Tuesday 30 December 2014

House renovation update

The upstairs hallway is the perfect spot for bookshelves

Finally! The house renovation update... Well, our little house is now 95% finished. The last big project was to put in the stairs linking the ground floor to the upper floor and now that’s just about done. The next step is to attach the wooden planks for the steps to the metal structure which will be done as soon as the painting and varnishing of the steps is finished. Then we’ll also have to complete the bar which separates the kitchen from the living area. But the house finally feels like a house!

Metal staircase - wooden steps to come
It’s not a big house, with two rooms and a bathroom upstairs, and a living area and kitchen downstairs, but it is a good size. We also have the outdoor courtyard to enjoy, where the brick oven sits majestically in one corner. As I had mentioned in my previous post on our renovation project, we tried to preserve as many original features of the house as possible: like the stone walls and stone doorway, the original wooden beams, and the little 'niches' built into the stone walls. Not only are we happy to have completed a living space for ourselves but also to have restored one of the village’s original stone houses.

There are still a few other projects reserved for the Spring, the most important of which is renovating the façade. Since the village has heritage protection status, we need to apply for permission to do this. We’ve already contacted the conservation committee with two possible proposals, but are still waiting to hear back from them.

The brick oven can be seen through the back door in the courtyard

One of the niches built into the stone walls.

A 'window' between the living area and kitchen

I don’t have ‘after’ photos to display here, because we’re still in the process of settling in and furnishing the house, which takes time. But the photos I’m posting here offer a peek into the restoration process.

Having gone through the experience, I would offer the following advice to anyone thinking of starting a similar project to renovate a holiday home:

Expect everything to take longer than expected. It’s difficult to estimate the time it will take for a renovation project because there are so many factors at play. In any case, renovating a property is a lot more time-consuming (and stressful!) than many people imagine. Not only do you have to rely on contractors, materials may not always be available when you need them or may have to be ordered in advance. Even the weather can delay things: like our walls which took weeks to dry because of a wet, humid winter.

Expect everything to cost more than expected. Because you’ll be glad you have some money left over!

Keep it simple. Planning and building or renovating a home or holiday retreat is a dream project. Some people get carried away and plan too big and then realize that the project is too ambitious and is eating up more time and resources than initially imagined. Less is more.

Be on-site as much as possible. There are decisions and micro-decisions which need to be taken on a daily basis. This is why you need to be around as much as possible. If you can’t, find a project manager you trust to oversee things in your absence.

Feel free to share your own experiences building or renovating a home or holiday getaway in the comments section!

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Istrian language: is it dying out?

One of the things which is unique about Istria is its language. The Istrian language is a dialect of Croatian and is quite different from standard Croatian. The language reflects Istria’s rich history with many words borrowed from Italian, and a few smatterings of German.

The Croatian language has three main dialects which are divided into many sub-dialects. The three main dialects are named after the way the word ‘what’ is pronounced in that dialect: čakavski, štokavski, and kajkavski. In Istria, the čakavski dialect is spoken, while štokavski is ‘standard’ Croatian.

There are several variations of the Istrian dialect and the accent and vocabulary can change from one village or town to the next. Like most dialects, this is not a formal written language, though some local writers and poets do write in the Istrian language for stylistic (and cultural) reasons.

While growing up in Canada, we would speak the Istrian dialect at home and this is the language I spoke with my grandparents and other family members when I would come to Istria for visits. This is why I struggle with standard Croatian and tend to understand old people best!

While older people tend to speak Istrian, I’ve noticed that today young Istrians are more likely to speak standard Croatian in everyday situations, though some make a point of speaking the dialect. There are several reasons for this; one may be increased literacy. My grandparents were not educated in Croatian but Italian, since Istria was part of Italy in their school-going days. The Istrian language was what was spoken at home. In my grandparents’ time, and even in my parents’ time, not everyone was able to go to school or complete their schooling. For this reason, they may have been less exposed to ‘Serbo-Croatian’, as the language was called during Yugoslavia. Fast forward two generations and today everyone is educated at least to the secondary level, with most students moving on to higher studies. Since all schooling is in standard Croatian, young people have a high proficiency in the language.

A poet from the village who writes in the Istrian language told me that another reason why the dialect is being spoken less today is because people do not marry within the same region anymore. While transportation links were poor in the past, making travel a challenge, today people can move around more easily. They go away to study in other parts of Croatia and often marry non-Istrians.

