We've been wanting to visit Oprtalj in the northern part of the region ever since our Istrian friends that live abroad told us they like to spend a couple of days there each summer, just relaxing, enjoying the views and eating truffle pasta of course. They also told us of a little abandoned, almost forgotten town of Zavrsje, about 10 minutes drive from Oprtalj.Read More
As a big fan of Istrian cuisine, I've been wanting to share my favorite places to eat in Istria for quite some time. Istrian cuisine is my favorite in Croatia- there's fish, there's meat, there's quality olive oil, there are truffles!, there's pasta and there's cheese, so what's not to love?Read More
Still excited about our last weekend's day trip to Dvigrad we wanted to explore more and started planning new Istrian adventures already on Monday! We figured that May is the perfect time to wander, April's rainy weather is gone and the heat is not in its full swing, yet. We were thinking water this time, so our plan was Zarecki krov, Kotli, Sopot waterfall. The only thing about day trips in Istria is that you think one thing, but end up wherever a beautiful view or a perky road takes you.
As we took the fastest road to Zarecje, the first part of our trip went without distractions. I have actually never heard of this little gem near the city of Pazin- a spot where river Pazincica created a waterfall over a cave and a little lake below. We were greeted by the sounds of the river cascading to the lake and a real frog orchestra! The water was perfectly fresh (but not too cold) to dip our feet and walk to the edge of the waterfall. I imagined jumping in those green waters on a hot summer day, but for now, I didn't take it further than just imagining.
We continued down the road to the village of Kotli, winding up and down the Istrian countryside, wondering at lovely little churches, sheep herds, roadside flowers and big white clouds. Suddenly, a view of the beautiful tiny town of Draguc opened up in front of us and lured us into its sleepy atmosphere of cobbled streets, spectacular views, and complete calm. We visited Draguc a couple of years ago and fell in love with it at first sight. I was excited to take a walk down to the little chapel of Sv Rok, perched on a meadow at the edge of the town. There was no one there, so we sat on its porch, taking in the sun and the views that are just too beautiful to describe.
We walked back to the main square which is also a viewpoint of the rolling hills of central Istria and Butoniga lake. We sat for a beer in a bar (which is the only bar in town) and it was there that the thought of calm, village life crossed my mind. We chatted a bit with the waitress and a lady that came for a drink- they told us that there were about 40 people living there with a couple of more families visiting on weekends. The youngest dweller is 14 years old, and with her growing up, there are no children left in this sleepy place. I wondered if the beauty and peacefulness that surround this town could make up for the absence of active social life, stores, school, pharmacy, anything that we are used to in the city. It kind of reminded me of an enchanted castle from Sleeping Beauty that was asleep for the last hundred years, it's beauty still there, waiting to be brought back to life. Could it be real, is a question that I'm trying to figure out now, a couple of days later. I'll be back to that place.
We waved the Sleeping Beauty goodbye and drove off down the narrow road to Kotli village. In Kotli, the river Rečina (the locals call it Mirna) formed cascades and hollows whose shapes resemble cauldrons, hence the name (the word "kotao" in Croatian means "cauldron"). I couldn't help but think of magic potions and Harry Potter's The Leaky Cauldron; it seems that every corner of Istrian countryside evokes some fairy tale, legend or fable. Interesting thing about Kotli cascades is that you can walk among them when the waters are not too high, so we descended to the spot that forms the biggest cascade, sat on the warm stone and watched the green river, the trees, the play of shadows and light that mild afternoon sun created and just took in the moment. From that spot, the river looked like a movie set for a hidden paradise, or some nook of the Russian countryside beautifully captured in one of my favorite books, Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches.
There is a lovely inn next to the river (conveniently called "Kotlic"-"Little cauldron") that serves simple local dishes- homemade pasta with asparagus or mushrooms, sausages with sauerkraut, fried potatoes, dumplings with plums and cinnamon etc. I liked this restaurant so much that I included it in the list of my favorite restaurants in Istria. We had a lunch with a view and then decided to leave the Sopot waterfall for some next adventure, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon walking down the river trail and taking photos of the wildflowers scattered all over the path. There were people searching for wild asparagus, but we were on a hunt for elderflowers, we wanted to make some juice. Driving back to the main road, we did find one petit elderflower tree, which had just enough flowers for us to make a couple of liters. I couldn't have asked for a better day.
