Croatia Reconsidered

Ah, Croatia. It’s difficult to say the name without conjuring up images of pristine blue waters and rocky Mediterranean outcroppings. But beyond its famed Dalmatian coast, it leaves much to be discovered. When visiting recently, we chose to explore the Croatia off the beaten path. Within Croatia’s unique borders and coast are three very distinct regions, (the Dalmatian Coast, Continental Croatia and Istria) that lead you to believe you are in separate countries, but—the last thing needed in the former Yugoslavia is more land division. Nearly two decades since its war of independence, Croatia has experienced its fair share of hardships, but given its newly acquired status as member of the European Union, the tumultuous days are hopefully behind it. Croatia became a member of the European Union in June 2013, and as a result, its citizens are making big improvements with their infrastructure, and tourism has returned with a vengeance. Given the dictates of our schedule, we chose to make this trip in mid-October, otherwise known as the low season. This ended up being the best happenstance of our trip, as we had lower food and accommodation prices and didn’t encounter any holiday traffic. In Continental Croatia, the trees were just beginning to change, and in Istria the weather was still perfect for sailing the Adriatic. IMG_4654
We entered Croatia from the Slovenia border, and coming from Austria it was like going backwards in time. We slowed our speed drastically from the autobahn and veered off onto a small country road with storybook houses. Smoke billowed from the chimneys, and the recently gathered harvest was stacked high outside. Snaking through hilly areas, past dilapidated gasthouses and factories, it was apparent that this was still a country on the mend. Occasionally, we caught glimpses of signs warning of land mines (which are currently being sniffed out by honey bees*). By the time we reached Plitvice Lakes, it was a different situation entirely. This was an area that had previously been buoyed by tourism, and, apparent by the projects in progress, tourism had returned.
The war started in Plitvice Lakes on March 31, 1991, when Rebel Serbs seized the Park Offices. The Serbs turned the hotels into barracks and pillaged the rest of the property. By attacking its high grossing tourism enterprise, the Serbs were severing the livelihood of many Croats. It was difficult to imagine a war fought in the midst of such a tranquil, serene environment.. Prior to the war, the park was used as the backdrop for German “Western” movies (apparently it looks like the American West). Meandering in and out of the tiered lakes and waterfalls, I imagined the Plitvice that those German-speaking Native Americans first encountered. I longed to be like them, jumping freely into the turquoise waters (now off limits because the fragile ecosystem of the lakes), one with the environment. Even in low season the central walkway was still full of tourists, but given the vastness of the park it’s easy to blaze your own trail. I would love to visit in the spring or summer to see the park in gradients of blue and green, but it was simply breathtaking in fall with its full color palate.


From Plitvice we took the road southwest to meet up with the Adriatic Coast, which we then followed over to Istria. Given that we already had a hefty dose of nature, it was time to explore Croatia’s reputed foodie destination. Istria, the triangular peninsula just to the east of Italy, may be small but it packs a lot of unique flavor. Olive oil, fresh seafood, the rare black truffle, homemade pastas, and white asparagus, just to name a few. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Croatia and not Italy. Most of the people encountered spoke Italian (it’s the second language), and held Italian passports. Each town also has an Italian counterpart name. Roman rule started in Istria in the 1st century, and in present-day Pula (Polensium), the amphitheater used for gladiator fights is still standing. The Venetians also ruled for 800 years and today, their influence is evidenced in the architecture, narrow alleys, and the food. Oh yes, the food. IMG_4597
What I love about Italy, ahem Istria, is that the slow food movement is alive and well. In America, so much of the dining experience is spent fretting about reservations, portion sizes, coordinating food times, and tipping that you forget about enjoying your food and company. From the moment we sat down, they offered us an aperitif ,and from then until the last drop of grappa, we were completely satiated. All of our waiters seamlessly transitioned between at least four languages, and had a wine pairing for every menu item. This was service! My favorite restaurant in Rovinji was La Puntelina, due to its location and the inspired menu items. For those hunting for the elusive black truffle, most restaurants offered it on their menu, but the only restaurant where we found it in quantities worth ordering were at Dream Trattoria (if you can find this restaurant tucked away down a narrow alley you’ll be handsomely rewarded). While in Rovinj, we stayed at the Arupinium, which was a gem of a hotel located within walking distance of town. In addition to outstanding service, it offered one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever had. There were endless options of pastries, cheese, quiches, prosciutto, grilled vegetables, polenta, soufflés, fresh fruit, yogurt, and I could go on and on. In the morning I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t still dreaming. seafood croatia
Since we managed to pack away a few pounds in the food department, we thought it wise to compensate with some light physical activity. There’s a bike trail which provides stunning vistas, linking the main city of Rovinji to the towns dotted along the coast,. If you want to go inland, you can follow the back roads which are lined as far as the eye can see with olive orchards and vineyards. We rode to the medieval town of Bale, and while there opted for olive oil tasting at the family-run Valeo orchard. Istrian olive oil is known for being slightly bitter, but also containing more antioxidants because it is harvested earlier in the season, and typically processed using the cold method. It was fascinating to hear about the evolution of olive oil in Istria from someone with an orchard that had been in the family for generations.croatia architecture
Despite the fact that it was late October, we had our hearts set on sailing in Croatia. We managed to hire a skipper for the day, and kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t later regret sailing on the Mediterranean in the middle of fall. We could not have asked for better conditions. If anything, it was rather toasty and we had to jump into the water for a refreshing dip. Close to Lim Fjord, we let the sails out, eager for our dinner of oysters and muscles later that evening. Before long, the light waves were lulling me to sleep. As we returned to the harbor, I couldn’t help but admire the picturesque city of Rovinj, one of the Mediterranean’s last great fishing ports. So, yes, Croatia was simply divine. While there, take a moment to enjoy the slow life, before it’s too late. IMG_4689
* HYPERLINK “http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/19/honeybees-croatia-land-mines-bees_n_3302051.html” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/19/honeybees-croatia-land-mines-bees_n_3302051.html
To watch: Der schatz im Silbersee (the Treasure in Silver Lake) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6woEbnAJT0

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