Thursday, 10 August 2017

A woman and her olive grove

Maybe you've noticed that I'm a little obsessed with olive trees and olive oil. This obsession started here in Istria after I tried fresh new olive oil for the first time.

I can't go back to supermarket olive oil ever again – it's just nothing like the real thing. I look forward to the olive season every November when we help our neighbours pick their olives and head to a local producer to buy a year's supply of freshly-pressed olive oil.

I've been indulging my olive oil obsession not only by using it in the kitchen but also by writing news articles about all things related to it for Olive Oil Times. Sometimes I have the chance to write about the local olive oil scene here in Istria. I'm sharing two articles here I especially enjoyed researching and writing.

One profiles a woman producer (and fellow Canadian) who tends to her olive grove of 1500 trees on her own, producing an award-winning extra virgin olive oil. Hers is an interesting story of loss and resilience. You can read it here: Oliva Lucia: A Tale of Love, Loss and Leccino in Istria

The other article is about a Croatian celebrity chef who loves using olive oil in sometimes truly surprising ways: Chef Deniz Zembo’s Olive Oil Explorations

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Vintage hotel posters

Today we're going way, way back with these vintage hotel posters!

Aren't they groovy? Enjoy!

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Istria's new olive oil museum

One thing I love about Istria is its olive trees and exceptional olive oil

Istria is the northern-most olive-growing region in the Mediterranean and olive oil has been produced here since Roman times. In the past two decades, the local olive oil industry has experienced a resurgence of sorts and Istrian olive oil has been put on the map thanks to its many excellent local producers. Many of these have won international awards for their high quality olive oil and for the past two years Istria has been named 'Best Olive Oil Region' by the Flos Olei olive oil guide.

A new museum that opened this summer in Pula is a fitting tribute to Istria's status as an increasingly important olive oil region. The Museum Olei Histriae (Museum of Istrian Olive Oil) is located on a pedestrian street in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the arena, the 1st century Roman amphitheatre. 

The museum includes a exhibition space that covers the 2000-year history of olive-making in Istria (in four languages!) providing not only historical facts but also information about the scientific composition of olive oil and its health benefits. 

Audio-visual aspects make the experience participatory: wooden cupboards are opened to reveal interesting facts about olive oil, a short film introduces Istria as an olive-growing region, and a small room has been set up to look like a local 19th-century oil mill. There's also a kid's corner and  best of all – a tasting room where a professional olive oil sensory expert leads visitors through a guided tasting. At the entrance to the museum is a shop showcasing over 20 local olive oils available for purchase.

I recently visited the museum and wrote a short article for Olive Oil Times. You can read all about the museum at this link.

For more information about the museum and its opening hours, visit the website

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Gračišće Landmarks: The Church of St. Mary on the Square

I've decided to do a mini-series on a few of Gračišće's most notable landmarks. I've already written about the crumbling elegance of the Salamon Palace, the 16th century Gothic building that probably attracts the most attention from visitors to the village.

I also wrote about my climb up to the top of the bell tower, from where I enjoyed the amazingly scenic views. 

And I've written about other landmarks like the church of St Euphemia (Eufemija), and the loggia (loža) as part of my Istria abecedary.

This post is about another of the village's six churches. You're probably thinking that that's a lot of churches for such a small place, but as you know, the medieval period in Europe was all about building churches and cathedrals -- and Gračišće used to have seven churches in total! 

Once you come through the entrance gateway and loggia and enter the village, one of the first buildings you'll see is the Church of St. Mary. It has a prominent place on the village's main square and stands out for its handsome stone porch. 

This little church dating back to the 15th century is full of fascinating little details: 

  • It was built by Master Dento in 1425 and commissioned a local nobleman called Petar Beračić. During the Middle Ages it was often patrons from this privileged class who financed the building of churches as well as secular buildings. The names of both the builder and patron are engraved in Latin on a stone plaque to the left of the door.
  • The altar is placed against the eastern wall as was common in the Middle Ages, so that the priest and congregation would face east.
  • The eastern wall is covered by magnificent frescoes depicting the Adoration of the Magi, which also date to the 15th century. At some point they were actually painted over and only discovered much later when the church was being restored. Of the Three Wise Men depicted, one of them is wearing a hat and has detailed features: he's believed to be Petar Beračić. It was common at the time to paint the patron into a work that was commissioned by him. 
  • If you look carefully at the joints between the stones that make up the western wall (to the right and left of the entrance) you'll see the twisted and rusty ends of nails that were hammered in between the blocks of stone. The story goes that on the night of the feast of St. Mary (August 15th), childless women would drive a nail into the wall after walking on their knees from the village's entrance gate. By doing so, they believed that they would conceive.
  • The church's porch was added later, in the 17th century.

Today mass is still held here, but not regularly – usually when the main church is closed for renovations. And of course every year on August 15th, there's a mass dedicated to St. Mary.

