Wednesday 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

This is just a small detail (but the most important!) of the elaborate Christmas nativity scene that has been set up in the main church in Gračišće. The famous manger scene will take on much bigger proportions on December 26th and January 6th, when Gračišće will be hosting a ‘live’ nativity scene, which the village’s residents are now busy getting ready for. Our neighbours will be dressing up and enacting not only Mary, Joseph and yes, baby Jesus (a role reserved for the village’s youngest resident), but also the Three Wise Men, as well as traditional trades and craftsmen. Stay tuned for a future blog post on this... 

In the meantime, I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday 21 December 2013

1st day of winter

Today’s the first day of winter. Though I wasn’t looking forward to winter, the fact that today’s the 21st of December is a bit of a relief because it means that from today the days will get longer. This morning the sun came up at 7:39 and will be setting at 16:22. Before I know it, the day’s over! So I’m glad that from tomorrow onwards, we’ll get a few seconds and then minutes more of daylight each day. 

This will be my first winter in seven years so that’s why I’m not looking forward to it. Yes, I’ve lived most of my life in Canada so I know all about winter and snow, ice, hats, coats, scarves, gloves and boots. But I was thoroughly spoiled during the seven years I spent in South India. I wore sandals year round, rarely wore socks and never had to think about heating. Though I’m not really a ‘summer person’ – my favourite seasons are Autumn and Spring – I loved living in a tropical climate where it was summer every day and very quickly got used to it. 

So now that I’m back in more Northerly climes, keeping warm has become a high priority. The sandals have been stored away, I now have an impressive collection of thermal socks, and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about heating… 

In Canada our heating ran on electricity (which is cheap over there) and in Belgium we used natural gas to run our central heating system. Here in Istria, piped gas is not available (except in a few cities), so we use a gas cylinder for cooking (like we did in India). However, very few people use gas for heating because it’s expensive and most use wood as it’s the cheapest and most readily available energy source. 

So when considering what kind of heating system we’re going to use in our little house, we’ve had to carefully weigh all the options. Gas is out because it’s too expensive and inconvenient: we’d need to order a new cylinder at least every other week, probably more. Wood is the cheapest option but there are other considerations. It is not very convenient either because it has to be cut, stored in a dry place, carried inside, and put into the stove. Also, there’s no waking up in a warm house because it’s not possible to maintain a fire overnight and it takes some time to light and get a fire running. 

One day at the Pazin market we saw a demonstration for some fancy Italian stoves which used pellets – a type of processed wood. Pellets seem to be more energy efficient than wooden logs and these sophisticated stoves have a built-in control panel and even a timer – which means you could wake up to a warm house. But of course these clever stoves come with a hefty price tag. 

When I ask family members for advice, I always get the same answer: wood is the way to go because it’s the cheapest option. But what about other considerations? No one here seems to think about the environmental impacts of burning wood. When I ask people where they get their wood, many tell me they have some forestland where they chop down a few trees every winter to use for firewood. There is a lot of forest in Istria and if there is an environmental impact, it’s not noticeable. My father told me that when he was young, most of the land in Istria was cultivated – today it’s covered with forestland. So the forest does seem to be able to regenerate itself despite the fact that so many people are cutting down trees. I wonder if this is because supply still outweighs demand, and whether this can continue and the forest will always be able to regenerate itself. 

Then there’s the question of air quality. Walking through the towns and villages here, the smell of burning wood in the air is a novelty for me and not unpleasant. But when we drive down into Pazin, we can see the layer of smoke hovering over the town. There’s no doubt that this must affect air quality. 

So the heating debate continues…it’s a question of cost over convenience and consideration for our environment. 

Welcome, 1st day of winter! May the days get longer and take us quickly into Spring!

Friday 13 December 2013

'Tis the season in Istria

Christmas is just around the corner. The village has been decorated with colourful lights, giving it a touch of holiday cheer. The days have been bright and sunny, crisp but not cold. There’s no chance of a white Christmas in Istria. However, it is snowing on my blog!

