Saturday was a remarkable day on many levels. After an early breakfast, we hit the road to drive from the Plitvice Lakes region to Motovun, a mountaintop town about 3.5 hours due west, on the Istrian peninsula. Istria is known for meats, cheeses, olives, and wine, and we've been looking forward to indulging our inner carnivores, but first, we had to get there…
…through the remnants of war-torn Croatia.
The first thirty miles or so of the drive went through farmland sprinkled with little hamlets. A field of grapes, then a town. A field of corn, then a town. But these weren't just ordinary rural towns; these were towns that had suffered during the war 20 years ago. We passed memorials engraved with crosses and 5-10 names of Croatian soldiers (kids, really, no more than 19 or 20) who died during the war. We passed scores of buildings with bullet holes in them. Some holes had been patched up poorly, but most buildings just let their bullet holes live on in the building, either out of poverty or as a symbol of what had passed. We passed entire villages that looked brand-new - the war had leveled the town, and the people rebuilt. Except that the people couldn't afford the entire cost of rebuilding, so they put up the masonry and some internal structure to make the house livable, but didn't bother to finish the exterior. I don't know if they plan to finish the houses in the towns or what their timetable is. And, of course, we passed houses with roofs that had been blown off, houses with holes where walls should be, houses that had been toppled over by artillery or post-artillery abandonment by the owners. It was beautiful, and it was very very sad.
Soon, we crossed over from the war-town rural areas to Istria, where the people don't seem to have experienced the war in the same way. Istria is more closely tied with Italy than with Serbia or Bosnia, so there was not the same kind of ethnic strife here. We stayed in Istria for one night, in a former-castle-now-hotel at the top of the mountaintop town called Motovun:
We arrived shortly after noon, checked in, and grabbed lunch at an Anthony Bourdain-recommended place called Mondo Konoba (the Mondo Family Tavern). After a huge breakfast by the lakes, we were interested in a light lunch, so S and I split a tomato/mozzarella salad and gnocchi with truffles. See what I mean by Italian influence? Also, Istria is noted for its truffles, and many of the restaurants here offer truffle dishes. Unfortunately, we were a bit out season (truffle season is in the autumn, not the summer), so the truffles in our dishes were dried, not fresh, resulting in muted taste.
After lunch, we hit the road to visit some wineries in the area:
We ended up at four different places. The first (right outside the main gate of Motovun) had three offerings - a white, a rose, and a red, none of which were particularly tasty. C bought a bag of apples in lieu of any wine.
The second (Tomaz) had some tasty wines, particularly the red. We were the only ones in the tasting room except for the proprietress and her children. Tasting wine with screaming kids is a little unusual - the atmosphere quickly disappears. C & E bought some wine.
The third tasting room (Benvenuti) was fancy, with a big wooden table that seated a dozen. While we were seated, three other parties came and went. We tried five different wines, and bought a bottle of a very unusual white to share in Italy in a week.
The fourth room (Cesar) was actually more of an olive oil place than a winery. I didn't really like the wine, but the olive oil was stunning. There were four different presses available, each one from a different tree. S & I bought a bottle of the spiciest oil. Yum!
Then, back to Motovun to scout out dinner and cool off in the hotel room. The hotel is at the top of the mountain on the main piazza, and also on the piazza is a little bar with some amusing signage.
After our wine tasting, S & I retired to our room for a siesta while C & E walked town. We met for dinner, followed by a nice walk along the top fortifications of town. We had anticipated a drink at the mustache bar, but we were all a bit tired from the heat. Instead, a quick trip to the terrace to view the stars (astronomer S led us on our gaze) before heading in for the night.
One more thing - it is HOT! Dubrovnik was in the high 80s, Split was in the mid-90s, and Motovun topped 104 yesterday. Plitvice was a nice break, with temps only hitting the low 80s in the sun. If you visit Croatia in the summer, get a/c whenever possible.
*** SUNDAY ***
On Sunday, C & I rose early for a run up and down the mountain holding Motovun. After cleaning up and checking out of the hotel, we drove back across Croatia to Glina, a small town in the hills where C's family (the part that I'm not related to) comes from. The drive was very revealing, particularly as we got back into the part of Croatia that was under siege 20 years ago. Glina is a very depressed town, with buildings in ruin and many buildings full of bullet holes:
We grabbed lunch at a small cafe and poked around town a bit. One of Glina's darkest moments happened in 1941, when a handful of Croats massacred around 250 Serbs. The massacre occurred in a catholic church, and the Serbs who were there had come thinking that they were going to be converted to Roman Catholicism from Serbian Orthodox. It was a terrible event, and though the church was destroyed later, we think we found the foundation of the church today, right off the center square:
Staggering. We were all four in awe.
We didn't want to leave the region without seeking out a cemetery for C to search for some family. We tried a few different churches before finding one with a cemetery. The church itself was at the top of a hill, and while modest, it had a terrific painting behind the altar that was beautiful, mindful of the history of the region, and full of hope:
We scoured the cemetery in the hot sun looking for possible distant relatives for C. At the back of the cemetery, we found about five graves of people sharing his last name (well, the Croat version, not the bastardized American version). C wrote a note asking the reader to contact him and left it on one of the graves, and we drove off.
On the way out of town, we were reminded once again that though the war has passed, this region of Croatia is still a dangerous place:
It took about 90 minutes of backcountry driving to get to the hotel near the Zagreb airport, from which we'll all depart tomorrow: C & E back to the US, S & I on to Istanbul. We shared a nice dinner, talked about the highlights of the trip, what we'd do differently, where we'd like to go next time, and have retired to our rooms to rest a bit before the day of travel tomorrow. After a long day in the car, we weren't much up for more excitement.
This week with C & E has been a lot of fun! S & I have enjoyed traveling with them, and we hope to do it again soon!
So long from Zagreb! Tomorrow at this time, we should be in Turkey!