A Love Letter to Croatia

As a young mother you never really appreciate how much you will love your children when they are newly born and how that love will exponentially grow throughout their lives.  I remember as soon as I delivered my youngest daughter Marina, I heard her sweet cry and she sounded like a little lamb. I fell in love with her immediately based on those little bleats, and I hadn’t even seen her yet.

When my middle daughter Madelyn was two days old, Mike and I were singing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to her in the hospital, and she opened her eyes very brightly and began looking around like newborns do in that semi-blind manner, and I was completely in love with her. Just dumbstruck.

It was no different with my oldest. When my firstborn Sarah was five months old, I heard a halting “ma-ma” from the back of the car, and I looked at her confused because I thought I was hearing things. Did she really say “mama”? She said it again and for the hundredth or so time in her short little life, I was in love all over again. This love has continued to blossom throughout the decades of all of their lives, and now that they are in their twenties, those feelings have multiplied a thousand times over.

So I haven’t exactly birthed a country, but my feelings on Croatia are undergoing a similar metamorphosis.  They are multiplying. Compounding monthly, weekly. Sometimes even daily. fullsizeoutput_4931

On my first visit, our friends James and Carolyn picked us up at the train station in Trieste, Italy, and as they drove us into Croatia for the first time, I was amazed at the green, verdant hills and the endless olive groves and the little wooden stands selling lavender, fig preserves and honey on the roadsides. We continued to Pula with broken castles in the distance and stony grape orchards set amongst the rusty red soil. The weather started to look a little shaky in the distance, but a giant rainbow appeared across the sky. It was a cool, crisp, windy day in October, and I was in love.

“That’s a sign we are meant to be here,” said Carol, who has taken this journey with us. And I had to agree.

Since that time I have swum in the sparking, cool Adriatic and walked its white stony beaches in awe. I have visited the little town of Rovinj with its tiny batana boats and limestone pathways, and my feelings have grown even more.

fullsizeoutput_53a5After seeing the Roman Arena in Pula and discovering the ancient Roman history of the area, I fell hard again. We are living where the gladiators fought and the Romans built their first communities. It’s exhilarating.

 

 

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I see it in my husband Mike as well. He takes a bike ride each evening to see the sunset over the sea and comes back brimming with excitement. One evening he stumbled upon an ancient stone quarry about a five-minute bike ride from our apartment. “This is where they got the stone to build the Roman amphitheater in Pula,” he said amazed. Who wouldn’t be? It was almost in our backyard.

A few months later we traveled with my good friend Liz to Plitvice Jezera, a world renown national park that has a multitude of clear, blue waterfalls and lakes so transparent that the fish look like they are suspended in midair. A few days later we  went with her to Split and witnessed an outdoor mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi at Diocletian’s Palace, and we were dumbfounded at such a spiritual and majestic celebration set inside the ancient Roman walls of the old town.IMG_3119

Perhaps the most important part of this journey has been the people. The people like our landlord, who treats us like family dropping off figs, local honey and homemade cookies. The locals, who humbly marvel that we love the country so much, and patiently listen to our broken attempts at Croatian.  The waiters who all speak English, German, Italian (and possibly Russian or other languages) and calmly try to teach us a few words of Croatian here and there. Some are just thrilled that we even attempt to speak Croatian and give us a “Bravo” when we say something correctly. One young man fist-bumped me when I said, “Samo malo,” meaning “Only little!” when he asked if I wanted some more water. How could you not love people who are so humble and genuine?

There is almost no crime here and when you meet the local people, you realize why.

For example, during the World Cup Finals, we went to the restaurants for most of the games since Croatia had qualified for the playoffs and the atmosphere was electric. My daughter Sarah and Jonathan were visiting the week of the semifinals, and we decided to go to a small restaurant where we knew the wait staff for the Croatia vs. Denmark game.  The whole place was full, but we were able to get a table. Everyone had on the red and white checkerboard jerseys with the names and numbers of all the famous Croatian soccer players. Red streamers, funny hats, a few blow horns, the whole nine yards. Think Saints’ game enthusiasm, my New Orleans’ peeps, and you get the idea.

