Posts Tagged ‘croatia’

Europe: The Yellow Houses

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011


Mellow Yellow

Yellow House


Mellow Yellow

The Coastline Near Split, Pretty and Otherwise

Friday, July 10th, 2009


On an afternoon in Split, Croatia in the spring, we decided to take a walk. We started at the ferry port—that teeming hallmark of so many Mediterranean cities—and moved southeast along the shore without a map or an agenda. It was warm for April, one of those days where you’re not sure how to dress out of fear that the weather will make a soggy or a sweltering fool of you. On this day, it was more swelter than anything else, the sky incomprehensibly blue.

To walk that shore is to see Croatia at her prettiest and her ugliest, all at once. The ragged white cliffs along the coast plunge dramatically into the sea. The water is, as promised, that sublime Mediterranean blue. But really, it was the people that made this strip of coastline so lovely and alive. Families crammed into the seaside restaurants. Children giggled madly as they bounded into the water. Twentysomethings walked their dogs. We saw the Dalmatian coast on parade, the same way Central Park in summer is both a place to relax and a place to watch the city happen before your eyes. It was urban theater at its finest.

By the time we sat in one of those tangling little seaside cafes, about an hour’s walk from the ferry port, we felt as though we’d passed through the belly of Croatian coastal life. And maybe we hadn’t. It’s so easy to make pronouncements about discovering an “authentic” place, when in reality, as travelers, we usually just don’t know. But this felt good, whatever it was, this swarm of people in sunglasses enjoying the day.

Still, though, there was something that we couldn’t ignore. Amidst so much natural beauty—at one point, the hills that drop into the sea are covered in swaths of pink wildflowers—were hints of things distinctly man-made. The walking path along the water has been paved over, giving it the air of a town swimming pool. At the edge, the concrete is shattered, crumbling inevitably into the sea. The hotels that dot this stretch are lumbering and plain and painted in industrial yellows and blues. A seaside playground is full of hard metal slides and seesaws. There is no picturesque boardwalk in Split, no made-for-tourists vista to take photos or a luxury hotel with an Italian name. Not in this part, anyway. Instead it was just us in a cafe, watching people gossip and pat their impeccable little dogs, and smoke, and drink their coffee, and do everything else that an easy afternoon on the coast affords.

Go there:

To reach the strip of coastline just southeast of Split, take a left at the ferry port and keep walking for about an hour. A drink in a cafe will set you back about 8 kuna. It’s worth it.

The Souvenir Shop Cleans Up: Aqua in Dubrovnik

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Pencil Case and Sundries

On the rainiest of rainy days, the water cascades along Dubrovnik’s marble streets in rivers. It rolls down its steps and through its alleys in gushes, as though the hard white city can’t bear to absorb a single drop. Water pours off the terra cotta roof tiles. I roll my jeans up to my knees.

I had planned to visit an island or a ramshackle seaside town, but the weather nullifies my plans, makes them seem stupid and pointless. So I walk. I search for souvenirs.

Any European city will give you trinkets, and Dubrovnik is no exception. Shops along the Placa offer snow globes and postcards, scraps of fabric covered in traditional Croatian embroidery patterns for exorbitant prices—the equivalent of 20 Euros for something the size of a napkin. What you’ll also see, whether in Dubrovnik or any other place deemed a “destination,” are the orphan souvenirs, the items that have nothing to do with tradition or place. In one dark store, a woman stands guard over racks of hemp necklaces and colored candles that seem better suited to the parking lot of a Phish concert. In another, pictures of Jesus—whose image is, I suppose, more versatile. In another, giant ceramic roses.

And then, I am saved. The store crops up clean and white amidst the chaos of the other shops, its windows orderly and well styled. The store is called Aqua, and it’s made it its mission to create quality Croatian souvenirs. (Although their eyes, I’m sure, are on the entire Mediterranean.) Some will balk, I know, at the idea of something so calculated. Don’t travelers—real travelers—search for something a little more authentic to bring home?

