8.05.2016 WOW Croatia. Wow. Winning.
WE had been in country less than 24 hours, and we were already in love. The thrill of travel, mixed with the sheer loveliness of Istria is an intoxicating and satisfying combo. A land new to both of us, language foreign, culture unknown. And it felt amazing. In just this short time, we’d managed to put together a few phrases in Croatian, and were already speaking more Croatian or Italian than English in Poreč.
For an outsider, Croatia seems like a country that could have a built in split personality. With such a tumultuous history, its no wonder. On one side there is over 1000 miles of Adriatic coastline, highly influenced by la dolce vita going all the way back to Roman and Venetian times. The eastern interior juts abruptly toward Hungary and Romania, leaning more Eastern European. Although we only ended up getting a tiny glimpse inland, the difference was stark.
Reading about the history of these lands, it was surprising to learn how much this area had been batted around by most of the major empires through time. The Venetians, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Napoleon, Italian Fascists all tried to take the valuable harbors and mountains. On top of that, many of the islands (Hvar, Korčula, Vis) and walled cities (most notably Dubrovnik) were their own city states before the Venetians came in and took over the coastline by 1420. Its no wonder that when they got the chance in the 90s many fought so fiercely to establish their own piece of the pie, but we never had the courage to bring it up to anyone. Seems too soon, but maybe thats just us.
We discovered more about the nuances as we followed the Adriatic south, but its worth having in the back of your mind a few things that surprised us to read. The Croatian Adriatic coast was Venetian until 1797 AD. The Istria region was part of Italy until 1943 AD. Croatia, as a country, is only 24 years old. We wondered if international borders younger than ourselves would be a distinct line or if the cultural regions would be one’s social identifier.
THE travel from Venice was flawless. Vaporetto from San Marco to Stazione Santa Lucia in the heart of Venice, train from Venice to Trieste in Italy’s upper right most corner, and piece of cake transfer to the bus into Croatia. Like that we were chugging along into the unknown. Originally we were going to take the ferry from Venice to Rovinj, but at the last minute we decided to go this cheaper, more improvised route. Out the window it was tangible that we were entering an ancient land. Venice is ancient but polished; a Disneyland version of where we were now headed.
The bus careened along a tree-lined road, and when glancing up from reading or trying to grab a nap we could see the street signs started being written in Italian and a Slavic language we assumed was Croatian. In this nook of the world it was hard to tell if we were in Italy, Slovenia or Croatia….and one wonders looking around how much those invisible border lines matter here. To the right as we crested high hills, the earth fell dramatically into the sapphire Adriatic Sea; dragging hamlets, coastal shrubs and vineyards along with it. It was a familiar feeling to be weaving around on a bus through topsy turvy mountain passes, but there was one unique difference; no other tourists on this bus. Judging by the amount of grey hair in the seats around us and frequent unscheduled stops to drop off a lady or two, it seemed like we’d stumbled upon the local shuttle for the Istrian Bridge Society.
“customs boarded the bus, and after a confusing conversation in croatian, italian and english we got a stamp and a smile.” d.
“this is awesome! thank god we didn’t take the ferry…” a.
OUR AirBnB was a short walk from the bus stop when we arrived in Poreč (pronounced Por-etch). Our place was perfect to start our time in Croatia, it felt like how European living in a small town should feel. Cozy, clean and convenient. Although our host gave us pretty clear directions from the bus station we had an interesting time trying to communicate with the elderly man whose apartment we thought was ours at first. Talk about throwing ourselves in the linguistic fire right away. After four languages, a few hand gestures and a spectrum of quizzical looks we eventually realized that our apartment was upstairs and slunk away apologetically, laughing at ourselves for our first interaction with a Croatian person.
We dropped our gear, and headed right into the town center. Although the Venetian influence was apparent in the architecture (it never really left us), we immediately felt a change in vibe. The main streets where filled with tourists and families on this late August evening, and we were enamored right away. Venice was perfect for the honeymoon, but the adventure had begun.
The center is small and we made the rounds in short time. A chubby finger of land separates the harbor from a larger bay and comprises the Old Town. We read it has a growing reputation for becoming a party town (thats why we came), but at least by day Poreč’s winding streets are quaint and relaxing; especially coming from Venice. Looking back now its funny, but we were surprised to see residents curing the heat by jumping off the city’s seawall and into the blue sea, another slice of life that would be ubiquitous as we toured down the coast.