Yesterday we woke up to a sunny morning, which got us in the mood for a bit of exploring. The forecast said that the rain, clouds and cold wind would start at about 3 pm (and so they did!), and we knew we had half a day at our disposal, preferably somewhere close. An hour later, a bottle of water, two cheesy puff pastry rolls and a bowl of strawberries in a tote bag, Johnny Cash and June Carter singing from the radio, we were driving in the direction of the abandoned medieval town of Dvigrad.
Till yesterday, we were always eyeing the ruins from the viaduct over Lim Valley, talking about how we have to visit one day, and how dreamy it looked from over there. I was expecting unapproachable tower, a couple of crumbling walls, and a lot of wildflowers waiting for me to photograph them. At first glance, it seemed that Dvigrad is going to be exactly that, until we started to walk among the ruins, following the marked route, and then the abandoned town started opening in front of us. All wrapped up in lush greenery, there were the sleepy cobbled streets, houses that were deserted a long time ago, steep towers and walls, a Romanesque church overlooking a vast open space of what was once main town square. My mind started evoking (or better yet, imagining) scenes of what was once life in this place: a hubbub of people, horses and carriages on a market day, a creak of the massive wooden gate closing before the battle, ringing of church bells before the mass or as a warning of raging fire... I couldn't stop wondering: Was there music inside those city walls? What drinks did they have in the local pub? What did they cook and would we like some of those recipes today? How did their language sound? What did they look like?
Historical records say that already in the middle of the 17th century there were only three families left there, the town was completely abandoned in the 18th century. Left to decay for three centuries, it being still there (although in ruins) is such a richness, both historical and aesthetic. The silence, the views of the vast green valley, the opportunity to walk those streets certainly got my mind wandering. And it turned out that the cloudy weather just intensified the experience- it made grey stone walls a bit greyer, lush greenery a bit greener and occasional pops of flowery color a bit brighter.
We had some time left before the rain, Lim Bay wasn't far away so we decided to revisit as the last time we visited was quite some time ago. Not much has changed- the color of the water was still dark green, there were fresh oysters available to buy straight from the mussel farm, a couple of restaurants from the socialist era were still having a decent number of guests. We walked the seafront, wondered at all the mussel shells at the shore and decided that we'll be back next time with a small rowboat and a bucket of ice for transporting the mussels to our kitchen table. Already feeling excited about summer day trips and summer feasts!
** Are there any dreamy locations next to a place where you live in? I'm curious to know!
Why is it that we always find other places more interesting than the ones we live in? I've been living in Zagreb for 25 years, I do love this city, I do find it beautiful, and yet I've never written about it here, in this space that I created. I wanted to though, it just never was the perfect moment. And so it happened that I'm writing about Zagreb for another online space, thinking why wouldn't I want to share all my favorite places and hidden corners here with my readers?
I've managed to catch one sunny day last month (and it was a very, very gloomy month), and I ended up with a nice collection of sunny photos that, (even though January is a proper winter month in Croatia), are letting in the possibilty that spring is just around the corner. And for me, that is one of the very best moments of the year.
Most of the travelers to Zagreb probably read everything there is to know about museums, monuments, restaurants and hostels. I am not going to provide here a full itinerary of things to see and do, I just wanted to share my special places, the ones I think a slow traveler might appreciate.
Let's start with the Dolac Market, my main go-to place in the city center. Most of the time I'm heading to the center just because I wan't to buy my groceries there, everything else seems like an unworthy replacement. Ever since its opening in the thirties, it is regularly frequented by the locals, and understandably so. You can find everything there- fruits and vegetables galore, spices, free range eggs, cheese and pasta, Adriatic fish and Dalmatian olive oil, flowers and candles, and even a nice wicker basket- should you find it necessary. Many people like to drink their morning coffee there, grab a burek or cevapcici for lunch, and some of those venues even take care of the night owls, providing greasy dishes with a glass of water in the wee hours.
