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xEurasia Odyssey

A Journey through Time and Lands: Istria

SLOVENIA | Thursday, 24 May 2018 | Views [248]

view from campanile Porec

view from campanile Porec

A Journey through Time and Lands: A Trip to Istria with Jeannie for her birthday.

 We started the drive in the rain from Salzburg and as we headed south making it through the Katchberg Tunnel into Carinthia without the normal colony of cars, the clouds lifted and the rain stopped. We made a short stop at my friend Gerhard’s outside of Klagenfurt, where he had a delicious Rindersuppe and Rindsfleish waiting for us for lunch.  After tea we headed back out down south to Italy.  We got to Duino earlier than anticipated as the road was clear.  We had arranged to meet the fellow from the B&B Porto del Bivio sometime between 7-8, and got there before 5:30.  We went for a walk down to the harbor to give our greetings to the sea. Flowering bushes hung from the high stone walls protecting the houses inside them and the smell of roses, small gentle white flowers and general springtime in the Mediterranean filled the air. We wanted to have a glass of wine at a restaurant bar that friends had suggested, but all the tables were reserved for a party so we headed back up the path to our car, which was parked by the B&B. By now it was close to 7 so we tried to get in, but the owner wasn’t there yet.  We waited in the car reading up on various sites in Istria, including the Rilke Sendiero, which we intended to do the following day.  Finally a little after 8, Georgio appeared to open the gate and let us in.  He had been held up at the lawyer’s in Trieste regarding a property dispute. It seems that about 100m of their garden actually belongs to a neighbor two doors down, but for the past 40 years never laid claim to it. Now they are, so Georgio and his sister will need to purchase the property from them for an as yet unknown price.  It seems property issues never go away.

            Georgio is my guess in his early 50s, with long grey hair a very slender build, white half rimmed glasses and wears skin tight ¾ length trousers with beautiful soft leather, either blue or red, shoes. It is obvious that he has an artistic flair and the living room has a number of very interesting modern art pieces. Georgio is extremely helpful, and apologized profusely for making us wait. To compensate, he gave us each a glass of red wine & when we asked to purchase a second glass he came out on the terrace with a carafe and said it was on the house.  At breakfast he made us fried eggs, to accompany the fruit, cheese and bread plates.  He even heated the milk for coffee for me.  When Jeannie, whose birthday trip this is, asked for a card from the B&B, he said that he and his sister, who was on vacation when we were there, hadn’t made them for this year, but that we should take a photo of the information on a small blackboard by the entrance.  So much for high tech:)

            The other notable member of the household is Jackie, a small Jack Russell Terrier, who loves to play fetch with both her torn ball and her bone-like stick.  She kept going much longer than either Jeannie or I.

 The next morning we awoke to a torrent of rain, and decided that the Rilke walk wasn’t going to happen.  We decided to drive to Trieste as walking in a city in the rain isn’t as bad as being on a path.  When we got into the car, the rain stopped for awhile and we made it through most of our city jaunt by the harbor, behind the main square to the canal and back with only one downpour, which happened right when we were luckily by a coffee house overlooking the canal. 

            Trieste was home to a number of famous authors, not the least of which were Italo Svevo and James Joyce.  They both have their statues in the main downtown region, Joyce by the canal, and Svevo in the pedestrian zone behind the harbor to the south of the main square nearly opposite the Joyce museum.  As with most cities in Italy, there are street stalls selling used books and clothes.  I found a book with dual language texts from famous Lieder by Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms etc. and was thinking about getting it, but it was E8 which was too much for a used book that I don’t really need. The regular stores have a variety of upscale apparel and are quite fashionable. Luckily, I need none of that as I’m happy with my jeans & would rather save my money for travel than more stuff. 

            After a few hours in the city, we were both tired and decided not to spend the night, but to go on to Slovenia.  We made our way to Koper, parked by the shipping container freights and took an elevator up to the top of the old city walls.  From there it was a short walk to the main square with a 14th C Campanile and what seemed to be a 17th C. church.  The small languid old town was a delight after the busy metropolitan city to the north.  After we had walked around for awhile we decided to indulge in a gelati as the rain clouds had given way to a warm Mediterranean day.  The ice cream –I had a scoop of Amareto with Biscottti, while Jeannie had an Amareto with Caramel, was simply delicious and worth the calories.  From Slovenia we then headed across the border into Croatia. At the border there were two stalls with officials in them.  I assumed that they were both for the Slovenian exit as there was a line of cars backed up ahead of us before the roof of a border control structure.  I handed our passports to the woman in the first box and she stamped them.  I then drove past the second stall when I noticed the person in it leaning out and waving me, but by that time I was already well on my way to the line ahead and didn’t stop.  When the line finally moved, I realized it was due to a construction zone with one way traffic and that the roof was to a deserted border control facility.  We had entered Croatia basically illegally, but there was no way to correct the error until we were ready to leave the country again.  The rest of the short trip down to Porec, where I wanted to see the famous 6th C Euphrasian Basilica, was luckily uneventful. 

