Read, Write, Run, Roam

Croatia

(Sneaking into) Church on Sunday at Rovinj’s Franciscan Monastery

I never thought that writing about churches would pose moral dilemmas. Yet I often ask myself, is taking (sometimes prohibited) photos in church truly wrong? I don’t take photos during services. I’m technically promoting a place of religion. I’m practically a missionary. Who works online. That has to offset breaking a few rules. Unfortunately, I may have hit a slippery slope when Lingvista and I snuck into Rovinj’s Franciscan Monastery.

Regular readers may remember I went to Rovinj, Croatia with two partners in crime, Lingvista and Zločin. While Zločin was getting fit at the hotel gym, Longvista and I walked to the local Franciscan monastery.

The front doors were locked, but we could hear beautiful music inside. Clearly there were people in there. What was a traveling housewife to do? I thought that the main entrance might only open when there are services, so we walked around the building to find a back door. No dice. I then spotted an open gate, a parking lot, and…suddenly we were in the monastery. Technically I didn’t sneak in. Technically we didn’t know if we were supposed to be there. But technically, we were tip-toeing around, trying to be inconspicuous.

The musicians ignored us as we walked around the chapel. I wish I could tell you more about the history behind the building, but information is almost non-existent online and I couldn’t exactly ask someone for a brochure.

We took photos and walked behind the altar to the sanctuary, where we found frescoes and a large, old hymn book.

A side room off the sanctuary revealed a large and elaborate creche. I was surprised, since creches aren’t usually on display before Christmas.

As we admired it, a man began to talk to us in a combination of Italian and Croatian. He explained that the creche is open year round, but a curtain hides it just before Christmas. He seemed delighted by our interest in the church, but the cleaning woman behind him did not. After yelling at him for speaking too loudly, she told us we had to leave. Busted.

We gave wide-eyed apologies and slunk into the sunshine. I didn’t feel too badly, though. Sneaking into church isn’t exactly a crime. But if I start sneaking into anything else, it might be time for an intervention.


Rovinj, Croatia

My dynamic duo of visitors wanted to see Croatia, but I was a bit skeptical about booking our trip to Rovinj. While most people swoon over the Croatian coast, I was lukewarm about its charms. I found Trogir to be charming but too small as a destination unto itself. Dubrovnik was overpriced, overhyped and overcrowded. Fortunately, Rovinj was the perfect middle ground: not too big, not too touristy, but just right.

We drove up to our hotel without seeing the Old Town and unsure of what to expect. Then we opened the curtains and saw this:

Lingvista exclaimed, “I feel like George Clooney’s girlfriend!”

Rovinj (Ro-VEEN-je) is on the western coast of Istria, a northern Croatian peninsula. Though some Serbians and Croatians claim that the “true” Croatia is found along the Southern coast, I’m happy to disagree. Rovinj, like many coastal Croatian towns, has a significant Italian history. The peninsula was under Venetian control from 1283 to 1797 and fell under Italy once again from 1918-1947 until it became part of the Yugoslav Federation. The result is Venetian architecture, delicious Italian/Croatian seafood dishes, and loads of Italian tourists. George Clooney would definitely approve.

Rovinj’s Old Town can be covered in two or three hours, though you could spend a day or two exploring  the narrow, hilly streets. Though tourists were ever-present (it’s August, after all) I didn’t see the throngs of cruise ship guests that Dubrovnik receives.

Most of the town is centered around tourism, but a fishing industry still exists in Rovinj. The laundry handing from windows and small boats in the harbor were a nice reminder that Rovinj was not just for the ultra-rich or lucky (thanks, booking.com!) tourists.

Of course, the owner of the yacht anchored by the harbor may disagree. Maybe there was hope of being George Clooney’s girlfriend after all…if Muz doesn’t object, that is.


The Fairy Tales, Tastes and Truffles of Motovun, Croatia

Motovun is the stuff of fairy tales. It appears almost out of nowhere: a turn on a highway suddenly reveals the white hilltop city lording over olive groves, vineyards, and truffle patches. It’s Disneyland for wine-swilling, food-loving adults. Obivously I had to go there.

I drove there with my latest partners in crime: Zločin, aka “Felony”–she knows why–and Lingvista, or Linguist, because she used the same five Serbian/Croatian words in every conversation. If you want strangers to like you, bring along a friend to likes to tell everyone “Volim te.” They were the perfect duo for my latest adventure.

