The Beauty of Porec’s Euphrasian Basilica

It’s not everyday that you are able to visit a church that opened in 553 AD and then, on top of that, are astounded by the artistic talent you see inside.  That’s just what happened last weekend when we visited the Euphrasian Basilica (also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary) in Poreč, a city on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia that has been around for over 2,000 years. The basilica has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.

Our day began on a monumental note to begin with as we had traveled from our home in Pula to Dvigrad, the site of the ruins of a medieval castle, which were incredible in themselves, and that I will go into in a later post.   We had also stopped in Kafanar and visited another chapel from the 15th century.  How much better could our day get? Much, much, apparently.

Tucked away modestly on a street in the city of Poreč, the basilica has origins that go back to the late mid-4th century (That’s about 365 A.D.).  Inside the basilica complex there are portions of the mosaic floors from that period that will astound visitors if they really consider the age and the complexity of the mosaic artwork.  As someone who has dabbled in mosaic making, I was blown away.

First to create even the most rudimentary mosaic, you need materials. Stones, glass, grout, tools like tile cutters, pencils to sketch, rulers or some sort of plane to keep your pieces measured and in line. Today it is a quick trip to an art or hobby store for some supplies, then online for others as the materials can be difficult to come by.  For those artists over fifteen hundred years ago, they would laugh at the relative ease we have acquiring materials. They’d be in awe of how they pop up on your doorstop a few days after you pick them out on a “magic machine.” Materials then would have had to have been carried by ship or by horse or mule through the elements.  Or dug up from some remote quarry and transported to the city.

Then after the materials are acquired the artist can begin their work.  Some of the people that made these mosaics had to travel great distances, overcome weather, hardships, and illnesses. The Byzantine masters had to cross continents or countries to begin their work. I’m tired just thinking of the days and circumstances that must have had to have endured just to even begin their projects.

While the earlier mosaics are astounding in themselves, the ones from the 6th century are jaw-dropping.  When entered the church I felt a mixture of disbelief and awe. There is an arch of Christ with the inscription in Latin saying, “I am the true light” with all of the apostles around him. The one of Mary with Child sitting on a beautiful throne surrounded by angels is breathtaking. The gold tiles sparkled in the evening light and gave the basilica a glowing atmosphere.  If you have ever been to San Marco in Venice, you can appreciate the beauty of what I’m describing, but consider this work was done by Byzantine artists four hundred years earlier.  And in a small town in Croatia.

When I walked in, I heard a strange sound that seemed otherworldly. Then I realized it was a woman whispering her prayers as she sat on a pew in the church as she looked at the altar surrounded by the sixth century mosaics.  I was moved in a deeply spiritual way that I can’t describe.  That people’s faith in God so long ago had inspired them to create such beauty brought tears to my eyes.  That someone today had such a intense spiritual connection to the church was inspiring as well to me as a non-practicing Catholic.

Croatia never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Knowing it was once a Roman colony, it shouldn’t really surprise me as much, but it does because the history here is so mind- boggling.  And the prehistory as well.

I am constantly fascinated here by the places we stumble upon.

And glad I am lucky enough to call it my home for a brief time in my life.

On Pašte and Patience

fullsizeoutput_55b8What a difference a week makes! School started this week in Pula, the tourist crowd is dwindling down to a enjoyable amount, and there is a hint of autumn in the air with the temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 70s.  The rocky beaches that were swarming with people from all over Europe are now dotted with a few here and there, and we are not getting mowed down on our street by speedy German, Italian, Slovenian and Austrian drivers in a race to find the closest beachside parking spots.

With harvest season on the horizon, it’s fast becoming the popular food festival time here in Istria.  Istria is the peninsula we live on by the northwest side of Croatia just next to Italy and Slovenia.  Olive oil, truffles, wine, grapes, sir (cheese), prosciutto, and of course, the infamous Istrian truffles, are all celebrated in the fall months in Croatia. However, one food festival held mid-summer was all about another well-loved food here in Istria, “pašte” (pronounced “pash-tah”), or as we know it,  pasta.

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Fuži is the popular pasta handmade in Istria by the locals.  The spindle shaped delicacy can be found in restaurants and konobas (small homestyle taverns which cook food over an open fire) all over the peninsula.

