Friday 30 December 2016


Image courtesy of Čabeceda

While I was working on the last letters of my Istria abecedary, I came across Čabeceda on Facebook. This is a collection of super cute illustrations depicting images that describe a word in the Istrian dialect for every letter of the Croatian alphabet. 

Not only are the illustrations delightful, but the name of the collection is very clever. Ča is the word for 'what' in the Chakavian (Čakavski) dialect spoken in Istria, after which the dialect is named. Abeceda is the Croatian word for abecedary. And beceda sounds very similar to beseda, which means 'word' in the dialect.

Having completed my attempt at an A to Ž of Istria, I knew that it was a challenge to come up with ideas for some letters which are less used in the Istrian dialect like Đ, DŽ, and Lj. But the artist had the added challenge of coming up with words that could be easily illustrated. 

The artist of this labour of love is Tina Radosavljević from Šišan near Pula. She's a recent graduate of the Academy of Applied Arts at the University of Rijeka who came up with this idea for her final Masters thesis. 

She obviously put a lot of thought into her project: the colour palette she uses is inspired by the colours of Istrian traditional costumes, and the figures depicted in her drawings are even wearing Istrian folk costumes. She has also included the translation of each word in Croatian, English and Italian.

I met Tina when I went to a Christmas art bazaar in Rijeka recently. She was there displaying a book and poster of her Čabeceda drawings, as well as other fun products like a memory game created from the collection, and illustrated mugs, t-shirts and cloth bags with cute Istrian sayings. You can see these things here.

Čabeceda is not only Tina's final art school project (I hope she got top marks!) but also a fun way to preserve the Istrian dialect. Do check out the Čabeceda Facebook page or Instagram page to see the whole collection.

By the way, I have also created an Istria A to Ž page on this blog with a round-up of my now completed Istria abecedary! You can see it just under the header image above.

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Tuesday 20 December 2016

Walking the Parenzana (Part 3): from Livade to Vižinada

It was a crisp but sunny winter's day with clear blue skies when I set out to walk from Livade to Vižinada. I had cycled the first part of the Parenzana trail from Muggia in Italy through Slovenia to Buje in Croatia, and then walked from Buje to Livade. This would be the third leg of my trip following the entire 123-km-long trail, a former railway line.

From Livade the trail follows the main road, heading in a straight line towards the hill town of Motovun and over a short bridge. It then veers to the left where a sign points the direction through the woods. It was cold inside the dense forest, and puddles were frozen over with ice. It was also chilly enough for me to pull out my hat and gloves and put them on. Luckily the forest trail did not last long, and I was soon back out in the winter sun with Motovun looming ahead of me again. It felt quite warm for a mid-December day.

I came across a few fascinating pieces of old abandoned farm machinery on the way.

This stretch of the Parenzana trail makes a track around Motovun (which is perched at 277 metres) so I was able to observe this spectacular hill town painted in winter colours under different angles and from different perspectives as I made my way around the base of the village.

The 222m-long tunnel at Motovun is the longest tunnel on the Croatian section of the Parenzana trail. I spotted a solar panel at its entrance and hoped that meant the tunnel would be lighted. I stepped gingerly inside and turned on my flashlight waiting for the tunnel's lights to turn on. Nothing happened, and of course – Murphy's Law – my flashlight stopped working! The tunnel was pitch black and pretty creepy... I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel either because the tunnel curves. I was about to turn back... I didn't have the nerves to walk through a pitch black, damp tunnel alone... when miraculously the lights suddenly flickered on! I breathed a sigh of relief and walked as quickly as possible, praying they would not turn off as suddenly as they had come on. I was relieved to finally see the (proverbial?) light at the end of the tunnel and quickened my pace.

I soon had Motovun behind me and eventually saw Vižinada looming in the distance ahead. There were few people on the trail that day: one or two lone cyclists, and small groups of walkers covering parts of the trail only.

This leg of the trail from Livade to Vižinada took me about 3.5 hours to walk. I've now completed three quarters of the 123-km-long trail, and will do the last stretch by bicycle this spring.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Istria abecedary: Ž is for Županski stol

The županski stol in Gračišće

Županski stol can be translated as a municipal or public table. Often made of simple rectangular or circular stone slabs set on stone pillars, this is where important community decisions were taken by a town's decision makers. You can still see these old stone tables in many places across Istria.

I've now reached the last letter of the Croatian alphabet and the end of my Istria abecedary! I hope you enjoyed it and learned a little bit about Istria along the way.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Istria abecedary: Z is for Zvonik

There's no W, X, or Y in the Croatian alphabet, so today I'm jumping from V to Z. But this does not mean my abecedary is now complete -- because this is not the last letter...