Well, sure. If you fancy yourself something so important as a traveler. Most of the time, I don’t, and I like souvenirs that know what they are. Silver spoons engraved with skylines, logo-printed shot glasses and golf balls. Aqua is that concept, but beautifully executed. The entire line of souvenirs is done in shades of white, blue, and gray, to reflect Croatia’s relationship with the sea, and they offer several signature patterns, from grown-up nautical to an adorable, cartoony fish print.

There are bathrobes and beach towels, sure, but I flipped over the small goods. I assembled an entire pencil case in the fish pattern—complete with pencils, a sharpener, a ruler, a tiny roll of tape, and an eraser—for about the equivalent of 10 American dollars. It’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever brought home from anywhere; it’s lovely to look at, I’ll actually use it, and it doesn’t take up an alarming amount of space in my bag. On a rainy day in Dubrovnik, it seems, Aqua was just what I needed.

Go there:

Aqua Maritime stores can be found in seaside cities across Croatia, including Dubrovnik, Split, and Rovinj. The Dubrovnik location can be found at Placa 7, Stradun.

Dubrovnik from Above

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Bell Ringer

Among all of Dubrovnik’s white marble spires, there is the bell tower. You can only see into it from atop the city walls, floating above the streets, at eye level with the red-tile roofs for which the city is famous. We take the walk along the walls just before they close, at sunset, with the Chilean travel writer. We shared a taxi with him from the station.

The walls that contain the old city of Dubrovnik, that keep it from dropping into the sea or crawling back up the mountain, were useless in 1991 during the war; centuries of combat technology were made obsolete in an instant. Ten-foot walls could not have stopped bombs dropped from above, right on the heads of Dubrovnik’s citizens, right through the roof tiles. The people who ordered the attack on Croatia’s loveliest city were tried with war crimes, for half-crushing Byron’s pearl.

To visit today, you would never know anything had happened. And by anything, I mean a war or a child born or an instant of time passed, the second hand moving on a clock. Because Dubrovnik has been rebuilt, the bomb craters patched, with such precision and care that the possibility of war seems dubious, a little silly. The city is almost strangely pristine—free of garbage and noise, its narrow streets and stone churches quiet. Sitting on the Placa at sunset, even the chatter around us is muted and soft, the air cut only occasionally by the ringing of church bells, a squawking bird.

From the walls, we first spot the bell ringers in their tower—enormous bronze statues of men holding mallets. We wonder aloud if they actually work. Surely they’ve been in place for many years, as their uniforms, their feathered hats indicate. And there was a war. Wars. The mechanism that makes them swing out, ring the bells, must be rusted into silence. But we have underestimated Dubrovnik, her insistence on freezing her past like a postcard.

On the hour, the statue on the right moves as though waking from a long nap, the motion steady and fluid. The mallet swings wide, swings back, makes contact with the enormous bell. Then the other statue does the same. They take turns. The mechanism is flawless, the sound of the bell ringing brilliant across the rooftops.

That’s when the guard kicks us out, stops our reverie short. Apparently we shouldn’t have been let in so late in the first place, but the old man at the gate took our money anyway and waved us through. The guard is a gigantic man with thinning hair and hollows under his eyes whose speaking voice sounds like it was run through a cheese grater. We are a long way from the exit and he walks quickly, shooing us past the prettiest views.

“Listen,” he says huffing a little louder with each step, “You are from America. What is highest point in America?”

As the only American in our party, I am expected to know this answer but I am bleary and distracted from the view of the Adriatic, the sun slanting across the roofs.

“Uh, somewhere in the Rockies?”

“No!” he says in triumph. “Highest point in America is Mount McKinley. Is in state of Alaska. You know Alaska?”

“I know Alaska,” I say.

“OK, what is biggest island that is part of America?”

We are walking so quickly now that I snap photos illicitly so he won’t see. The sun is sliding away. And I know this one.

“Big Island, Hawaii.”

“Yes,” he says, disappointed.

“OK,” he says, moving on to our Chilean friend. “What is highest point in Chile?”

