Friday 15 December 2017

Snow in the village!

On December 9th I woke up to a surprise: snow! This was the first time I was seeing the village under a blanket of the white stuff. So I grabbed my camera and headed out to capture a few shots. I'm glad I did because it soon melted. This is what it looked like:

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Old postcards of Svetvinčenat

Svetvinčenat, also known as Savičenta in local dialect (or in Italian: Sanvincenti), is one of the many highlights of interior Istria. If you visit this charming town's square you'll see that it hasn't changed much from how it looked in this postcard from 1901.

Dominating the square is the Renaissance-style church and Morosini-Grimani castle, both built in the 13th century (the castle's towers were added later in the 16th century). There's also an enclosed well taking up a section of the square and in the south-western corner, a loggia.

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This atmospheric Renaissance piazza and the castle provide the backdrops for the annual medieval festival held here in the summer, and a contemporary dance festival every July.

On a summer evening, Svetvinčenat is a great place to have a drink at one of the little cafes lining the road leading to the square, or a pizza on the terrace right on the square itself.

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The arched windows of its houses, crumbling facades and antique-style lanterns also add a touch of old world charm that make this little town one of my favourites in Istria.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Animal friends

Squeaky incognito on the bookshelf

It's been a while since I posted about Squeaky, the South Indian cat and our other animal friends in the village. Squeaky is doing great, but unfortunately we and other friends and neighbours lost quite a few animal friends this year...

This spring our friend M was heartbroken when she lost her cat Luna, a few months after her kitten MiMoon succumbed to organ failure. She suspects she was attacked by another animal: a stray dog or erring fox? It's hard to know. Around the same time, our friends A and V lost both their doggie friends Biba and Miki, possibly to poisoning. And not long after that, their cat MjuMju went missing one night and was found the next morning in the woods nearby. Unfortunately in a rural area like this one there are a lot of potential hazards out there.

Rest in peace Točka 
In August we lost our sweet little Točka. Točka's love for food ensured that she would never stay away from home for very long so when she didn't show up one morning we knew something was very wrong. After a thorough search of all her favourite hang-outs, we found her where we least expected: by the side of the main road. Of course we didn't imagine she ventured that far.

All of these animals are sorely missed!

In more positive news, M has a new kitty called Nube, and A and V have adopted a cat called Mitzy. We were all holding our breath when Nube disappeared for a few days in October, but M was sure she would show up. And sure enough, she did... about a week later. Had she wandered off somewhere? Or was she locked in a garage or barn during that time? Only Nube knows but the fact she did indeed come home was great news.

Ive snoozing in his favourite corner
I can't believe I haven't written here about Ive, who's probably the village's best known cat. If you've visited the tavern Konoba Marino, then you've definitely met Ive. He likes to nap on one of the window sills of the Salamon Palace just opposite or you'll find him wandering around the square or near the main church. Ive has become such a feature in the village that he was even featured in the local paper!

As for Squeaky, it's obvious she's enjoying being the only cat in the house again. Though she seemed to put up with Točka's antics and tolerated her presence, it's now clear that she didn't like the new co-habitation arrangement at all. Now that she's the one and only, she's gone back to being cuddly and affectionate and no longer fixes us with those cat looks that could kill.

These days she spends most of her time in front of the fireplace keeping warm (she is from South India after all), spying on our neighbours from the bedroom window, sitting in sunny spots, and making occasional forays into the village to check on things.

To see what she's up to day-to-day, check out her Instagram account!

Thursday 28 September 2017

Gračišće landmarks: Kašća

Another important historical landmark here in the village located right next to the Salamon Palace and opposite St. Mary's Church is a building called kašća. This was the granary and many towns and villages dating back to medieval times had one. 

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Next to St. Mary's Church is a large piece of stone with five deep indentations (see photo above). This was used as a measure for taxes paid in the form of grain. After it was collected it would be stored in the granary and a share was distributed to poorer residents.

The building dates back to 1576 and like its next-door neighbour, is in a sad state of disrepair. More recently the roof has fallen in and like other abandoned buildings here in the village it's under long-standing litigation.

There are plans by the municipality to restore this handsome building and turn it into a wine museum though I would prefer to see it used as a cultural space instead. But I'm looking forward to the day when one of the village's important landmarks located on its main square is completely restored to its former glory. 

Friday 15 September 2017

You know you grew up in an Istrian family when...

