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.”

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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The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

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Many times when we are traveling we have expectations of what we want to see and do and how to pack the most into the little time we do have. We sometimes deviate, but it’s hard to do if you’ve set an itinerary in stone. Planning is good, but a little spontaneity can give us our most lasting memories. And sometimes these memories are of our shared humanity on the bus of life. 

Take our recent trip to France. It was our last day in France and we were back where we had started in Nice after 11 days of driving through the beautiful cities of Provence. We were ready to stay put and just meander through the streets of Nice, but the clerk at our hotel had recommended a scenic public bus ride to Monaco as one of the most beautiful bus rides you will ever take.

Since Monaco had been a place that I had wanted to visit, but had I felt like it was just too much after all the running around we had been doing throughout the South of France, it was put back on the list. So we laced up our tennis shoes and decided to venture out on the Bus 100 from Nice to Monaco/Menton.

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Round and Round

The night before we went on the bus, I put my planning cap back on and researched a little about this ride. Bus 100 starts at the port in Nice and takes you all the way to the beautiful city of Monaco and the ritzy casino of Monte Carlo and ends in the city of Menton, stopping at many quaint little towns and villages along the way.

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One website I found recommended that you sit on the right side of the bus as you’ll get the best views of the dramatic scenery, and to let a bus pass you by if you see it doesn’t have any seats to offer as the next one will be coming in just 15 minutes and you will then be first in line for your choice of a prime seat. So we had a plan, we’d be prepared to get the most out of this little deviation.

We walked to the bus stop and prepared to get on the bus. There was no line so we tried to board and realized we didn’t have enough change for the ride (a whopping 1.50 Euros per person), but we only had large bills. I walked through the bus as Mike dug for change and realized there was no line because everyone was already on board and there were no seats. We took the advice from the website and hopped off the bus and waited for the next one in 15 minutes. Mike went to go get change, and I waited in the line. We had a plan.

The next bus comes by and we hop on and get our choice of the seats on the scenic “right” side. I am so proud that I did my research and smug that we are going to have a great view.

And view we had. It truly was one of the most breathtaking bus rides I have been on.  Even though the day was overcast, the bus meandered through the mountains and cliffs of the Nice countryside and offered dramatic views of small villages that perched on the sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

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We passed small towns like Le Port, Petite Afrique and Pont Saint-Jean. Ah, this is the life, we thought.

All Through the Town

We arrive in Monaco and walk around through the infamous city of Monte Carlo. IMG_1977We see the workers setting up bleachers for the 2018 Grand Prix that will take place in just a few days and fixing up some of the buildings. We decide the Monte Carlo casino might be nice to see even though we are not big gamblers. The beautiful people are walking around dressed up to the nines and the tourists like us are gawking and checking out their designer attire and expensive cars.

 

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Next we walk up the steep stone pathway to the Prince of Monaco’s castle and look down at the city below and marvel that Princess Grace had lived in such a beautiful place with gorgeous exotic gardens that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_2040Then we decide we have had enough of the rich and famous and decide to catch the 100 Bus back to one of the smaller towns we had seen along the bus ride and have a coffee and relax.  It takes a minute to find the bus stop but we find it, hop it and stop in a city called Le Port and start looking around.

An hour or so later, we head back to the bus stop of Le Port. We sit down to wait for the next bus and two teenage French girls walk up and are waiting with us. One has a black T-shirt on that says New York and the other sports another black T-shirt and has earphones in her ears. They are staring at their iPhones and waiting along with us although they don’t acknowledge us.

About 10 minutes later we see a bus in the distance as it winds down the road toward us.  We stand up and get ready to board. Then one of the teenagers gets a look of horror on her face and says, “Oh, Complet!” and falls dramatically back on the bench like only a teenager can do. Mike and I look at each other with question marks in our eyes and see the bus zoom by us with the word “Complet” at the top of the lighted panel.

Oh, it’s full, now I get it. Yikes. It’s about 4 pm and now I’m starting to realize why it’s “complet.” Ouch, maybe we shouldn’t have stayed so long at Le Port, and I’m visualizing us having to take a taxi back to the city as I know the buses stop running at around 8 pm. Both of our phones are almost dead, too. So much for planning.

At 4:30 another bus goes by. Yep, you guessed it, it’s “Complet.” Another 15 minutes goes by.  Another bus in the distance. It looks like it …is…going….to…..stop and it does. Thank God.

Move on Back

The teenagers go in before us and then we are in, but it is standing room only, and it seems pretty “complet” to me. We are literally jammed into one another. Still, I’m thankful the bus stopped, and we are on our way.

