countryside  building in the area, generally built in the 18-19th century. Further down the road I spotted an older one in a field. It took turning around twice, parking across the road and dodging trucks, but I finally got a photo.

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Back home, there were still troops of beach-deprived tourists wandering the streets, so we took refuge inside Piassa Grande at a table near the window for a late light lunch and some wine. It was fun to just watch people take photos of each other and shop for made-in China trinkets, including the carved candles I’d last seen in the late 70’s and the toy collapsing spheres my kids played with 10 years ago. Is there some warehouse they’ve been collecting until they could be sold to Croatian shopkeepers? In any case, lunch was good with octopus salad and yummy grilled polenta topped with a truffle sauce.

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Spent the rest of the afternoon just hanging around reading, watching out the windows at the wet tourists scurrying out of town. Our chatty landlord Zjelko came over to collect our cash balance, dropped off some chocolates, but still does not have the parking permit for the paid lot. (fortunately he’d shown us where the free parking is up the hill, which has been fine)

Using this kitchen is challenging, as only two electric burners work, the counter slopes toward you so water drips down your shirt, and there is little in the way f cooking utensils. We managed, after spending far too much time getting water to boil, then having to dump it out because of the nasty scum on the water (and this was after I’d rinsed the pot before using, my usual method in rentals) and starting over. Eventually made linguini with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes for dinner. Great shrimp.

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Two Churches, Two Towns, One Garden

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Monday morning we headed up to Porec, taking the local road which skirts the edge of the Limski Canal.We easily found parking just before the peninsula that contains Porec’s older part of town. We first walked through the market, with its separate produce venders and fish sellers areas. Both the produce and fish looked better than those at the Rovinj market, and there were definitely more people speaking Croatian buying than in Rovinj.Larry was intrigued by a vino sfuso-looking place, but sadly we didn’t have an empty bottle with us to get filled with local plonk.

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I spotted an older gentleman carrying a bag of tiny fish, and felt sympathy for whoever had to clean them until I saw him stop under a tree and call out to the cats that had been waiting for him. Very happy kitties.

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We continued walking into the old part of Porec, which juts out into the sea. This part of town is filled with tons of tourist shops selling all manner of junk, but you can still find remnant of Venetian architecture and some charming spots. Escaping the tour groups, we went down the narrow street straight from the Basilica and bought a terrific spinach borek from the tiny bakery at the end of the street.

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We spent a long time in the complex at the  Euphrasian Basilica. Churches have been built on this site since the 3rd century. The Baptistry connects to the bell tower, and guess which of us climbed the tower. Many layers of floor mosaics have been uncovered and displayed in the lower floor of the atrium and museum, along with stone carvings. Some lovely designs, and there are many detailed signs about their meanings and discovery. There is also a large portion of floor that was under the demolished church adjoining the Basilica, and you view it from a walkway that also allows for a nice view over the water.

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The 6th century mosaics in the Basilica are glittery wonders, with fabulous faces on all the people depicted.Mary and Jesus; the Apostles, Bishop Euphrasius is holding the model of the church, 12 female saints, and look, Mary is holding yarn, you can see the skein on the floor.

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We walked around for a bit, but Porec was becoming overrun by tour groups so we strolled along the sea for a bit and then got lost, finally finding the car again. I had read of some wonderful frescos in a church in Beram, about a 1/2 hour drive away according to Google Maps. On the web page I found they said to call the area tourist office to find out about opening the church. Larry called and was told it was open all day. Liar, liar, pants on fire. We drove the twisty uphill one-lane road to Beram, took a bit of time to find out the church is located down another twisty lane a left turn from the village, and yes, closed up tight. Two older guys hanging around told us to find Mrs Sonja, at no, 30 in the village. Back we went, found Mrs. Sonja and a German couple also wanting to get inside, and back down the hill again.

So worth it.

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The tiny church was built in the 13th century, and in 1474 was covered in frescoes painted by Vincent of Kastav – who left his name on the side door of the church. The walls show scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, and the back wall has a fantastic  allegory of the Dance of Death–skeletons showing that everyone is equal at the end. The effervescent Mrs. Sonja spent some time telling us in German about the frescoes, and then took us to the cemetery in back, with each grave covered in plastic flowers.

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By now it was past lunchtime. Mrs. Sonja recommended a place in nearby Pazin, which we couldn’t find. I wanted to head to a place nearby that had gotten decent reviews; Larry pulled the “we’re here, let’s eat at that place over there” card. Mistake. Soggy pizza, chewy meat, and a weird guy at the next table staring at me while blowing his nose with his fingers.

