Saturday, 27 August 2016

Istria abecedary: R is for Rakija

After P comes R – because in the Croatian alphabet, there is no letter Q!

R is for Rakija

Rakija, similar to Italian grappa, is made by distilling the remains of grapes after they have been pressed for wine-making. If you visit Istria, you're bound to be offered a small glass of rakija before a meal, after a meal, or to celebrate a special occasion. It's also believed to have medicinal and disinfectant properties. Rakija is often mixed with different plants and fruits (like mistletoe, honey, green walnuts, cherries) to produce flavoured versions.

R is also for Roženice

This is a traditional Istrian wind instrument (also called sopele) similar to an oboe (and to the South Indian nadaswaram!). It's always played in pairs, with each musician playing one of a different size so that two different tones are produced, which is typical to the characteristic Istrian musical scale (Istarska ljestvica).

Monday, 22 August 2016

Istria abecedary: P is for Parenzana

Photo credit: Istria Tourist Board


Parenzana was the name of a narrow gauge railway that used to run from the Istrian coastal city of Poreč up to the port city of Trieste in Italy. Built in 1902 during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this railway was 123 km long with 35 stations and a steam locomotive that used to transport passengers as well as freight.

The railway got its name from Parenzo, the Italian name for Poreč.

One of the towns with a station along this train line was Završje, a once flourishing commercial centre which went through a decline once the railway was discontinued in 1935 during Italian rule, and eventually almost completely abandoned.

Today this former railway line has been transformed into a popular and very scenic cycling and hiking route that winds its way from Croatia through Slovenia and on to Trieste, just like the steam locomotive once used to.

P is also for pomalo!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Animal life in the village

Animals used to be a big part of life here in Istria, where farming was a way of life for a long time. During childhood visits, I loved spending time on my grandparents' farm where there were cows, chickens, and pigs. But today few people keep farm animals. A few old ladies here in the village have chickens, while one family living just outside the village has sheep, goats, a pig, and a horse.

But there are several dogs and cats. Many of our neighbours have dogs trained for truffle hunting, but unfortunately when they're not out in the forests searching for these rare (and expensive!) truffles, they're locked up because they're considered more valuable than other dogs. As for cats, they roam free and there are quite a few resident cats here in Gračišće, as well as a few strays.

Točka loves to climb the olive tree
If you follow this blog, then you know that our cat Squeaky moved with us from India. And if you follow my Instagram page (or Squeaky's Instagram page!) then you'll also know that a kitten moved into our home recently. About two months ago, a little black and white kitten showed up on the courtyard wall and has been here ever since. Needless to say, Squeaky, who famously hates all other cats, is not very happy about this new development and has tried her best to chase this unwanted intruder away. Točka (meaning 'dot' or 'spot'), however, is very persistent and not easily deterred, and has since moved in and made herself very comfortable. Space is still being negotiated with Squeaky, who vacillates between total indifference and extreme opposition to Točka. Some days I think we're making progress, only to have to witness another screaming feline stand-off.


I'm not sure where Točka came from... is she the offspring of Lola, a long-time resident stray? Or was she abandoned? Unfortunately, we've come across quite a few abandoned animals... Earlier this month, a cardboard box had been left in the loža just inside the village gateway with two eight-week-old kittens inside and their date of birth written on the box. I was surprised they were males, because it's usually the females people try to get rid of. My friend and neighbour M adopted one, introducing him to her cat Luna – who is also adjusting to the new addition to her household. As for the other kitten, it seems to have disappeared, the sorry fate of many abandoned animals.

MiMoon gets a new home but his brother disappears

In related news, just a week after the box of abandoned kittens incident, my neighbour L introduced me to a dog who suddenly turned up in the village. Another unwanted and abandoned pet? The dog quickly won L's affection: he was calm, quiet, and obedient, but had 'a certain sadness about him', L said. He had a slight limp, and spent a lot of time licking his paws. We deduced that his paws were sore because he had probably spent a long time walking. Otherwise, he looked healthy, clean and well cared for, and wore a nice collar. L took it off to see if anything was written on it – maybe a phone number... but found nothing. I suggested a trip to the vet to check for a microchip – someone had obviously taken good care of this dog and there was a good chance he may be micro-chipped.

Bongor goes home after his big adventure
I was holding my breath while the vet scanned the back of the dog's neck, and was thrilled when the scanner registered a number. He disappeared into his office to look it up and came back with a printout of the dog's details. This is how we learned that his name was Bongor, and that he was three years old. He had been microchipped only about ten days before, and his home was in Lovran on the east coast – 50 kilometres away by road! The most direct route overland covers half this distance but would involve crossing the Učka mountain and some very rugged terrain – is this how Bongor got to Gračišće? And is this why his paws were so sore? Why would he set out on such a journey so far from home? Or was he intentionally abandoned? Only Bongor knows the answers – but later that day he was on his way home with his owner and both seemed genuinely happy to be reunited. A happy end!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Istria abecedary: O is for Otok

A view of Sveta Katarina island from Rovinj's bell tower























Otok means island in Croatian, and Croatia is a country of islands, with over a thousand dotted around its Adriatic coastline. As for Istria, it has 58 islands.