Have you come across those jokes and memes about growing up in a certain culture abroad that are light-hearted pokes at what it's like to grow up in, for example, an Italian or Indian immigrant family? I've even come across You Know You're Croatian When...

Well, I've come up with my own version of:

You know you grew up in an Istrian family (abroad) when...

1. You had to address your parents' friends as barba or teta.
2. 90% of your parents' friends were Istrian or Italian.
3. You couldn't understand the few Croatian friends your parents did have.
4. You didn't go to the Croatian church.
5. You didn't go to "Croatian school" on Saturday mornings either.
6. Your parents would watch Italian TV.
7. You had radić and blitva growing in the backyard.
8. And pršut hanging in the cellar.
9. Your parents would make wine and rakija in the basement.
10. Rakija was used as medicine.
11. You got in trouble for walking barefoot.
12. You went to Catholic school.
13. You had a souvenir of the Pula Arena somewhere in the house.
14. And old copies of Istarska Danica.
15. And Jugoton cassettes of Lidija Percan. 

What did I forget?

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Old postcards of Pula

Among my collection of old postcards are a few of Pula, Istria's biggest and southernmost city. Two feature its most famous landmark, the 1st century arena, known as one of the world's best preserved Roman amphitheatres.

But I find the ones of Pula's market much more interesting. In the image below we see the iron and glass market building built in 1903 during the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was restored in 1997 and today it looks a lot like it did 115 years ago (see photo later in this post). The fish market is located on the ground floor while on the upper level reached via the wrought-iron staircases are a few shops and cafes.

I'm fascinated by the people we see in the foreground. In the centre of the photograph we see two elegantly dressed women carrying handbags who have probably come to shop at the market. And it looks like a woman to the far right is carrying a parasol. In contrast, a pair of women on the left look more like country folk and are wearing headscarves and carrying baskets. They've probably come to sell their goods at the market.

This photo is of the outdoor fruit and vegetable market which still takes place here daily under neat rows of chestnut trees and bright red umbrellas. The original stone tables are still here and the vendors are still mostly women who come from the countryside and sell their fresh produce to the city dwellers. But unlike 100 years ago, they're dressed a lot like their customers.

If you look closely you can spot two soldiers or military men strolling through the market. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pula was the empire's naval base.

Here's what Pula market looks like today:

Thursday 10 August 2017

A woman and her olive grove

Maybe you've noticed that I'm a little obsessed with olive trees and olive oil. This obsession started here in Istria after I tried fresh new olive oil for the first time.

I can't go back to supermarket olive oil ever again – it's just nothing like the real thing. I look forward to the olive season every November when we help our neighbours pick their olives and head to a local producer to buy a year's supply of freshly-pressed olive oil.

I've been indulging my olive oil obsession not only by using it in the kitchen but also by writing news articles about all things related to it for Olive Oil Times. Sometimes I have the chance to write about the local olive oil scene here in Istria. I'm sharing two articles here I especially enjoyed researching and writing.

One profiles a woman producer (and fellow Canadian) who tends to her olive grove of 1500 trees on her own, producing an award-winning extra virgin olive oil. Hers is an interesting story of loss and resilience. You can read it here: Oliva Lucia: A Tale of Love, Loss and Leccino in Istria

The other article is about a Croatian celebrity chef who loves using olive oil in sometimes truly surprising ways: Chef Deniz Zembo’s Olive Oil Explorations

Sunday 23 July 2017

Vintage hotel posters

Today we're going way, way back with these vintage hotel posters!

Aren't they groovy? Enjoy!

Saturday 8 July 2017

Istria's new olive oil museum

One thing I love about Istria is its olive trees and exceptional olive oil

Istria is the northern-most olive-growing region in the Mediterranean and olive oil has been produced here since Roman times. In the past two decades, the local olive oil industry has experienced a resurgence of sorts and Istrian olive oil has been put on the map thanks to its many excellent local producers. Many of these have won international awards for their high quality olive oil and for the past two years Istria has been named 'Best Olive Oil Region' by the Flos Olei olive oil guide.

A new museum that opened this summer in Pula is a fitting tribute to Istria's status as an increasingly important olive oil region. The Museum Olei Histriae (Museum of Istrian Olive Oil) is located on a pedestrian street in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the arena, the 1st century Roman amphitheatre. 

