Every time I discussed travel destinations, someone would mention Croatia in euphoric delight. All I had known of Croatia came from history books describing invasions, civil wars, devastation and refugees. In short, a turbulent history. But now Croatia has been an independent country since 1991.
I remember Anthony Bourdain, chef, traveler of the No Reservations series, had once produced a passionate piece on Croatia that had stayed in my mind. He ate oysters on the Adriatic ocean and marveled at his fortune at being on the “new Riviera!” Whatever could that mean, I wondered at the time.
The lure was irresistible and my husband, daughter and son-in-law started at dawn on a 500 mile, eight and a half hour journey from Zurich. The streets were silent. The lake had never looked lovelier and I surprised myself as Wordsworth’s lyrical lines drifted up from memory surfacing from decades ago of literature classes.
This City now doth, like a garment,
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
A quick series of tunnels erupted into the early morning sunlight, and we saw rushing images of cottages, forests, a boat on a winding river, a quiet train speeding round a bend, and a foamy waterfall in the crevice of a mountain. There were surprises at every swoop and turn. We did not speak. The silence and beauty brought a deep sense of calm.
Then … whoosh we were in the legendary Gotthard Tunnel traveling through 17 kms (10.56 miles) of brightly lit space for 20 minutes! Two years from now, the world’s longest tunnel in the world will open—the Gotthard Base Tunnel—and will carry 300 trains and an estimated 3,000 heavy goods vehicles. I guess that will mean no more winding detours around stunning landscapes, sigh, sigh. 2,500 people worked on this tunnel, which claimed eight lives.
We stopped at a very energized, spacious restaurant on the road. It was filled with American and British tourists shopping for souvenirs and chocolates. We fired up with hearty burgers, a delectable pastry and steaming coffee, while catching an incredible glimpse of our first snow on the Alps through the restaurant window.
We resumed our journey and the conversation turned to Italian cars which raced alongside as we entered the borders of Italy.
What is it about Italian cars that make them so exciting and sexy? Roll the names around on your tongue. Lamborghini, Bugati, Maserati, Alfa Romeo … mmm romantic.
We whizzed past Milano, soaring Italian cypresses, the airport named after the painter Carravagio, signs tempting us to cruise down to Venezia, and a couple of toll gates where the keeper took two euros and shouted out Arrevederci in an accent that sent my pulses racing. I have been a devotee of Italy after seeing Roman Holiday and Sophia Loren and Marcelllo Mastroianni movies.
The sun was blinding, and spread a delicious warmth and we had to peel off our coats and shawls. We marveled at the hundreds of trucks, almost two miles of them, rumbling along bearing signs of Bellafrut Verona, loaded with cars and other merchandise.
We soon caught our first glimpse of the Adriatic coast, a shimmering sapphire blue scimitar slicing through the grey mountains. Then came pink tiled houses and a winding pathway bordered by flowers and trees. We stopped for a quick passport check and then drove on.
There were vineyards, fields and bridges swooping in and out of the mountains. To the left of us the road led to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and the right to Pula. We turned right.
We chose to visit Pula, located on the coast, rich with history and mythology. The foundation of Pula is mentioned in the mythical story of Jason and Medea who had stolen the golden fleece. The Colchians, who had pursued Jason into the northern Adriatic, could not capture him and ended up settling in a place they called Polai meaning “city of refuge.”
A long bloody tradition of wars and conflict defines Pula. The Venetians, Genoese, Habsburgs and Germans all played a violent and historical role until Pula became a part of Yugoslavia and finally the Socialist Republic of Croatia. As a result of the churning political history, residents are commonly fluent in foreign languages especially Italian, German and English.
One amazing thing about travel is that it can take you away from the familiar. So here we were entering Croatia, rooted in relentless invasions, imperial rule, sieges, bombings, heroic resistances, plague, death, desolation and I felt the need to tread softly.