Porec was a delightful find.  The harbor and coastline are lined with shops, with a small incline leading up to the pedestrian zoned old city.  The old stone streets, some perhaps dating to Classical times, were again lined with fashionable shops, but this time the prices were much more reasonable.  The Basilica was worth the effort to get there.  The mosaics are reminiscent of Ravenna and the Hagia Sophia.  There were some artifacts dating back to the 4th c. in the museum, but most of the inner part was redone in Byzantine times. There are documents indicating that there was already a Christian community in Porec in the 3rd Century, and St. Maurus, the first Bishop of Porec was martyred here probably during the reign of Emperor Valerian. The first church was erected almost immediately after the Edict of Milan in 313; the first basilica came later in that century. The remains of the foundation of these early structures are visible on the structured walk through the complex; the highlights of which are numbered with explanation placards at each of the 10 stops.  The final stop is in the byzantine mosaic rich basilica.  I hadn’t expected to be so impressed with the images, but as they had been recently cleaned, the mosaics shined like they must have when first created.  For anyone interested in early Christian history, this site is definitely worth visiting.

 As we couldn’t find a reasonable place to stay in Porec, we drove another 11 km south to Vrsar and the Tourist Settlement Belvedere, which is like an RCI resort, but right on the coast.  They gave us an upgrade and our room had a balcony overlooking the sea, the crescent moon and Venus shone brightly into the room.  The sound of the waves lapping on the rocks below graced my dreams.

 We spent the morning walking along the harbor and up through the old town of Vrsar.  The church at the center of town, St. Martin’s, was constructed in 1935 and was closed for visitors; I was much more interested in the 10th C Marian church, however, which was down by the opposite side of the harbor.  Unfortunately, that too, was closed.  The walk through the small alleyways on stone steps was a journey through time, though, and Vrsar left a very positive laid back impression on both of us.  From there we drove to Rovinj, which is another Roman hilltop coastal town on the other side of the bay.  It is very touristy, with tourist stalls, restaurants, clothing and knick-knack shops lining both the harbor and the small windy stone paths up the hill to the main cathedral.  The church was impressive from the outside and a mish-mash of styles inside.  It had a nice altar in front, but the one behind the Eucharist altar was overly large and hid a presumably 17th C painting behind it.  The ceiling was painted to imitate marble swirls, and the stain glass windows, which I liked the best, were modern and provided the most color in the entire dark and fairly dreary hodgepodge inside walls. The town has a clearly Mediterranean tourist village feel to it, with shop prices that correspond to that description.  The feeling walking through hordes of tour bus groups was quite different from that of laid- back Vrsar.  From Rovinj, we drove on to Pula and the six largest amphitheater in the world.  The Amphitheater is truly impressive, but that is about the only aspect of town that we felt inspired by.  We walked through the center circle with most of the Roman ruins, but they weren’t particularly well laid out, and the surrounding buildings still had a communist era dreariness to them.  The harbor was not in the least attractive and we were glad we had chosen not to spend the night in town.  From Pula, we drove on across the flat plains to Medulin near the tip of the peninsula where I had booked a small apartment at B&B Villa Velike Stine, whose hosts, Igor and his family, were quite delightful. The family has lived on the property for generations and the garden was immaculately cared for with a small pool as its highlight.  Medulin proved to be an excellent choice.  The harbor is lovely and the town, while providing all kinds of tourist amenities for all the apartment rentals in the region, remains a more local environment – or at least has that feel to it.  The meal we had at a harbor restaurant was excellent and not expensive. Jeannie had a huge fish plate and I had a chicken, that cost about E8, and was delicious. There wasn’t much going on; we were the only people in the restaurant, but I assume that in the middle of the summer the place is hopping.  I would heartily recommend this town over either Rovinj or Pula, although spending a few hours in Rovinj is definitely worth the drive.