Today I’m sharing with you a few pictures of the festive lights…

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Exploring Oprtalj

One of the things I love about Istria is its varied landscapes: its picturesque seaside towns, spectacular islands, and breath-taking expanses of undulating hills stretching out for as far as the eye can see. But it's the landscape of central Istria that I love best: the rolling hills topped with scenic old villages. I love to explore these old villages, many of which are like ghost-towns of times past… 

One of these hilltop towns where time has stopped is Oprtalj (Portole is its Italian name). 

The drive up winds through pine forests before reaching a plateau at 378 metres from where there are magnificent views of the neighbouring hilltop town of Motovun, which is better known by tourists.

Walking through Oprtalj's cobble-stoned streets and passing under its ruined stone archways, I try to imagine what life was like here in the town’s glory days... 

When were its glory days? When it was a hill fort settlement during the Roman period? Or was it in the 16th century when this was part of the Venetian Republic? Venice has indeed left many marks: the handsome Venetian loggia at the town’s entrance and a statue of the Lion of St. Mark, along with many architectural details which hint at its Venetian past.

Through an archway, the Venetian-style 'loggia'.

Inside the loggia we find the Lion of St. Mark. This is where an antiques market takes place on the second Sunday of each month. 

There are a few cafés, restaurants and shops here and the village seems to be going through a slow revival, but most of its old houses and buildings are in a neglected state.

The last time I was here was about eight years ago... and I had imagined Orptalj would be in a more advanced state of reconstruction. But its charm is intact and this remains one of my favourite villages in Istria. Our next stop was another central Istrian gem: Završje, which will be the topic of a future post.

I leave you with this image of a boat perched on the edge of the village!

Thursday 28 November 2013

The J is pronounced Y

After a lifetime of having my surname mispronounced, misspelled and misunderstood, it is absolutely delightful – and I should also add very odd – to live in a place where my name is understood by everyone, where I don’t even have to ever spell it, and not only that, half the village (OK maybe not half but many, many people) have the same surname as me. 

The cause of this mispronunciation, misspelling and misunderstanding all has to do with the letter J. Growing up in an English-speaking country, my surname was invariably mispronounced because in Croatian (like in many other European languages) the J is pronounced like a Y. 

It could have been worse. I once had a Croatian friend in Canada who had an even harder time than me: the first four letters of her surname were all consonants! At least my family name has a few vowels thrown in for ease of pronunciation. Not that this really helped… I have heard so many distorted and convoluted variations of my surname it’s not even funny. It’s amazing how a J can completely throw people off. Actually, I would be happy if anyone managed to pronounce it right even with the erroneous J sound thrown in. But those exceptional few who pronounced the J like a Y right off the bat (and they were very few and far between) instantly got a big shiny star in my books. 

Then at some point I decided it was time to put things straight. How difficult is it to understand that the J is pronounced like a Y?? Everyone knows how to say Sarajevo and AFC Ajax… So I decided that from that point on, I would gently point out to anyone attempting to pronounce my surname that the J is pronounced Y

So it’s a big relief that for the first time in my life, there is no need to repeat or even spell my surname. It is immediately understood, and duly noted down correctly, not a letter out of place. 

However, I am now confronted by a new problem… this time by my first name! Isabel is not a Croatian name at all so it is often mispronounced or misspelled by Croatian speakers. Being a phonetic language, the S in Croatian is pronounced with a soft ‘sss’ sound, so my name here becomes Isssabel (which I got used to hearing in India). Written down, it is invariably spelled Izabel – which I kinda like! 

I can live with that.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Doors of Istria

A door in Pula

Readers who have followed me here from my India blog will know that I love photographing doors and doorways. I already have a small collection of photographs of doors I've taken in Istria and would like to share a few here. Open the door and step inside...

A door in Oprtalj

A door in Draguć

A door in Gračišće

A door in Livade

A gate in Oprtalj

Another door in Oprtalj

And another gate in Oprtalj

Friday 15 November 2013

Our house – the story

Well I guess it’s time to mention the story of our house in Gračišće and the on-going renovation work, which is the reason why we’re here in Istria. 