I let my friends go forward without me, hope that they are distracted. At one point, it is me and the platter of the city, the cluster of red roofs as big and close as my own hands and tiny dots in the distance like an impressionist painting, not a whiff of disturbance, of a past or a future, just a frozen picture of a city, all the people in it somewhere below.

Go there:

The clock tower with the bronze bell ringers (named Maro and Baro) can be found at the end of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Luza Square. To see the ringers themselves, you’ll need to step back a bit for perspective, or climb the city walls.

You can climb Dubrovnik’s city walls from 9 am to 6:30 pm for 50kn (about 7 Euro).

Little Jewels

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

Croatian Botuni Earrings

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, in a city literally paved in gleaming white marble, there is a jewelry store just off the main drag, nearer to the city’s Pile Gate than not. I don’t know its name and I don’t know the name of its bearded, bespectacled owner who opened up his dark wood cases for me with tiny little keys so I could peer closer, but I wish I did.

I visited on a day when it didn’t rain but pour, when the marble paving stones were slick and the tourists crammed the cafes and pizza joints.

Now, there are the splashy jewelry stores nearby that offer enormous knots of beads and flashy cut stones for the cruiseliner crowd that slides in and slides out of the city each day, but this jewelry store is dark and small and crammed with nothing but traditional Croatian pieces, all of them pinned neatly to felt boards and hanging off delicate trees in the single storefront window. My favorites are the necklaces and earrings hung with hollow, detailed little spheres of gold or silver. They’re called botuni, and they’re part of the traditional costume along the Dalmatian coast.

I choose a pair of earrings in antiqued silver, wishing I could have one of everything in the store. As the shop owner meticulously arranges them in a box, I ask how late the shop is open and he explains that he’s closing early because his political party is voting today in a city election. So, then, it’s time to go home. The city of Dubrovnik stops me from returning and spending all my money on trinkets, on a strand of winking little spheres.

Early and Silent in the Water

Sunday, May 10th, 2009


The swimming pool at the Hotel Kastel at the very top of the hill in Motovun, Croatia is glassed-in and bright in the morning with the green of the garden just beyond the windows. Pieces of the original medieval stone have been used in the construction and you will see them—a stone beam here or there, the outline of an old window—as you float from one end to the other, disrupting the surface at the same sleepy pace as the stone water spigots, which pour into the far end.

I fall in love with it instantly, literally at first glance, standing there in jeans and sneakers as we are given a tour of the hotel’s basic but inviting wellness facilities. I think, I must swim in that pool.

And I do. I wake up early the next morning when I don’t need to. And even as my eyes open to watery sunshine, to the view across Istria’s rolling hills, I know exactly how I want the day to be. I want to think about and do nothing difficult. It’s my last morning in Istria. All I want is to float.

I take the glass elevator downstairs wearing a cotton dress and leggings, the comfort food of my wardrobe, and hope that being an early bird will payoff. It does. In the off-season, in spring, at that hour of the morning, I enter the pool and I am blissfully alone. The spigots haven’t even been turned on, so the surface is an unbroken blue sheet and the room is silent, the air still and softly humid. I think to ask the spa technician if it’s OK to swim, but I can’t find her, not that I try very hard. A white board on one wall lists the water temperature and pH and I consider this an official invitation.

I change, dropping my stuff in a locker. I break that perfect surface. I am empty-headed, toes above the surface, doing easy laps. This is more or less my favorite thing to do on earth.

The jacuzzi seems like a great idea until I slide into the curve of blue tile at one end of the pool and press the button and my calm surface erupts into spurts of foam and bubbles and the silence dies, chased away by the hum of the hum of the motor. I want it to stop immediately, annoyed with myself. I swim away from it as though it were a bratty kid splashing and screaming in the shallow end, hoping that it will stop. After what seems like an eternity of gurgling and humming, it does, and my peace comes back. The laps continue. I am suitably solitary, prune-y at the fingertips, on vacation.

Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.

Hours on the Farm

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

The Farm

The theme of the trip is pigs. For the flu, maybe, which is on every television screen we pass. But mostly for the ones on the agritourism farm in Istria, Croatia, which we visit on a day full of cloudy skies and cold rain. A day on which we are supposed to hunt for truffles on the same farm, but because of the rain, we don’t.

