Wednesday 26 February 2014

A day at the Venice Carnival

The magnificent island-city of Venice is just a short trip away from Istria. Since it’s carnival season, many bus companies are offering special day trips to the Venice Carnival. This seemed like a good way to experience a little bit of Venice’s famous carnival without having to spend the night in one of its famously expensive hotels, so I decided this was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. 

After booking the trip, I did a bit of reading up on the Venice Carnival on the Internet and didn’t like much of what I read… huge crowds, inflated prices, packed restaurants… What was I getting into? I would have to see for myself. 

It was pouring rain when we left Pazin at 5:30am. Not a good start! On the way we stopped for a coffee/bathroom break at a service station near Palmanova, Italy. The parking lot was full of buses from all over Croatia, Slovenia and Austria – and the line for the ladies’ restroom was ridiculously long. 
It was still raining when we arrived at Tronchetto, a huge parking area in Venice which was quickly filling up with buses from all over Europe. We had the option to take the vaporetto (waterbus) to St. Mark’s Square but decided to walk instead. The only way to get around Venice, a collection of over 100 tiny islands, is of course by boat or on foot. Along with its architectural splendour and old world charm, this is one of the unique things about Venice: no cars and water everywhere. 

From what I had read I was expecting to see crowds of people… and everyone wearing masks and dressed up in elaborate costumes. As we walked along, we did come across many tourists wearing masks, but very few people in costume. Maybe the rainy weather was keeping them away? But there was a tangible festive spirit in the air and a sense of excitement. Colourful masks were on display everywhere, small shops showcased the beautiful Murano glasswork Venice is famous for, and stalls offered fritelle, a sugar-sprinkled fritter made during carnival season (very similar to the fritule we have in Croatia). 

Once we arrived on St Mark’s Square, the atmosphere was very different. A large stage was set up at one end where a song-and-dance number was in progress featuring people dressed in animal costumes and tottering on stilts. Two huge screens on either side of the stage flashed advertisements, dominating the visualscape. 

Strolling along the square, there were also quite a few people dressed up in elaborate ‘period costumes’ – who were accosted at every step by a paparazzi of tourists wanting to capture the quintessential ‘Venice Carnival experience’ on their cameras. I was one of them. I noticed that most of the costume wearers spoke German or English and seemed to be tourists themselves. If you love to dress up and have your picture taken, come to Venice during the carnival, you’ll feel like a celebrity!

After taking in the beauty of St. Mark’s Square and snapping a few photographs, I just wanted to get away from the circus-like atmosphere and escape back to the charming little lanes of Venice and get lost in them.

Thankfully there was some respite from the rain and it wasn’t difficult to find a place to have lunch. I was also surprised to see that prices did not seem to be inflated but quite average for a tourist centre, and nowhere near the ridiculous 4 Euros it costs for a cup of tea in a city like Paris!

Would I recommend a trip to the Venice Carnival? 

My experience of it was only very limited, but my impression was that the Carnevale di Venezia is less a traditional celebration leading up to Lent, and more of a 'mass tourist event' to attract visitors during the low season. I later came across this article which seems to confirm this and reveals that the revival of Venice's carnival is fairly recent. 

For first-time visitors to Venice, carnival time does offer the unique experience (and photo opportunity!) of seeing beautiful masks and costumes, but the atmosphere seems quite artificial and put on, and lacks 'local flavour' somehow. Venice is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a 'must-see', but I don't think the Venice Carnival is a 'must-do'.

Of course, it’s carnival time in Croatia too, and this weekend I plan to go to Rijeka for the last day of celebrations of what is the best-known carnival in Croatia. I'm curious to see how it compares to Venice's (more) famous carnival, but I am expecting less put-on pomp and more local flavour!

Monday 17 February 2014

Istrian olive oil – heaven in a bottle

One of the things I like about living in Istria is the quality of life. ‘Quality of life’ can mean many different things but what I mean here is basic things like the quality of the air, water and food. I guess after living many years in India, I’ve learned to appreciate these simple but essential things. Living in a rural environment, there is no air pollution here, the tap water does not have to be purified to be drunk (and it doesn’t have a bad taste!), and it’s easy to get good, natural produce.