Although in the U.S. pasta is primarily known as an Italian food, many people don’t realize that the Istrian peninsula was once a part of Italy.  Rome built the city of Pula, Venice ruled the peninsula in the 1500s, and most of the area went back to Italy after World War I for a period of time.  Because of this, many people in the area speak Italian or a mixture of Croatian and Italian. This language melting pot can be really confusing if you are trying out the few words you know in Croatian, and they look at you like you are crazy.  I speak from experience.  Anyway, this mixture of cultures also makes their Istarski fuži pasta quite delicious as a result.

We attended the Istarski Festival Pašte in July held in the courtyard of the beautiful village of Zminj with its small castle walls that were built in medieval times. The village is typical of many in Istria with its old town center sitting on top of a hill filled with beautiful stone buildings amidst cobblestone streets and topped with a bell tower from the Church of St. Michael. One of the amazing things about Croatia is that many of the festivities here are held among ancient buildings and structures that give ordinary events a priceless ambience. (For example, they hold pop concerts in the ancient Roman arena in Pula.)

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The view from the castle walls in Žminj where the Istarski Festival Pašte was held. Families from all over Istria attended the event. 

 

Traditions, traditions

My daughter Sarah and her husband Jonathan visited us mid-summer, and we had quite a good time on the old Kaštel (castle) grounds at the festival sipping Istrian wine, sampling craft beer, and eating the pasta. That is, once we got it.  It was quite an ordeal to achieve this and had to do with another little known fact about Croatians. They don’t have a lot of respect for the line, or queue as its known in the UK. This means they cut ahead sometimes.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

We saw this tradition in full effect at the festival as the line for the pasta buffet turned into just a mass of people just surrounding each other waiting and talking as more Croatians joined in to make the mass even larger.

Line Jumping Classifications

On a side note, I’ve noticed there are several type of line jumpers here:

First is the “here is my friend I haven’t seen in ages, let me talk to her and bring my whole family to join in the line in front of these people who have been waiting forever” line cutters.   Then there is the one person in line who is holding a spot for 10 other people who show up at various times in front of you, much to your surprise. Of course there is always “the meander in front of you pretending not to know how far the line goes back” cutter. The list goes on.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

When we waited at the police office for our visa applications, we found another type of line jumper. And there they even printed out numbers to avoid people skipping the queue. This type was the “I just have one small question for the clerk” line cutter. Needless to say, everyone in line had just one small question for the clerk. That’s why we had the numbers. But these people didn’t feel like waiting when they saw how long the line was and were so sincere in their pleas that the clerk often waited on them to the detriment of everyone else in line. Carolyn, James, Mike and I got pretty good at standing shoulder to shoulder and nose to back to block your garden variety line cutters when the ticket machine was broken at the station, which happened several times. Ah, those were trying days. Not really though.  It’s nothing we haven’t experienced waiting for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, so I guess line jumpers are a universal problem. But I digress.

We made it!

We finally made it closer to the pasta buffet when a lady from the festival decided that the mob should be separated in half, and one half was brought to the other end of the buffet line. Then it was just mayhem and people were cutting like crazy. Mike and I have discussed many times that Croatia could really use some outside help in setting up more efficient processes. They were definitely needed here.

Finally we fought our way up to the unfortunate folks (I think it was three) that had the monumental task of serving all the different pastas to a hundred or so people and got our dishes. Of course the pasta was incredibly delicious (I’ve yet to have a bad pasta dish in Croatia), and it was served on really nice plates for festival fare, but next time we won’t come hungry. Or we’ll come after we try some Istarski pašte at a konoba first. Konobas are family run restaurants that cook a lot of their food over open fires in stone ovens. Rustic and quaint, they are an interesting and cozy experience all in themselves.

Anyway, Jonathan was really hungry and went back for second go in the line (he’s a brave soul) and accidentally ordered a ravioli that turned out to be a dessert. He thought it was shrimp ravioli because, of course, the signs were in Croatian.

He was very disappointed and almost considered a third attempt in the line, but alas, went and got a Croatian craft beer instead. Yes, they had that, too, at the festival. They had a whole section set up for a variety of craft beers with catchy names which the beer lovers in our group enjoyed immensely. And most importantly for my husband in that section was that they were playing an incredible selection of vintage rock music from English and American musicians, as well some really unique renditions, that made us feel right at home.

Back to the Pašte…

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What was really fun there was watching the ladies hand roll the different types of pašte. It was a beautiful process and was interesting to watch them roll out the dough and cut it, then shape it into what looked like tiny canollis to me. For one type, they just pulled off little pieces of dough from their dough ball and rolled them by hand. They had simple ingredients and they worked very fast. The festival offered their creations served with truffles, mushrooms,  meat and gravy, or vegetables and olive oil and cheese. Delicious!