In the soft sheen of twilight we swung into the little town of Pula and into a welcoming boutique hotel quietly tucked away on a tiny street. Only four cars stood in the parking lot, one of which belonged to the owner and the other two to the waiter and cook! It was an elegant, comfortable place with friendly personnel who immediately took charge of the luggage and spoke English.
It was almost 9 p.m. and after having a bottle of wine at the hotel we walked into the heart of the city. It was off-tourist season. Every year 50,000 visitors storm the coastal cities of Croatia, camp out in tents in the forests, make merry every which way (as the locals quickly informed us with a shrug). Many shops, cafes and restaurants open for the season and then close soon after. I put my zoom lens away and walked around the piazza, lit up by a full moon against the backdrop of ruins. I placed my hand on the stone that was still warm from the sun that had been standing there for 5,000 years.
We were hungry, and soon realized that except for three or four tables in the shadows of a restaurant where only wine was being served, there was nothing open for a hearty meal. As we wandered, our footsteps, the only sound on the cobbled stones, there appeared a soft light atop a small restaurant. The owner was standing outside—a young woman. She looked curiously at us. My son -in-law asked if she had any fresh fish on the menu. “We are closed,” she said and smiled., “We can open again for you, though” and led us inside. A young Croatian chef emerged looking at us in astonishment. He was getting on his bike to pedal home! Apprised of the situation, a big grin spread across his face, he entered the open kitchen, picked up his knives and we watched him slice, grill, and serve the most delicious salmon on a bed of herbs and vegetables while we sat around with flasks of wine and talked to the owner Julia and chef Martine.
The next morning, after a breakfast of toast, eggs, and fruit—one of those with the straight from the farm to the table freshness—we strolled through the streets and window-shopped. Seven kuna the local currency equals US $1.24. The dollar is accepted only in banks or exchange shops.
Everywhere people lounged under canopies of trees, drinking an aperitif or just coffee or hot chocolate. Friendly sales people tried to give my husband a makeover with trendy jeans and a snazzy coat. There were mothers with strollers, older people conversing with ice cream cones in their hands, and young men lighting up cigarettes.
I think we were the only Indians in the town at that time. So we garnered a lot of interest and curiosity and when they heard my husband and I were from California, incredulity spread over their faces. Hollywood! they exclaimed. One man repeated “California” and pointed at the sun and beamed.
Parking in the streets was tricky as the streets were narrow, so it was wonderful to just walk around.
The Pula Arena is a great example of Roman construction. An amphitheater built of local limestone, the Arena was constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE with much of it still standing to this day. It was the scene of brutal gladiatorial combats watched by 20,000 spectators. Nowadays the amphitheater hosts opera performances, concerts, equestrian shows and Film Festivals.
The city is fortified with a wall with ten gates and 46 forts. A few of these magnificent gates still remain: the triumphal Arch of the Sergii, the Gate of Hercules (in which the names of the founders of the city are engraved) and the Twin Gates.
I learned an interesting snippet, gleaned from a brochure, that from 1904 to 1905, the famous Irish writer James Joyce taught English at the Berlitz School of Languages!
On the Adriatic
The next day, we rented a boat belonging to boatman Dean and sailed into the Adriatic Sea. The sea breeze, the cloudless blue sky, the soft swish of the waves together created a perfect day in Croatia. On the ocean, there was no sensory overload of flavors, smells, architecture, crowds. Instead we experienced Croatia’s ancient heartbeat.
We quaffed wine, waved to other boats, and were entertained with fascinating stories. Dean told us of Indira Gandhi gifting a tiger to Marshal Tito when he vacationed in the villa we passed by. The Yugoslav President was reported to have joined local fisherman in their work during his stays in Fazana. Fazana was also the playground of the President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser and even India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had stopped by for a holiday, according to Dean.