Since being fluent in standard Croatian indicated a certain level of education (at one time), Istrian is seen by some as a ‘peasant’ language, or a language spoken only by old people, hence a certain ‘inferiority’ complex on the part of Istrian speakers and a ‘superiority’ complex on the part of standard Croatian speakers (especially from outside Istria). As high literacy and education levels have now created a level playing field, I think (hope) that young people today speak Istrian because they want to speak their language, and by speaking it, they preserve it and a part of their identity and heritage.

I was curious to know what they think so I asked a few young people (in their 20s and 30s) from different regions of Istria a few questions and am including their answers below. Their answers are often contradictory and reflect the region of Istria they come from.

Sunday 7 December 2014

The brick oven – part 2

I know there are two outstanding updates on this blog, namely updates on the house renovation and the brick oven construction in our courtyard. Well, the house is practically finished, with just a few details left, the most important of which is the internal staircase which will connect the ground and upper floors. The metal staircase structure which will support the steps is being assembled and I’m hoping it will be installed this week. In the meantime we’ll be busy varnishing the wooden planks which will be used as steps this week. A more detailed update on the house is coming soon!

As for the brick oven, it’s now complete and fully functional and has produced many yummy breads and pizza. As you may have read in a previous post, the brick oven has been the Belgian husband’s pet project for the past few months. I’ve been itching to write an update about it for some time now but I was asked by the brick oven maestro to wait until he completes the informational website he has created detailing the entire construction process. That was almost two months ago… and after a few reminders and a final decision that I was writing the update brick-oven-website-ready-or-not, the website was magically completed and I can finally write this post and share the website link with you (see below).

The brick oven project was started at the beginning of May and completed towards the end of October, with many breaks in the construction process due to (rainy) weather, a bit of travel, and injury (nothing too serious, just a few sore arm muscles and back strain).

Our brick oven is a subject of curiosity in the village. Many people stopped by to have a look during the building process and offer their advice (solicited and unsolicited – mostly unsolicited – everyone had a say!). We also heard a lot of stories about the olden days when the village had three or four functioning brick ovens – some of these were public where villagers could come to bake their bread. At Easter time women would walk here from neighbouring farms and villages with loaves of sweet bread to bake in the communal oven. My aunt told me she would accompany my grandmother, balancing on her head a large wooden kneading board covered with loaves ready to be baked.

One of these old ovens is still left but is not in use – it is actually very close to ours, in the next property just over the back wall. Nowadays everyone has an electric oven of course, but there are some people who build a brick oven specially for baking pizza and bread. Nothing compares to a pizza baked in a wood-fired oven!

As for the experience, the Belgian husband says it was definitely worthwhile and greatly rewarding (culinarily rewarding too!). He shares his research, 3D models, mathematical formulas, photos and experiences on almost every detail of the brick oven building process at The Brick Oven.

And here is an updated slide show of the steps of the oven being built:

Sunday 30 November 2014

Thoughts about stuff

Left: the box containing our stuff being loaded in Bangalore. Right: our stuff arriving in Gracisce.

Having experienced three international moves in the space of seven years, I have a few thoughts about stuff. You know, the stuff you tend to drag around from one home to the next. The stuff you keep in boxes in the basement or an attic, which simply takes up space. The stuff you either have to face by sorting through it and deciding what is indispensable and what isn’t, or the stuff whose real or imagined utility you don’t question at all and instead just move it to another basement or attic where it sits until the next move.

I’ve learned that you don’t need most of this stuff but you end up paying to pack it, move it, store it, and sometimes even to dispose of it.

I’ve learned that life is simpler without stuff.

I’ve learned that it’s very liberating to get rid of stuff. When I wrote about my experience packing up my previous life in India I mentioned the feeling of liberation and how after purging years of accumulated stuff, I felt lighter.

The reason why I’ve been thinking about stuff is because over the past few months I’ve been sorting through all our possessions, unpacking the boxes we shipped from India, and those we had left in storage for the past 8 years.

Of course emotions are invariably linked to stuff too. I felt a burst of nostalgia when I opened up the boxes packed with my Indian clothes, the smell of India still there. Unpacking the moving boxes I had packed up in London eight years ago (which we had stored in Brussels and transported to Istria recently) felt very strange… like I was handling artifacts from another time. And I was delighted to be reunited with my books and enjoyed the ritual of lining them up on new bookshelves.