We were both jealous that we hadn’t brought our swim suits this outing, so we cooled down with some adult beverages in the main square, Trg Slobode, at an inviting resto-bar spilling into the plaza called Adriatic Bar. Our server was super friendly once we broke the we-don’t-speak-croatian barrier, and taught us some basic grammar and useful words. So we began our Croatian lexicon with:
pivo (pee-vo)= beer
Ožujsko (oh-shjoosko)= favored local beer
molim (mo-limb)= please
hvala (vala…almost like voila)= thank you
račun (ra-choon)= check
The sky was the limit…
WE headed back home to refresh for the night, but along the way we took time to enjoy the best of travel pass-times; THE SUPER MARKET! Going to a super market in a new country is a most wonderful and baffling experience. All the weird items. The confusing words. Feeling out the different check-out etiquettes. It’s the best. This trip was especially fruitful, even if it started a bittersweet love affair. We still have no idea what these things are but they are fucking delicious. Sorry. Its just so true. Kukuruzne Grickalice (how ever you pronounce it), are crunchy, salty corn puffs (we think) that were more addictive than most drugs. A bought bag never lasted more than 30 minutes. The pain was real as we searched every city going forward for these things, often to no avail. If anyone out there can get these to NYC, our reward will be ridiculously high.
FOR dinner our first night in Istria we went back to Trg Slobode and chose Fora Le Porte. They had local tuna tartar on order and it was calling our name. The al fresco seating area was packed, but the manager Marco carried a table from who knows where and set us up in a little space in the middle of the throng. At an uninitiated first glance the menu didn’t seem uniquely “Istrian” with what seemed more like “Mediterranean” food on offer, but starting with this meal and reinforced every day for the next month we learned that the countries of the Adriatic Coast are living the Mediterranean “dolce vita” quietly and awesomely. Marco was super helpful, with what we were discovering as Croatia’s hesitant hospitality, and our minds exploded with our first bites in Istria.
We got the pršut (pronounced “prshoot”; local prosciutto), local octopus istrian style, and the aforementioned tuna tartar. Marco recommended a local white wine called malvazija, and we were living the Adriatic culinary dream. This is what we came for, and it turned out to be so far beyond our high expectations we felt like we had been given new senses. The pršut DE-stroyed any prosciutto we’d ever had; melt in the mouth with a subtle yet distinct smoky touch. The octopus can only be described as fucking fantastic and came on pillowy flatbread I wanted to know more about. The tuna tartar was…tuna tartar which is always awesome and didn’t fail to satisfy.
After the gratifying dinner, rakija (the local grappa of the area) was the clear next step. Marco said he’d pick a good one, and returned with a small but pungent brown shot. After a nose hair burning sip, Marco proceeded to tell us that it’s his favorite rakija, aged with a specific ingredient called “imela”. It tasted like lighter fluid mixed with an astringent bouquet of herbs. Kind of Fernet Branca on bath salts. Marco went on to try to explain what imela was “a parasite”, and proceeded to show us pictures on his phone of imela “attacking” trees. He couldn’t come up with the word in english, but suffice it to say the parasite digestive was happily imbibed regardless of any alleged nefarious origins. (turns out “imela” is mistletoe!)
“delicious cuisine, reserved but polite service and I can finally pronounce those words that I’ve heard many times from shipmates. ‘Hvala'” d.
“sunburnt white people speaking a language alien to me, a peruvian pan flute trio is performing in the square, Roma hawkers, everyone chain smoking, fireworks at one point for some reason, fantastic food and wine, rakija….Poreč” a.
AFTER dinner we strolled the streets of Old Town. Although we stopped in the “party center of Istria” to enjoy some night life, we were tired from the day of travel and opted for a chill night; vowing to hit up the clubs tomorrow.
Well that didn’t happen. Sucked in by the sound of deep house ricocheting through the ancient walls, we found ourselves at La Plage a sleek South Beach-esque open air lounge next to the marina. Again we were carried a table out of no where, and while wondering where this VIP service kept coming from we grooved to the beats with over-sized Ožujskos. Suddenly a second wind was kicking in and we asked the server where we should go dance. He gestured behind us and said something that sounded like “szjstkz shk ski shk, red lights” over the music. We apparently had as much info as we needed, and ended up bumping into the pulsating Saint and Sinner club. Boys and girls, it was lit. We danced our asses off, showing the teenaged crowd how us old folks can do it. After the romantic adulting in Venice our inner raver came out in force to soak up the electronic music and dance until the early hours.
“No bouncer. No dress code. No cover fee. No bullshit. Just fun.” d.
<dance moves> a.
CUT to our hangover.
The first of many, many delicious breakfasts sourced from local markets was made this morning. It sounds mundane, but well believe it or not it was a daily highlight for the majority of the rest of the trip. Eggs, bread and coffee cooked in our cute Croatian flat. Words or pictures don’t portray the sum of its simple parts.
We highly recommend Ivan’s apartment in Poreč, and is titled “Apartment for two in Poreč center” on AirBnB.