The largest is the Brijuni archipelago, just off the coast of Fažana, which itself is made up of fourteen islands, the biggest being Veliki Brijun. This is also the site of a national park

O is also for Oprtalj. Have you been there?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Istria abecedary: Nj is for Njoki

Image source: Wikimedia




Continuing with this abecedary of all things Istrian, we come to the letter 'nj'. Nj is considered to be one letter of the Croatian alphabet because it makes one sound, which sounds like the 'ny' sound in onion.

Njoki is pronounced the same way as gnocchi in Italian [n(y)ok-ee]. This is an Italian speciality, and also a staple of Istrian cuisine. They're made with potatoes and flour, and served with different accompanying sauces.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Not-to-be-missed summer festivals in Istria

One of the best things about summer in Istria is all the festivals happening during the summer throughout the peninsula. Not only is there a variety of different cultural events on offer, but many of these festivals offer the opportunity to experience them in truly unique settings. So far this summer I had the chance to watch a film under the stars in Pula's Roman amphitheatre at the 63rd Pula Film Festival, and attend an open-air concert in a park during the TradInEtno festival of world music in Pazin. Both festivals wrapped up last weekend, but there are plenty more cultural events happening in the weeks to come. Here are a few not-to-be-missed events:


Labin Art Republika

When: July 2 to August 31, 2016

Where: Labin

Photo credit: Labin Art Republika




This two-month long festival is hosted by the city of Labin, one of Istria's many charming hilltop towns. This is probably the longest and the most eclectic festival, running all summer long, and featuring a variety of events, most of which happen in the open air. This includes live music, a jazz festival, documentary films, theatre, dance, plays for children, stand-up comedy, art exhibitions, and night walking tours of the old town. The full programme of events is available on the Labin Art Republika website.  


Jazz is back! 

When: July 12 to 30, 2016

Where: Grožnjan

Photo credit: Colours of Istria




Even if you you're not a fan of jazz, you should definitely go to Grožnjan during this annual summer festival. Grožnjan is high on my list of favourite Istrian hilltop destinations, and this delightful village of cobbled lanes and stone houses has a magical atmosphere during this festival. Come early so you can enjoy a drink while watching the sunset over the hills at Kaya, and wander through the maze of narrow streets to the sounds of jazz, while having a peek inside the many art galleries on the way. You can see the full programme here.  


Ulysses Theatre

When: July 18 to 28 August, 2016

Where: Brijuni Islands



This unique open-air theatre runs its season for six weeks on the islands of Brijuni, which are easily reached by ferry from the port town of Fažana. The ferry ride is included in the performance ticket price, and is a novel way to start the evening. This summer, the highlight of the 2016 season is the commemoration of 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, with the staging of King Lear and Richard III. Richard III is produced by Almeida Theatre and directed by Rupert Goold, with Ralph Fiennes starring as Richard III and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret. Tickets will sell out fast for this one, so be sure to book here!


Festival of dance and non-verbal theatre

When: July 22 to 25, 2016

Where: Svetvinčenat

Photo credit: Festival of dance and non-verbal theatre


Svetvinčenat (also known as Savičenta) is not located on a hilltop, but this town in central Istria has a special atmosphere. It has an impressive 16th church on a picturesque square with an old public well, and the town is dominated by the 13th century Grimani castle. The performances take place on the square itself, in the loggia, and in the unique setting of the castle. There are also plenty of little cafes, and a couple of pizzerias, for a pre- or post-performance drink or bite. You can check out what's happening at this festival of dance and non-verbal theatre on its website.  


Motovun Film Festival

When: July 26 to 30, 2016

Where: Motovun

Photo credit: Motovun Film Festival


Motovun is, yes – located on a hilltop, and is one of Istria's best-known, and most photographed towns. It also gets many tourists during the summer, but this doesn't mean it is not worth a visit. The best time to visit is in the early morning – or during this festival, one of Croatia's best-known film festivals. Some of the screenings take place in the open air on the town's scenic squares. To find out which films will be featured this year, visit the Motovun Film Festival website. 


Last Minute Open Jazz Festival

When: August 1 to 4, 2016

Where: Bale 



This festival is in its 10th year and is an initiative of Kamene Priče, a local tavern/bar in the pretty medieval town of Bale. This is another place where you'd want to come early to have time to explore its narrow lanes and old stone houses. The concerts take place outdoors on a charming square in front of the town's castle. The programme is available at this link.  

Enjoy the summer!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Istria abecedary: N is for Nono

Above: My great-grandfather

Nono is the name for grandfather in Istrian dialect, from the Italian word nonno. Likewise, nona is the name for grandmother. This is what I used to call my grandparents.

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