I’m happy to finally have the unpacking, sorting and purging behind me and am glad to now have all our stuff in its place, in one place.

Now that the unpacking is done and the house renovations are over, I finally feel like I have a home again.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

It’s marenda time

When I have errands to run, I’ve learned not to expect to get anything done between 10:00 and 10:30am.

10 o’clock is ‘marenda’ time you see, a sacrosanct time of the day when workers across Istria are taking their morning break. Since most offices and workplaces start their workday at 7am, 10am is usually break time.

So now I know not to bother going to any administrative office, the electricity board, or even to the shoemaker between 10 and 10:30am because I’ll just be wasting my time waiting for them to come back from their Marenda break. Sometimes Marenda can even stretch to 11am, so 10-11am is a ‘no-go’ time!

Marenda comes from the Italian word merenda and this habit or custom must be a legacy of Italian times. While in Istria marenda is a snack or light meal eaten between breakfast and lunch, in Italy merenda is usually an afternoon snack.

Many local restaurants in Istria have a special marenda menu at a set price meant for workers who’d like to have a cheap and filling meal. In restaurants in the nearby town of Pazin (there are only two!), marenda is super cheap at 28 Kuna (3.65 Euro). For this price a hot meal of a main dish is served with two side dishes and often a small salad. The special marenda menu usually has three or four main dishes to choose from.

Since marenda is a light meal eaten between breakfast and lunch, this means there are four mealtimes in Istria. Breakfast is a very light meal (or some skip it entirely) followed by marenda, while lunch is the main meal of the day, and dinner is again usually something light.

Four mealtimes – why not? Any excuse to eat is a good one in Istria!

Sunday 19 October 2014

5 foods from my childhood I’m rediscovering

Blitva (Swiss Chard) growing in my neighbour's garden

Since I’ve been living in Istria, I’ve been rediscovering some of the foods I knew as a child. Here are a few:

1. Blitva (Swiss chard). This leafy green vegetable is a staple in Croatian cuisine. Everyone grows it in their vegetable gardens and you can find it on all restaurant menus as a side dish. It’s served just plain, drizzled with a bit of olive oil, or mashed together with potatoes. This was a dish my mother would make very often and it’s a comfort food for me. I hadn’t eaten blitva for years but now I get huge bunches of fresh blitva from my neighbours. Nothing like yummy, home-grown, naturally organic blitva. Blitva I missed you!

2. Gris (Cream of Wheat). A bowl of hot cream of wheat cereal brings back memories of cold winter mornings in Canada when I would have this for breakfast. At home we would use the Croatian word for it, gris (pronounced like ‘grease’), so that’s what we called it. This is another winter morning comfort food I hadn’t eaten in years before moving to Istria. My Indian friends will know this as rava.

3. Vegeta. Vegeta is Croatia’s ‘garam masala’. Every Croatian recipe calls for a dash of Vegeta, a powdered mix of dried spices and vegetables. At home in Toronto we had a steady supply which my mother would pick up at a European-style deli. Here, Vegeta takes up much aisle space at the supermarket because it now comes in many different flavours. There’s even a non-MSG version. But in the olden days there was just one type of Vegeta.

4. Napolitanke. Produced by the Croatian confectionary company Kraš, this is a type of wafer biscuit made with chocolate and hazelnuts. The European deli in Toronto also sold Napolitanke and when I was living in London I would find them at a local Turkish shop. We would always get the hazelnut ones, but today they’re available in other flavours: chocolate, nougat, lemon, chocolate-covered, mocha, rum. Oh and guess what? They’re vegan!

5. Ki-Ki. Ki-Ki is a type of soft candy I knew from the summers I spent here as a child. When I see packages of Ki-Ki at stores here it brings back memories of my grandfather who would always bring his grandchildren a bag of Ki-Ki when he would go ‘to town’. Today Ki-Ki comes in a whole bunch of different flavours but I remember that back then there was only one generic flavour and kids loved them.

That’s my round-up of childhood foods I’m rediscovering here in Istria. You’ll be forgiven for thinking so, but no, this is not a sponsored post!

Monday 6 October 2014

Crumbling elegance: Gračišće’s Salamon Palace

Many of the houses and buildings here in Gračišće are unfortunately abandoned and in a derelict state. This is the fate of many villages in Istria because many owners of these neglected properties live abroad, or a property is divided among several heirs, or simply because people do not see the value of an old property and do not want to spend money maintaining it.