Z is for Zvonik

Every Istrian town and village has at least one church, but most often several. Interestingly, the zvonik (bell tower) is often completely separate from the church building, like here in Gračišće.

The bell tower is always the highest point of the skyline, and in some places you can climb it and enjoy the stunning panoramic views. Highly recommended! You can see the view from Gračišće's bell tower here.

Z is also for Završje, a charming hilltop town which is well worth a visit.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Istria abecedary: V is for Vino

Istria is a wine-making region that's especially known for its white Malvazija (Malvasia) wine. Other grape varietals grown here include Muscat, Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Teran. Across Istria, signposted ‘wine roads’ lead visitors to small local producers where they can sample and buy locally produced wine. 

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Walking the Parenzana: From Buje to Livade

The first day of November was a perfect sunny Autumn day: perfect for walking the second leg of the Parenzana trail from Buje to Livade. I had cycled the section from Muggia to Buje just a few weeks before. That was a delightful ride that started in Muggia, Italy before quickly crossing into Slovenia where the path followed the coastline before turning inland. The path then continued through vineyards and olive groves before descending to the salt pans of Sečovlje, and crossing the border into Croatia.

But I was certain that this next stretch of the Parenzana (a trail that follows an abandoned railway line) would be the most scenic because it runs through a landscape of rolling hills and passes through several picturesque hilltop villages. So I decided that I would walk this section solo from Buje all the way to Livade, taking in all the gorgeous scenery on the way at a leisurely pace.

I started off at a good pace from Buje, where a family of Slovenian cyclists were also joining the trail. This first stretch was a bit underwhelming because it passed initially through some forest, and then I only saw shrub-land on each side of the trail and no views at all, the whole 1.5 hours it took me to walk to Grožnjan.

On the way, I passed only a herd of sheep and their shepherd, while many cyclists whizzed past me. I was the only walker. Once I reached Grožnjan's old abandoned railway station, I knew the scenery would be less monotonous from here on. Already there was a beautiful sweeping view from this hilltop position of the medieval town and its church spire, terraces of olive groves and vineyards, and the Adriatic Sea glistening in the west. Grožnjan is the highest point of the 123-km-long trail, at 293 metres.

Instead of taking the familiar road towards the town, I followed the signs indicating the Parenzana trail which pointed the way to a short tunnel. Once through the tunnel I was walking through a gorgeous landscape of olive groves. I took a break when I reached a look-out point with a breathtaking view of the Mirna Valley and hills beyond. There was also a strategically-placed picnic table. The perfect place to have my lunch in the late Autumn sun. This was the view -- you can see Motovun perched on the hill:

After my lunch break I was back on the trail. Several cyclists went by on their mountain bikes, including an Austrian couple I had met earlier on the trail when I had stopped to read one of the information signs that mark each spot where a train station once stood. I was glad I was walking, because the views on this stretch towards Završje were truly stunning.

The next section of the trail is mostly through forest, with lots of impressive viaducts on the way. There were also a few tunnels, with Freski being the longest at 143 metres. It was also pitch dark inside so I was glad I had a flash light with me.

The information sign at Oprtalj revealed that the section of the railway here was a difficult one with many sharp bends and that the train had to slow right down to 10km/hour. Failure to comply to this speed restriction led to an accident in May 1923 with the train operator losing his life.

After a long walk that descended through a dense forest I finally reached the Mirna Valley and saw Motovun in the distance. I ended my walk in the town of Livade, where there's a Parenzana Museum. It was closed when I arrived, but I'll surely visit another day.

The walk from Grožnjan to Livade is definitely the most scenic part of the Parenzana trail. It's also relatively easy because it's all downhill. For people who don't have a lot of time and would like to cover just a section of the trail, I would recommend starting in Grožnjan and finishing in Oprtalj.

Next I'll be covering the distance from Livade to Vižinada – again on foot!

Thursday 3 November 2016

A walk through Grožnjan – the town of artists

Grožnjan is one of Istria's many hilltop towns and an absolute must-see. If you've been to Istria but haven't visited Grožnjan... you have to come back and explore this delightful place.

Grožnjan is firmly on the tourist map but compared to other popular tourist spots, it doesn't have a flashy commercial feel. I remember when I first visited in 1989, most houses were still abandoned and in a state of disrepair. Then with each visit I noticed how it was being transformed, and today the town is practically fully restored, with only a few derelict houses left.