The museum includes a exhibition space that covers the 2000-year history of olive oil making in Istria (in four languages!) providing not only historical facts but also information about the scientific composition of olive oil and its health benefits. 

Audio-visual aspects make the experience participatory: wooden cupboards are opened to reveal interesting facts about olive oil, a short film introduces Istria as an olive-growing region, and a small room has been set up to look like a local 19th-century oil mill. There's also a kid's corner and  best of all – a tasting room where a professional olive oil sensory expert leads visitors through a guided tasting. At the entrance to the museum is a shop showcasing over 20 local olive oils available for purchase.

I recently visited the museum and wrote a short article for Olive Oil Times. You can read all about the museum at this link.

For more information about the museum and its opening hours, visit the website

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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

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Where everyone knows your name

I've always lived in big anonymous cities. Life here in the village is different. 

Here, everyone knows your name.

My father is from here so I'm known as A's daughter. (My father's name is actually M but everyone calls him A – because everyone seems to have two names here: an 'official' and 'unofficial' name – this probably needs to be the subject of a future post!) My husband is known as A's zet (son-in-law).

The village has only a few hundred inhabitants and is made up of a few extended families who have lived here for generations so it's not surprising that everyone knows each other. No anonymity here!

But sometimes I'm surprised that even in Pazin – a town eight kilometres away with a few thousand inhabitants – it's hard to be anonymous.

I was reminded of this recently when my husband and I visited a government office there. He needed a document, so he filled in a form with his personal details. The clerk then told us when we could come and pick up the document. She was friendly and chatty and casually mentioned that she grew up close to the village. “You know that road that leads to your uncle's house?” she asked, wanting to point out to me exactly which house she grew up in. A flicker of confusion must have crossed my face because she paused and asked: “So-and-so is your uncle, isn't he?” I nodded, but I was trying to figure out how she knew who I was. I hadn't even given her my name!

So even people in Pazin know who we are... even if we don't know them. There have been many other incidents like this:

Sometimes when we meet people and tell them where we live they answer: “Yes, I know.”

Then there was the time the cashier at the supermarket asked my husband how his brick oven project was going.

And when someone drove into the back of our car at a stop sign and later the same day, my aunt called to ask how bad the damage was.

But the creepiest experience was at a hardware store in Pazin: a man who was intently studying me said to me: “Your mother's name is so-and-so and she's from this-place.”

It's not that my family is famous or anything. That's just how things are here. 

Like it or not, everyone knows your name!

Monday 15 May 2017

Cycling the Parenzana (Part 4): from Vižinada to Poreč

One reason I enjoyed spacing out my journey on the 123-km-long Parenzana trail over several months is that I was able to experience the different colours of each season as I cycled or walked through the different landscapes I came across.

I started out in Muggia in Italy in early October, cycling through this initial stage of the trail that crosses the border into Slovenia and follows the coast all the way to Buje in Croatia. There was a late summer feel to that October day and autumn hadn't yet fully started. It was a sunny day in November when I walked through Autumn landscapes from Buje to Livade on the second stage. And for the third leg from Livade to Vižinada, the rural scenery I walked through was painted in winter colours. 

On a day in early May that was threatening rain, I was on the final stretch of the trail from Vižinada to Poreč on my bicycle. Now the fields, forests and olive groves set in red earth I cycled past were painted in the brilliant green of the first days of Spring.

I started off in Vižinada where I took in the stunning view of Motovun in the distance. Hilltop Motovun was the ever present landmark of my previous walk, but now I turned my back on it and headed towards Vižinada. This section of the trail is on a slow and gradual decline so it was an easy ride. The route was pleasant and picturesque, but compared to the previous sections there were fewer 'wow' moments as the land got progressively flatter as I approached seaside Poreč. And there were no scary pitch dark tunnels!

I have now completed the 123-km Parenzana trail. Would I do it again? Yes! I would especially like to retrace the section in Slovenia by bicycle and the trail from Grožnjan to Livade on foot. Many people do the entire trail by bicycle in a single day, starting in Muggia, Italy and following the path of the former railway line all the way to Poreč, Croatia. Three countries in one day by bicycle? Yes, in Istria it's possible. The trail is dubbed 'the route of health and friendship' by the tourist office brochures because it links the three countries that make up geographical Istria.

Next I'll be writing a short and handy little guide on the trail with a few tips and recommendations. Coming soon!

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