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Istria, Hrvatska - 30 September 2011

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Across Istria

After a couple of days enjoying back roads, we decided to start our trip to Plitvička jezera, Hrvatska's best known national park by traveling across Istria. The alternative was to return along the tourist road, a magnificent swath of asphalt that swoops straight across the heart of Istria. One of its most striking features is a six kilometer tonnel right through the karstic backbone of the peninsula.

I have already written about the back roads here: narrow, twisting, following old trails. Going through towns, they sometimes pass between old stone buildings and walls that are barely wide enough for one vehicle.

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As soon as we left Svetvinčenat, we were on new territory, and navigating with a German map that bore only a passing resemblance to the actual town names. Still, the navigation from there on was fairly easy, because we were traveling toward large, central towns -- Barban, Labin, and then Opatija. 

Even though the roads are fairly empty, it seems that as soon as you start enjoying the ride, a couple of anxious locals show up behind you. By California standards, these are not disciplined or defensive drivers. They drive too fast for the road conditions; they can't stay on their own side of the road (on roads wide enough to have sides), and they seem to like to tailgate closely enough that you can see they're also talking on their cellphones.

Moments of terror separated by long, pleasant prospects.

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This is deeply indented countryside, with long, narrow valleys extending up from the sea. On the other side of the Kvarner gulf, the islands show the same pattern, only there the valleys have sunk below sea level and the ridges are islands. Beyond Barban, a hill town above a windy valley, the road winds down a exposed cliff of the white fragile limestone called karst. Here in Hrvatska, when men are working on the road, automated traffic lights are deployed instead of flagmen. We got stuck behind one of these just across from a karst quarry on the other side of the valley.

Further down the valley, topography aligns with meteorology, creating a wind funnel that makes a very fertile valley a wasteland.

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It is also ancient land. Here below Pazin, where once Italian miners extracted coal from four mines, an enormous coal-fired power plant still operates, providing about half of Istria's electricity. Ecological awareness is scarcely present here, unlike in Italy. Gasoline is expensive -- $6.78/gallon -- and yet Land Cruisers and large urban assault vehicles are quite popular. Incandescent bulbs are still common, and compact fluorescents are rare. And the electricity is generated using coal imported from elsewhere and brought here by ship.

Surprisingly, the hills are covered with hardwood, and extensive piles of firewood are often seen along the road. 

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Not much farther around the corner of Istria's rocky backbone, the road rounds a sharp point and the improbably blue Kvarner Gulf becomes visible. I stop in a rare pull-out to take the picture, and have to take a picture of our underpowered little Chevy. The road here is a well engineered main road with two generous lanes. The Kvarner is a busy waterway, in part because of shipyards near Rijeka, reputedly among the most active and cost-effective in the world.

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Romantic Getaway

Here's an idea. Instead of looking to the kitsch and pretense of Rovinj for a romantic, why not here, at the tip of a rocky point high above the Kvarner? There's a wonderful little three star hotel here, Hotel Flanona, with a nice restaurant, a cafe, and views to forever in three directions. If the agenda calls for eating, sleeping, and, well, you know, why not here.

We stop for our midday cappuccino and thoroughly enjoy the view before heading up the coast to our destination, a hotel of our own high above the so-called Opatija Riviera.

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<p>Toward Rijeka, view from within, ferries crossing to and from Cres</p>

Toward Rijeka, view from within, ferries crossing to and from Cres

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After a significant struggle, we found Villa Kapentanović on a steep side street well clear of the resort sprawl of the Opatija Riviera, a predictable fungus of shops, restaurants, and overpriced hotels beside rocky beaches here at the top of the Kvarner Gulf. Here in Hrvatska, family-run places are common, and delightful, because every employee is somehow related to the operation, and they understand that it is in their best interest for guests to enjoy their stay. We are shown to a simple, lovely room with an amazing view. Between a delicious lunch and a spectacular dinner we enjoy the infinity pool and sit on our veranda and watch the boats far below.

This day is the last of the first month of this nearly three month trip. Tomorrow, we plunge deep into the uplands of this country. This is a perfect place to spend an afternoon and evening relaxing and regrouping.

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lunch & dinner at Laurus

<p>Zucchini stuffed with shrip and...

Zucchini stuffed with shrip and mushrooms and topped with baked Istrian farmer's cheese; delicate fish broth with home made noodles and carrot threads; hearty vegetable mushroom soup; mixed seasonal salad;spaghetti with clams and crayfish with roe; fresh sardines with potato-onion salad;chocolate cake with mascarpone whipped cream and tokaj-marinated figs, topped with toasted almonds. The wine: Istrian Malvazija.

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Across the Gulf, Rijeka sparkles more prettily than it has any right to do in the darkness. It's quiet here. The bed has just the right softness. A new month of adventure is ahead. Good night.

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