Thursday 22 June 2017

Gračišće landmarks: The Church of St. Mary on the Square

I've decided to do a mini-series on a few of Gračišće's most notable landmarks. I've already written about the crumbling elegance of the Salamon Palace, the 16th century Gothic building that probably attracts the most attention from visitors to the village.

I also wrote about my climb up to the top of the bell tower, from where I enjoyed the amazingly scenic views. 

And I've written about other landmarks like the church of St Euphemia (Eufemija), and the loggia (loža) as part of my Istria abecedary.

This post is about another of the village's six churches. You're probably thinking that that's a lot of churches for such a small place, but as you know, the medieval period in Europe was all about building churches and cathedrals -- and Gračišće used to have seven churches in total! 

Once you come through the entrance gateway and loggia and enter the village, one of the first buildings you'll see is the Church of St. Mary. It has a prominent place on the village's main square and stands out for its handsome stone porch. 

This little church dating back to the 15th century is full of fascinating little details: 

  • It was built by Master Dento in 1425 and commissioned a local nobleman called Petar Beračić. During the Middle Ages it was often patrons from this privileged class who financed the building of churches as well as secular buildings. The names of both the builder and patron are engraved in Latin on a stone plaque to the left of the door.
  • The altar is placed against the eastern wall as was common in the Middle Ages, so that the priest and congregation would face east.
  • The eastern wall is covered by magnificent frescoes depicting the Adoration of the Magi, which also date to the 15th century. At some point they were actually painted over and only discovered much later when the church was being restored. Of the Three Wise Men depicted, one of them is wearing a hat and has detailed features: he's believed to be Petar Beračić. It was common at the time to paint the patron into a work that was commissioned by him. 
  • If you look carefully at the joints between the stones that make up the western wall (to the right and left of the entrance) you'll see the twisted and rusty ends of nails that were hammered in between the blocks of stone. The story goes that on the night of the feast of St. Mary (August 15th), childless women would drive a nail into the wall after walking on their knees from the village's entrance gate. By doing so, they believed that they would conceive.
  • The church's porch was added later, in the 17th century.

Today mass is still held here, but not regularly – usually when the main church is closed for renovations. And of course every year on August 15th, there's a mass dedicated to St. Mary.

The door is kept locked so if you'd like to visit the church, you have to ask for the key. Tip: in every village there's always a dedicated person who has the key to the church. How to find them? It's not that difficult: just ask anyone. Don't be shy to knock on someone's door. They'll be happy to help and thrilled that someone is interested in seeing the 15th century frescoes up close. Or knock on the green door on the square!

Sunday 11 June 2017

A day on the Brijuni Islands

The Brijuni Islands were on my list for a long time. Finally on a hot day in May I caught the ferry from the small and colourful port town Fažana for the short trip to Veliki Brijuni. This is the largest of the Brijuni islands, a collection of 14 islands and islets. 

These islands were inaccessible during President Tito's rule during the time of Yugoslavia when they served as his summer residence. Today Veliki Brijun is one of Croatia's eight national parks covering 34 square km in total and is popular with day trippers.

I was surprised by all this island of wild rocky beaches and lush parkland filled with ancient trees and exotic plants has to offer. There's actually plenty to see and do and the best way to get around this car-free island is to rent a bicycle. Golf carts are also available for families, groups, or those with limited mobility.

There are guided tours aboard the tourist train but it's much better to explore the island solo. There's also a handy interactive guide that can be downloaded without charge using the park's free Wi-Fi. At the 100 information stations throughout the park, you can just point your mobile phone camera at the QR code to get information about the attraction in six languages. 

Here's what you can see on Veliki Brijun island:

Dinosaur footprints

Much before Tito's time, dinosaurs used to roam here. You see proof of this as soon as you step off the ferry: there's a dinosaur footprint on the pier. One of the many marked trails that run through the park is the 'Promenade of Dinosaurs'. This one is especially popular with kids, who love looking out for the hundreds of dinosaur footprints clearly visible in the limestone of four of the island's rocky beaches.

Roman ruins

The island's many ancient ruins are remarkably well-preserved, with the most fascinating being the Byzantine-era castrum right on the edge of the sea. This maze of stone structures within fortified walls reveals the remains of brick ovens, olive and wine presses, cisterns and cellars, all part of a large settlement that existed here from the 1st to the 8th century. 

Animal safari park

I'm not a fan of zoos but the safari park is huge: covering nine hectares, it has plenty of wide-open spaces for animals to roam. This is home to a motley collection of fauna (and their progeny) gifted to Tito by various heads of state. Zebras from Guinea, Somalian sheep, llamas from South America, Indian holy cows, and African ostriches all have their home here, as well as native goats and sheep, and long-horned Boškarin oxen. But I was sad to meet Lanka the elephant, one of the park's long-time residents. She was a gift from Indira Gandhi to President Tito and has been living in a grim-looking enclosure here since 1970.

The Tito museum

The Tito on Brijuni exhibit housed in the museum is a step back to another time and era. This is a collection of mostly black and white photographs documenting the year's Tito spent on the island receiving heads of states and dignitaries from 90 different countries, and schmoozing with film stars like Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. Other popular must-sees are the president's 1953 Cadillac and the island's best-known and most photographed resident: Koki, Tito's yellow-crested talking cockatoo. 

The old olive tree

Another highlight is the island's massive 1700-year-old olive tree – proof that olive oil has been produced in Istria for centuries. 

The beaches

The entrance ticket clearly states that swimming is not allowed, but this rule doesn't seem to be enforced. It's hard to resist the temptation of having a deserted beach to yourself!

For more information on visiting Brijuni National Park, visit their website

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