Our final destination was Rovinj, but we stopped in Motovun at the advice of a Croatian friend, bolstered by an Italian man’s claim that  Istria, the region of both Rovinj and Motovan, was “better than Tuscany.” As we walked around the old city, we understood the hype. It was a small town filled with gorgeous views, wine stores, truffle specialists and lovely restaurants. Though my guidebook claimed that it was often overrun with tourists in high season, we had the area practically to ourselves.

Motovun isn’t just the stuff of RHOB fairy tales. It’s also the setting of a famous Croatian fairy tale about a giant named Veli Jože. Based on my sketchy language skills, he was a giant who lived in Motovun and tried to (1) be a free man, (2) stop other giants from being greedy with their newfound gold stash, and (3) possibly help the people of Motovun, who didn’t want to feed the giants but were his friend. Obviously my translating skills need serious work. Here’s an English summary that may not be any better…

Unfortunately we weren’t able to eat at some of the finer dining establishments because we arrived after two and before six pm. Still, we were able to get good pizza and great truffle pasta at a place with a view of the valley below us. The local wine was delicious but a bit of a mystery. Upon our inquiry we were only told that it was “white.” I figured it was malvazija wine, since the other local specialty wines are white muscatel (a distinctive taste) and teran, a red wine.

We tried to pick up a similar bottle in the local stores but were disappointed with the high prices and minimal selection. Fortunately we found a small shop on the outskirts of town that offered local prices and atmosphere. After Lingvista picked up enough fruit for a small army, we grabbed an edible souvenir for our evening in Rovinj. Cinderella may have received a glass slipper, but RHOB lucked out with a glass of Istrian white. That’s my kind of fairy tale.


Synagogue Sunday: Dubrovnik, Croatia

I don’t have too many opportunities to see synagogues in this part of the world, so imagine my surprise when I realized that Dubrovnik hosted Europe’s second-oldest synagogue on the very same street we were staying on.

The synagogue and our apartment were on Zudioska Ulica (Jewish Street), which served as Dubrovnik’s Jewish ghetto. There are reports of a Dubrovnik Jewish community in the 13th century, but the numbers swelled after Spain’s 1492 decree for Jews to convert or leave. That year, the first Jewish refugees arrived on Balkan shores. The ghetto was formed in 1546, when the population grew to about 10,000.

The synagogue and accompanying museum are lovely, but unfortunately there was not much information in English. It was purportedly built in 1352, but many people presume it was built in 1408 when Jewish people were granted legal status in Dubrovnik. Since the synagogue is on the second floor of a residential-looking building, I’d presume that a low-profile congregation could have held services there before 1408. The current building on the site dates from 1652 and was renovated after the 1667 earthquake, World War II, and 1992 war damage.

Whichever date you consider to be accurate, the building site is quite old. In fact, it’s the oldest active Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern Jewish) synagogue standing in Europe. The oldest active Ashkenazic (Eastern and part Western European) synagogue in Europe is in Prague.

While the Dubrovnik synagogue is technically still active, the Jewish community has significantly declined. The Jewish community numbered 23,000 before World War II, but the subsequent German invasion and rise of the Ustase movement forced the Jewish (and Serbian, and Roma) community to flee or perish in concentration camps. Today, Dubrovnik has 17-40 Jewish residents. The synagogue is active on high holy days only.

Jewish history in Croatia is complicated, to say the least. The community was denied and granted status throughout history. I’m glad that there’s a museum and synagogue to enlighten random tourists like me. Hopefully they’ll be able to offer more information in the future. Even with the limited signage in English, it’s a peaceful place to visit and learn something new.


Dubrovnik, Croatia: wall to wall history-and people

Dubrovnik graces the covers of Croatian guidebooks, travel magazines, and thousands of postcards. We were hoping to see the blue skies, white marble, and oceanside restaurants the postcards promised. We got all of those things—plus tens of thousands of other people.

Ye Olde Cruise Ship

In addition to the tourists and day-trippers, there were two cruise shipsdocked in port on our first day there. The crowds were impressive, even in the off-season. We obviously weren’t the only people who heard it was a beautiful city. After some people-watching at a sidewalk café, we bought tickets to walk along the wall of the city.