The door is kept locked so if you'd like to visit the church, you have to ask for the key. Tip: in every village there's always a dedicated person who has the key to the church. How to find them? It's not that difficult: just ask anyone. Don't be shy to knock on someone's door. They'll be happy to help and thrilled that someone is interested in seeing the 15th century frescoes up close. Or knock on the green door on the square!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A day on the Brijuni Islands

The Brijuni Islands were on my list for a long time. Finally on a hot day in May I caught the ferry from the small and colourful port town Fažana for the short trip to Veliki Brijuni. This is the largest of the Brijuni islands, a collection of 14 islands and islets. 

These islands were inaccessible during President Tito's rule during the time of Yugoslavia when they served as his summer residence. Today Veliki Brijun is one of Croatia's eight national parks covering 34 square km in total and is popular with day trippers.

I was surprised by all this island of wild rocky beaches and lush parkland filled with ancient trees and exotic plants has to offer. There's actually plenty to see and do and the best way to get around this car-free island is to rent a bicycle. Golf carts are also available for families, groups, or those with limited mobility.

There are guided tours aboard the tourist train but it's much better to explore the island solo. There's also a handy interactive guide that can be downloaded without charge using the park's free Wi-Fi. At the 100 information stations throughout the park, you can just point your mobile phone camera at the QR code to get information about the attraction in six languages. 

Here's what you can see on Veliki Brijun island:

Dinosaur footprints

Much before Tito's time, dinosaurs used to roam here. You see proof of this as soon as you step off the ferry: there's a dinosaur footprint on the pier. One of the many marked trails that run through the park is the 'Promenade of Dinosaurs'. This one is especially popular with kids, who love looking out for the hundreds of dinosaur footprints clearly visible in the limestone of four of the island's rocky beaches.

Roman ruins

The island's many ancient ruins are remarkably well-preserved, with the most fascinating being the Byzantine-era castrum right on the edge of the sea. This maze of stone structures within fortified walls reveals the remains of brick ovens, olive and wine presses, cisterns and cellars, all part of a large settlement that existed here from the 1st to the 8th century. 

Animal safari park

I'm not a fan of zoos but the safari park is huge: covering nine hectares, it has plenty of wide-open spaces for animals to roam. This is home to a motley collection of fauna (and their progeny) gifted to Tito by various heads of state. Zebras from Guinea, Somalian sheep, llamas from South America, Indian holy cows, and African ostriches all have their home here, as well as native goats and sheep, and long-horned Boškarin oxen. But I was sad to meet Lanka the elephant, one of the park's long-time residents. She was a gift from Indira Gandhi to President Tito and has been living in a grim-looking enclosure here since 1970.

The Tito museum

The Tito on Brijuni exhibit housed in the museum is a step back to another time and era. This is a collection of mostly black and white photographs documenting the year's Tito spent on the island receiving heads of states and dignitaries from 90 different countries, and schmoozing with film stars like Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. Other popular must-sees are the president's 1953 Cadillac and the island's best-known and most photographed resident: Koki, Tito's yellow-crested talking cockatoo. 

The old olive tree

Another highlight is the island's massive 1700-year-old olive tree – proof that olive oil has been produced in Istria for centuries. 

The beaches

The entrance ticket clearly states that swimming is not allowed, but this rule doesn't seem to be enforced. It's hard to resist the temptation of having a deserted beach to yourself!

For more information on visiting Brijuni National Park, visit their website

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Where everyone knows your name

I've always lived in big anonymous cities. Life here in the village is different. 

Here, everyone knows your name.

My father is from here so I'm known as A's daughter. (My father's name is actually M but everyone calls him A – because everyone seems to have two names here: an 'official' and 'unofficial' name – this probably needs to be the subject of a future post!) My husband is known as A's zet (son-in-law).

The village has only a few hundred inhabitants and is made up of a few extended families who have lived here for generations so it's not surprising that everyone knows each other. No anonymity here!

But sometimes I'm surprised that even in Pazin – a town eight kilometres away with a few thousand inhabitants – it's hard to be anonymous.

I was reminded of this recently when my husband and I visited a government office there. He needed a document, so he filled in a form with his personal details. The clerk then told us when we could come and pick up the document. She was friendly and chatty and casually mentioned that she grew up close to the village. “You know that road that leads to your uncle's house?” she asked, wanting to point out to me exactly which house she grew up in. A flicker of confusion must have crossed my face because she paused and asked: “So-and-so is your uncle, isn't he?” I nodded, but I was trying to figure out how she knew who I was. I hadn't even given her my name!

So even people in Pazin know who we are... even if we don't know them. There have been many other incidents like this:

Sometimes when we meet people and tell them where we live they answer: “Yes, I know.”

Then there was the time the cashier at the supermarket asked my husband how his brick oven project was going.

And when someone drove into the back of our car at a stop sign and later the same day, my aunt called to ask how bad the damage was.

But the creepiest experience was at a hardware store in Pazin: a man who was intently studying me said to me: “Your mother's name is so-and-so and she's from this-place.”

It's not that my family is famous or anything. That's just how things are here. 

