Istria Peninsula – Another of the World’s Crossroads

From Opatija we drove the eastern coast road south along the Istria peninsula. We wound up the mountain road past some of the most desireable villas in this part of Croatia. It’s a great place to live, with the beauty of the area and the accessibility to the rest of Europe. That is opposed to living in Dubrovnik for example, that is really off the beaten path. Many wealthy Austrians invested in winter homes here.

The trip also exposes the local dependency on coal for energy, although more green fuels are being invested in. This plant currently satisfies 17% of the Croatian energy need. The “quaint” company town by the coal mines just south is now deteriorating. Residents only go into the mines now to extract high-sulpher coal to heat their homes. The lung cancer rate here is through the roof, as is black lung disease in the older miners.

20% of Croatia’s GDP is from tourism, and 20% of that is from Istria. So, many of the jobs are seasonal. Some of the tourism workers defer their over time pay to tide them through the winter season. Some migrate, as does our guide, Rok. He goes to Asia and Indonesia in the winter as a Scuba instructor and guide.

We’ll talk more about the economy and political culture of the area later in the blog. In the meantime, talking about “crossroads”, Rok made an important point in saying that his mother was from Austria, his father from Yugoslavia, his aunt from Italy, he from Slovenia…and they all lived in the same place. Complicated changes in the area are just part of the history.

But, our first stop is the town of Pula, a strategic port since ancient Roman times.

At the entrance to the town is this impressive Roman Amphitheater.

It’s one of the largest of its kind in the world. And, as you can see, the weather was cooperating. What a sky!

The site is beautifully preserved, virtually all original. This amphitheater is also unique in its underground space where special elevators would lift the gladiators and wild animals up through the sand combat areas, really charging up the crowd. It was all marketing and showmanship. Viewers didn’t have to pay to enter, but ended up paying big by gambling, buying replicas of their favorite gladiators and more.

The preserved under-amphitheater now displays some of the many items dug up in the area – here amphorae. Whenever construction happens, thousands of antiquities are exposed. They virtually don’t know what to do with them.

Here’s one use…a “bench” in a park where we stop to have a bite of lunch. These digs are everywhere.

Even the local geckos like to sun on the antiquities. It’s a beautiful spot but we have to head off to Rovinj, a gorgeous old harbor town. The drive passes olive trees – olive oil country…along with some of the best prosciutto in the world. Also great sheeps cheese (so they tell me) and some truffles. Old stone walls are everywhere around farms. A way to rechannel and divert the winds to prevent soil erosion.

Our first view of the old town of Rovinj. We set off for a walk to the opposite side for another beautiful view back to the old city.

Off for a bite to eat – a Mediterranean tuna sandwich for me and a Burek for Marsha (a stuffed kind of filo-wrapped sandwich famous in these parts – usuallly with cheese unfortunately). Then a trek up the hill to St. Euphemia church you see in the background.

Uphill, but a beautiful climb.

Not a spectacularexterior, nor interior, but for $3 you can climb into the bell tower for incredible views.   The climb is up 192  steps made of creaky, narrow, splitting wooden stairs with clear views to the bottom through the cracks between. We squeeze the rails and walls and place each foot sideways (so it won’t get stuck between). Not happening in the US. But here is the reward on top.

The climb down is almost as harrowing as the climb up, carefully placing your feet on every step. But again, we reward ourselves after the accomplishment at the cafe outside the church…

…with some very good local designer beer.

Headed back to the hotel and made reservations at another Rick Steve’s recommended restaurant a ten minute walk from the hotel. Ruzmarin was definitely top of the line. Excellent food and wine with some very interesting fellow travelers. And the price is amazingly right. Packed up and ready to start on the long journey tomorrow Toward Plitvice National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And some interesting stops on the way. Get some rest.


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