Back on the road we visited two more little towns. Gračišće was absolutely adorable, with 14th and 15th century stone buildings (a few with their year they were built above the lintel) , several tiny churches, and a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. No tour buses. There’s even a view across the valleys.

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I loved the little church of the Mother of God, which had a table on its front porch. We peered through the windows to see the frescoes inside. The doorway and windows were encrusted with old nails–childless women would drive in the nails in hopes of conceiving.

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Bale was a bit livelier, with a few galleries and artsy shops and a restaurant near the old castle. There was a huge passion flower vine growing next to the church.

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I’d seen a sign for something called the Histria Aromatica, some sort of garden nearby. Up a long drive is a brand new huge stone building, surrounded by enormous gardens of aromatic plants, vegetables, olives and grapevines. We walked around, and spent some time talking with the woman there. She said they’ve only been open a short while, and aim to do educational programming, host meetings and weddings, and showcase how plants are grown and used. The also have a restaurant featuring their produce and a shop selling their own oils, creams and soaps. It’s a lovely place, I hope they can make a go of it.

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Back home and some rest. For dinner, we walked around the corner to Giannino and got the last table on the terrace. Started with a wonderful antipasti of tuna tartar with a sea bass carpaccio. Larry had a plate of several different grilled fish; and I had grilled scampi and calamari. Very fresh, very simple. I’d have loved to go for one of the “for two” dishes that were more complex. Another time.

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Oh, and during the coure of our conversation Larry started looking for online simple Croation phrases. Look what he found–extra bonus points if you get the reference.

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The Salsa Festival started, and so there was music and dancing in the main piazza. Some very professional dancers have come, and it was fun to watch, but intimidating to participate. We held hands and swayed. Worked for us.

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Stones

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Sunday morning we decided to go explore around Rovinj. But first, some different little boreks from the bakery–one spinach, the other sour cherry.

The weather was cloudy though warm, so we wore our bathing suits in case we found a beach to hang out on. I’d found a website that detailed some of the surrounding beaches, so armed with the site and the GPS we collected the car from the free parking lot, and off we went. I’d read a description of Cisterna Bay which sounded appealing. The GPS helpfully told me how to get to Cisterna in Italy, but was silent about Croatia. So we followed the vague directions from the website…”and in order to continue your journey to Cisterna Bay, you have to take the unasphalted logging path which turns left some 10 meters before the Camping entry. You have to turn left before the Camping Mon Paradis and then follow the road, turning right at every crossroads until you reach the bay. “

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Well, we followed several gravel roads through the bushes, turned into someone’s driveway, had one argument, backtracked, and eventually glimpsed water. We saw a tiny parking area, and continued down the road a bit to where another car was parked in an olive grove. I don’t know if we landed at Cisterna, but we certainly found a gorgeous little cove.

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Crystal clear water, stony beach, and a handful of people. Just lovely. And yes, there was one nekkid lady. Not me.

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We were ready to move on by lunchtime, so went in search of a place to eat. This area has many camping parks and informal restaurants, but many of the restaurants only served dinner. We drove by one place that was open, with a sign with a smiling pig and a big wood burning BBQ that had Larry sniffing for grilled meat. Kids playing on a fabulously old fashioned playground, large tables of families happily chowing on huge piles of food.  We started with an octopus salad which was tasty, and then shared an enormous platter of mixed grilled meat. Lamb, skewers of pork, slices of pork, tiny sausages, and chicken on a pile of french fries and some intriguing vegetable dishes. I particularly liked thin slices of a smoky pork, and the slightly piquant red pepper/tomato mixture that reminded me of a Moroccan salad I’ve had. Wine, coffee, and we refused the offer of grappa. It’s called Kanoba Mezza Brenta, and I have no idea what road it was on. Look for the smiling pig.

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After lunch we went in search of the Bronze Age Monkodonja hill fort nearby. Amazingly, there was a sign at the turn off point. Monkodonja was inhabited between 2000 and 1200 BC. It had several rings of walls, some of them doubled to increase their thickness; an acropolis; many homes and workshops; and at its height perhaps 1000 inhabitants. And the builders certainly picked a beautiful piece of real estate to defend, with a fine view down the hill to the sea.

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We were the only ones there, and enjoyed picking our way through the walls and different areas in the silence. There are some informative signs to help make sense of what you’re seeing.

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Dinner was the local prosciutto, truffle cheese, apricots and bread. And oh yeah, wine.