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I know I’ve been complaining about the line cutters, but Croatians are extremely kind people, especially to foreigners in their country, and I don’t want to give the impression that they are not in any way. They really have been nothing but kind to us and part of the reason we like it here so much is the friendly nature of the people here. Croatians are also very loving, devoted parents, and their kids seem happy and carefree everywhere we go. At the festival they had tables set up for the children to make their own pasta with machines, and they were having a blast.

Croatian children got a chance to try their hand at making their own pasta at the Žminj Istarski Feste Pašte. They took their jobs very seriously.

So the moral of the story is to not go to the pašte fest hungry and have a little patience. Go with an open mind and an open heart.  Good advice for any visit to a festival!

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Here is a picture of my lovely daughter Sarah in front of some Roman ruins that were found during the construction of a building in Pula. The bench has a quote from US author Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Volim Te, Maslinovo ulje (I love you, Olive Oil)

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An olive grove sits in a valley on the way to the hilltop city of Motovun in the distance. (photo by Michael Gelpi)

Falling in Love with Istrian Olive Oil

I have a confession to make.  I have a new love.  Every morning since I discovered the taste of Istrian olive oil, I grab a small piece of fresh bread and douse it with this liquid gold.  And when I say “douse,” I mean douse it like I’m putting out a fire.  Sometimes if I don’t have any bread, I will put some in a spoon just to get a little of that peppery olive taste in my mouth.

I haven’t started drinking it…..yet.   Some people do as it is supposed to have health benefits if you drink a small cup of it first thing in the morning.   The flavor of the oil is very addictive, sort of like the spicy juice from the boiled crawfish in New Orleans where I was born.   And it makes your lips extra soft, too.

Apparently I am not alone in my love of olive oil, known as “maslinovo ulje” in Croatian. The golden liquid has been produced for over two thousand years on the Istrian peninsula, and the rise of the both the Greek and Roman civilizations has been attributed to this precious commodity. Why has it taken me 50 years to become so enamored?  Perhaps it is the superb quality of the oil here, and the prevalence of the trees around the area which serve as a constant reminder of the oil’s benefits.

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I took this picture of some olives on a recent day trip to Grodžjan, a small hilltop town in Croatia known for its art and music communities. Olives are usually harvested throughout the month of October in Istria.

Olive Groves R Us

When you ride through the Croatian countryside, one of the first things you notice is the ubiquitous olive groves that line every highway, roadway and path. The silvery sage leaves of the evergreen tree appear in gardens, parks and common areas all over the rocky Istrian Penisula and add a shimmery glow to the scenery of this wonderful part of the country.  Istria’s unique climate gives the oil a special, distinctive flavor and the location is one of the northernmost areas of olive cultivation. Most of the growers in Istria handpick their olives on a specific date that they choose for optimal ripeness and cold press them the very same day.

Olive oil production is so prevalent here that at a recent local wine festival we visited, someone was selling handmade wooden signs that said “Maslinovo Ulje,” (Olive Oil) specifically for olive oil producers. I mean, who else would buy a sign that says olive oil? How many producers could there be?

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Handmade wooden signs boasting olive oil (maslinovo ulje) were sold at a recent wine festival in Istria.

Well, according to the Colours of Istria website,  the Flos Olei Guide, which is the international guide to the world’s best extra virgin olive oils, has ranked Istria the best olive producing destination in the world several times over.  In fact, 77 of the highest-rated olive oil producers in the guide were located in Croatia, and of that 77, a whopping 75 of them were produced in the Istrian region.

And that’s just the ones that were internationally recognized, there are olive trees and groves in just about everyone’s backyards here. You can’t swing a mačka (cat)  here without hitting an olive tree. And there are plenty of mačke (cats) here, too.

The History of Olive Oil

The olive tree, known as the tree of eternity, is thought responsible for the rise of both the Greek and Roman Empires, who both acquired wealth through the trade of olive oil. What’s especially interesting about where we live in Pula is that you can see many of the artifacts from Roman times that were used in early olive oil production.

For example, in the area below the Roman Amphitheater in Pula, there are several ancient milling stones from Istria that were once used for pressing the olives. The area also houses decantation basins and special vessels called amphorae, which were used to store the oil. The Romans didn’t just use the oil for food, they also used it for lamp fuel, medicinal purposes and to anoint their royalty.

