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...