On this day, the truffle dogs shift in their houses, poking their heads out, restless, while the house dog barks—a yipping little thing with stickup hair—at our shifting ankles, mocking our poor thwarted plans.

The farm is called Agriturismo Toncic, and you need a car to get there from Pula or from Rovinj, but I would say that it makes a car worth getting, even in the rain. If you can drive one, which I can’t. But on this particular day, I am happy for company and a van that is driven by someone who understands the street signs, who is not me. I am happy just to go.

But thankfully for us, this farm does more than truffles. Probably, given the finicky nature of truffles, thankfully for them, too.

We see the prosciutto first, moldy and pungent-smelling on hooks in a cool back room that also contains glimmering aluminum wine tanks. The legs are beautiful, seasoned with nothing but pepper, drying in the air, less fatty than Italian prosciutto, and just different. Less greasy. Lighter.

The farm is family-run, and the son shows us around—first the older legs and then the younger ones in a different room, which hang on the same kinds of hooks, but beside other sausages and pigstuffs. Perched above the door is an animal skull with a delicate rack of antlers. Butchering equipment sits on shelves, at the ready. The son wears bright blue work coveralls that stand out against the colorless day and describes the family business—some olive oil, some wine, some prosciutto—in a way that makes it seem humdrum and everyday, but all of us city folk drool, a little bit, envious. We want farms. We want to know where everything goes.

I put up my hand. Ask a Dumb Tourist question.

“Do they use all the parts of the pig?”

The son laughs. They use everything.

Even on a rainy day, the land surrounding the tiny farm is a blinding green, the buildings red and white. They take us out to show us the pigs.

The pen that houses them is spotless and warm and animal-y smelling, and they squeal and oink as we enter, pressing their rubbery noses against the walls. There is something weirdly elegant about them, the taught layer of fat across their backs, the division and order of the tough little hairs that cover it, parted precisely down the middle—all the hairs on one side going one way. They are pink and squirming and floppy-eared like cartoon pigs, like what artists dream of when they go to draw cartoon pigs. They scramble on little hoofs when the son throws them feed. And these are small ones—about 200 pounds each—about half of what they should be when it’s time to butcher them, to hang their legs on racks in the next spotless room. (The prosciutto, we are told, are hung and organized differently depending on whether they’re front or back legs.)

Someone in our party even suggests that they be given toys—something, anything—to give them a quality of life. And I almost see what she means, admiring their alert eyes, their splendid color. (It is a creamy, uniform kind of pink. Like Pepto Bismol.) But these are prosciutto pigs. And, to continue with our piggy theme, if you’re going to eat the prosciutto, you should see the thing that it comes from, look it in the eye.

We are then ushered inside to a dining room filled with long wooden tables and a tiled fireplace on one side. Someone has built a fire and we fight for the spots in front of it, holding our chilly hands up.

Dinner is served by the daughter and cooked with the mother, who remains in the kitchen for the duration of our visit. But this is how it goes in every place we visit. Mom in the kitchen. Dad in the fishing boat. Son with the butcher knife. Daughter serving, explaining, cleaning, welcoming. It’s cozy at the table, the bunch of us in front of the fire. The dinner starts with the family’s wine, the same stuff in the tanks outside.

Before dinner is served, Kerrin sneaks off into the kitchen to say hello to Mamma, to snap photos of the magic behind the scenes. She comes out with a satisfied smile, holding a basket of sooty black truffles, one of them halved to reveal its pure white core. These aren’t white truffles, which are extraordinarily valuable, but they are beautiful and still costly. We are promised truffles with our meal—and we get them.

Lunch is noodles with shaved black truffles and ravioli with two kinds of cheese—one cow, one sheep—with the delicately flavored spring asparagus that’s in season. The main dish is roasted lamb, pungent with olive oil and spices, roasted potatoes, and a light salad. We groan under the weight of it, silent except for the sound of our munching. And there is, of course, dessert too. A sugar-sprinkled cookie with a hole in the center. Another cookie, a coiled spiral of dough with cinnamon. And a cake with a cream layer.

