The Honeymoon: Part 4 Istria to Northern Dalmatia

8.14.2016  THE drive from Rovinj to Zadar was sublime.  We hopped in our new whip, a shiny white coup from Oryx Rentals with surprisingly more grit than it’s 2 cylinders had on paper.  20 minutes or so toward Bale, and we arrived at our first stop.  San Tommaso’s wine, especially its malvazija, had won our hearts while we were in Rovinj so a visit to their vineyard was the first order of business.

“we got our car, and we are ready to hit the road!” d.

“road trip!  i love this stuff” a.

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Istria Roadtrip Ride

WE had the place to ourselves, and after entering we were greeted by Sonja, the young host/guide/historian holding down the fort. She welcomed us warmly and showed us around the old stone building.  The Debeljuh family has been here for 150 years, all the while cultivating Istrian goodies like wine, cheese and olive oil, but commercial wine making started in after the dust of war finally settled in 2006.

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San Tommaso Winery
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Debeljuh Family Tools

AFTER the quick but informative tour, we got down to business.  Just the two of us in this rustic setting, we were treated to a slew of their wines and olive oil.  Malvajža wins wine wise, but the surprise of the afternoon was the olive oil.  That olive oil blew our minds!  Viscous green olive nectar mixed with mouth tingling sensations we didn’t have sense memory to equate with “EVOO”.  The olive oil boom in Istria has quietly been taking off in the years since the war ended.  The making of the flavorful oil has been going on since Roman times, but has regained it’s artisanal status, especially here in the microclimates of Istria.  After tasting what they had on offer at San Tommaso, it was clear that here olive oil has earned a spot next to the other finer things in life.

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Tasting Time
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Wine and Olive Oil Tasting

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ONWARD we drove across the dangling, plump of peninsula of Istria.  With only a few wrong turns we cruised through the serene country side.  Pastoral olive and grape patches, sleepy languid towns, mountains soon crept up to the horizon, a serendipitous and surprisingly inspiration playlist flowed from the FM dial.  Thank god we decided to rent a car and see this land our way.  Road trips always win.  A couple wrong turns, and an inevitable unsureness on the edges is no match for the sheer joy of cruising free through a new landscape.

“long road beautiful views. talk, dance, eat, fall asleep….and repeat every few kilometers.” d.

“sun is shining, tunes are great, kilometers clicking by.  the road is ours.” a.

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Istria Country Side
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Passing an Istrian Town
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Dead End in Polmin

AFTER an accidental detour into the dead end port of Polmin, we were rocketed up the steep roadway to get above the eastern coastal cliffs between Istria and the Croatian mainland.  As we crested the high point on the road way, we happened across a gem.  Hotel Flanona is perched on a hairpin turn, on the top of a ridge, sitting unassumably at the very nexus of Adriatic earth, sea and sky.

The little circular eatery and hotel felt familiarly like an American diner on the inside, but the precarious location and literally breathtaking views is mind boggling.  We stopped here to check out the view, but by chance had an amazing last meal in Istria.

We had totally forgotten to eat fuši with all the amazing seafood on offer in Rovinj, so ordered the traditional version of pasta in a black truffle sauce, as well as the pršut and mushroom rižoto.  Both where scrumptious, and we were missing Istrian food before we even officially left the region.

If you ever find yourself on highway HR66 around Polmin, past the hill, do yourself a favor and make a stop at Hotel Flavona.

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Hotel Flanona
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Epic View
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Fuši in Black Truffle Sauce
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Pršut and Mushroom Rižoto
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On Top of the World

***

STOPS included, our leisurely drive from Rovinj to Zadar took 8 hours, and every second was fucking amazing.  This drive has entered the top three cruises worldwide in our opinion  (we’ll have to go back and revise a previous top three list).  Pastoral countryside, up and over a dramatic mountain ridge, scenic coastal highway, and a glimpse of the Eastern European hinterland- this route has it all.

As we drove through mainland Croatia, the vineyards and olive groves were replaced with an alpine landscape dotted with Austro/Hungarian looking hamlets.  The air got cold, and it was obvious we were in a different realm.

As with Istria, Dalmatia is one of four historic regions in the area (Istria, Croatia proper and Slovenia being the other three).  It hugs the Adriatic coast and technically goes all the way down to Kotor, Montenegro.  The name goes all the way back to antiquity to an Illyrian tribe called the “Dalmate” in the first century BC.  With roots this deep we were very interested to see if region trumped country, or if the modern Croatian identity permeated.

“look at the coast, the mountains.  how the water changes from dark blue into light blue.  its a painting…” d.

“before it got dark it was obvious things were changing out the window.  can’t wait to see what Dalmatia has to offer!” a.