We became the owners of this property earlier this year, after a very long process which started more than seven years ago... 

It was during one of our frequent visits to Istria to visit my grandparents and other family that we considered buying a property in Gračišće. About eights years ago, this crumbling and almost deserted village was just starting to experience the beginnings of a rebirth. With each visit, we saw the gradual changes as the old stone houses were being rebuilt and renovated and the village seemed to slowly come back to life. This is a trend happening across many of Istria’s villages but at a slow and measured pace. In most cases, these old houses are bought and completely renovated and then resold at significant mark-ups, or rented out during the tourist season. 

Inspired by the magnificent makeover of Grožnjan, another delightful Istrian hilltop village which was practically a ghost town for decades, we decided we wanted to contribute to the regeneration of Gračišće by restoring one of its old stone houses. At the same time, the decision to buy a house here was also made for sentimental reasons because of the strong family connection I have here. I can also add that we love Istria’s scenic beauty and simply enjoy spending time here so these were all good reasons to buy a house here. 

Buying a house in Istria was not a simple process! It took a lot of time, perseverance and patience.

The first step was to find a house available for sale. Walk around any village in Istria and you’ll see many abandoned houses in various stages of decay so you would think that there’s a lot available. However, the reason why many houses are in a derelict state is because they were abandoned when people emigrated to North and South America, Australia, and other countries in Europe. Many people left, never to come back. Properties automatically got handed down from one generation to the next. Families tended to be big, and as a result a house can have multiple owners on its property title who are often resident in several different countries and even continents. In some cases property registers were not updated properly and as Istria was bartered between countries – from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Italy to Yugoslavia to Croatia – and administrative systems changed as a result – well, you can imagine the mess. 

When we first heard a house was for sale in Gračišće, it was sold before we could even make a bid. Then we heard another old stone house was available which had been abandoned for decades and didn’t even have a roof anymore but it was located on the very edge of the village with a spectacular view. This time we were outbid by a buyer who was willing to pay more than the property’s value (and today the house is still in the same crumbling state). 

Trying to find out who owns one of the village’s many dilapidated houses is detective work. My uncle helped us by asking around and checking property records. Finally we identified a house owner living in Italy who wanted to sell her family home. Before being able to sell, the first step for her was to ‘clear’ the property title which listed 18 persons as part owners! Apparently when her father had bought the house long ago, the property title was not updated. She had to hire a lawyer to investigate who the other 'part owners' were and whether they were even still alive. This process took three years! When things seemed to be resolved and the title could finally be registered in her name, the municipality claimed part ownership and the matter had to be settled in court. To cut a very long story short, it took four years for us to be able to buy this house. 

So after many years of waiting for administrative hurdles to be crossed and hoops jumped through, we now have a home in Gračišće. The next test of patience is the renovation work… this post is already long enough so this will be the topic of a future post!

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Friday 8 November 2013

Taking a pet to Croatia and the EU

Gračišće has not only gained two new inhabitants recently, but also another resident cat. Clearly the fact that we brought our pet cat Squeaky (above) with us all the way from India, is seen as somewhat odd and even amusing by the locals. Though people here do keep cats and dogs as pets, they’re often not allowed inside the house and there are clear limits on how (affectionately) pets are treated. Maybe these emotional barriers are necessary in a society where traditionally people have raised animals to kill and eat them. I don’t know...

But my aunts love to tease me about the time my pet cat was sick while my grandmother was visiting us in Canada. I was a child of 9 and was worried my cat would die. “We don’t cry for animals,” I remember my grandmother telling me, “only for people.” Up to this day, my aunts love to remind me of that incident, which they find absolutely hilarious: “Remember that time you cried because your cat was sick and it had to go to the ‘animal hospital’?!” So imagine the new level of hilarity they got to experience when I told them our South Indian cat was going to travel by plane all the way from India to Croatia.