We are told afterwards that there is accommodation available too. That you can sleep, eat, hunt for truffles, all for not very much money. All in one place, against green rolling hills and amidst little medieval towns and the yelps of the truffle dogs. And really, what you can see is how a family lives, how food grows, and how your vacation is really just a glimpse into a system that works. A system that’s always there, whether it’s on a farm in Istria, Croatia, or one in your town or state. And if you go to relax or to eat or to hunt for those elusive truffles, you will be able to draw the line. Pig. Prosciutto. Dinner. Food. Sustenance. Livelihood.

Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.

To Climb Stuff

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

The Top of the Bell Tower

When a city has nothing to attract tourists but its beauty, its back roads and cafes, it will ask that you do what its citizens have been doing since wooden-wheeled carts were the preferred method of transport. It will recommend that you climb its bell tower. Or its triumphal arch. Or its highest peak. Or to a little park that sits on a cliff. Or what little remains of its once-glorious ramparts. Or the lantern of its cathedral.

Climbing stuff is the classic tourist activity. Google Maps has taken away some of the joy, perhaps, has made it a little harder to fork over your 15 kuna to the guy at the ticket table. (“I can look this up at home,” you think, a little more begrudging each time.) But you do it, maybe to say you did it and maybe because you know that the climbing of a bell tower—all 400 steps; they usually tell you how many on a placard somewhere—has created an economy in a town where there were once only farmers, soldiers, and a single nobleman who spent most of the year at his vacation castle on the coast.

In Split, Croatia, the bell tower of St. Duje rises up out of the city center, poking a hole through and rising high above a patchwork of red tile roofs. It is connected to the cathedral, of course, but this cathedral began its life as the tomb of the emperor Diocletian, became a Christian church, and then ended up as a tourist trap. Such is the cycle for many structures in Europe.

I wanted to climb it because I always climb things, because I am one of those people who still likes a good vista view. And because sometimes, the view sparks something. A memory of somewhere else. A somber meditation on the smallness and preciousness of us all. The thoughts and feelings that, centuries earlier, were only experienced by a lone bell ringer, a poorly-paid caretaker, or an abbot. And sometimes the view sparks something else.

The climb to the top of the bell tower at St. Duje requires that you navigate two flights of steep stone steps on the bottom levels that give way to the basically hollow tower. From there, the only thing supporting you is a rickety iron staircase that coils to the top. The tower is perforated on every side by tall windows without glass, and you can see the open space between each step. The Arc de Triomphe cradles you on the way up in dark, closed stairways, so the height is imperceptible until you reach the top. You are whisked halfway up St. Peter’s in an elevator. Other climbs offer stern warnings in four languages, railings with comfort grips. But this?

My friend Ola stops after the second set of stairs. We have reached the bells, a fat half-dozen of them rigged up on posts, wheels, and wires.

“I think I’m going to wait here,” she says.

“I think… I’m going to keep going.”

I am not afraid of heights. One of my favorite places on earth is the plain but peaceful cafe at the top of the Tour Montparnasse with its streaming sun, its best-in-the-city view of the Eiffel Tower. But I have a creeping issue or two with open spaces, and I’ve known it since I was a teenager. I was in the front row of the top balcony at Radio City Music Hall and I intermittently felt like I was dying for the better part of three hours while the Rockettes high-kicked away.

The bell tower doesn’t trigger my heights thing. But it sure triggers my open space thing. But I go. I don’t know why I go, because no one gives you prizes, stamps your Passport of Life Experience, for defying your own fear. But mostly I think, “Eh. It can’t be that bad.”

It’s that bad.

The view at the top is breathtaking, the red patches of roof against the blue Adriatic against the green offshore islands against the white stone city walls. It reels around me in a blur. I tip my head up once to see the beams in the lantern, just once, and its weirdly grounding. There is a roof. You will not fly off the surface. You will not fall into the abyss. The roof will stop you.

I snap a few pictures, hoping that my camera will remember what my brain won’t. I descend, quickly, one foot in front of the other. By the time I reach the pavement below, Ola smiling and I’m shaking like a leaf.