It’s funny the things you notice when you are standing up in a crowded bus as compared to sitting down comfortably in a seat. Like, where do I put my hands so I don’t fall when the bus stops short or takes a sharp turn fast like buses are known to do?

I have a choice between holding on to the little plastic handles that hang down, but I’m fairly short and the things are fairly high up, so they don’t give me the support I need to brace myself. But if I hang on to the seat handles below, I feel like I’m invading the person sitting down’s personal space.

I opt for the latter because the man sitting down smiles kindly at me. He’s an elderly gentleman who is so well-dressed and dapper, yet has a look of sadness in his eyes. He has a brown felt top hat sitting on his lap, sports a brown tweed jacket and a cranberry tie, and he looks like he walked straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel and landed in the 21st century. I feel comforted by his presence, so I hold on to the handle by his seat, separate my legs into a yoga warrior pose, and I’m ready to go.

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The bus true to form speeds around the curves, but the warrior pose and the seat handle work well, as I move back and forth in time to the rhythms of the bus. And I’m still enjoying the incredible scenery as the clouds have lifted and the cliffs look even more  beautiful. I can do this, I think to myself.

Then the bus comes to a stop at a bus stop in another small town. Wait, aren’t we full? Apparently not. Geez, how many people can this bus hold?

Apparently about 10 more people because that’s how many jam onto the already crowded bus. At this point I get pushed further in right next to a tall young man who lucky for him can reach the plastic handles, but unfortunately for me, because of my diminished height, my head is rather close to his rather fragrant armpit. The teenage girls are sandwiched in front of him, and so I lean over to a lovely French lady who just boarded and fortunately smells very good, like French soap and fresh floral perfume.

Before I can get my bearing and find a new handle to hold on to, the 10 people who just got on the bus start jockeying around the ticket machine trying to get their tickets cards validated. They are all locals who apparently must ride this bus when they get off of work each day.  The bus crowd becomes a living organism with the bus cards being passed back and forth between riders to reach the ticket machine. Everyone helps out and soon all the cards are validated and everyone is all smiles at the team effort. Mission accomplished. And we are on our way.

I notice with amazement that the teenage girls are able to stare at their iPhones and balance in the bus without any problem, and I admire their youthful abilities. I wish I had such good balance, I think, until the bus takes another turn sharply and one of the teenagers falls right into me.

“Pardon,” she says and laughs with embarrassment. “It’s okay,” I say.

A few minutes later the bus takes another turn and it is the French lady falling into me and another more profuse, “Pardon” heads my way.  The elderly gentleman smiles at me but looks a little concerned.

All Day Long

Through all of this, there is one passenger (and her owner) that is unruffled and sleeping without a bit of concern about the passengers packed in like sardines around her.  It’s a little white puppy dozing comfortably in a basket who sits on an elderly lady’s lap. She is the picture of bliss. (Either that or she has motion sickness and is trying to sleep it off.) You can see a hint of the puppy on her owner’s lap in the photo above, next to the elderly gentleman.

The bus comes to another bus stop but we zoom by it.  Our bus now has the “Complet” sign on, and I imagine more teenagers rolling their eyes and plopping onto benches at the bus stop, or people silently cursing the tourists like me who invade their bus each day at rush hour.

We finally make it back to Nice and everyone disembarks.

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I feel like I’ve gotten to know the people here in a much more intimate way than on the journey over where I had a prime seat and the best views.  Maybe traveling isn’t all about the views and the buildings and the scenery. Maybe it’s about total strangers acting together in perfect synchronicity to help each other board a bus. Maybe it’s about the shared humanity and the individual journeys that collide and separate in ways that change us for the better or the worse.

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After a long nap on Bus 100 from Nice to Menton, this little pup is bright eyed and ready to walk the streets of Nice. 

Until we are all “complet.”

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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The Hours Invite Us to Dream

I have a favorite quote from Maya Angelou that says: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”  I’d like to offer a slight twist to that quote for travelers:

“When locals give you advice about their hometown, believe them. And take it, of course.”

So many times in the last few months we have talked with our Airbnb host, waiter, or hotel receptionist and have visited places that we probably would have skipped or not even known about had we not listened to their recommendations. Those places were truly the ones that most inspired me on our recent quest through the heart of Provence. But first, remember, ask and you shall receive. You have to ask people for their advice in order to receive it.IMG_1408

One of the first recommendations that we received was from our Airbnb host François in Antibes who strongly recommended hiking the trail along Cap d’Antibes and a visit to the medieval walled town of St. Paul de Vence. Both of these destinations were not even on our radar when we planned the trip, and both turned out to be two of the best places we visited on our two week journey.