We weren’t thrilled at the prospect of transporting kitty by plane – cats are not enthusiastic travellers and Squeaky absolutely hates being put into her carrier, even if it’s for a 5-minute drive to the vet’s and has loudly expressed her annoyance each time we had to attempt this. Then of course there was the lengthy paperwork to be done and procedures to be followed… not only to export a pet animal out of India, but also to import it into Croatia.

As I had promised, I have written up an informational post meant for people who plan to travel with a pet to Croatia, or anywhere in the European Union. In this post, I describe the procedure required to import a pet animal into the EU, offer some tips on travelling with pets by plane, and share our experience. I also include information on the procedure to export pets from India. When I was researching this prior to our move, it was difficult to find clear, up-to-date and complete information, so I hope this detailed report will be helpful to people who may arrive at this page via a Google search.

So if you want to know how to take your pet to Croatia, or export it from India, continue reading…

Sunday 3 November 2013

All Saints Day

As my friends in India were lighting lamps for the Diwali holiday recently, people in Croatia and other parts of Europe were lighting candles for a different type of holiday. November 1st is All Saints Day, a day to remember family members and loved ones who are no longer with us. This is a national holiday in Croatia as well as in many other European countries. 

My grandparents, great-grandparents and other extended family members are buried in the cemetery in Gračišće. Cemeteries in Istria are usually located separate from the village and many have tall, evergreen cypress trees. In Gračišće the cemetery is located across the road from the old village in ‘new Gračišće’ with a view of the hills beyond. 

After my grandparents passed away, I would always go to the cemetery first whenever I came to Istria, to pay my respects to them. My father would usually accompany me. We’d first go see the graves of his younger brother and sister who died as infants, which was common in the days when infant mortality was high in many parts of Europe. As we would make our way through the graveyard, he would tell me stories about the people he had known who are buried here… a young girl who had died of polio, an electrician who had fallen from an electrical pole, a young man who was accidentally shot while cleaning his gun during military service. 

On the day before All Saints Day, the cemetery was already full of people tending to their relatives’ graves: sweeping away old leaves and debris, laying fresh flowers and lighting votive candles. The graves were covered in a sea of flowers and there was a smell of burning plastic (from the candles). My grandparents’ graves were already neat and tidy and laid with fresh flowers which meant my aunt had already been there. 

On the morning of the holiday, there were cars parked everywhere around the cemetery as people came to honour their ancestors and attend mass at the church. After mass, families assembled next to the tombstones of their relatives as the village priest led a few prayers for the departed and then sprinkled the congregation and graves with holy water. 

This is a somewhat sombre religious holiday, but also a day when families get together to remember their ancestors and share a meal together afterwards. 

When I passed by the cemetery at night, it was a sea of red lights flickering in the dark – a solemn but beautiful sight!

Friday 1 November 2013

Where the streets have no name

The streets in Gračišće have no name. Yes, the village is that small. So how do addresses work, you ask? Well, each house has a number. The village priest’s house is number 1. Numbers then move consecutively clockwise. More or less consecutively, not always logically. Some houses have a small number plate on their facades, many don’t.

And how do people find an address in the village if there are no street names and most houses don't display a number? It’s a bit like in India - people use landmarks and visual clues. They’ll say: “It’s that green house next to the big church.” Or “It’s that place next to Pino’s old house.” Or “It’s at the end of the road that leads to St. Euphemia Church.”  

There’s one street in the village which has an unofficial name, called ‘Putok’ which means ‘small stream’. I asked why it’s called ‘small stream’ and was told because when it rains the road becomes a small stream. Which reminded me of monsoon time in India.

Letters are addressed to Gračišće followed by the house number, then the village postal code and the name of the village again. In a village where the streets have no name, it’s as simple or potentially confusing as that.

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Friday 25 October 2013

Mushrooms and truffles

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many different varieties of mushrooms cooked in so many different ways than in the past few weeks. When we ran out of ideas of how to cook them (fried, in risotto, breaded…) and were almost – yes – fed up of eating them, we decided to use the rest of our supply to make a tasty mushroom soup.