WE went out in search of a beach club called Villa Club thinking it would be some kind of Nicky Beach situation but found a quiet ocean front, multi level restaurant and continued walking along the stone path to what only could be described as a continuous patio along the coast with rocky accents. We found a nice spot, grabbed two sun chairs and braved a cloudy and relatively cold day sunbathing and nursing the sting from a late night involving rakija. The beach is more of a stone seawall dividing a pine tree dotted park with the churning Adriatic, but laying on the couple dollar beach lounges available for hire, its a perfectly comfortable place to recover. A leap into the shockingly cold water off a rickety dive board hastened the process.
“honeymooning is tough!” d.
“ocean water, laying down, hair of the dog; ahh the age old hangover cure.” a.
WE stopped in town for a coffee on the way back home, and decided to check out Torre Rotonda. The squat tower in the middle of Old Town was built by the Venetians in 1474 AD to help protect from the Turks, but these days its a unique spot for a cocktail, coffee or bite to eat in one of the fortified nooks. We risked the treacherous walk up to the top to have a delicious coffee (god knows what happens if you get drunk at the top and have to get down) before the rain that had been lurking all day swooped in dramatically sending everyone running. We made it home just in time to watch the squall and ensuing sun shower pass from the safety of our flat.
AFTER a life saving nap, we went back into the town to grab dinner. It will probably get repetitive, but this night we stumbled across the best meal so far on the trip (Adam still holds this in the top 3). We set out to try a “konoba”, a traditional family run tavern common along the coast. The rain started coming down again, and since most restaurants in the area have primarily outdoor seating everyone instantly swooshed into the few indoor tables, literally leaving us out in the rain. Eventually we found shelter under an awning at a restaurant called Sarajevo, and pounced on a free table. We ordered more malvazija and got right to it.
- goveji pršut (cured beef)
- tartufi sir (truffle cheese!)
- lignje na žaru (grilled squid)
- cijeli branzino (whole local fish)
Lets do this.
When the appetizer spread landed our jaws hit the cobble stoned ground. It. Was. The. Shit. What ended up being the first platter of many on this trip, set the bar very, very high. It was all so simple, yet so far beyond. The smoky, lean beef pršut was addictive and scrumptious; sadly we never saw this beef version of our beloved snack again and it disappeared from the table quickly. The thinly sliced white cheese was kind of like a gouda, but a step more funky…and having black truffles all up in it sent our tastebuds into orbit. And one can’t forget the simple bread and olive oil, even these staples seemed to have flavor components that we’d never experienced before. We couldn’t help but think that the stuff we call olive oil back home needs a new name, after nearly slurping up the fruity and complex elixir. Sorry to say Italy, but if word gets out about Istria you guys are going to have to step up your game.
Not to sell the mains short, as both were awesome, but we were left obsessed with the meats and cheeses of Istria. Adam’s grilled squid and simple potato side hit the spot, and Daniela was delighted to get a whole grilled local fish, eyes and all. Its funny because we came for the seafood, but after our first two dinners the stars were the cured meat. Icing on the cake for Sarajevo…complimentary rakija! Options were “sweet or strong” and we got one of each. The sweet version had a plum flavor, and the “strong” was just pure diesel fuel.
We left Sarajevo re-fueled and still blown away by that damn appetizer platter (we still talk about it on a regular basis). Konoba Sarajevo gets all the thumbs up from D + A.
“that cheese plate was a dream…” d.
“i feel like i should fast for the rest of my life to go out on a high note after that goddamn appetizer plate” a.
After dinner although full, satisfied and still a little rough around the edges, we fulfilled our original plan to go clubbing tonight and braved the intermittent rain to check out Villa Club at night. It was pretty cool. DJ playing top 40, open air, multi level club by the ocean filled with a sea of chain smoking 15 year olds. Since we definitely used most of our party energy the night before, our dance moves mostly consisted of head nods and toe tapping. We found a really good beer that turned out to be rare but delicious called San Servolo. Tasty, refreshing and smooth; San Servolo is a more refined beer than some of the more common we found and really hit the spot. We chilled and had a good time, but definitely not that rager like the night before, and had to leave the club just as the 15 year olds seemed to be getting into the full swing. Youth wins again.
LAST day in Poreč, and we were leaving thoroughly satisfied. Our first days in Istria had been exactly what we hoped while at the same time holding plenty of happy surprises. We decided to head to the beach before catching the 4PM bus to our next stop. We returned to Playa Laguna and snoozed in the sun between dips. A day we will never forget, the now infamous blue speedo was debuted this afternoon. Adam has decided once you go speedo you never go no-speedo, which might get awkward on our next trip to Coney Island, but the dedication is real.
“time has come to an end in Poreč! great first impression of Croatia. I have to say I already love it” d.
“i broke out the speedo for the first time today which is exciting. we’ll see how bad the upper thigh sunburn is tonight though…” a.
ROVINJ is next, and we couldn’t be more excited. The jewel of Istria lingered in our imaginations like a beautiful ghost, and in a mere 45 minutes we’d be able to experience the fantasy as a real place.
We grabbed our stuff, hopped a bus and it was on to the next one…