 A few weeks before I had left the States, I had knee surgery.  At the six week check up, which was really at five weeks, the physician’s staff said everything looked fine, although it hurt more then than after the surgery.  The physical therapists had arranged for me to get a sport brace, and I was dutifully wearing it on this trip, but the leg seemed to be getting continually worse.  The inside of the knee where the meniscus is, near where they inserted a button to hold the new ACL throbbed and burned, and the entire inside of the leg throbbed.  I could go uphill with difficulty, but going downhill was painful and frustrating. I finally caved in and went to a pharmacy for some ibuprofene, which helped for a few hours at a time.  While I was struggling with my leg, I suddenly noticed how many other people limp or seem to have knee or hip problems.  It was amazing to recognize so many people who seem to have similar issues.  It was a lesson in both humility and compassion.

 The following day we headed to the old Austria seaside town of Opatija near Rijeka. We had a nice drive from Medulin to Plomin on a well-paved fairly straight back road with just a few curves and roundabouts.  I had read about Plomin in the guidebook and thought it would be interesting to stop there, so when the sign said to turn right, I did.  We ended up in a fjord, with a large power plant, industrial housing and no road out.  Obviously, that wasn’t what we wanted so we turned around and went back to the main road, thinking that the town must have been beyond the closed barrier at the end of the housing complex.  It turns out that it was further along the main road on a fairly steep hillside.  The medieval (ca. 10th-14th C) walled town looked almost abandoned, but there were a few signs of an artistic community, with some paintings and sculptures behind a few of the fences, and a carved hand and another leading face out of some of the hollowed out stone windows on freestanding walls.  The stone walls were dotted with pretty blue bellflowers that lent an almost mystical aura to the narrow stone passageways. The only person we saw was the priest celebrating mass in the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and at first we thought he was celebrating aloud to himself until we heard (but did not see) at least a couple of additional voices singing/chanting the refrain to some of the prayers.  The church itself, again ca. 10th C., has a ca. 13th C fresco of the Madonna and child by a German painter named Albert about whom I wasn't able to find much information.  The painting is quite large, probably 8x10ft and mostly intact. It is a very impressive work.  There were also a couple of other Marian sculptures that were clearly from the Middle Ages as well as some much later, probably 17th- early 18th, paintings of Jesus and St. George.  The town was pretty well left to wrack and ruin after WWII, but I think with all the tourists coming up from the south to Opatija/Rijeka that it will soon become a recognizable stopping point.  It was a very pretty and unique site. 

Around the corner from the town is a lookout over the fjord to the sea.  There was a tall lanky man who was sitting on one of the two benches and he immediately approached us/me telling me that he had acted in Winnetou.  He spoke no German and very little English so I couldn’t really understand him until he hit me up for KH 20 – which may be only about E3, but I really dislike being used in this manner.  I engaged in the discussion not to my amusement, but to be polite and then to be seen as just a meal ticket is debasing for both the asker and for me. The event left a very sour taste.

 The drive from Plomin to Opatija is stunning.  The hills were lush greens and the water turquoise.  The view extended all the way around the bay, which is lined with hills behind the seaside towns/cities.  Buildings stretch in one massive curve from south of Opatija to south of Rijeka on the eastern side of the bay.  The hotel in Opatija was a bit difficult to find as the GPS in the car couldn’t find it, but the one through Google could – luckily!  The Grand Hotel Adriatica isn’t exactly my kind of place, but the room was clean, the bathroom fully equipped, and the view over the sea stunning.

Opatija is an old Austrian Empire seaside resort and many of the buildings stem from the 19th C. These stately mansions and hotels weave amid the newer more box-like modern structures.  The boardwalk stretches for quite a distance and is lined with the obligatory coffee and icecream shops with advertisements for boating excursions dotting the sides.  There are scattered tourist stalls, but all in all much fewer than at other popular seaside resorts, and the open to the public stone ‘beaches’ are a nice change from the rows of private hotel sections that cover a number of coasts. The boardwalk is somewhat reminiscent of Nice or Cannes, although not nearly so fancy – although there is a Cartier’s.  As it was Pentecost weekend, Austrian and Hungarian tourists were here in droves, but even so, there were still lots of places to sun by the water or to go swim. (The water was still cold, but not so much so as in the Attersee by Salzburg!)  The actual town is up a slight hillside and is more like typical resorts than the boardwalk. I don’t know that I would want to stay for a week here, but it is a nice getaway for an extended weekend.

