02.06.15 – 09.06.15
Arriving in Croatia was a lot more traumatic than it should have been, or than we were expecting. After catching a bus from Bled to Ljubljana, and another from Ljubljana to Koper (a city right on the Croatian boarder), we knew we had an hour to kill before our third and final bus would arrive to take us from Koper to Rovinj. Well, an hour went by and there was no bus. Another hour, no bus. By the time we were pushing three hours waiting for this damn bus, ourselves plus about five other people were getting suitably annoyed and exasperated. We were told only that the bus must be ‘stuck in traffic’, and would arrive shortly. In fact, no bus ever arrived, but in fact they sent what was essentially a maxi taxi that was already full by the time it arrived to us at Koper. Crossing the Croatian boarder standing up in a mini bus meant for 15 people but carrying 22 is something I’ll not forget in a long time. Plus the fact that the Croatian boarder police made us get out so they could stamp our passports, and then let us all clamber back in without even blinking twice was maybe more bizarre.
Thankfully we finally arrived at Rovinj, even though we were tired, hungry and over three hours later than we were meant to be. We’d sent a message to our Air BnB hosts to let them know we were stuck in Koper, and we’d happily walk to their place when we arrive at what we thought would be 10.30, instead of having them pick us up as originally offered. But low and behold, when we fell out of the bus at Rovinj, there was a friendly man named Vinco who said he was there to take us to our Air BnB. We were so grateful but felt instantly guilty that this poor guy would have been waiting at least 45 minutes.
Our Air BnB is exactly what we were hoping for this week- private, clean and with a comfy bed. Vinco leaves us, and after showering and washing off the stress of the day, we’re asleep very quickly.
Rovinj is located in the north of Croatia, in the region of Istria. It’s got a very Mediterranean feel about it, helped a lot by the fact that there is a strong Italian influence in the area. All the street signs are in both Croatian and Italian, every other restaurant is a pizzeria, plus you can hear Italian being spoken quite often. Aside from the obvious proximity to the Italian boarder, this part of Croatia after the First World War did belong to Italy for several decades. The main attraction is the old town, about a 20 minute walk from us, with its winding alleyways seemingly all leading to the bell tower, which is apparently a direct replica of the Campanile of Venice.
This week for us was all about recharging batteries, having a few sleep ins and swimming in the ocean at every chance. I’m glad to say we achieved that nearly every day. You’d think after only one day of this we’d be as relaxed and refreshed as when we started this adventure, but there was a catch. The rental car. The thing gives me nightmares now. This was our first time hiring a car so far on this trip, and we were both quite anxious about it. Mostly because I was going to be the one doing all the driving, as I’m the only one with a manual licence and it was going to cost us double if we wanted to hire an automatic. So after the first day of driving the little Renault Clio from the hire company to home, to the shops, and home again, I wasn’t sure if the car or our relationship was going to last the week. Getting used to driving on the other side of the road, and on the other side of the car was taking some getting used to apparently. I only drove onto the other side of the road once, but thankfully it was only in the car park of the shops. Everything feels strange, not just being on the other side of the road, but also being on the other side of the car and changing gears with your other hand too. I suppose as an Aussie I’m in the minority here, as there’s only a handful of places that drive on the left. The other battle was Croatian drivers. All I’ll say is that it seems to be that the speed limit is actually a minimum requirement, not the maximum –or at least it felt that way when cars were angrily overtaking me while I was doing the 130km/h limit on the highways.
Our Air BnB hosts had a little giggle to themselves the next day when we asked to borrow their bikes, maybe they sensed the car wasn’t going so well for us. Anyway, it wasn’t so much that we didn’t want to use the car, but cycling along the coast and inwards to the forests seemed like much more fun. There’s nothing like earning a swim in the water after sweating from what feels like every pore in your body. The cycling was worth it though, and we got to weave in and out of forests much more so than if we’d have just driven to the beach. Getting used to pebble beaches is taking some time, although the lack of sand means the clarity in the water is absolutely stunning.
As a precursor to a mini road trip we had planned through Istria, Dan and I took the car to a small town only half an hour from Rovinj, Vodnjan –on the premise of olive oil. It might sound a little strange, but Istria is well known for its oil produce, and this company was meant to be one of the best in the area. We walked into the small shop not knowing who or what we’d find, but were surpised and happy to find the owner of Brist Olive Oil about to start some tastings with another couple, from Slovakia. The owner, Silvano, was so delightful, and spent a long time explaining the beginnings of the business, how it’s completely family run, and you can see the pride in his olive oil pouring out of him. We of course wanted to buy some oil from him as a sign of appreciation, but constant travel with backpacks, on and off buses aren’t really ideal conditions for looking after expensive oil, so we settle on buying some local wine from Brist and enjoy it later that night at home.
After a few days of driving to and from the local supermarket and also out to Vodnjan, I’d worked up the confidence to drive us several hours outside of Rovinj to other parts of Istria. Our friend PJ, who we met in Lisbon, actually arrived in Rovinj the night before so he joined us on our mini road trip too. I struggle to remember the names of the towns we drove through, but only because each one was more beautiful than the last. We stopped at the bottom of the medieval town of Motovun, as no cars are allowed to the top of the fortified village. The hike up was steep, but the panoramic views from the top were worth it. Motovun boasts less than 600 residents, and you can truly tell, when you walk the quiet surrounding walls it’s sort of eerie to look down below and across, to see a scattering of houses and a few lone cars dotting the roads like ants.
After working up substantial appetites hiking up and down Motovun, we drove on towards Momjan, where we’d be stopping for lunch at Stari Podrum, a small family tavern complete with family dog and cat who roam freely around the restaurant providing endless entertainment. Istria is famous for a number of things, in particular truffles. I’ve never been a huge fan, I find the flavour overwhelming, but decide if ever there was a time to give them another go –the time is now. So I order gnocchi with truffles and find myself wiping the bowl clean with bread. I’m always happy to have my mind changed when it comes to food, whether it’s trying something new or trying something you didn’t enjoy in the past –why would you give up the chance to experience something completely new and exciting? This is why fussy eaters frustrate me to no end; they’re usually afraid of more than food and live in perpetual fear of disappointment.
The rest of the day is spent stopping at a few more towns, like the quaint Groznjan and even spending a few hours at the Koslovic winery. We tasted nearly everything they had to offer –though being the driver meant I had to control myself- and walked away with a bottle of white wine unique to Istria -Malvazija. All in all, we returned to the centre of Rovinj just as the sun was setting feeling tired from wining, dining, driving and hiking all day. Even though the stress of driving was still quietly present throughout the day, it was so worthwhile having the car because we otherwise would not have been able to explore these remote parts of Istria. Even the drive was not that traumatic mainly because the scenery at every single point was breathtaking –although this did make it hard to concentrate on the road at many points!
This week in Rovinj was the perfect way to start our month long love affair with Croatia. Apart from a few day trips here and there, we honestly did not do much apart from laze at the beach and walk into the old town to grab an ice cream almost every day. But I’m glad of it. After three months of constant travel, we are feeling a bit weary and in need of recharging. Sometimes you need those lazy days.
We’ll head out of Istria now, south towards Zadar but stopping at Plitvice National Park along the way.