Many visitors to Gračišće are intrigued by a derelict building on its main square, just opposite the 15th century church of St Mary and Konoba Marino. Despite its dilapidated state, the Salamon Palace (also often spelled 'Salomon' Palace) is still one of the village’s most striking buildings.

Buildings often have interesting stories behind them. I’ve done a bit of searching through guidebooks and have spoken to the older villagers living here to learn more about the history of this intriguing building and try to understand why it’s been left to slowly decay.

The Salamon Palace is part of the external fortifications of the village, a row of imposing three-storied buildings with thick walls and entrances on both the exterior and interior of the village. With its grey stone façade and Venetian-Gothic features, this building looks like it would belong in Venice. Its architectural features reveal a mix of styles. On the 1st floor, the windows are Gothic in style: they have pointed arches and a biforium – a double-arched window with a column separating them. The windows on the second floor are Romanesque in style with rounded arches and the cornice of the building was in Baroque style but this is not visible today.

A small guidebook I have on Gračišće published by the municipality reveals that the construction of the Salamon Palace was completed 444 years ago, in 1570. Up to the first half of the 19th century, it belonged to the Italian noble family Montecúccoli, who had bought the county of Pazin (of which Gračišće was a part) from the Habsburgs in 1766. There’s no information on who its previous owners were. The palace takes its name however, from its most recent residents, the Salamon family who moved here in 1848 when Lieutenant Francesco Salamon became a national guard commander stationed at Gračišće. Its new owners renovated the palace in 1853 – the date which is seen above the imposing doors on the exterior side of the village.

My father remembers the last generation of the Salamon family to live here. He had been inside their grand home (which must have contrasted sharply with the village’s other modest dwellings) as a young electrician to install an electricity meter. He had also learned French from Mrs Salamon, who taught at the village school. Tragically Mr Salamon had died during the Second World War at Dachau concentration camp, where he had been a prisoner of war (along with my grandfather, who luckily survived). Their son became a doctor and moved away to Pula, while Mrs Salamon remained in the family home. There was a grocery stone on the ground floor of the building, while the family lived on the upper floors.

Today this lovely building, one of the most noteworthy in Gračišće, is a sight for sore eyes. It has stood empty for decades and is slowly crumbling. A patch of the beautifully painting ceiling is visible through the open windows of the first floor, but most of it has collapsed. Under the ledge of the biforium were three sculpted lions which I had captured with my camera in 2004 – 10 years ago – but only one remains today. I was told two of the stone sculptures were shattered when a delivery truck was backing up and accidentally hit them!

Only one lion left today!

The three lions are visible in this photo from 2004.

The sorry state of the Salamon Palace brings up questions. The village of Gračišće has ‘protected status’ as a place of important national heritage, so how can it be that its buildings are left to crumble away? Wouldn’t the restoration work on such an important historical building located in a village under ‘monumental protection’ be the responsibility of the state, or the regional or local government? It’s difficult to find answers. 

When the roof collapsed a few years ago, people started to take notice. The Conservation Committee had ordered the owner to take action and repair the roof and cornice because of safety concerns. The owner at the time was the proprietor of a real estate agency who had put it back up for sale. (The ad is still visible at this link with a few photos of the interior.) Some people say that he had defaulted on a bank loan and that the palace has been repossessed by a bank, but this is hearsay. In any case, the roof was repaired about five years ago (it's not clear at whose cost) but it seems that until this decaying palace once again presents a risk to public safety, there are no on-going efforts to preserve it and restore it to its former glory.

The Salamon Palace featured on an old postcard

In the meantime, the Salamon Palace continues to slowly crumble away under the eyes of the patrons of Konoba Marino who sit at the wooden tables with a glass of Malvazija and admire its fading elegance.

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Saturday 20 September 2014

Exploring Istria’s mining past

Recently I had the chance to explore the underground world of an abandoned coal mine in Raša near Labin, just off the eastern coast of Istria. Labin and the surrounding area was the centre of the mining industry in Istria: there were six mines in operation here from as far back as 1785 until 1999. Mining is an important part of Istria’s social and labour history. At one time, the mining industry was the largest source of employment for local people. My grandfather had also worked for some time in these mines.