Compared to other Istrian towns and villages where there are still many abandoned, crumbling houses, Grožnjan is an exception. Also striking is how all the houses have been beautifully and tastefully renovated, and the original character of the town has been preserved, including its charmingly uneven cobblestones. Unfortunately in many of Istria's old village and towns, the restoration process seems haphazard and inconsistent, even in places that are under heritage protection.

Maybe it's thanks to the many artists living here that the town has been so lovingly preserved. Many of the old stone houses have been transformed into studios and art galleries, and Grožnjan is known as a village of artists. I wondered when and how it was given this status and after a bit of research I found out that it was in 1965 (during the time of Yugoslavia) that Grožnjan was declared the Town of Arts. Houses were allocated to artists from Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, while others were entrusted to Jeunesses Musicales International in 1969 and transformed into an international cultural center where music workshops are held each summer.

Today there are at least two dozen art galleries and studios, as well as boutiques selling art and jewellery. There are also a few shops hawking the usual Istrian products sold in tourist spots like olive oil, truffle products, wine and lavender, but like I mentioned above, without the ugly souvenir shops and commercial overload of other places.

Grožnjan's affiliation with music is also very present here. If you wander its narrow streets during the summer months, you'll be accompanied by the dreamy sounds of piano or violin music wafting from the upstairs windows of the music studios where musicians rehearse and practice during the annual summer school. Also, Grožnjan is the host of a jazz festival held here every July, called Jazz is Back, and every September it's time for ExTempore, an art festival.

Another good reason to visit Grožnjan is for the winding drive up to the hilltop it occupies and the gorgeous views of rolling hills and a sliver of the sea. 

Take a walk through Grožnjan...

Thursday 20 October 2016

Cycling the Parenzana: From Muggia to Buje

For walkers, cyclists, and rollerbladers
Doing the Parenzana trail had been on my to-do list for a long time – the whole 123 kilometres of it! Though it's possible to cycle the whole length of the trail in one day (and many people do), I wanted to take things slow and enjoy the ride and the scenery along the way. So I planned to do the trail in several stages, partly on bicycle and partly on foot.

This walking and cycle trail runs along a former narrow gauge railway line built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire that operated from 1902 to 1935 and once linked the port city of Trieste (in Italy) to the coastal town of Poreč on Istria's western coast.

After a bit of research, I decided to cycle the first stage of the trail starting in Muggia, Italy, through a small part of Slovenia, and across the Croatian border to Buje. I read that this part of the Parenzana that runs through Slovenia is paved, and more or less flat, so ideal for cycling.

The start of the trail in Muggia next to the River Ospo

Though the railway line used to run all the way to Trieste, the section from Muggia to Trieste has not been converted into a trail. So on a warm October day I started my journey in Muggia (15 km from Trieste) where the Parenzana trail starts. A sign here marks the beginning of the trail, which is also part of a longer bicycle network called the Adria Bike route that begins in Ravenna, Italy and follows the Adriatic.

The trail started idyllically enough through a woody stretch along the Ospo River, and then over a bridge. But all of sudden we found ourselves on a traffic circle with no clear sign of which way to go. We followed a group of equally confused Italian cyclists and eventually found the path again after going up an incline and through a residential area. We continued along a wooded path and quickly came to the border with Slovenia which was simply marked with a sign.

The border with Slovenia!

Following the coastline from Koper to Izola
It was an easy ride to the port city of Koper on mostly flat roads. After a stop in the old town for coffee, we returned to the trail which followed the coastline along this stretch all the way to Izola. There's an original locomotive that was used on the Parenzana railway on display here with a few interesting facts: it was specially constructed for the railway, and could hold 3m3 of water and 2m3 of coal. We took a detour here to visit the charming old town, and came across the fruit and vegetable market on the way.

The vegetable market in Izola

Izola's old town
From Izola the Parenzana trail leaves the coast and climbs upwards to the hills of Jagodje, with plenty of olive groves and vineyards on the way and sweeping views of the sea and Izola's old town below. We soon came to the first tunnel on the trail at Šalet, and passed through more idyllic landscapes of vineyards and olive plantations with the seaside city of Piran visible in the distance. We quickly reached the second tunnel at Valeta: at 550 metres in length, it's one of the longest tunnels on the trail and was fortunately well-lit.  On exiting the tunnel we saw that we were in the hills above Portorož, another well-known Slovenian seaside town.

