Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Adriatic Sea and the Ancient Past of Pula-Day Four in Istria

It was a beautiful day in the high 70s, with the sun shining over the aqua water of the Adriatic Sea. The only thing my friend Lynn and I had to decide was what we wanted to do at the beach the next few hours.

I felt like I was in a dream when I woke up in our little cottage in Bi Village. It was day four of our Share Istria adventure and we were in Fazana, Croatia, just a short walk from the Adriatic Sea.

What made it even more of a dream was that we had a free morning, something I rarely got on a press trip. We could have a leisurely breakfast at the Bi Village restaurant – a nice selection of fruit, cheese, rolls, pastries, and eggs – and then enjoy the beach.

I was trying to decide whether to go windsurfing or paddle boarding as we enjoyed the view on the long walkway that went along the sand on this Fazana beach.

It was a little disappointing when we arrived at the watersports area and Antonio told us the conditions weren’t right for either, but he offered to take us sailing. I wasn’t going to argue with floating on this beautiful scene in front of me.

Lynn and I took turns sailing and relaxing on the beach. It was a beautiful setting and that thought would continue when we headed to Pineta Mare Restaurant, which was also on the water.

Two of the men from our trip, Nicolas and Rocky, joined us for lunch on the patio overlooking the sea.  Rocky ordered a big bowl of muscles and the rest of us shared huge bowls of pasta, a fettuccine with truffles and a gnocchi in a cheese sauce. Both were delicious.

Lynn went back to our house to shower first and I decided to take the long way. I stopped at one of the Bi Village pools for some laps and then headed to shower and change.

Goran, our guide from Visit Istria Tourism, picked us up in the familiar van and we made a short drive to Pula.

Our first stop was at the Pula Arena Amphitheatre. This ancient Roman masterpiece is something I remembered well from my first trip. In fact, there’s a photo of it hanging in my living room.  

The Amphitheatre had actually gone through some changes since my visit nine years prior. It was now actually being used for shows and a weekly re-enactment of a gladiator fight.

A museum was also added to the bottom floor of the Pula Arena. It contained the plans of the Amphitheatre and quite a few Roman artifacts. Within this very ancient setting was modern technology – the ability to take a self-guided tour with headphones.

The Pula Arena is far from the only remnants of Ancient Rome in this Croatian city. Artifacts are everywhere. We actually saw the newest discovery, found when someone was attempting to clear the ground and put up a new building. 

Unfortunately for the owner, any time anything is found that is from the ancient period the land becomes part of the city.

Another thing that I recognized was the Arch of the Sergii, which happens to be even older than the Arc de Triumph. It led into the colorful piazza I also had previously taken photos of.

We then walked across to Parco Tito, named for Josip Broz “Tito,” a Croatian who was a controversial political leader, but a supporter of his home country.

We also walked by the beautiful Cathedral Assumption Virgin Mary and the office building that still bears five flags for the five empires that owned this land – Austrian, Italian, Yugoslavian, and Croatian.

The next part of our tour was in the more modern section of Pula. We went past cafes and clubs lining the streets, and the Mozart Theatre, before heading back to the Amphitheatre for sunset photos.

We were a little early so we didn’t quite get the sunset look, but I decided a selfie was appropriate, and then did another with Lynn. After all, how often am I going to be in an Ancient Roman arena?!

Dinner was at Kantina Restaurant in Pula. Lynn and I, who are both allergic to seafood, had a tasty beef dish. It was served with some flavorful yams, something we hadn’t had yet in Istria.

After dinner, we went to dock to see light show over the shipyard, but it started raining. The show is done every evening, weather permitting, with thousands of color combinations.

We headed back to Bi Village to get some sleep and get ready for a full day of sightseeing ahead in Istria,Croatia

Thursday, June 25, 2015

From Rocky Sea to Scents of Lavendar – Day Three in Istria

It was the third day of my trip with Visit Istria as part of the Share Istria contest. My friend Lynn and I (team #ShareIstriaUSA1) had spent the night at a cottage in Bi Village.

We were supposed to be staying another night at the Porer Cliff Lighthouse, but a storm had kept us from returning there the night before. I confess that I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I enjoyed the small air conditioned house along the Adriatic Sea much more than I had the accommodations on the sea.

