May 19-20: The Croatian Chronicles, the beginning

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Leaving the canals of Venice, I traveled to Croatian coast along the Adriatic Sea to catch a boat which I will call home for the next 7 days. Over the next week, I am traveling up the Croatian coastline along with a group of 30 people from Chicago– a fundraising literary tour that my mom organized.

Porec

As our port of call, Porec was the first Croatian land I truly saw. An old Roman town, the modern-day town is built on the same grid, with a Roman forum as one of its main streets. The town also houses a UNESCO World Heritage Euphrasian Basilica, which is renowned for its mosaics, which are compared to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. I have seen the Ravenna mosaics, and these were extremely comparable and empty of tourists. The church was built in the sixth century, but it also has old remains of another church from it and remains from when Christians were persecuted in the Roman empire. It’s a church on a church one a church. I guess history repeats itself.

Rovinj

 

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The tomb that washed up on the shores with Saint Euphemia’s remains.

 

Starting the day in the small city of Rovinj, we walked up the hill to the Church of St. Euphemia. There lies relics of St. Euphemia that were said to have washed up in a sarcophagus on the shores of Rovinj. She died as a martyr during Diocletian’s time in the 4th century. I’m already struck by how Croatians love the myth–  that Saint Euphemia was so pure that lions would not kill her.

Brijuni Island

Next, we traveled to the Island of Brijuni, which was the summer home of Joseph Broz Tito who was the leader of the former Yugoslavia from 1947-1980, and is considered an authoritarian leader. The island has some palaces, a “safari” zoo, Roman ruins, and some hotels. Over time, the island has been controlled by Romans, Italians, the Austro-Hungarian Empire,  Yugoslavians, and Croatians. While the borders have changed, it seems that the people remain the same for the most part.

First, I’ll start with the zoo, which was beyond depressing to see. Many different world leaders gifted Tito various animals. Indira Gandhi gifted Tito two elephants, and one of them is still alive in the zoo, 46 years later. The zoo now has cows, zebras, horses, and goats all living together, as well as some ostriches. I hate seeing animals in zoos, and this just seemed like the remnants of Communism and a corrupt society.

Driving in a little tram car, we saw the remnants of a Roman villa, which archeologists think was the home of an emperor or emperor’s family.

 

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Remains of the Roman villa

 

Walking into a tiny house museum, our guide told us that, “All the animals died naturally.” Inside, I immediately saw a case with snakeskin shoes and purses, to which I joked, “Yes, they died naturally…” The guide tried to cover up, but I was right. The next galleries showed diorama after diorama of animals from Africa, Asia, and Europe: giraffes that had died from salmonella, baby orangutans, tiny bears. Again, it was beyond depressing. Upstairs, we saw hundreds of pictures of Tito with everyone from Sophia Loren to Muammar Qaddafi. The one thing fascinating that happened on Brijuni was the signing of the Brijuni Non-Allignment Treaty by Nasser, Nehru, and Tito in 1956. I had no idea such an important group, the Non-Aligned Countries, started on a tiny island in Croatia.

The guide did not say about anything bad about Tito, in fact, she spoke about him almost gloatingly. She seemed to admire him. What I take away is that either Croatians see Tito in a good light or as a state tour guide, our tour guide had to feed us the propaganda of the government.

Pula

We then docked in Pula, which has one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters (like the Roman Coliseum). This amphitheater still has a perfect outer wall. Pula was an important town for the Romans, but it only had 5,000 people in the town. The amphitheater could fit around 23,000 people, and scholars think that the number of people farming in the area was quite large and big enough to fill the structure.

 

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The Roman amphitheater

 

We also saw a gate with Hercules and Hercules’ club on it, as well as an old temple from around 54 BC. Next to the temple was the town hall in a Venetian Gothic style, as Venice held control of Pula for a few centuries. Next to that, there is an Austro-Hungarian building from when the Hapsburgs ruled Croatia, and then there was an Italian fascist-style building from when the Italians had control of Pula. All in one square, we saw the architecture of the town’s history.

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Olive grove dinner

By bus, we went to the town of Medium to have dinner in an olive grove. Our host, Goran, let us taste olive oil and showed us how he (and his partner) make balsamic vinegar. He is a physicist by training, who focuses mainly on lasers, but he decided to take over his grandmother’s land because he missed working and being with people. All the food we ate during the night was from their groves or the farmer’s market. His partner also read us beautiful poetry by Antun Branko Simic (“Warning”) and Ivan Goran Kovacic (“The Pit”). Here is “Warning”:

“Man, be careful
not to walk small
under the stars.

May your whole body
be filled with
the dim light of the stars!

To have no regrets
when with the last glances
you part with the stars!

In your final hour
instead of dust
pass whole to the stars.”

Here are some photos of the grove and dinner:

 

Setting sail early in the morning, tomorrow will be another day of visiting tiny Croatian island, with more Roman ruins to see.

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