Monday, October 22, 2007

the istrian disco snooze

I had just walked through Pula's Triumphal Arch of Sergius when someone said my name. Convinced immediately that I hadn't heard that correctly I kept walking, but there it was again. And sitting next to the statue of James Joyce at Café Uliks was Ilmari, the Finn from Istanbul. It's really not so strange that I ran into him there, since he's one of two people who recommended traveling to Istria. In keeping with the aforementioned tradition of everyone having weirder adventures than me, he had a story about crossing the border (I can't remember which, Macedonia or Montenegro), where he was discovered carrying two two-liters of beer. The permitted limit was two liters total, so he apologized and offered one bottle to the agents who were tossing his luggage. By this point they had discovered that he worked for the police, and were his best friends. Of course they didn't take his beer. They told him to go ahead and drink it, they'd hold up the bus while he finished. So there he was, in full sight of everyone on the bus, downing two liters of beer. I don't think I could down two liters of water on demand. Eating out in Postojna I had ordered a beer by mistake; asking a waiter in a pizzeria if he spoke "Angleško?", he brought me a Laško beer. He had already opened it, and I had sort of ordered it, so I gave it a go. I managed only about half of half of liter.

Basing myself at the somewhat inconvenient hostel in Pula, I spent two days day-tripping to cute little towns in Istria. Istria is the part of Croatia that is closest to Italy, and the influence is everywhere. Town signs, street signs, and sandwich signs are usually always in Croatian and Italian, and I frequently heard it being spoken. And if that weren't enough, the prevalence of pizza is a dead giveaway, although there's lots of pizza everywhere in Croatia, and Slovenia. My time in each town was subject to the bus schedules, but it really doesn't take very long to see each of them. Plus, I caught a disco snooze on almost every bus ride. I got that term from one of my new adventure pals in Bled, and like it a lot better than power nap, which sounds too executive. So power naps are out, disco snoozes are in.

Rovinj: spectral bovines

Okay, so there are a lot of churches in Europe. Despite my aversion to Christianity, I still go see them if there's some interesting nugget of historical information or architectural detail. After Saint Euphemia was martyred in 304 by Emperor Diocletian, the sarcophagus with her body ended up in Constantinople, where it remained for some 500 years. It was a dark and stormy night, sometime in 800, and the sarcophagus mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear off the coast of Rovinj in a spectral boat, where it could only be budged by two spectral cows. Moo. There's an unfortunately amateurish mural by the sarcophagus, depicting Euphemia looking rather put-upon while the lions close in for the kill. Since enough of her remained to be interred in what is a really big sarcophagus, I guess that sport lions don't actually eat the unfortunates, maybe just give them a good chew. Although the mural makes it look like they are going to lick her to death with their scratchy tongues.

Poreč: hot chocolate

I don't know how they make Croatian hot chocolate, but I want to find out. Not to be confused with cocoa, which may also be on the menu, it's like slurping hot chocolate mousse. I missed my chance for a really fine cup of it in Zagreb, at a café called Tolkien's House (yes, that Tolkien), but Janet went and gave me the report. In addition to drinking the best hot chocolate of her life, she also had a funny story about the amount of tobacco smoke billowing out the door. I suppose it's only natural that those frequenting an establishment named after Tolkien would be indulging in vast quantities of pipeweed. Spying a café called Ciccolata in Poreč, I knew my chance had come. There was a moment of trepidation when it arrived in a Nescafé mug, but after digging through the spritz of whipped cream, there it was; really thick hot chocolate. Good thing it came with a spoon.

Oh yeah, Poreč also has a Euphrasian Basilica, from the sixth century, that has some sunglasses-worthy mosaics in tip-top condition.

Pazin: escape into the abyss

The Pazin Chasm (below a castle, naturally) is the setting of an improbable escape in Jules Verne's Mathias Sandorf. Although surviving a 100 meter drop is about as probable as spectral cows dragging a stone sarcophagus up a hill; I think they would only manage it on a flat stretch. Anyway, I haven't read the book, but I did walk through the chasm, down one side and up the other. For the most part I was all alone in there, and there was a magical moment when a rustling breeze came along, and it rained autumn leaves.

The atmosphere back at the bus station was far less dreamy, since the platform was overrun by schoolchildren heading back home. They were like a swarm of honeyed-up bees; for some reason, at least half of them were sucking on lollipops, most of which were blue, giving their suckers a distinct air of oxygen-deprivation.

Motovun: tiny town up a steep hill

Not a whole lot was happening in Motovun except a dinky town perched on top of a hill, looking pretty and feeling deserted. Maybe all the residents were enjoying that most civilized of traditions, the siesta. Getting there was more exciting; a short stretch of road right was being repaired, and, gears grinding, the bus driver off-roaded a city bus over a few hundred meters of chewed up rocks. Twice, since we returned along the same road. Bus rides in Croatia have more often than not been some sort of thrill. Tailgating and speeding seem to be the national pastimes. On the way to Pula we almost rear-ended a gasoline tanker, and more than once during my day trips I have to admit a slight alarm at the speed in which we were headed down the two-lane roads. I fairly had to hang onto the seats going around a couple of bends. And we got a dose of Croatian folk music on one leg. All buses pipe in some radio station, but it's usually at a level that allows people to tune it out. Not the Croatian folk hour; no, that driver really wanted us to share the experience. I for one appreciated it, most of the radio stations here haven't aquired anything new since the 80s. Arriving in Motovun in one piece, it's a steep climb to the top, and if there isn't too much sweat dripping into your eyes, you can admire how some joker included a cast of the Motovun Film Festival logo in with the older stone artifacts on display.

Pula: amphitheater again

I saw a lot of Pula simply because I kept criss-crossing town from the hostel to the bus station to the pizzeria to the cafés. Pula has lot of ruins sprinkled around. All of Croatia has ancient ruins sprinkled around, humanity has been here for a long time. I'm still full from my previous Greek and Roman ruin diet, but the amphitheater (or Arena, as its referred to locally) is pretty neat because it's completely round. Like the Colosseum, except in much better shape. I haven't seen one like it before.

And there's a club for vegetarians.

There are many more little towns in Istria, but the five I saw were enough for me on this trip. I still haven't gotten past that thing where I get bored easily if there isn't a whole lot to do. Also, at least a couple people I spoke to praised the beauty of the Istrian coast, and yeah, it is lovely, but I dunno — it wasn't breathtakingly extraordinary. I still have a lot of coast to see before I leave Croatia. But my next stop will be inland, although water is involved.

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