Our group, Andras and Gyorgy from Hungary, Rocky, an American living in Italy, and Nicolas from Paris, was supposed to meet for breakfast, but we were told that we were leaving earlier than expected because there was a window of opportunity to get back to the lighthouse before another storm.

Lynn and I made a quick trip to the Bi Village restaurant for some croissants, cheese, and cappuccino before meeting Goran, our guide from Istria Tourism, and the rest of the guys at the van.

It was interesting how we had already picked our places in the van and comfortably took our unassigned seats each time.  We fit well together as a group and I was soon to learn just how much.

The weather looked calm as we drove down the boat dock, but once we got onboard, we quickly saw and felt the waves.

The trip seemed much longer than the previous day as our well-trained captain led us to the island. We held on tight to the boat.

Once we arrived at the lighthouse, there was the difficulty of getting off. Lynn and I stayed in the boat and let the gentlemen – and they certainly were – get our things while the boat moved out to sea to wait for them to finish.

I know it was only about 15-20 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity as we waited on that rocking boat for the phone call that they had everything together. We then headed back to the lighthouse to pick up the men and our things.

They bravely managed to get themselves and all the luggage on the boat, and we held on as the boat came back to land in the 3-5 meter waves.

When we finally got everyone and everything off the boat, we hugged in relief and posed for a celebratory picture before getting in the van to continue the Istria program schedule.

Looking at the Adriatic Sea along the drive was definitely more relaxing than from a boat, but we were even happier when we arrived at the beautiful grounds of Stacija Meneghetti.

Meneghetti in Bale is an amazing property that I would love to spend a few days at in the future. It’s a Relais & Chateaux hotel, a winery, an olive oil producer, and a restaurant all in one.

We toured before tasting during an amazing Meneghetti olive oil and wine paired lunch. Their Unoaked Chardonnay was one of the best I’ve had and Lynn said the same about their Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, she bought a bottle of each for us. 

After a delicious dessert of vanilla ice cream topped with Belgium chocolate and olive oil – a combination I will try to repeat in the future – we were off to a most unusual place.

Park Histria Aromatica, also in Bale, is a huge place filled with lavender fields, herb gardens, and aromatic bushes, but it’s not a botanical garden.

Everything within Histria Aromatica is used to make natural lotions, oils, bath salts, and other products.

As you can imagine, it smells amazing here and the views are incredible. We enjoyed the tour and picked up a few products to take with us before heading to our next stop.

Rovinj would quickly become one of my favorite spots in Europe. From the sea to the cobblestone streets filled with cafes, and historical church on a hill, it was everything you dream a quaint Croatia town to be.

After parking at the cruise ship port, we walked through a market filled with fresh fruit, truffles, and olive oils, all typical for this area.

We toured through the old city and you could see the Venetian influence here. It was not surprising since Venice was just on the other side of the Adriatic. I love the glimpses of the sea between the buildings.

The St. Euphemia Basilica in Rovinj was stunning and as we walked past the shops and restaurants I was glad we would be coming back again.

On the way back to spend another night in Bi Village we stopped at Alla Beccacia for dinner. We had soup, meat, and fish at this authentic Italian restaurant. With more wonderful Istrian wine. We were all too full and tired for dessert, though.

Back at our little house in the village, Lynn and I went right to sleep. I think I could still smell the relaxing lavender on my clothes as it was my best night sleep in a while.

We needed plenty of rest for a beach filled day four in Istria, and, weather permitting, my first shot at windsurfing and paddle boarding. 

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Donkeys, Olive Oil, and Smrikve Return – Day Two in Istria

When we were heading to the Porer Lighthouse to spend the night, Goran, our Visit Istria guide had told us that the island had been rumored to be haunted. I don’t put much thought into those things, but there was a bit of doubt in logic by morning.

At 12:45 am, all six of us in the lighthouse woke with a startle from the loud banging of doors and windows. At first I thought it was the wind, but then realized it was coming from two different directions.

A few minutes after it stopped, an alarm started sounding. It quieted down for a bit, than the sequence started again about an hour later.

The lighthouse keeper had no logical explanation except wind and, quite frankly, I was too tired from two nights of not sleeping to even care. 

Lynn was ready quicky and I tried to get a little work done on my photos before we left.