The Cap d’Antibes hiking trail was an incredible coastal walk along the peninsula among steep limestone cliffs and rocky coves which were bursting with spring blooms and whose yellow-orange stones provided a sharp contrast with the view of the azure water below. The trail also brought you through the exclusive neighborhoods that boast millionaire villas which house the rich and famous.

 

The walk was truly breathtaking and after we finished we sat at a ritzy little cafe on the French Riviera. We were extremely thirsty after the long walk and so we got some expensive water (I mean, it was the Riviera), and then I fell in love with this italian lemon sorbet dessert called Segel, so it was a win, win all around.

We did have one issue though. We got lost at the beginning of the trail and we took about an hour detour until we actually found the hiking trail. That was a little frustrating. Someone told us to turn left when we should have turned right, but I won’t mention any names. Someone also blamed it on Google Maps. Nevertheless, it was a extremely good place to get lost in. And we reached our step-goal that day for sure. C’est la vie.

‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’

The second place Françoise recommended was St. Paul de Vence, which was a picture perfect medieval village perched high up a on a hilltop about 17 km from Antibes. I recently learned that the bell from the tower from the town hall was cast in 1443 and has the inscription, “‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’,”  which means, “The hours invite us to dream.” And dream people have. Artists, writers, poets, actors, and everyday people like you and me have visited and been inspired. I’m already dreaming about how I can go back there.

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Surrounded by ancient stone walls, the incredible scenery of the village and the dreamlike way the light hits the old stone buildings and small alleyways have inspired some of the world’s most famous artists. fullsizeoutput_476aI was not surprised to see the gravesite of Marc Chagall in the small cemetery there and learn that Pablo Picasso and other famous artists and writers have spent time in this magical little village. The village has since become a mecca for artists and is filled with art galleries and an art museum.  While we were walking around we saw several artists including the one in the photo below painting or drawing in the little rustic alleyways.

 

After we left Antibes, we got another recommendation from our sweet French host Eden in Aix-en-Provence who told us we should go to Cassis and the Calanques and then drive along the Route de Crêtes, when we asked her for her favorite places to visit in Aix-en-Provence.  Note: These places were not even in Aix-en-Provence, but she said these were the places where she liked to spend her free time and visited any chance she could.  We really could have skipped Aix-en-Provence altogether and spent all of our time in Cassis and the Calanques because we wound up loving that area so much, but then we would never have met Eden.

She also said in her precious French accent that we picked the perfect time to visit Provence, the shoulder season of March-April (she also recommended September-October) before the tourists descend on the place and when the weather is nicer. There were already many tourists there, but it wasn’t packed like it apparently gets during the summer, so remember that if you plan a trip there.

So what the heck is a “calanque”? It sounds like a noise you make when you drop something. The Calanques are little creeks or inlets that dip into the limestone mountainsides along the area from Marseille to the city of Cassis. They have little azure water coves in them, and you can take a tour of them by water in a boat, which we did, or hike them, which is what I would do if I ever return.  I honestly don’t think the photos we took do them justice, but here are a few of these majestic natural phenomena.

Cassis is a charming little city that sits on the hilly coast between the Calanque National Park and the Route de Crêtes, a fabulous ride along the coast with magical scenery and ochre-colored cliffs that are worth a visit to that area just on their own merits. If you have ever ridden along Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California, this French route rivals that beautiful drive, which has always been at the top of my lists of scenery that is the most beautiful in the world.

 

And speaking of drives, one of the best bus rides we have ever taken was aboard the Number 100 from Nice to Monaco-Menton which was recommended to us by a hotel receptionist when we asked what his favorite thing was to do in Nice. Again, it took us out of the city of Nice where we were staying, but it offered some truly dramatic views that I’ll never forget. The bus trip itself was so interesting that it will be the subject of a future post called, “The Wheels on the Bus.”

So thank you François, Eden, Jean-Dominique and others who have helped us along our journey throughout Provence. Your favorites have become our favorites, too.

What was the best travel advice that you have been given by a local? And what places in your hometown would you recommend to a traveler that might be off the grid?

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On Being Grateful and the Nature of Traveling

fullsizeoutput_3e33We learn a lot about our true nature when we are traveling, and some of the things we learn about ourselves aren’t so complimentary. Often times when things don’t go as planned or places don’t meet our expectations, we balk, we gripe, we complain. But these are the very experiences that teach us the most about ourselves and the world around us.

Our recent trip to the South of France was no exception, and we had several of these types of experiences. Some turned out great and far exceeded our expectations, while some taught us lessons that will change the way we do things the next time. Many of the things that happened to us were not planned or expected on our recent journey, which overall was a glorious and beautiful trip. But it wasn’t perfect.