The wet weather we’ve had lately has provided the ideal conditions for mushrooms to grow in the dark and damp forests. Istrians love their mushrooms and the locals here know all about the different varieties, where to pick them and importantly, which ones are edible and which ones are not.

When I eat mushrooms I always think of my grandmother. She had loved to pick mushrooms in the forest near the family home and then cook them up for her grandchildren, though she didn’t appreciate the taste of mushrooms herself. During my visits to Istria, I liked to go to the forest with her and would be amazed at how easily she would spot them, while my untrained eye searched in vain.

This is also the peak season for truffles. Our truffle-hunting neighbour has had more luck lately. As soon as he takes his tractor out of the garage every morning, his dogs run around in excitement, knowing that they’re going truffle hunting. They jump onto the trailer hooked up to the tractor and off they go into the forest. Just yesterday he showed me three white truffles he found, which looked like small, bumpy, yellowish-coloured potatoes with a very pungent smell. This was a lucky find as white truffles fetch a very high price.

The forests of Istria
It is from mid-September to mid-January that this highly-prized white truffle (called Tuber Magnum Pico) can be found in the forests of Istria. This rare truffle only grows in very few places in Europe: apart from Istria, it can also be found in the forests of Italy and France. Truffles generally grow about 25 centimetres underground around the roots of certain trees like oak, linden, poplar and willow, and can sometimes be found at the ground’s surface too. Since it’s so rare and a much-appreciated culinary delicacy, the white truffle costs up to 2000 Euros per kilo. The less pungent black truffle however, is available all year round and is significantly less expensive: these go for 200-300 Euros per kilo. 

Recently we went to the village of Livade near Motovun for Tuberfest, one of the many truffle festivals happening around Istria. We tasted samples of white and black truffles as well as dishes prepared with them. There were also all kinds of ‘truffle products’ for sale like flavoured oils, pastes, cheeses and pasta.

The highlight of the festival in Livade was the truffle hunting demonstration. The multilingual guide (who spoke Croatian, Italian, German and English) shared her vast knowledge of truffles and truffle-hunting. She explained that there are about 800 registered truffle hunters in Istria holding the required licence – how many ‘unregistered’ hunters there are is anyone’s guess. Hunters can spend hours walking through the forests with their specially-trained dogs who have a highly-developed sense of smell for truffles. Once a dog catches the scent of a truffle, it starts digging furiously at the ground. The hunter then gives the dog a treat and continues the digging because it’s important not to damage the truffle. Apparently the best dogs for truffle-hunting are German hunting dogs (Weimaraners) and an Italian breed of dog called Lagotto Romagnolo. A hunter will always have two dogs with him: one is experienced in truffle hunting while the other is younger and still in training and learns by imitating the older dog. Early morning is considered the best time to hunt for truffles because the dogs’ sense of smell is at its peak and they’re also hungry so keen to hunt.

Digging for truffles...

Just as the guide finished her presentation, a dog jumped out of the forest we were standing next to (perfectly timed!) and started digging frantically. Close behind him was another dog and their owner who was quick to take over and continue the digging with a small spade, unearthing – surprise, surprise – a white truffle.

My name is Tuber Magnum Pico and I'm a white truffle.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest white truffle was found here in Istria in 1999, weighing 1.31 kg and valued at over $5000. This record is held by Giancarlo Zigante but locals here say that he did not actually find it but had bought it from a truffle hunter. Mr Zigante has a well-known truffle restaurant in the village of Livade and a shop which sells truffles and all kinds of truffle products like truffle pastes and oils.

Truffle hunting is in any case, a very lucrative business and many people in Istria try their luck in finding the elusive white truffle. Our neighbour told me about a large white truffle he had found years ago, the proceeds of which he was able to use to finance the construction of his house. Today, due to less favourable exchange rates and higher living costs, the profit would not be as significant, but truffle hunting is a way many people try to supplement their income.