The second tunnel we encountered

Some of the stunning landscapes on the way

After descending the hill we came across a different landscape once again. Stretching towards the sea was marshland divided into rectangular ponds and painted in tones of rusty Autumn red. These are the Sečovlje salt pans where a saltworks has been in operation since the 13th century. Salt production continues here but on a smaller scale, and this is also the site of a nature park which is home to many bird species, and a museum of salt-making.

Sečovlje salt pans painted in Autumn colours

From here it was just a short ride to the Slovenian-Croatian border. This was my first time crossing a border on a bicycle! We showed our id cards to the officer and once over the border, we now faced the most difficult part of this stretch: the uphill climb towards Buje. A sign gave us two options: straight ahead, or a path off the road to the right. We continued on ahead, not knowing that the path to the right around a hairpin bend was the original path of the Parenzana train. Maybe that path was longer but easier, but it eventually merges with the main road on the top of the hill, which we followed on our way to Buje. Compared to the narrow paths we rode along in Slovenia, riding with traffic on a main road was definitely not as picturesque, but a sign soon pointed us to a secondary dirt road that ran parallel to the main road and eventually took us to the hilltop town of Buje. This is where the first stage of my trip on the Parenzana trail ended.

The green line indicates the path we followed from Muggia, Italy and through Slovenia to Buje, Croatia

Overall this stage of the Parenzana was an easy and enjoyable ride, and I would love to experience it again. The Parenzana trail through Slovenia is paved (except for a short stretch of maybe 400 metres during the climb towards Jagodje) and is well-maintained and sign-posted. There are also several rest areas along the way with picnic tables provided. At each place where there used to be a station, there are signs with information and facts about the railway, nearby sights, and the station buildings.

One of the many rest stops along the way

Next I'll be sharing my experience of the second stage of the trail from Buje to Livade. This section is the most scenic and the reason why I decided to continue on foot from here...

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Sunday 16 October 2016

Istria abecedary: U is for Učka

The Učka is Istria's highest mountain and its best-known physical landmark. It's part of the Ćićarija mountain range, which is the northeasternly geographical boundary where Istria meets continental Croatia. At a height of 1401 metres, it can be seen from most parts of Istria. Locals here say that if the Učka is wearing a 'hat' (in the form of cloud cover), then it's going to rain!

U is also for Ulika, the Istrian word for olive. Olive trees grow across the peninsula, and Istrian olive oil has a delightful fruity taste.

Monday 3 October 2016

Istria abedecary: T is for Tovar

Tovar is the Istrian word for donkey. Donkeys used to be a common sight here when they were used as working animals to carry and transport goods, especially up and down hilly terrain.

T is also for Tartufi, or truffle. Istria is one of the few regions in Europe where black truffles and the highly-prized white truffle can be found.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Istria abecedary: Š is for Šparoga

Šparoga is asparagus (Š is pronounced 'sh'). This is one of the many gastronomic delights that grow here in Istria. Asparagus  shoots make their appearance in the early spring, growing in forests. They have a strong and distinctive flavour, and are most commonly eaten scrambled with eggs, in risotto or with pasta and a drizzle of olive oil.

Sunday 25 September 2016

A walk through Gračišće

The summer tourist season is over, and September is always welcome for its calm and quiet, and  lingering summer-like weather. That said, there are still lots of foreign cars and camper vans on the roads, but the pre- and post-season tourist season brings fewer crowds and a different type of tourist. This is also the time when big tourist buses of mostly older travellers make their rounds around the Istrian peninsula, stopping in towns and villages on their way. Gračišće is also on this trail, and I regularly see groups of Austrian, German, Dutch, French, or Italian tourists traipsing around the village, following their guides who offer them facts and historical details along the way.

But luckily our little village in central Istria is still one of the less frequented of the peninsula's many charming hilltop villages and seaside towns. The tourists I've met who choose to stay here in Gračišće and use it as their base to visit Istria, tend to be people who like to move off the beaten track, and prefer a landscape of rolling hills to crowded coastlines. 

This is what the Lonely Planet says about Gračišće:

Gračišće, 7km southeast of Pazin, is a sleepy medieval town surrounded by rolling hills, and is one of Istria’s well-kept secrets. Its collection of ancient buildings includes the 15th-century Venetian-Gothic Salamon Palace, the Romanesque Church of St Euphemia, and the Church of St Mary from 1425.
Most of these buildings are unrestored (although some work is being done). You won’t need more than 30 minutes to circle the tiny town, but the ambience is truly lovely. There’s an 11.5km circular hiking trail that leads from here, which is well marked with signs.

This week I've been testing my new camera and taking a few shots around the village. Take a walk through Gračišće...

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