For example, upon our arrival to Trieste, Italy, where we had to spend the night before our flight to Nice, we checked into our hotel.  Or tried to. We were tired from an uncomfortably warm bus ride from Pula that had given James, Carolyn and I a mild case of motion sickness. We thought that because we had booked a hotel that it would be easy to check-in. Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

After we walked several grimy streets in the area of Trieste near the bus station, we finally tracked the place down. It was behind giant wooden doors in a large 19th century building that you needed someone to buzz you into. The sign was very small, the door was very large. The place was advertised as a hotel with a shared bathroom and truth be told I chose it because it was the cheapest.

After several attempts to find a way to get into the place, we finally called the owner.  He wasn’t there, but could be there at 8 p.m. There is no one at the hotel? we wondered. It was 5:00 p.m. We were carrying backpacks and we were tired, so we finally got him to agree to be there at 6:30.  Then we get another phone call, his assistant would be there at 6:30. Okay, so we showed up then.

We waited at the giant wooden door and waited. Finally around 7 p.m. a woman walks up, fumbles with some ancient skeleton keys and lets us in. The place has an elevator from the early 1900s and it’s actually pretty cool.

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James and Carolyn in the oldest elevator in Trieste.

She says it’s the oldest in the city.  It’s a nice elevator but only holds two people, so some of us walk up the four floors on the beautiful old staircase and some of us take the elevator. My poor pack mule husband who was carrying both our backpacks up got to ride it up.

A stench hits us when the lady opens the door to the “hotel.” It’s some serious cigarette smoke, and we hear some men loudly talking in the first bedrooms near the entrance. I hold my breath as we go by their rooms. You can hear our footsteps on the old wooden floors. The building seems ancient and reminds me of an old school dormitory or better yet, a convent.  Wooden floors, artificial flower arrangements from another decade or so and old wooden furniture with dusty doilies, like the kind your elderly grandmother had.

“We’re staying at some old Italian grandma’s house,” James says.

The assistant shows us where the shared bathrooms are on the way in, and we see a lady sitting by the receptionist desk.  A receptionist? Where was she when we were waiting by the giant door? Apparently, we just had to buzz her, and she would have let us in. We thought we did. We’re perplexed. Why didn’t the owner just tell us that? We walk down the long wooden halls with our footsteps echoing down the corridor. I feel like I’m in the movie, “The Shining,” waiting for the ghostly twin girls to appear at the end of the hallway, but here we are. We are at the door of our room. There are three single cot-like beds in the double room Mike and I booked. We can just push two of them together, the lady tells us. So we do.

There are also two small disposable plastic cups on a small table, about the size of the type you use to rinse your mouth in, and we are informed we can get water down the hall in the bathroom. No sink or faucets in the bedroom, or mirrors, for that matter. Do vampires live here? I’m silently shrieking inside, we have to drink water from the bathroom faucet where people use the restroom?  This was not worth the $30 dollars I saved. I’ll just have to be thirsty.

Meanwhile Carolyn and James are shown to their room which is like an old dorm room and a quarter of the size of ours with only two single beds. We tell Carolyn she can come sleep in our room if she feels too claustrophobic. We have the extra bed. She doesn’t but should have because she said she was up the entire night because every time she turned over her bed squeaked loudly and she could hear every move in the hotel as well.  Mike and I sleep pretty well thanks to the down comforters with covers that were super soft, but I was a little thirsty. We had to be up at 4 a.m. to be at the bus station for 5 a.m. in order to catch our flight from Venice to Nice.

So what is the moral of the story. We survived. The place wasn’t filthy, just ancient. The bed covers were amazing. We could have been stuck out on the street somewhere in the cold. And yes, I broke down in the morning and drank some of the water out of the old bathroom faucet. I mean, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, what was the difference?fullsizeoutput_15c3

Looking back I realize I’m more than just a little spoiled about creature comforts.  I don’t know if it’s my age or our culture that says everything has to be exactly how we want it to be. We think we can’t inhale cigarette smoke and we think we shouldn’t drink water from a bathroom faucet. But everything can’t be clean and washed and pressed in life. Life is not always perfectly comfortable, especially when you are traveling. You are going to come in contact with bad smells and uncomfortable conditions if you are truly taking a journey. I’m sure there are many younger people who are used to traveling in hostels or in third world countries where things like this are normal and part of the experience. If I had booked a hostel, I guess I would have expected more discomforts. But there is that stubborn word, “expected.”  Often times in life, that is the problem. Things don’t meet our expectations. But are they enough? Are our needs met? And I look back more than a little ashamed that I was so unappreciative of the beginning of what was to be a beautiful adventure. My next posts will show the more glamorous side of the journey, but for now, I’ll be more grateful for what I am given, even water from a public bathroom faucet.

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“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”