While I have to admit that staying in a lighthouse on a private island was intriguing, the actual place – with no air conditioning and these creepy noises – was not an experience I wanted to repeat. 

I would get my wish, but it certainly wasn’t in the original plan.

Goran had made sure we were stocked with food, water, and beer on the island. I had a banana, a piece of cinnamon bread and some instant cappuccino for breakfast. Before I knew it the boat was waiting outside to take us to the mainland.

The wind had picked up and the ride was a bit rocky, but we safely arrived at the dock. I hadn’t noticed how beautiful the Adriatic looked here at Cape Kamenjak and took a few minutes to admire it before we got into the van for our ride to Vodnjan.

After learning about the small igloo like houses called kažuni the workers constructed in this area, we headed to this quaint town – by donkey. It was quite an experience bouncing up and down the cobblestone streets and through the piazza inside a cart being pulled by two donkeys.

All the men gathered at the piazza were smiling and laughing at us and we just waved and laughed along with them!

When we got out of the donkey carriage we went in to check out a very interesting museum of the region, Istrian de Dignan EcoMuseum. The museum contains a lot of artifacts from the area, as well as basic equipment to make wine and olive oil.

Our next stop was to find out even more about olive oil at Brist, a top Croatian producer of extra virgin olive oil. After seeing the orchards with Paul O’Grady, who works the company along with his family, we went to the store and tasted their oils – Delicato, Sta. Margherita, Intenso, and Oleum. I was surprised how rich they were in comparison to the Italian ones I was used to. I liked the Sta. Margherito best for its more subtle flavors.

We headed back to Pula, where Paul joined us (along with his olive oils) for lunch at Konoba Feral. We started with some satisfying sparkling wine from Istria and fresh bread, as we had worked up quite an appetite.

The first course was tasty prosciutto and cheese. I really loved the cheese from this area with all the heartiness of a parmesan, but softer.

Next up was a wonderful homemade pasta with spinach in a light sauce, which I added some of the Sta. Margherita Olive Oil to per Paul’s suggestion and it made it even better.

Finally, we were treated to a plate of panna cotta and a heavier, delicious cake, all topped with chocolate sauce.

At the same time, my friend Miodrag Bozovic came to pick Lynn and me up to visit Smrikve.

It brought back many lovely memories to visit his home, see his parents again and meet his beautiful fiancé. It had been nine years since they had welcomed me into their home for a week.

I continued the road down memory lane as we walked through the house, the grounds and the tennis courts, but I also got to see the new addition to the property.

The Smrikve Lounge is an amazing house that is available on the property for rent (I’m already trying to figure out when I can return). To make it even more special, it’s surrounded by lavender bushes, olive trees, and vineyards!

Our visit was too short as Mio brought us to meet up with the rest of the Share Istria group at Bi Village in Fazana, a suburb of Pula. 

Just before we reached the restaurant where they were waiting, the rain started to come down.

It was quite a storm, with thunder and lightning, and we soon realized we weren’t going to make it back to the Porer Lighthouse for the night. We would instead stay at the Bi Village and see what happened with the weather the next day.

After stopping at a store to pick up essentials – all our things were on the island – we settled in. Lynn and I had a nice two bedroom cabin. It had air conditioning and was only about two blocks from the sea.

We were a bit hungry so we walked down to the restaurant and enjoyed some Istrian pizza. It was as delicious as I remembered it to be. We thought about checking out the nightlife (the music was playing behind us), but we were pretty exhausted so we went to sleep in our air conditioned cabin and with the scent of lavendar still in my mind.

Don’t forget to share and like my stories on Istria. There’s a lot more to come and I’m still competing for the Share Istria Grand Prize. Look for #ShareIstriaUSA1 on social media. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Return to Pula – Day One in Istria

It’s been a hectic few weeks getting ready to participate in the next round of the Share Istria event. I had already scheduled my June with breaks to stay home and write and relax so adding 10 days of travel in has been quite a feat, but I immediately knew it was worth it when I finally arrived back in Pula – almost nine years to the day from when I left.

My travel to get to Croatia was not going to be easy. The trip required leaving my house at 9:00 am C.S.T., an hour and a half flight from Bloomington, Illinois, to Atlanta, Georgia. A four hour layover in Atlanta, followed by a nine and a half hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany, a one hour flight to Zagreb, Croatia, a two and a half hour car ride to Pula, and then, finally, a boat ride to the Porec Lighthouse!