As for the taste of truffles, this is something which is hard to describe… the taste is very ‘earthy’ and somehow a bit mushroom-like, similar to the smell and taste of dried mushrooms. The taste of the white truffle is very strong and the smell almost overpowering. My favourite way of eating it is grated over a traditional type of Istrian pasta called fuži.

Have you ever tried truffles? Black or white? What's your favourite way of eating them?

Friday 18 October 2013

The post office

Life in the village is delightfully simple. The church bells keep time each hour in a place where time seems to have stopped. In terms of modern conveniences these are also pleasantly few. Gračišće boasts an automatic teller machine, a small grocery store, a tavern, and a post office. There even used to be a café/bar here which has been closed for some time but there’s talk of it re-opening in the spring. The village also has five churches remaining of its original seven, which could be the topic of a future blog post, but today I’d like to write about the lovely little post office.

Gračišće’s post office is the smallest post office I’ve ever seen. It is also the most rustic. Located just inside the village’s main arched gateway, it occupies a small stone house with traditional wooden shutters. An old water fountain stands in front and is a relic of another time – this is probably where people came to fill their buckets with water and maybe catch up on news. A few flowerpots decorate the three steps leading to the entrance.

The post office is open for two hours a day, Monday to Friday. It used to open from 7am to 9am, which suited my father just fine because he liked to go buy his newspapers there first thing in the morning. (By the way, if you think 7am is early, this is the usual time offices start work in Istria! – more on working hours is planned for another future post.) Recently the opening hours changed and the post office now only opens its doors at 10:30am before closing at 12:30pm. These revised opening times have caused a minor disruption to my father’s daily schedule, and as a result he makes the 8-kilometre drive every day to Pazin to get his newspapers. “Why don’t you just wait until 10:30?” I asked him. “Because by then it’s old news,” was his reply.

Why is the post office open only two hours a day? Because the same post office lady who works at the counter also delivers the mail. So when she’s not selling stamps or newspapers, she’s driving around Gračišće municipality delivering letters and packages.

The post office lady got to know me pretty quickly because whatever I can’t find locally, I order on-line. So a bunch of packages arrived for me in quick succession (mostly books but also a cat radiator bed for the South Indian cat). She even called me once to let me know a big package had arrived for me. It took me about 30 seconds to walk over to the post office. There were no lines to wait in. Actually there was no one there apart from the post office lady who handed over my package. Then another 30 seconds to walk home. As delightfully simple as that.

Friday 11 October 2013

Pazin's monthly market

Last week the first of October fell on a Tuesday and since it was the first Tuesday of the month, we headed over to Pazin for the monthly market, known locally as the Pazin Samanj. Pazin is only 8 kilometres away and the closest town to us.

I did a bit of reading up on the Pazin Samanj and learned that it’s been held since the 1500s! This was an important local agricultural market for a long time. Today there’s all kinds of stuff sold here and people come from all over Istria to sell their wares and to pick up a bargain, meet up with friends and neighbours, or just walk around the market “because there’s nothing else to do around here”, as my father put it.

The market starts in the pedestrian area of the town centre where old objects are sold. I won’t say ‘antiques’ because this was more like a garage sale of second hand things. I saw household items used in times past, like lanterns, clothes irons made of cast iron (like the ones used by the dhobis in India!), a few pieces of old furniture, and Communist-era telephones, clocks and radios. I also saw many ugly porcelain vases and other uninspiring curios and knick-knacks. A stand selling old musical instruments was more interesting.

Most of the market is taken over by stalls selling cheap clothes and shoes and things like tablecloths, bed sheets and towels. There are some fruit and vegetable stalls and others selling local food products like olive oil, jam, honey.

But the original agricultural aspect of the market is still evident today in the many stalls selling farming tools. This also reflects a society which was predominantly agricultural until fairly recently and where people still work the land.

This is also the place to pick up straw brooms, kitchen utensils made of wood...

and hand-woven wicker baskets.

How about a fly swatter?

Or a hat?

A few more objects from times past looking for new owners.

And even cemetery lanterns are on sale.