And how do I know so much about this oil? Well,  my friends Carolyn and James and I made a special trip to the Museum Olei Histriae (Museum of Olive Oil) in June to learn about this Istrian gold and how it is produced. The best part of the visit to the museum was that we got to taste several types of Istrian olive oil and learn about the components that make the oil so nutritious.

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James and Carolyn get ready to sample a variety of olive oils at the Museum of Olive Oil in Pula. A bitter, peppery taste is actually a sign of a fresh quality olive oil.
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Our teacher at the museum explains what to look for in a quality olive oil. The proximity to the sea, the mild winters and the location of the groves on western slopes give Istrian olive oil its distinctive flavor and high nutritional content, she said.

Oh, and we got to try this delicious dessert shown below, too. This scrumptious treat was simply cottage cheese with dried figs and walnuts that was drizzled with high quality Istrian olive oil. It was amazingly simple, but delicious.

My husband Mike wasn’t interest in attending the tasting when we went, but he is slowly coming around.  He now uses olive oil instead of mayonnaise on all of his sandwiches, and while he doesn’t totally share my passion for the oil, he loves my cooking which always tends to have a little olive oil thrown into it somewhere.

 

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Buyers Beware

Unfortunately because olive oil has such amazing reputation for its nutritional qualities and health benefits and is very expensive to process, many times the oils we buy in our grocery stores in the U.S. have been adulterated until the beneficial nature of the oil is removed. Companies will add cheaper oils such as soy and canola oil to cut costs.  I recently read an article that stated the fraudulent olive oil trade in Italy is a multi-billion dollar business.  Carolyn, James and I think we have become fairly good at picking out bad olive oil or what the Romans called lampante or “lamp oil.” But experts caution that even the taste can be deceiving as that can be doctored as well.

So before you start burning all your olive oil in your hurricane lamps, here are some tips for buyers trying to locate quality olive oil: first, look for the words “extra-virgin olive oil”on your label and a very recent date of production on the bottles. It is also recommended that you do some research about the company producing the oil in advance of purchase, and buy darker bottles which protect the oil from the light. I found this oil from the California Olive Ranch Co. that is made in the USA which has good reviews if you are interested in finding a good olive oil in the states californiaoliveranch.com .  Let me know how if you like it.

Carolyn and I will be making sure we are getting some genuine olive oil in October as we have already planned to go pick olives at a local company in exchange for some olive oil.  I’ll let you know how that goes in another post.

 

It’s Raining Figs, Halleluja!

The other day I noticed there were ants crawling all over the sandals in my room.  I went to go smack these annoying little creatures with that very same set of sandals when I saw a sticky, gooey, dark brown blob with tiny seeds smashed all over on the bottom of them.  Think Fig Newtons and remove the little cake coating, and that’s what was on the bottom of my shoes. Have I mentioned it’s fig season here in Croatia?

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Yes, everywhere you go around the city there are reminders and remainders of figs, or smokva as they are called here in Croatia. On the sides of the roads, you see people with baskets picking them. In the market in town, little old ladies are selling them fresh or dried, in preserves or in jellies. Mike and I were sitting at a beachside cafe when a lady came up to us selling cartons of them. Our friends in the tiny town of Kringa were given a huge case of them from a local restaurant owner who was up to his eyeballs in figs.

There are so many trees with figs in my neighborhood that they are literally dropping all over the sidewalks where they sit until they are smashed underfoot by unsuspecting tourists. (Oh, by the way, it is also tourist season.)

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While August is peak fig season in Croatia, it is also peak tourist season (photo by Michael Gelpi).

Every few days our landlord drops off a little bowl of these beautiful little green fruits with the pinkish white interiors. They are different from the ones I am used to from New Orleans, but just as delicious. To date, I have cooked fig jam, had them in salads, eaten them raw and am working on concocting a fig cobbler. Sweet!

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

I have to admit that I had felt a little guilty in the beginning of June when I saw two figs on a branch overhanging a fence and I took them.  Carolyn and I had been on our way back from a grocery trip to Plodine when we saw the two plump figs just waiting to be picked, and I just popped those babies right into my rolling shopping bag while Carolyn looked around to make sure no one was watching us. Seeing all the fig trees as we walked along the roadway back home had made me dream of the day when figs would be available to buy at the market in town.