The weather was beautiful when I left Champaign, Illinois, and my flight to Atlanta stayed pretty much on schedule. Delta upgraded me in one of their economy comfort seats and, despite the fact that it was a small plane, it was actually very comfortable.

I arrived in Atlanta airport – not one of my favorites because it’s always packed – and headed right to a restaurant to have lunch and get some work done.

I managed to finish two stories and a veggie wrap before I called my mom and daughter one last time before I left the country.

At the gate I checked on my possible upgrade from Air France, but I was told the plane was full so I resigned myself to sitting in economy.

I know this definitely sounds like I’m spoiled, but the fact is I hadn’t flown economy to Europe in years, unless you count the exit rows American lets me pick when they can’t upgrade (I have status with American).

It was quite an experience, especially since they were flying an old Delta plane that actually had telephone connections under the seats instead of power outlets!

I do have to say, despite the fact that it was so cramped that I couldn’t even recline, the service on the Air France flight was very good and the food wasn’t bad.

I had a tortellini in a cheese sauce, salad, and a packaged brownie, then an egg sandwich for breakfast. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t offer anything in between to drink or eat as I didn’t sleep at all.

I did get to finally watch some movies (“Black and White” and “The Second Best Marigold Hotel”) and probably dozed for about an hour.

I didn’t realize until I arrived in Frankfort that I had a short layover two terminals away. I only stopped for a quick bathroom break before heading to the gate for my Air Croatia flight.

We made a stop in the park to enjoy some playful time at the bar/playground there before we headed down to the boat dock.
It turned out I didn’t have to rush as a problem with the computers delayed the flight. Once onboard, it was a bit more comfortable than the last flight and we were served crackers and our choice of drinks, including wine and beer.

Since my flight was late, my friend, Lynn, and Goran from the Istria Tourism Board were already waiting for me. I got a bottle of cold water and we were on our way.

The ride was long, but very scenic. The last time I had come to Croatia I had driven through Slovenia and hadn’t seen this area.

It continued to get more beautiful as we hit the sea shore and Goran started telling us more about Istria.

We finally arrived in Pula, tired and hungry, but very excited.

Our first stop was for lunch at Park Plaza Histria. It is a modern hotel on the Adriatic Sea with breathtaking views that reminded me just how beautiful this land is.

It was here that we first met the two other teams that would join Lynn and mShare Istria journey: Rocky Casale, an American who has lived in Europe most of the last few years, and Frenchmen Nicholas Wagner; and Hungarians Andras Jokuti and Gyorgy Povaai.
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Even though we were all technically competing, we instantly got along and started to get to know each other through an (Istrian) wine filled lunch.

As I suspected in this seaside region, seafood was filling the menu.  The men had octopus and then sea bass.

Since Lynn and I are both allergic, we had a layered caprese salad for an appetizer followed by beef with potatoes and vegetables. It was all delicious.

Dessert was a vanilla mousse with a chocolate coated bottom. It was light and amazing. We followed it with cappuccinos as we started to fade from all the travel.

The original schedule called for us to see the Spectacia Antiqua performance at the arena in Pula. Goran realized how tired we all were and instead said he would take us straight to our accommodations.

Now, that was no easy task. We were spending the night in a lighthouse on a private island. To get there, we had a long, rugged drive through a nature park, a short hike up to the beach, then a boat to the island.

Goran told us that there were often dolphins in the water and we were excited to try to spot them, but the water was rough and we quickly became happy just to make it to the lighthouse.

It was a beautiful site when we pulled up. Everyone was tired and I was exhausted, having had an hour’s sleep in two days.

They politely let us, as the only women, pick the apartment we wanted and we took the one in the front as I saw the sun shining in a bedroom and knew that would be a sunset view shortly.

Lynn was in a bedroom next to me with bunk beds (she had a double on the bottom). We also had a bathroom and a kitchen, but it was quite muggy and there was no air conditioning in this old building.

I opened up the windows and enjoyed the sea air. By 8;30 pm, I was out cold for what I had expected to be a long night’s sleep.

Please follow the daily journey through Croatia on social media -- @Spiritstraveler on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also search and share all posts by the team of Lynn and me -- #ShareIstriaUSA1.

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