 The next day we headed back to Slovenia and on to Lake Bled.  I was hoping that we wouldn’t have any trouble at the border, as we didn’t get a stamp in our passports when we entered Croatia and was glad that the border leaving Croatia was a non-issue as no one even looked at our passports and the Slovenian emtry to the Schengen zone was simple, although they were checking and stamping passports there. 

 When we left warm sunny Opatija in the morning we said goodbye to the stunningly turquoise waters and headed north via the backroads to see as much of the countryside as we could.  The hills behind Opatija soon gave way to flatlands that in turn migrated into the Slovenian Alps surrounding Lake Bled.  When we arrived at the lake, the weather had turned cold and rainy.  We started a circumambulation but it started to pour and my leg hurt, so we went back to the coffee shop by the parking lot for a cappuccino and expresso. There was a young woman with purple streaked short hair singing English songs via a mic that wasn’t turned up loud enough to really hear her, but what we could make out from the back of the patio, was a very nice voice. As is often the case, the coffee house/restaurant patrons basically ignored the singer, which was unfortunate as she deserved to be listened to.  It sort of reminded me of the story of the famous cellist who played in the NY subway to see if anyone would pay attention as he mastered a very difficult piece.  Hardly anyone even stopped to listen to the free concert, but the hall he played in the next night with seats costing $150 was sold out. It’s all about expectations….

 Jeannie had been to the lake ten years before with her sister and was amazed at how much of a tourist area it has become.  I’d never been, so it wasn’t surprising to me. The shops and vendor stalls that line the northern end of the lake opposite the island church are clean and modern.  The pathway around the lake is well taken care of and all in all the area has a clean modern touristy feel to it.  The lake was as pretty as the ubiquitous postcard images and the mountains around the lake are higher than I had anticipated.  The only slightly annoying aspect was a large crane above the castle on the hill, and the fact that the castle was closed for renovations.  I have to admit though, after expecting so much from the postcards, it was interesting to note that I find the Carinthian and Salzkammergut lakes just as spectacular, and perhaps even more so as they seem to be more actually lived in and used by the local people rather than primarily as site for tourist photographs.

We spent the night at the first ‘Zero Waste’ hotel in Slovenia, the Hotel Ribno, which was nicely located in the quiet wooded area about 2 km from Bled.  There was a short peaceful walk around a neighboring hill that was a delightful distraction from the masses of people by the lake. The mountain air was noticeably cooler and after our earlier summer temps, we had to pull out our jackets in the evening so we wouldn’t freeze.

 The next morning we went back to the lake for a final stroll on the boardwalk before heading north to Austria.  As Jeannie doesn’t know Carinthia very well and I am thinking about moving there as the cost of housing is so outrageous in Salzburg, we drove around Lakes Faak, Ossiach, by Afriz and Feld to Millstatt to get an idea of the landscape.  They are each unique and all quite beautiful.  The surrounding hills and mountains jut up from the lakeside shores with some of the villages almost terraced along the sides.  From the Carinthian lakes we drove by fields of yellow carpeted wildflowers over the Obertauern mountain pass where snow was still lying in patches on the side of the road to Mariapfarr in the Lungau region of Land Salzburg as the church there had been recently renovated and the frescos newly restored.  The original church was founded in the middle of the 9th Century, although little of that particular structure is still visible. The frescos come from some time before 1220; they are in the oldest section of the church by the altar. Additions came in at least four phases with the latest in the mid-1800s. The high altar is in a neo-gothic style and is even later, probably around 1896. The church has been a Marian pilgrimage site for as long as anyone can remember. Documents from 1398 mention the parish mother, Maria, so the pilgrimages started sometime before then. The original image to which the pilgrims flocked was a Madonna on a throne made from stone. This was destroyed in a fire in 1854 when it fell and broke apart.  Votive images and offerings from over the centuries are still housed in the pilgrimage museum.  

 After appropriately giving thanks for a successful journey, we made our way back home to Salzburg where the sun was shining greeting our arrival.  In just a few days we had traversed Roman ruins, Byzantine basilicas, Medieval towns, Imperial seaside resorts, and modern cities and tourist attractions. We traveled from the mountains to the plains to seaside coasts and back again. Istria may be small geographically, but culturally and geologically it is quite rich. & did I mention that even the ancient Illyrians liked the fruit of the vine and their modern Istrian successors produce excellent wines? They are to be savored as are the fabulous views in the region.  I look forward to a next visit.

Tags: beaches, history, on the road


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