Like it or not, everyone knows your name!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Cycling the Parenzana (Part 4): from Vižinada to Poreč

One reason I enjoyed spacing out my journey on the 123-km-long Parenzana trail over several months is that I was able to experience the different colours of each season as I cycled or walked through the different landscapes I came across.

I started out in Muggia in Italy in early October, cycling through this initial stage of the trail that crosses the border into Slovenia and follows the coast all the way to Buje in Croatia. There was a late summer feel to that October day and autumn hadn't yet fully started. It was a sunny day in November when I walked through Autumn landscapes from Buje to Livade on the second stage. And for the third leg from Livade to Vižinada, the rural scenery I walked through was painted in winter colours. 

On a day in early May that was threatening rain, I was on the final stretch of the trail from Vižinada to Poreč on my bicycle. Now the fields, forests and olive groves set in red earth I cycled past were painted in the brilliant green of the first days of Spring.

I started off in Vižinada where I took in the stunning view of Motovun in the distance. Hilltop Motovun was the ever present landmark of my previous walk, but now I turned my back on it and headed towards Vižinada. This section of the trail is on a slow and gradual decline so it was an easy ride. The route was pleasant and picturesque, but compared to the previous sections there were fewer 'wow' moments as the land got progressively flatter as I approached seaside Poreč. And there were no scary pitch dark tunnels!

I have now completed the 123-km Parenzana trail. Would I do it again? Yes! I would especially like to retrace the section in Slovenia by bicycle and the trail from Grožnjan to Livade on foot. Many people do the entire trail by bicycle in a single day, starting in Muggia, Italy and following the path of the former railway line all the way to Poreč, Croatia. Three countries in one day by bicycle? Yes, in Istria it's possible. The trail is dubbed 'the route of health and friendship' by the tourist office brochures because it links the three countries that make up geographical Istria.

Next I'll be writing a short and handy little guide on the trail with a few tips and recommendations. Coming soon!

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Old postcards of Rovinj

Don't you love old postcards? I do!

A neighbour showed me his fascinating collection of 300 old postcards dating back to the early 1900s of Istrian towns and villages printed by an Italian publisher. I scanned the ones I found the most interesting and will be sharing some here. I had already shared a post on old postcards of Gračišće, the village I live in.

Today I'm taking you back in time to early 20th century Rovinj:

1918 -- a view of Rovinj from St Catherine Island

This photo was taken almost exactly 100 years ago. It looks like the tiny island of St Catherine was always a popular beach destination. Today it's also the site of a large hotel, Island Hotel Katarina. I imagine their rooms must have stunning views across the water of Rovinj's old town.

This shot of one of Rovinj's commercial streets in the old town was taken in 1902. The streets of the old town still look very similar today.

Taken in 1906, this is Rovinj's pier.

And last we have Rovinj's Piazza del Ponte (Trg na Mostu), captured in 1905.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Why spring is the best time to visit Istria

Yes, I'm back after my trip to India, and happy to be home. I had lovely spring weather to welcome me back and provide a soft landing after leaving the intense heat of India.

Autumn used to be my favourite season but since moving to Istria almost four years ago, spring is my favourite time of year. Why? Because in South India where I spent close to seven years, the weather was summer-like all the time and apart from the monsoon season, the seasons were not as marked as in northern climes. After spending my first winter in Istria, the arrival of spring was so welcome and so sweet: there's nothing like that first spring day when you can go outside without a coat, and sit in the sun and feel its rays warming your face.

Here's why – thanks to Istria – spring has become my favourite season and why it's the best time of the year to visit:

Everything is lush and green. Spring is when trees sprout new leaves and flowers bloom, so greenery is everywhere. But when Istria's spectacular landscapes are painted a brilliant spring green, it seems like the most beautiful place in the world.

Asparagus. A sure sign of spring is the wild asparagus that shoots out of the ground in Istria's forests. There's nothing like the taste of fresh asparagus and its burst of anti-oxidants. One of the first things I did was scavenge for wild asparagus in the forest on the edge of the village. And in Pula's market, I saw thick bunches of beautiful purple and green shoots on sale for next to nothing.

Outdoor cafes. There's nothing like the first day you can finally sit outside and enjoy a coffee or even a meal in the sun and fresh air. In spring, cafes and restaurants open their terraces and patios, and as soon as the sun comes out, they're crowded with people enjoying the good weather.

Fewer crowds. Spring is when tourists start to show up. Sometime around Easter I spot new faces wandering around the village, and foreign cars on the roads. But the usual tourist spots are far from crowded and this is when I like to explore them: when they're almost empty and before the mad rush of July and August.

Flower markets. Spring is all about flowers and planting. People are busy in their fields planting vegetables: onions, lettuce, and spinach are the first to appear, and very quickly there are strawberries and cherries to pick. People also love to decorate their homes and gardens with flowers and plants, and flower markets pop up in every town.

What's your spring ritual?

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Where am I?

This blog has been quiet... that's because I've had a change of window and am travelling in India again this winter. I hope to get to publishing the posts I have in the pipeline soon... but in the meantime you can have a peek at my Instagram page to see what I'm up to!
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