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

Looking back, it seems a little ridiculous to worry about as there are so many fig trees Nabisco would be able to stock Fig Newtons in stores for a year with all the figs I’ve seen smashed on the sidewalks and roadways. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But really, be careful what you wish for.

Trading Beautiful for Beautiful

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It’s May 12th and we are on our way to Bologna, Italy by car from Croatia. It’s a symphony of red poppies as they are blooming everywhere along the roadside in our new hometown of Pula.  I’ve never seen red poppies blooming outside of photographs, and the landscape doesn’t seem quite real dotted with these red circular flowers growing in the wild.

The barren twisted brown grapevines that we passed just a few weeks ago are now bursting with leaves and reaching for the skies.

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They naturally know the right direction, and as we head off to Italy, I wonder, do we? Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

And it truly is a beautiful sight as we pass through the rugged Croatian countryside on the way to Italy.  You pass through olive orchards full of trees with gnarled branches of sage and silver leaves. The fertile ground that they are planted in is full of white stones covered with the ubiquitous rusty red soil of Istria.

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The dirt here seems to be filled with nature’s own Miracle-Gro as the plants here don’t just seem to bloom, they seem to burst forth with colorful flowers and bright green leaves at a rate which I have never seen.

 

Little circular stone houses can be seen from the highway sitting to the side of vineyard and olive groves.fullsizeoutput_48c4 The unique huts, known as “kažuni,” were traditionally used as shelters for farmers and shepherds as they worked the land. The huts gave them respite from the weather as they worked the land.  Their geometric shapes give a semi-primitive and uniform aspect to land, which also has stone walls blocking off farms and tracts of land. Farmers had to clear the rocky land from stones and in doing so built fences and kažuni from the cleared stones.

Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

As you drive down the highway throughout the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you can see medieval villages on hills in the distance with their pointed bell towers and red terra-cotta roofed homes circling the hilly countryside. They all seem to bear a striking resemblance to one another and again, the uniformity gives the landscape a calm, peaceful feel. Historically the villages were built on hills with protective stone walls to keep out invaders, but now they just add to the beauty of this rugged, hilly terrain.

We travel for about an hour or so until we come up to the border crossing for Slovenia, as you have to pass through a small portion of Slovenia to get to Italy from Croatia. Cars are lined up for at least a mile already, and one car has overheated during its wait. Its distraught occupants are all crowded around the hood like surgeons around an operating table.  Their journey has been temporarily halted, like many of ours in life. It’s a minor aggravation that will hopefully push them forward and make them appreciate their journey more once it has resumed.

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Onward we travel, through the Italian countryside which provides a contrast to the Croatian one. The trees turn tall and pointy, or short and spherical, the soil changes to a light brown color, and the grassy fields become more manicured. Still you can watch miles and miles of  incredibly beautiful vineyards and olive orchards, although they are on much larger plots of land. In fact, I start to spy more and more tractors, which aren’t a common sight on the Croatian landscape, and more luxurious villas as we move closer to Venice.  It’s trading one type of scenery for another, both of which are lovely in their own way.

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Photo by Roland Dumke on Pexels.com

 

As we journey onward, I reflect back on the beauty of Southern Louisiana with its cypress-kneed swamps, bright fuchsia azaleas and mossy oak trees, and of my friends and family there who are gathering eating spicy crawfish and drinking cold beer that I have traded temporarily for fresh olive oil, whole grilled sea bass, wild asparagus with Istrian wine. Both are delicious and exotic and yet are so different.

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Why do we search for places that are beautiful and different from our own? What is this wanderlust that is so strong in some people’s natures and not others? As I travel onward to Bologna, I only know one thing: The journey is breathtaking, but what I leave behind is equally so.

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And yet… this wanderlust I feel is stronger and it carries me forward like the tide….. I will continue to move with it until I can no longer.

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A Walk on the Wild (Asparagus) Side

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A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom.  The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.

“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried.  His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well.  They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.

Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.

This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around.  The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.

I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored.  The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own.  Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).

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The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.

Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.

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Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life  by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult.  I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.

Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?