He told us about the rental cruises to nearby islands including the one to popular Brijuni island and the National Safari Park. Elephants donated by Indira Gandhi still reside there, he said, as well as exotic animals donated by diplomats from around the world. Buses, trains and cabs were available to take us on these journeys.
Then it was time to cast anchor at the charming village of Fazana, a quiet town known for its fishing boat industry. As we looked around we spied gentle hills, vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and orchards. It was difficult to imagine that wars were fought in this peaceful strait.
Once a year Sardine Academy invites visitors to learn to salt fish, mend nets and taste seafood Fazana-style. Under sunlight-dappled trees at a restaurant, we dined on large plates of savory mussels and lobsters, and bolstered the food with wine and schnapps against the backdrop of the luminescent waters of the Adriatic coast.
Three hours later, we roused ourselves from a blissful stupor, to walk around the town and head for the boat where Dean was waiting along with his fishermen friends who were mending nets. They saw us, cast their nets aside, and assisted Dean with pulling the boat to the landing and helped us step into the boat, now bobbing excitedly.
Dean told us that the Croatian coast line is called the “New Riviera.” He urged us to return and cruise to Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Rijeka, Varazdin, Hvar. The names were hypnotic and tempting, but time was not in our favor. Maybe one day, we promised ourselves.
Back in the hotel where as “Grandmother” I was treated with deference and respect, meaning I was served first, the waiter bestowed the gift of a music disc only because we had told him we so enjoyed the recorded music we had heard throughout our stay at the hotel.
Two days later we were driving back to Zurich, but stopped at the fishing harbor of Rovinj, which means precious ruby stone. Reminding me of Shakespeare describing England as “this precious stone set in the silver sea.”
Roving in Rovinj
A car-free town, Rovinj is a maze of cobbled streets, on a steep hill crested by the landmark St Euphemia’s Cathedral built in 1736. Saint Euphemia is honored in this baroque church for her steadfast faith and for dying as a martyr.
There were lots of pavement eateries, where you are spoilt for choice, especially sea inspired delicacies. The region remains authentic despite the dizzying world of commerce and digitization. What’s not to like?
We found waiters coming out of restaurants and reciting the bill of fare to tempt us inside. Be sure to sit at tables and cushions arranged on rocks overlooking the sea. And it is always a sweet surrender when it comes to Croatian pastries. Especially wonderful are the fig fritter with chestnuts and mascarpone and cookies laced with honey, olive oil, carob and sherry.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Grand Canal in Venice. My son-in-law was trying to find parking, an impossible task on a weekday, while the rest of us took off to the waterfront. A half hour later there was still no sign of him. After much texting and calling he finally arrived to tell us he had to park so far away that he had to walk a good length and take a train to finally catch up with us!
There was a water taxi strike on the Grand Canal so instead of the clamor of tourists and traffic, we experienced an ethereal tranquility and serenity. We sat on the steps and dreamed Venetian dreams, but not before gorging ourselves on pizza, (sitting cheek-by-jowl with a thicket of pedestrians) and wine. Venetian hand bags and brilliantly colored Murano glass were on display. Little Sri Lankan and Indian boys rushed up to us with Hindi and Tamil phrases and urged us to buy trinkets and magic balloons that soared into the sky like rockets. I wanted to hug them all and the city for giving us so much pleasure, history, and romance through the years.
We drove back through the sunset, stopping quickly to buy bottles of olive oil and a thick garland of red chillies by the roadside, and sped through the thickening darkness towards Switzerland. We passed shining tunnels, now even more brilliant at night.
Just as the early morning skies brought up a glow of gold and tender orange, we entered Zurich city in the softness and haze of another dawn.
It was only after my return that I discovered that National Geographic had named Croatia the destination of the year!
Prem Souri Kishore resides in Los Angeles, California. She is a food writer (India—A Culinary Journey), a radio producer with All India Radio and Dubai Radio and loves words. She freelances for various papers and magazines, and her car licence plate reads WRDSTRK-wordstruck!