Heading East

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Friday morning we packed up our belongings, and headed out to do some last minute errands and absorb a tiny bit more of Venice before our 1:45 bus to Croatia. We hit the lovely gastronomica in Campo S. Barnaba for prosciutto, mortadella and mozzarella, and the bakery for bread, and topped off Jane’s phone account. We spent some time with Tintoretto at the Scuola di San Rocco. I love that they have mirrors available so you don’t have to strain your neck while looking at the amazing ceiling.

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We made sandwiches for lunch, and then headed to Tronchetto to catch the bus. Had some amusing interactions with two Italian-born brothers in their 60’s who had emigrated to New Zealand; now visiting Italy and Croatia with their wives. The bus trip was enjoyable, though we ran late because they had oversold seats in Trieste, and that needed to be sorted out. (one woman spent the first part of her trip cheerfully sitting in the bus stairwell, another on her boyfriend’s lap)

As we turned into the Istrian peninsula, the landscape turned hilly, with grapevines, green valleys, and pine forests. In Rovinj we were met by the charming Zelko who walked us to the apartment, showing us recommended shops and restaurants along the way. The apartment is right over the market and has a lovely view out the windows of the waterfront. It feels like a Croatian grandmother’s house, with doilies and dated features and furnishings. It’s spacious and comfortable, so who cares. Happily it has double-glazed windows, so things were quiet.

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We wandered out, enjoying the lively atmosphere. The Old Town streets are of Istrian stone like those in Puglia, beautiful with the gleaming white color and treacherous when wet. Most of the tourists seem to be German, with some Brits and Italians.

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Lots of tourist-oriented shops, but at least many were selling local products–wine, olive and truffle oils, truffle products and local crafts. And there seems to be a bakery on every corner selling breads and pastries from both European and Middle Eastern influences. We found the Piassa Grande wine bar, and conveyed Shannon’s greetings to Helena and Mandy, who were as lovely as rumored. Sat and enjoyed three different glasses of local wine with a plate of sausage with truffles, then shared a salad and pasta with yup, more truffles. I particularly loved one of the Teran wines; Larry preferred the Cab.

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In the morning, Larry went for a run along the water, and came back with a  warm borek from one of the bakeries and a SIM card.

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We went downstairs to have a coffee and do some shopping. Bought salad vegetables, ripe apricots, and some sort of sweet green/purple tiny plum from an adorable old lady who will probably become “our” market lady. Some sort of whole grain bread with seeds from the bakery.  We also wandered into the butcher shop for some local prosciutto called prsut, and got a slice of fresh tuna steak for dinner at the fish market. The tiny supermarket was a bit mystifying, as the only Croatian we’ve yet learned is Thank You, and the text on all the packaging was Croatian. Bought what we thought was yogurt, butter and cream, we’ll see when we get home.

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Yup, the stuff in the cup was cream, score.

Zelko came by to walk Larry over to the car rental place and then show him where to park.

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We went for a walk along the water, and looked for a place for lunch. Nothing jumped out at us, but as we doubled back to the apartment we saw people eating appealing looking food at the tiny kanoba right next to our apartment,Taverna da Baston. This turned out to be a great choice, as we loved our fish lunches–I had grilled branzino with sautéed potatoes and spinach; and Larry had a plate of grilled sardines with salad. Extremely fresh fish cooked over a fire–it doesn’t get much better than that. The owner brought over some grappa, Croatian jet fuel. The couple at the neighboring table had a three year old daughter who spent her time playing with the shopkeeper of the junk store across the street, and was given a little bracelet as a goodbye present. Sweet.

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Larry has been battling a local cell service provider over their plans–their web page gives details of a package plan that he found out doesn’t in fact exist. At first their customer service rep had been happily helpful, but once Larry started challenging the misrepresentation, there was radio silence. Avoid Bon Bon.

Spent more time walking around. There’s some guy making balloon animals for children, most of the kids using them to swat at each other. Some of the “animals” look like long penises, complete with testicles. Go ahead kid, smack your brother with a neon green penis.  We sampled cheese from a gentleman selling them in his doorway down the street from the apartment, and bought a hunk of local pecorino with truffles. Found the “beach” in town, with steep stairs down to the rocks where people were sunbathing. The earlier tour groups had largely departed by now, and town was quieter. The sparkling water, multicolored houses climbing the hill with the old church on the top does look like postcards. It’s unashamedly a tourist-oriented town now, but with a charmingly upfront air to it.

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Dinner time. I made a tomato vinaigrette to go with the tuna Larry seared, and a salad. The fish was fantastically fresh. A bottle of local Malvasia plonk from a nearby store was just OK, need to find a better source for wine.

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After dinner we went downstairs to sit on the sea wall and watch the sunset, lovely.

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