Everyone in the restaurant was rooting for Croatia. Everyone, that is, except a small table of four in the far corner, where a family of Danish people sat with their two children: one a ten-year old boy who sported a Danish soccer shirt. The game was close all the way through, so it was very tense, but every time Denmark scored that one table got very, very loud, and in my opinion, a little obnoxious. Well, not just in my opinion. They cheered just a little too long and a little too loud and aggressively. Aggressive as in beat on the table for several minutes aggressive. You could see people getting a little uneasy with their extreme enthusiasm, but no one said anything.  Sarah, Jonathan, Mike and I exchanged glances, and we wondered how this was going to end.

Well, if you happened to have watched the World’s Cup finals, you know that in that particular game Croatia won in the final seconds of the game. This was history in the making. The restaurant erupted in cheers, everybody was jumping up and down and hugging and high-fiving each other, when I saw the waiter run to the bar and rush back with some rakia, a Croatian brandy that is passed out during celebrations and happy occasions. I thought he was bringing it to the large table full of Croatians celebrating, but he walked right up to the Danish family.

He then handed the adults each a glass, bowed deferentially to them and held out his hand for a handshake. A Croatian man with his young son then walked over up to the Danish family and shook hands as well, and they took a photo together. That the people in that restaurant had the empathy in their moment of victory to acknowledge their rivals so respectfully sent shivers up my spine. You could see the young Danish boy was heartbroken as it meant Denmark would not go on to the final games, but I think he got a much more important lesson that day than any happiness a Danish victory would have given him.

Those are just a few of the stories. We’ve had older people talk to us at bus stops explaining the history of the region and the war that was only 20 or so years ago. They talk to us like we are old friends and tell us their stories. It’s hard not to love that.

The people are kind, the scenery is breathtaking, and I’ve already written of our love for the olive oil, but we also love the brancine (sea bass), the sardinelas (grilled sardines) and the blitva (spinach, garlic and olive oil with potatoes) and a host of other delicacies that we have come across. And I have to confess that I’ve been taking pictures of fruit since we got here. Yes, I can’t help myself. It grows everywhere and it is something that I love about this place. It’s like California in that everyone has some sort of fruit tree growing in their yards. They have kiwi growing over the trellises that cover their carports, grapes on their fences, pomegranates on the trees and don’t forget the apple and olive trees in the yards or in empty lots. And the fig trees. Geez, it’s like fruit heaven.

I had another crush of happiness a few weekends ago driving through the countryside near the tiny hilltop town of Buzet watching people harvest the grapes we’ve been watching ripen on the vines everywhere we go. We almost got hit by a speed demon driver (Did you know that Mario Andretti was born near Buzet in the town of Motovun in Croatia? Believe me, his relatives are still speeding around the Croatian countryside by the driving I’ve witnessed😳.) The driver was trying to get around a tractor with a trailer behind it spilling over with grapes.

The grapes were shining in the sunlight, more than I’d ever seen in one place at one time, and I found some more of them at the festival we visited a few hours later in the hilltop town of Buzet. The woman who was selling them had three varieties and handed me a generous little bunch of each to try. I filled up a bag of the big purple globes of the Concord variety to take home and thought about the precious gift of being able to watch the vines grow all throughout the countryside from rough, brown, twisting trunks to shooting green vines, from tiny little pebble-like spheres to the perfection of harvest, and how it made me appreciate their value all the more.IMG_3709

As I watch Croatia move forward into the twenty-first century, I see their growing pains and know, like my children, the country is not perfect. About 25 per cent of the country’s youth is moving away each year because there are few opportunities beyond those in the tourism industry. Many complain of the government’s corruption and its lack of investment in the farming communities allowing foreign importers to run small farmers out of business. These are just a few of their concerns, but watching the hard work of those that remain here, their intelligence and willingness to learn, their compassion and fair-mindedness, I have no doubt the country’s future is a bright one. And though it is not perfect, it is perfectly lovable.

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.

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.