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Istria, Hravatska 27 September 2011

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A New Country

Bok. (That's Hello in Croatia, or, as the people who live here prefer, Hrvatska. Who knew?)

In Europe, at least in the EU, going from country to country is no big deal. The money stays the same, although the language usually changes. In touristed places, a little English (at least) is usually spoken. Connections between transport methods are generally pretty easy.

Well, today we entered the Balkans. You know the term, "to balkanize"? -- it means to whack things up operationally until they cannot really be administered efficiently. If you run your mouse over the adjoining map, and wait a bit -- it's a big image -- you'll see where we are now.

We started on a Hrvatskan bus from Trieste that took us to Rijeka, a large, busy, gritty port city on the other side of a big peninsula. But then we had to get to the airport. "You can't get there," said the helpful lady at the bus station. The Tourist Information (TI) lady said "Not easy. You take bus, then find taxi." Well, our car was at the airport, so we took bus, found taxi. Not as easy as saying. Yes?

mouse over for context - be patient! big maps

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. Hravatska is, like most European countries, a proud one with a history of struggle and survival. They spend different money (kuna, one of which is worth about 18 cents) and have a proud flag and coat of arms</p>

Hravtaskan Coat of Arms. Hravatska is, like most European countries, a proud one with a history of struggle and survival. They spend different money (kuna, one of which is worth about 18 cents) and have a proud flag and coat of arms

The bus didn't go to the airport, it went to a pretty little village called Omišalj, with a diacritical mark like a flattened v over the s, meaning it's pronounced sh. The j (thankfully) is silent.

The sweet lady at the Tourist Information office said I needed to call a taxi, and gave me the number, but couldn't make the call. The not-so-nice lady at the Post-Telegraph couldn't let me make a local call on her long distance phones, but she could sell me a 25 kuna phone card (good for about 10 phone calls. I won't be making more than this one if I can help it. The phones are even more, um, balkanized, than the transport system.) I went back to the TI, and she accompanied me back to the Post Office, but there was no compromise.

Luckily, there was another office offering information. "Can I pay you to make a call for me?" "I will do it gratis," said the lovely man, who called his buddy, and about 20 minutes later a Mercedes taxi purred up and took us to the airport where we got our car. Ivan Barbiš (with the little flattened v over the s) spoke lovely English, the kind you speak if you learn by watching movies in English with subtitles in your language. When he delivered us to his friend at the car agency, he shook our hands and said "Delightful meeting you. I hope we meet again." And I think he meant it. 

Then we drove back across the Krk bridge, past Rijeka, and across Istria on a spectacularly well done highway, to the confusing little walled Venetian city of Rovinj, where we bumbled about until we found our night's lodging.

Next step: into the old town and taste some Istrian cuisine.


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Rovinj: spoiled beyond redemption

In observance of the Thumperian Principle ("If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all") I did not report on our first taste of Hravatskan life here in Rovinj.

Rovinj is like a piece of deliciously aged cheese left in the fridge until mold grows on it -- TWO kinds of mold (and if you're easily offended by my bigotry, you might want to skip this section.) The worst is the tourists, fat, pushy, loud German ones mostly. The slimier mold, however, is the tourist shops that have infested every nook and corner of this once-lovely old town. At left you see the beautiful old stonework in the walls ...or you would if it weren't for the wall-to-wall kitsch. Who buys this crap? Even worse thought: who makes it?

Tourism is a cancer. I'm glad I'm a traveler.

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The most pernicious effect of mindless tourism -- one would have to be mindless to consider buying the trash that clutters every Rovinj alleyway -- is the deadening effect it has on the people who have to live with it year around. In Rovinj, where that is most painfully obvious is in the food. Guidebook after guidebook says, "Don't come here for the food." I guess my response is, why come at all? (The answer for the Germans is naturism!) 

Reviewers on Trip Advisor struggle to say something nice, but the best they come up with is "romantic." The wine is okay. The quality is sub par. The price is obnoxious. Rovinj has lost its charm, and for us it's merely a pitstop for day trips.

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I indulge myself in this candid negativity because the very next day, we find the magic again, driving out across the crumpled Istrian countryside past crumbling karst walls and well-kept little towns to the well-preserved tourist mecca of Motovun.

With a side-trip to Pazin for gasoline, we got a good transect of central Istria, and it's a prosperous, productive looking land. Lots of small vineyards giving the lie to the California prejudice against small growers; here the winemakers making a few cases a year, not a few tens of thousands. 

The roads, even the "dirt" ones (actually covered with bright white karst) are good. The "superhighways" are awesome. Maybe they're busy in August, but now at the end of September they are practically naked of traffic. Some of them are toll roads, costing about a dollar for every ten minutes you drive.

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Motovun is a walled hill town. You pay to drive up and park, or you join hoardes of large sweaty western Europeans on the shuttle. We paid. Once up, you climb a narrow main street past the expected gift shops, but there are fewer: the townspeople haven't been chased out, and by the looks of things, they don't mean to be. The new town, doubtless peopled by the workers who cater to the steady stream of visitors, tumbles down the steep hill, but there is still plenty of room in the old town for car parks, gardens, even lawns.

As in Mendocino, I assume that the citizens grin and bear the onslaught for a few months a year, and then get their town back in October. That's enough to make all the difference.

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Part of my disappointment at Rovinj is that Istria hosts one of the great farm-to-table traditions in European food. It takes special carelessness to serve a bad meal. So when I poked my nose in this place, I heaved a great sigh of relief. The owner greeted me in Hravatskan, and I mumbled, "Hello, we'll return." "Good," she says, "Come back." 

Up the hill, the usual Venetians walled village castle stuff. Mobs of French and German tour groups like herds of sheep. Obvious care on the part of the village's people to keep some dignity. The hill is crowned with a very fancy spa/resort called The Kastel, and I'll lay odds that is the town's salvation.

We do return, and are seated at a perfect table overlooking a verdant valley.

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<p>Rochelle sipping Malvazija</p>

Rochelle sipping Malvazija

This is truffle country, and so we go for it: truffle mushroom soup, peppers roasted with capers and truffles, roasted vegetables, Motovun sausage boiled in local wine, and a lovely glass of the local treasure: Malvazija bianka.

 It's all perfect, amazingly tasty, graciously served, very different from the Italian norm (that is so high.) My faith is restored. We drive back to Rovinj on beautiful empty toll roads and I write this.

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