The tour of the mine in Raša was organized by Istra Inspirit, an organization which presents historically-themed events across Istria, showcasing a cultural or historical aspect of local culture combined with theatre and gastronomy. The meeting place for this event was the site of the derelict mine in Labin where after donning rubber boots, protective clothing, helmets and headlamps, we boarded a bus for the short trip to Raša. Lidija Percan’s unmistakeable voice singing La mula de Parenzo accompanied us all the way there, transporting us to another time.

We quickly arrived in Raša, a small, ugly town in a stunning natural setting. Today Raša is a testament of its mining past as well as the period when Istria was part of fascist Italy. Though the mine here was already in operation from 1928, the town of Raša (Arsia in Italian) was built in 1937 under Mussolini’s rule, an example of one of his many industrialization projects. The town was built exclusively for the needs of the mining industry and included housing for the miners, a town square, church, hospital, school, cinema and swimming pool. The architecture here is very dated and typical of the fascist ‘modernist’ architecture of the time.

Accompanied by a guide, an older man and former miner, we entered the mine through what used to be the exit gate for wagons loaded with coal. It was pitch dark in the tunnels so our headlamps came to good use. We could see the remains of the electrical lines overhead but there were no railway tracks remaining. The guide explained that the underground tunnels run for over 400 kilometres on over 30 horizontal levels. Most of them are now underwater. This mine was in operation from 1928 to 1966, employing over 10,000 men who worked in three shifts, extracting coal day and night.

Walking through the dark tunnels, sometimes through mud and water (the rubber boots came in handy!), we could imagine what conditions were like. It was quite cool underground, but the guide told us that temperatures in the tunnels often rose to over 50 degrees Celsius and humidity levels were high.

Coal mining was dangerous work and the miners faced the possibility of death on a daily basis. There were several fatal accidents caused by explosions. The biggest tragedy in the history of mining in Istria happened here on 28 February 1940 when 185 miners died and over 100 were injured. My grandfather was working here at this time and apparently had not reported to work that day because he was sick! Explosions were fuelled by the deadly mixture of very flammable coal dust and the build-up of methane gas. The miners would carry a metal disk with their personal details so that they could be identified in case of an accident.

As we trudged through the dark tunnels, we came across a miner busy chipping away at the walls with a pickaxe. No, this wasn’t an unfortunate miner who got stuck in the mine after it closed in 1966 – this was the ‘theatre’ aspect of all of Istra Inspirit’s events. He rounded us up and told us to get to work, showing us how to distinguish between coal and stone.

Soon we were walking through the muck again and approaching a loud, booming voice speaking from a megaphone asking us to turn off our lamps. The voice belonged to a long-haired Che Guevara-type figure who narrated through his booming megaphone the story of the miners’ strike of 1921 which turned into an anti-fascist rebellion and the declaration of an independent 'Republic of Labin'. This mini-revolution had lasted five weeks before the Italian army moved in and quashed it. But it seems the revolutionary spirit still haunts the damp underground tunnels because 'Che Guevara' told us that the mine is not completely abandoned: 90 years later, we the ancestors of the revolutionary Labin miners have started a new revolution: the establishment of an underground city. The mine is ours. Long live the miner’s republicHe asked us to repeat the miner’s greeting three times: ‘Sretno! Sretno! Sretno!’ (good luck) before inviting us to toast the miner’s republic with a shot of rakija.

When we eventually traipsed back to the mine’s exit and emerged from the dark tunnel after having spent a couple of hours underground, it was a great feeling to see the light of the sun and feel its heat. This is what it must have been like for the miners to come outside after their long 8-hour shift. The bus took us back to Labin where a typical ‘miner’s lunch’ of bean soup and sausages was waiting for us (and vegetable soup and zucchini fritters for those who don’t eat meat! Kudos to Istra Inspirit for being veg-friendly.)

Today vestiges of Istria’s mining industry remain in the form of the old mine shafts and the modernist town of Raša. Mining had declined in the sixties, when coal reserves were already largely depleted, and came to a complete halt in 1999. This was also due to environmental considerations: though the coal mined here was rich in calorific value, it had a high percentage of sulphur which is not eco-friendly. Today, the coal-fired power plant in nearby Plomin is fed with cheaper sources of coal sourced from other countries. 

Though the mines in Labin and Raša are now defunct, the former underground world of the miners has not been forgotten. Initiatives like Istra Inspirit offer the opportunity to visit the mine and learn about this important aspect of local history. Meanwhile the Underground City movement aims to transform Labin’s abandoned mine into an avant-garde cultural and art project.