Dubrovnik offers unique sights, and the wall is the best way to see them. The wall was built in stages as a defense strategy. Some parts of the wall were built as early as the Middle Ages, and the whole city was enclosed by the 13th Century. The wall emphasizes Dubrovnik’s interesting mix of old and new: upscale bars tucked behind medieval walls, smoothie stands by ancient towers, and clotheslines bearing the latest fashions in old courtyards. You can even get a sense of recent history: the newer terracotta tiles indicate which buildings were renovated after the 1991-1992 shelling by the Jugoslav People’s Army.

When the cruise ships departed, the city seemed to take a sigh of relief. (Or maybe that was just me.) I pretended to get lost in narrow, steep streets that were almost empty after nightfall.

It was indeed a gorgeous city. Despite that, I didn’t love Dubrovnik. It was too crowded, too pricey, and tried to offer something for every tourist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t exactly a Dalmatian experience. In becoming an international destination, the city has seems to have lost some of its local flavor. I’m spoiled by our Balkan travels, I know. We’re able to visit smaller places by car, we’re forced to speak the local language, and we’re used to a more local atmosphere—both good and bad—on our travels. I’m glad we were able to see Dubrovnik, but next time, I think I’ll visit a smaller island with grilled sardines, travarica, and a bartender who refuses to make an apple martini.


Trogir: Italian roots, Balkan hospitality

I wasn’t surprised when our guests from the States wanted to visit the Croatian coast. In my unscientific opinion, Americans are more inclined to go to Croatia than any other Balkan country. We agreed to go with them, but I was a little skeptical. I thought the natural beauty of Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and, of course, Serbia, was equally beautiful as Trogir.

And then I saw it.

Our friends’ three-year old daughter kept asking, “what princess lives in THIS castle?”

Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of Balkan sites equal to, if not nicer, than the Croatian coast. But few places have such well-preserved/restored medieval cities, with the additional benefit of being on the water. Trogir’s prime location made self-governance difficult. Greece, Rome, Venice and Austria-Hungary occupied the island at different points in history.  But the Italian influence seems the most prominent. We tasted “Easter bread” similar to Panettone, saw ubiquitous pasta dishes, and heard people bid farewell with addio. When we complimented our chef and pension owner on her pizza, we were even given an Italian response: “Ah, but pizza is not a meal.”

There’s a dolce vita air about Trogir. It’s a town designed for wandering, taking photos, and eating ice cream. We saw the major sights in one day and decided to spend the next morning exploring smaller islands in a boat owned by our guide, Marinas. We signed up for a three-hour tour and joked about getting stranded.

Of course, this resulted in us getting stranded.

Fortunately, we were able to make it to Marinas’ summer cottage. It had no electricity, no running water, and loads of character.

Trogir may have Italian roots, but it also has Balkan hospitality. Marinas offered his family’s homemade wine and sage rakija. He encouraged us to explore the island and relax.  Our new boat was slow to arrive, so we were only able to reach Maslinica for grilled fish and octopus salad before heading back to Trogir.

Maslinica

When we arrived, our pension owner came back from her restaurant to ask about the trip, play with Milos, and offer a little doll to our friend’s daughter before we piled in the car for the drive to Dubrovnik. Trogir is popular for its architecture and natural beauty, but its Balkan hospitality is its true charm.


Fields…and trunks…of gold

We spent yesterday driving from Dubrovnik to Belgrade. I wouldn’t recommend doing the drive in one day, but we were rewarded for our stamina with Croatian gold. What’s Croatian gold? It’s the term I invented for these fields of yellow flowers/plants we passed on the drive from Zagreb to Belgrade.

I have no idea what these are-they’re in agricultural fields, so I presume it’s a crop of some sort. They’re especially gorgeous in the setting sunlight.

That wasn’t the only “Croatian gold” we saw. At a rest stop before we reached Zagreb, we saw several cars selling golden cheese-yes, cheese-our of their cars. I’ve seen a lot of things being sold out of cars in the Balkans, but gourmet cheese wasn’t one of them. Until yesterday.

We were interested in the cheese, but in too much of a hurry to try them out. Besides, RHOB is willing to take risks, but sampling cheese that’s been sitting in a hot car all day isn’t one of them.