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Cruising Istrian Cliffs
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Approaching Croatian Mainland
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Glimpse of the Mountainous Hinterland
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Enter Zadar

***

ZADAR, had a totally different vibe than Rovinj.  As a city she has been batted around more than most in the region between the historic powers across the Adriatic.  Romans, Venetians, Turks, Avars, Allied Forces, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and further 20th Century turmoil grabbed control of the city over the centuries.  Assumably thats why Zadar feels a bit cobbled together. We arrived at night, which never bodes well as a starting point, and although we only ended up staying one full day we found it hard to make a connection with Zadar.

Lets be honest, Zadar never had a chance.  Going from enchanting Rovinj, which had become one of our favorite places on earth, to just about anywhere would’ve ended up being a letdown.  But whether it is a regional difference or just our own perspective, our first experiences in Dalmatia where hard to digest.

We were tired from the drive, but headed out into the night, determined to give Zadar a chance.  The main street in the old town, Ulica Široka, is lined with fancy boutiques and restaurants much like the tourism center of Venice, but we had the hardest time finding somewhere simple to eat which didn’t help us acclimate.

It seemed all the families gathered on the strip this mid-August night were happy to only consume enormous gelato monstrosities called “tutti fruiti”.  The shear absurdity of only finding tutti fruiti joints open at 9PM on a summer night amused our famished minds for a bit, but eventually h-anger brought the search to a more desperate level.  Thankfully we found a familiar cart in the plaza Petra Zoranića.  By the grace of the food gods we found elote!  Elote is a favorite mexican street snack of ours, consisting of spicy grilled corn on the cob, and turns out they have similar good taste in Dalmatia.  Communication barriers be damned, through the universal language of grilled corn and tastiness our night was saved by the Croatian Elote Lady.

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Croatian “Elote” Cart
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Delicious in Any Language

***

OUR only full day in Zadar, we made the tourist rounds.  After grabbing a disappointing breakfast at La Bodega on the Old Town’s main drag, we walked around the small but ancient citadel by day.  Zadar definitely seemed weirdly thrown together.  There are literally Roman ruins in an apartment complex parking lot, brutalist communist era buildings obscuring Venetian bell towers, and tourists devouring their tutti frutti’s next to a H&M at street level.  Adding to the complexity, there is a large student population, 2 world class art installations and huge outdoor park that turning into a massive rave on summer nights.  We clearly didn’t have enough time to unwrapped quirky Zadar, but our AirBnB provided bikes so we did our best to investigate.

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Cruising Zadar

THE day was windy, but the ride around the Zadar’s equivalent to a malecón was a nice cruise.  Along the way we passed Trg Petra Zoranića with its 17th century baroque church across from a Roman column, the immaculate Venetian “Land Gate”, built in 1543, and eventually arrived at our destination; the Sea Organ installation circa 2005.

Vicious cultural whiplash.  Welcome to Zadar.

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Trg Petra Zoranića
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The Land Gate, circa 1543
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Venetian Lion on Land Gate

THE Sea Organ can only be described as mesmerizing.  Created by local architect Nikola Bašić in 2005 to rejuvenate the hastily reconstructed war torn waterfront, this site is both simple and surreal.  A series of tubes and chambers built below a set of steps leading into the sea creates a melancholy and otherworldly tune as the tide pushes air through the structure.  Words and pictures just don’t do this one justice, but the somber yet romantic melody perpetually churned out by the lapping waves is a song to behold.

“is the water making that melodic sound?!..” d.

“what an amazing, enchanting, and genius idea.  i could sit here and listen all day.” a.

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Taking in the Sea Organ

THERE is no better site to portray the historic juxtaposition that is Zadar than aforementioned Roman Forum that lies unceremoniously in the center of Old Town.  Zadar has been settled by the Romans, conquered by the Venetians, occupied by the Austrians/Italians/Germans, battered by the Allied Forces, and again pummeled by Yugoslav forces.  History has not been gentle with this strategically located little corner of the world.  Maybe the wonder is that any of these pieces of antiquity still exist, rather than their apparent neglect.  In any case one of the delights of a tour around Zadar’s center is happening upon ancient relics in insanely random places.

This Roman Forum has no sign that we could find, and is literally adjacent to an apartment complex parking lot.  Constructed between the first century BC and the 3rd AD, it was a site of a temple to Jupiter, altars to Medusa and blood sacrifices.  Now its a dusty lot to park the Citron or cut over to the neighbor’s house.