I found this interesting photo essay of the Raša mine and the inauguration of the town of Raša in 1938. There are also images of what the abandoned mine looks like today:

Friday 5 September 2014

A walk through Labin

Labin is another charming Istrian hilltop town located just a few kilometres from the eastern coast. The old town has typical narrow cobblestone streets and passageways, a town gate, churches and church towers, and many remnants of its Venetian and Italian past.

Porta Sanfior (gate of St. Flora), Labin's town gate, dates back to 1587. The city's coat of arms is just seen above and the winged lion of Venice.

Labin sits on top of a hill 320 metres above sea level. A climb up the bell tower is rewarded with fabulous views of the sea and the seaside town of Rabac. From the other side of the tower, I could see the hilltop towns of Gračišće and Pićan.

Like other coastal areas and cities of Istria, Labin was part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1797. 

This manhole cover is a remnant of its Italian past: Albona is Labin’s Italian name.

Labin has many magnificent examples of Baroque palaces.

Labin was also the centre of Istria’s mining industry – the subject of my next post…

Sunday 31 August 2014

Adventures of a South Indian cat in Istria

Our cat Squeaky is a minor celebrity in the village as the cat who travelled here all the way from India. Squeaky has adapted to her new home but it did take some time. A neighbour calls her Squeakić so she now has a local name.

I have this feeling I'm not in Bangalore anymore.
Back in her natural habitat, the streets of Bangalore, Squeaky was an avid hunter. She would turn her nose up at the Whiskas I would lay out for her and go outside to the terrace, climb onto the roof, and catch a squirrel instead. She would also hunt mice and rats on a daily basis. Then there were the five small rabbits she brought home (not all at the same time) – and my special birthday surprise: a bat under the bed.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much wildlife in the village. Or maybe there are enough stray cats to make sure there are no rodents around. 

So Squeaky has been relegated to chasing flies and other insects, and is very good at locating scorpion intruders in the middle of the night. 

I've also managed to find a brand of cat food she likes. But too bad there's no 'rat-flavoured' pet food. I think she'd prefer that. 
Yay! A sunny spot! Time for a nap!

In Bangalore Squeaky would spend most of the night wandering around the neighbourhood and catch up on sleep during the long, hot days. Here she is a lot less nocturnal and spends the days looking for sunny spots to doze in or observing the goings-on from the veranda. She does go off on regular explorations around the village but has been sticking close to home ever since she got into a fight with a brawny tom cat. Squeakić thinks she’s a Bengal tiger you see, and not a little street cat from New Thippasandra. I guess she thought she’d show this tom (who we’ve nicknamed ‘the thug’) who’s the boss... After watching her growl ferociously and puff up her tail for a while, the unimpressed tom pounced. She bolted across the square – but the tom easily caught up to her. The two felines somersaulted in a flurry of flying fur and hysterical shrieking before we managed to chase the thug off. Squeaky ran inside to lick her wounds, and has been keeping a low profile ever since.

There's so much to explore...

Since the renovation work on the ground floor is not complete, we’ve made a cat ladder for kitty so she can descend into the courtyard. However, the curious village strays have also discovered the ladder leading to our window on the upper floor. One night we woke to a commotion coming from the hallway. I was horrified to see a cat stuck in the window and desperately trying to free itself. (Our windows tilt inwards vertically, leaving a gap at the top so that we can let in air without having the window wide open.) It was the thug! That brawny tom cat (who clearly is not so brainy) thought he’d try to jump through the gap but got his head lodged between the window and the frame. With some difficulty, he was freed and survived the ordeal. The (badly scratched up) window now stays firmly closed at night and when we're not home!

Check out my cat ladder!

Squeaky the South Indian cat has also had to adapt to a different climate. She spent the winter curled up next to the radiator, but she’s been enjoying the hot summer days which remind her of her native Bangalore. 

I miss those fat rats -- but not the firecrackers during Diwali!

No rats, but good food, a cat ladder, peace and quiet. Life is good for the South Indian cat!

Wednesday 6 August 2014

How to travel to Istria from Italy

Beautiful Rovinj is just a ferry ride away across the Adriatic Sea from Venice

It’s now the height of the tourist season in Istria. Most of the cars I see on the roads have foreign licence plates, every day there are tourist groups arriving by bus in the village, and I see many people walking around with cameras and an enchanted look in their eyes.