On a beautiful day, you might want to take a stroll in the green Zrinjevac park, just a couple of minutes walk from the main square. I love it in the winter, when it shines in all those festive lights, I love it in the spring because of the flowers and the bright greenery, and I especially love it in the summer when the giant crowns of the platanus trees offer a much needed shade and refreshment.
First time visitors to Zagreb might want to bring something home, a gift perhaps, and when they're done shopping traditional Croatian souvenirs (I recommend a box of Bajadera pralines!), there are some interesting shops I like to frequent. Harissa spice store opened a couple of years ago, and made life a bit easier to all the Zagreb foodies. It wasn't as simple to find exotic spices and teas before, and it wasn't as simple to buy a nice present that everyone would like, as it is now. The shop smells heavenly and it is really hard not to buy anything there, even if you just came to 'look around'.
The shop I discovered lately, called Sto Citas? (What are you reading?) is a quirky little place that sells second-hand books and my new favorite brand of natural cosmetic. You can find something to read either in Croatian or English (usually it is not that easy to find used books in English in Zagreb), or buy the nicest smelling soap or cream in all of Zagreb. A company from Dalmatia called Sapunoteka produces them out of local olive oil and pure essential oils, the products are not tested on animals, and the preservatives that they use are allowed in the organic cosmetic industry. Sounds good, right?
If you want to treat yourself with something both esentially Croatian and chic, then head to one of the Borovo shoe stores. Their funky sneakers called Startas made a name for themselves even outside Croatia in the last few years, and quite deservably so. Startas sneakers were first produced in the seventies, and I remember my dad wearing them as a sport shoe in the eighties. As I recall it, they were mostly plain white or blue back then. A couple of years ago, young designers took over the fabric prints- nowadays you can choose between original monochrome or the colorful printed Startas. They are hand made out of natural rubber and cotton, very comfy to wear, and they're produced by one of the rare industries that survived the ninenties in Croatia. I love to support them.
My favorite (not so secret anymore) retreat in the center is the Dezman passage. Couple of years ago it was just another almost forgotten space in the center, and now it became the hippest place around. I don't remember who opened first, but it went something like this: one of the most creative florists and artists from Zagreb opened his beautiful gallery/flower shop there (his flower installations are exhibited in giant shopwindows for the passers-by to enjoy). Then (or before) a nice bar and niche perfume shop opened in front of it; antique bookstore and a very old school photo studio were already there. The street started to awaken, a couple of trendy (but cozy!) bars and designer stores appeared, the old Kino Tuskanac started to have regular program, and a burger place opened just in front of the cinema.
I love to drink my cup of tea (or sparkling wine if its summer) in Velvet Cafe. It is co-owned and designed by the same florist from the beggining of our story, so you can imagine that it is one of the most beautiful bars in Zagreb. Chic drawings on the walls, seasonal flowers and plants, star shaped lights, little biscuits that come with tea and a nice sellection of magazines create a beautiful atmosphere. On top of that, the bar is a free reading zone (you can log in to their network and read an online book, how cool is that?), and the cakes that they serve are delicious.
If you are a movie fan, like I am, you might want to spend an evening in Kino Europa. This beautiful cinema hall was built in the thirties and is today a protected monument. It plays mostly non-Hollywood movies, and is a perfect place to watch not so easily accesible European movies. It hosts main program of Zagreb Film Festival (that keeps gaining more and more popularity each year), but one of the coolest programs that take place there is the collaboration with Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, where musicians play live music to silent films. The cinema bar is a cozy place with antique colorful chairs and the best popcorn you can find in Zagreb. Oh, and all the movies are played in original language, as we Croatians, quite coveniently, don't syncronize anything.
If you decide to visit Zagreb, try doing it on a slow pace. It is small enough that it doesn't require frantic running between museums and sights, but instead enables you to experience it like a local. Have a long lunch or coffee break, sit in the park, watch a movie, go to a concert. Those kind of things take you closer to a city, and those are the things you'll remember most.
Have you ever been to Zagreb? I'm curious to find out what you liked the most!