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“Moj Grad Je Vinograd” (My Town is a Vineyard): Festival of Wine 2018 in Gračišće

fullsizeoutput_456aOn the day after Easter Sunday our landlord Edvard told us there was a festival we should consider attending. The week before we had been away from Croatia traveling in Denmark, then had returned home and gone sightseeing around Croatia with our guests from Hungary, so I guess we were more than a little tired. Actually, we were quite exhausted. (But if you are like my daughter, Sarah, you are not really feeling too sorry for me right now.)IMG_0753

 

 

Anyway, Edvard mentioned two things about this festival that peaked our interest: one was that it was centered around Istrian wine and another was the setting of the festival was a small medieval village called Gračišće, which is surrounded by vineyards and boasts panoramic views of the Učka mountain range and the Julian Alps of Slovenia.

 

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“The hills are alive with the sound of” accordions. Accordions? Yep, accordions. This is the incredible view from the medieval town of Gračišće which hosts a large Istrian wine festival each year with plenty of local food and traditional music.

The price to enter the 25th annual Festival of Wine 2018 was a mere 10 euro ($12 USD) and with that fee, you received: a wine glass with a little bag to carry the glass around your neck, a wine guide with each maker and their offerings, and a plethora of wines around the village to sample. Since I used to work the wine tastings at the Wine Market in Slidell, Louisiana, with my lovely friends Michelle and Doug Reker, I thought it might be interesting to taste some of the local wines we had been encountering in the stores in Croatia.

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Mike, James and Carolyn at the Festival of Wine 2018 in the medieval town of Gračišće, Croatia. 

The entrance ticket to the festival allows you to sample all of the 251 wines from 82 winemakers in the Istrian region. Quite the bargain! (Or quite the hangover if you are ambitious enough to try them all!) Festival goers walk in and out the medieval buildings to sample the delicious Istrian wine offerings. Delicious local food was offered for sale as well.

 

Considering that over 10,000 visitors were expected to attend the festival, we thought it would be a great chance to immerse ourself in the local culture.

The visitors were said to be primarily from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Italy. We can attest to the fact that there were few if any other Americans there. Carload after carload of people pulled up to the little mountain town which had men in fluorescent colored vests directing traffic onto large fields on the outskirts of the city which served as parking areas for the festival guests.

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When you live in Grasčiče, signs like the center one that say, “My town is a vineyard” are appropriate

Many of them were local Croatians from nearby cities and villages, but not all as we found out.

At one point Carolyn accidentally bumped into a petite leather clad Italian biker who was very chic-looking with her jet black hair and carrying her shiny black helmet. The alleys through the town were quite small and crowded, and by this time, we had sampled quite a few wines. Still, the woman gave her an unnecessary scowl and said rather sharply, “Tranquillo!!” (Calm down!). Carolyn apologized profusely (her and I were both already “tranquillo”), but she was perplexed as to what exactly she had done to receive the wrath of the biker lady. Luckily, none of us spoke Italian, so we’ll never know.  So yes, we met at least one Italian.

 

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Carolyn and I are “molto tranquillo” at the Festival of Wine. James and Mike wish they were this “tranquillo.”

Other than that, the crowd seemed like it was mostly Croatians, and besides the encounter with the biker, everyone we met was extremely friendly.  A little pushy sometimes to get to the wine counters (aren’t we all?), but friendly none the less. Below is a picture of the inside of the amazing little medieval cottages the crowds flowed in and out of to get their wine samples.

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And here is a photo of a very friendly girl who posed for us while pouring Carolyn a wine sample.  She said that not too many people from the USA normally attended the festival.

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This sweet young woman posed for us at one of the wine counters in one of the small medieval buildings that served as booths for the wine tasting.

The most amazing thing about the festival had to be that thousands of people were walking around a village that had been there for centuries with many of the buildings almost like they were 500 years ago.  In the photo below, festival goers stroll around St. Mary’s Church which was built in 1425! I found a fascinating blog called “Istria Outside My Window,” which tells the whole history of the town and its buildings for those who are interested in reading more about this beautiful little village. There is even a post from the blog about St. Mary’s Church.

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Guests at the Festival of Wine 2018 wander around the beautiful medieval church of St. Mary in Grasčiče.

One of my favorite things about the festival besides the old medieval buildings and churches were the locals playing music throughout the streets.  One band came strolling through the streets like a second line band in New Orleans and made me feel right at home.

 

Other musicians stood in the alleyways and on doorsteps and belted out Croatian folk music.  For some of the songs, the crowd would join in singing. Even the younger generation was carrying on the tradition as we saw a very young trio of musicians playing the traditional instruments and songs surrounded by younger couples waltzing around the group. However, this accordion player on the right in the bottom photos won the prize. He played straight from his heart.