This is also the time when friends and family come to visit. Since I often get asked how to travel to Istria from Italy, I’ve decided to write an informational post describing how to travel here and get around by car, bus, train, boat and plane.

Travelling from Italy to Istria by car

Istria is easily reached from Trieste, Italy by car, a drive which takes 1 to 1.5 hours depending on your destination. The route goes through a small part of Slovenia, where a toll sticker (vignette) is required to use the highway. Compared to other EU countries, the vignette is quite expensive at 15 EUR for a period of 7 days. (For example, in Austria it only costs 8.50 EUR for a period of 10 days.) However, an alternative is to take the secondary roads and avoid the highway altogether, which is what most locals do. The stretch along the Slovenian highway only runs for about 8km from Trieste to Koper anyway, so it’s not worth paying for the vignette if you’ll only be driving this short stretch. It can be tricky though to navigate the labyrinth of roads and overpasses when leaving Trieste. This handy link outlines the route to take. Head towards Buzet if you’re going to central or eastern Istria and towards Koper if you’re heading to the west coast or southern Istria.

Though Croatia is part of the EU, it is not yet part of the Schengen Area, which means there are checkpoints at the Slovenian-Croatian border at Plovanija-Sečovlje, Kaštel-Dragonja and Požane-Sočerga. Kaštel-Dragonja is usually the busiest of the three during the summer season. Make sure you travel with your national ID card (if you’re a EU citizen) or passport.

Getting around Istria by car:

Most visitors travel to Istria by car and this is definitely the most convenient way to get around because public transportation is very limited. Roads are well maintained and since the Istrian peninsula is quite small, no destination is more than a 30- or 40-minute drive away. The highway in Istria (called ‘Ypsilon’ because of its Y-shape) is a toll road.

Car rental agencies are located mostly in the tourist centres of Poreč, Rovinj, Umag and Pula. It’s a good idea to book a rental car in advance.

Travelling from Italy to Istria by bus

There are daily bus connections between the cities of Padova, Venice and Trieste in Italy to several towns and cities in Istria. Some don’t run on Sundays, especially outside the tourist season.

Brioni offers the following connections:
Padova / Venice to Bale, Buje, Pula, Rovinj, Vodnjan
Trieste to Bale, Buje, Poreč, Pula, Rovinj, Vodnjan (and other destinations in Istria)

Fils has daily services (except Sundays) running from Venice and Trieste to Buzet, Pazin and Pula.
During the summer there’s a daily direct non-stop bus between Trieste and Pula (Sundays included).

Getting around Istria by bus:

Bus services in Istria are not very frequent and are mostly limited to major centres like Pula, Poreč, Rovinj, Pazin and Umag. For details and timetables, check the websites of the 3 bus companies: Autotrans, Brioni and Fils.

Travelling from Italy to Istria by train

There are no direct train services between Italy and destinations in Istria. The best option would be to arrive in Trieste by train and then catch a bus to Istria (see above). The bus station in Trieste is located right next to the train station.

Getting around Istria by train:

There is a frequent daily train which links Pula and Buzet and several towns on the way, including Pazin. During the summer this train continues on to Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. Timetables are available on the Croatian Railways website.

Travelling from Italy to Istria by boat

Sailing across the Adriatic Sea from Venice to Rovinj is probably the most romantic introduction to Istria. There are regular ferry services linking Venice and Trieste in Italy to the Istrian port towns of Poreč, Rovinj, Umag, Pula and Rabac. Ferries only run between June and September with more frequent services in July and August.

This link on the Istria Tourist Office website lists the ferry companies operating between Italy and Istria.

Airports in Istria

Of course more and more tourists are flying directly to Istria. Pula airport is one of Croatia’s busiest airports during the tourist season. This page on the Istria Tourist Office website has some useful information on scheduled and chartered flights to Pula.

Rijeka and Trieste are other nearby airports.

Sretan put! Bon voyage!

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Friday 25 July 2014

Motovun Film Festival

Tomorrow the 17th edition of the Motovun Film Festival gets underway in the lovely Istrian town of Motovun. This is one of Croatia's most important film festivals and what better venue to watch an international selection of acclaimed films than under the stars on the beautiful squares of this medieval hilltop town?

The festival runs from July 26th to 30th. For more information and the full screening schedule, check the festival website.

See you in Motovun!

Images courtesy of Motovun Film Festival

Saturday 12 July 2014

Windows of Istria

Following a previous post on the doors of Istria, today I'm showing you a few windows of Istria...

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