And maybe it’s a lesson, the things that cities whisper to you when you’ve gotten too smart, ascended too many stairs. Just because you can look it up doesn’t mean it’s ordinary. Others have gone before you, have paid the price of admission, but your terror could be wholly new, wholly different. And you never know until to you climb.

What Today Looked Like

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Church of Saint Blaise

Children race across the marble paving stones of this square on roller blades. It is the ideal rink—sleek and free of debris, the statue of a Medieval soldier in the center a perfect compass point. I watched them tonight for hours while drinking tea at a cafe across the way with my friend Ola, a fellow travel blogger. While the sun set. While the bell in the tower struck 7:30, then 7:45, then 8:00. While the lights came on in the square and illumiated the stained glass in the cathedral.

I will be writing lots and lots about Croatia. Or maybe it just writes itself.

From Up There

Friday, April 24th, 2009


I want to live in a walled Medieval town on the top of a hill, one that is surrounded by vineyards and green fields and the occasional dot of a house or a farm in every direction. I want to catch myself from slipping on the white limestone cobbles and I want to sit under a tree in the square near the old cistern—it still bears the symbol of the State, winged lions in flight—that’s been capped so kids don’t fall into it and kill themselves, and read a book under a tree all afternoon. I want to wear a blue flowered sun dress and when the sun shifts too far in the afternoon, I want to pace on the stone walkway between the inner and outer fortifications, perched above that view of the fields and the vineyards and the river cutting across them, and I want to think of things to write. And then I want to go home to my room and write them.

I feel like, if this could come true, if I could spend the rest of my life in town like Motovun, which is real, which I can see out my window right now—that same view but in darkness, the single houses and farms below just flickering lights in the distance—it might spell that perfect thing we all see in our heads. The Thing That Would Make Me Happy, if any such thing could exist for anyone.

And then I hear my mother’s voice as though I’m hearing it skip and crackle through the tiny cell phone speaker, and she says, “My God, you’d be so bored. What would you do there?”

Why, I would read books. And I would write them.

And then there would be an instant of silence and she would say, “No, I mean, What are you going to do for the rest of the time.”

Motovun is like other kinds of towns in other places. There are breathtaking hilltop towns in France and Italy and Germany, their details all subtly different—the cistern in a different place, a different kind of steeple on the church—but they are the kinds of towns that spin me like a top, that make my fingertips buzz as I touch their centuries-old stone, walk their streets that are sloping and shifting with the ages, molding to the shape of the mountain underneath them. What makes it special, though, is that its most famous inhabitants were Venetian, allowing the city some of the beautiful flourishes that are mostly seen drooping over canals at almost-sub-sea level. Even the air feels cleaner up here, and I say that as someone who frowns at the notion of clearly preceptible differences in air quality between downtown Manhattan and an outcropping of rock in the center of northern Croatia. I know that the differences must exist, but to complain about them seems like a colossal misuse of time and energy. But standing here, watching the cats that belong to no one dart from one stoop to the other, I can’t help but wonder.

What I could do with real time. Real quiet. Real space. While knowing that I would waste a lot of it, and not-write with a lot of it, and sit around worrying that the world was passing me by, like I did in the first 18 years of my life in a Massachusetts suburb that could seem almost as remote and ungrounded—something floating in its atmosphere—as a village on top of a mountain.

So I’ll leave Motovun tomorrow, the square and the cistern, the Venetian lions and flowers in stone, the terrace that overlooks the vineyards, its 300-year-old timbers the newest addition to the town’s architecture. Not because I have to. This is the thing that traveling has taught me. You don’t actually need to go anywhere, to do anything at all. But because Motovun is my happiness in two days, maybe three. In sun only. In a blue sun dress but not a yellow one. In a time where I’m not feeling lonely, when I have unlimited funds in the back. And how often would those things all happen at once? Not just seldom. Not just once a millennia. But never and nowhere, as fleeting as that fairy tale I might get to writing someday.

Travel provided by the tourism board of Istria, Croatia.