Local people do not like to buy store-bought vegetables and try to grow as much of their own food as possible. Nor do they spray their produce with any type of pesticide but try to grow it chemical-free. They don’t even use the word ‘organic’ or ‘bio’ because they grow their food the same way they’ve been growing it for decades before those ‘modern’ words existed. Locals simply say “I don’t spray”, to mean that they don’t use chemical pesticides.

Many people here have olive groves and cultivate olives for their own olive oil production. Istrian olive oil is an absolute delight – pure heaven in a bottle! There are many different varieties of olives grown here, each of which produces an oil with its own subtle flavours. So far I’ve had the opportunity to taste the Leccino, Črnica and Bjelica varieties. Though I can distinguish the slight differences between them, I have a very hard time deciding which one is the best! What’s particular about Istrian olive oil is that it has a pleasant, slightly fruity taste. I don’t think I can ever have store-bought olive oil ever again!

Our 15 litres of Leccino
This winter we bought 15 litres of Leccino from a family who produces their own oil while my father bought 15 litres of Črnica (which has a ‘stronger’ taste than Leccino). We fill a bottle of each at a time so that we always have two varieties on hand. 

Then my uncle in Izola, in the Slovenian part of Istria, also gave us a few litres of his own olive oil, which is just as heavenly (but I don’t know what variety it is!). So we have three different types of pure Istrian extra virgin olive oil in our kitchen and alternate between them, depending on which taste we feel like having!

The olive harvest in Istria happens usually in October or November, depending on weather conditions. Like grape harvesting, olive picking is usually a big family affair, where friends join in too, since the olives are picked by hand. Once they’re picked they must be taken to the local oil mill within 24 hours. Freshly pressed olive oil has a beautiful greenish colour and not the golden yellow colour that store-bought olive oil has. The taste is divine.

For a charming description of an olive harvest by an Istrian family, read 'The olive harvest season in Istria has begun' on a gourmet food blog called 'Manjada'.

A small olive grove near Gračišće (seen on the hilltop)

Istrian olive oil is unique for many reasons:
  • It’s produced by small family producers who make olive oil for their own consumption and then sell any excess oil to their friends and neighbours.
  • It’s extracted by mechanical and not chemical means.
  • It is not refined or industrially treated and is unadulterated, i.e. not mixed with other different types of lower grade oils (which is the case of store-bought oils).
  • Since it’s cold-pressed only once, it has a high concentration of polyphenols, which are considered to be antioxidants and beneficial for health and longevity.
  • It’s expensive! The olive oil you can buy from family producers costs two times more than store-bought extra virgin olive oil – but it is worth every single kuna because of all the above reasons.
Have you tried Istrian olive oil? Which variety is your favourite?

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Thursday 6 February 2014

A walk through Završje

In a previous post, I wrote about the charming hilltop town of Oprtalj. Just a short – and very scenic – drive from here over the hills is another picturesque Istrian ghost-town of times past… Završje. 

This little town perched on a hillside at an elevation of 240 metres, has a long and varied history similar to many other Istrian towns and villages, having been ruled by the Romans, the Habsburgs, the Venetians, Italian counts, and Napolean for a short time, before coming under Habsburg rule again during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then becoming part of Italy, Yugoslavia, and today Croatia.

The Austrians had built a narrow-gauged railway line which ran from Poreč to Trieste, called the Paranzana railway. It opened in 1902 and had 35 stations with one here in Završje, putting the town on this important commercial route. Today the station no longer stands and apparently when the railway stopped running in 1935, it had been completely dismantled and shipped off to Africa, never to arrive because the ship had sunk on the way!

During the period under Austria and Italy, the town had a post office, school, two shops, an oil mill and other trade shops. Once the railway stopped running, Završje (its Italian name is Piemonte) was no longer an important thoroughfare and its decline began. Today there are only 40 inhabitants living here and most of the town’s houses are abandoned.

More recently, Završje has been the beneficiary of an EU restoration project. Information boards provide some interesting background information in Croatian, Italian and English on the town’s history and its architectural highlights. This is how I learned that the town used to be fortified by a double ring of walls, and that the south gate dates back to the 12th century. Also, the main church’s 15th century silver chalice is on exhibit in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

This little quiet and scenic gem of a town is definitely worth a stop on the spectacular drive from Oprtalj to Grožnjan. 
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