*in researching more history of the Forum, I’m finding pictures on the web that look nothing like we saw so maybe we missed something or parts were closed for renovations*

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Roman Columns and Apartments
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Kid Chilling Between Medusa and Jupiter Sacrificial Alters

THE latest apparent invasion in Zadar is the ever present trend toward Brooklynizing the globe.  The positive or negative effects of this will be left for other scholars, but more times than not we end up enjoying the outcomes.  The Garden on the north west end of the Old Town walls is an example of these hipstamatic times.  Resurrecting an abandoned hotel in 2004, an investment group created the chilled out lounge and resto-bar.  The cozy outdoor venue checked all the boxes to harbor a happy millennial.  Raw food menu, craft beer list, artisanal everything.  In our experience, the cocktails and golden hour view where a perfect match and the shady cabanas ended up being the exact right place to catch up on some writing.  So we’ll give The Garden two thumbs up.  Hell if we are going to mentally deal with Roman ruins in a parking lot, why not accept a South Beach meets South Williamsburg lounge in Zadar.

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Cabanas at The Garden
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Raw Food Invasion
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View From The Garden

AFTER a costume change we headed out to grab dinner before checking out yet another oddity here; the Sun Salutation.  We tried to get into the well renowned Dalmatian restaurant called Pet Bunara, but alas it was a two hour wait.  Across the plaza we ended up snagging a table at Konobo Skoblar, which was packed and also held good ratings, but our Zadar malaise continued.  They served gregada, a regional tomato based fisherman’s stew, which was exciting, but sadly it did not satisfy and the meal was lackluster.  Service was also pretty snail like, but on the up side we had plenty of time for a couple bottles of wine and wandered through the Old Town to check out this Sun Salutation thingy.

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Pršut and Cheese Every Time
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Gregada Fish Stew

RIGHT next to the Sea Organ, and created by the same artist Nikola Bašić, is the dazzling Sun Salutation installment.  This is frankly another one of those things that words and pictures don’t do justice, but we’ll try again.  The piece is a 22 meter glass disk embedded in the sidewalk along the sea, filled with solar powered lights that begin a complex but random show every sunset.  Meant to represent the complexity and interconnection of the universe, the experience is pretty impressive.  Maybe it was the wine talking, but especially with the Sea Organ wailing mysteriously away in the background, it felt heavy and stirring.  As you walk away from the main “Sun”, the artist has installed to scale (by distance and size) circles in the sidewalk about the Sea Organ to represent the other planets of the solar system.

“saving the sun’s energy to party at night, reflecting all these colors.” d.

“I find myself surprisingly mesmerized by the Sun Salutation.  Its randomness seems calibrated to the universe.  In pictures it looked like disco.” a.

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Dancing on the Sun

WELL we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t check out that park rave thing.  Approaching the park, the throbbing techno oozed from the tree filled park.  The crowd was young and we probably lots years of life due to second hand smoke, but we’d come to except this as a given regarding Croatian nightlife.  We love this stuff.  Nothing better than dancing outside in the warm night air, soaking in the electric atmosphere, and noticing local mating rituals.

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Kids and Smoking and Good Tunes in a Park

***

WAITING for the bus to Split the next day we were feeling…one could say….rough around the edges.  Dancing until the wee hours of the morning is great, but less great in your thirties and having to catch a  bus at 10am.  Left queasy and confused about what we thought of Zadar, we grabbed some greasy bus station sandwiches (which probably saved our lives), and contemplated.  Banners around town proclaimed Zadar had been included on the “Europe’s Best Destinations 2016” list, and one could see why.  But it also seemed like the people of Zadar didn’t care, or really even want the attention.  Not enough to spiff up the Old Town or dust off the Roman ruins at least.  But maybe that’s why its cool.

For us the jury is still out on Zadar.  We didn’t give Her enough time, but we came away from Zadar with a mixed opinion.  The magic of Rovinj was definitely replaced with a more gruff atmosphere there, and we hoped the fairy dust wouldn’t turn out to just be sprinkling in Istria.

Our next stop was Split and we were fiending for that good-good magic fairy dust of happy adven that had been our trip pre-Zadar.

“the jump from Istrian to Dalmatian territories was weird but i can’t wait to see more…” d.

“zadar has something going on…i just didn’t have time to get it i guess.  have to check it out again someday.” a.

2 thoughts on “The Honeymoon: Part 4 Istria to Northern Dalmatia

  1. I’ve been enjoying your blog – all parts of the Honeymoon trip. Great writing and pictures. About a month ago I told my wife we were going to Europe, when departing and when returning. She didn’t know where, only the duration and average temperatures. Oh, and I told her we were going to have one really really fancy dinner out. She took it in stride. We started in Venice …and had a great dinner at Danieli (though inside, too cold in late Oct for the terrace) and spent a couple of days in Venice. Then off to Croatia and Bosnia for a couple of weeks driving from place to place. We missed Istria – your pictures make me regret that. But saw so many other amazing things in Croatia. We fell in love with the country. Here’s a link to our last blog post about that trip: https://topochinesvino.com/2016/11/06/ive-a-feeling-were-not-in-croatia-anymore/. If you want you can link back from there to the others that were part of that trip.

    Liked by 1 person

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