ISTRA - THE MYTHICAL LAND OF HEALTH, BREATHTAKING SCENERY AND LUSCIOUS FOOD
When the chaotic and frantic twenty-four-seven rhythm of life in London took its toll on my mental and physical health, I headed to my roots, my peasant farm hidden between vineyards, olive groves and fig trees in the centre of Istria – the biggest Croatian peninsula in the shape of a heart on the north of the Adriatic, opposite Venice - away from its glossy and pretentious coastal resorts.
Over the last year, with the introduction of cheap flights to new emerging European countries, Istria has become a very popular destination for British tourists. Rovinj, Pula and Porec with their magnificent monuments from as early as Roman times and the crystal clear Adriatic beaches are the most alluring locations. Yet, the genuine spirit of this mythical land known for its tempestuous history marked by influences from the Venetian Republic and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to its present position of a bridge between Croatia, Slovenia and Italy is hidden in its interior.
As many times before, it was here that I came to recharge my batteries and return the glow to my pale and freckly face. However, this time I also wanted to give a treat to my tired back and headed for the Istrian Spa, a thermal physical therapy centre hidden in the valley of the Mirna river, surrounded by untouched and inspiring nature.
AS THE ANCIENT ROMANS DID...
The Istrian spa follows a two thousand years old tradition discovered by the ancient Romans and the hot water used for treatments comes the spa’s own St Stephan spring and contains thirteen different sorts of minerals, among them sulphur, good for treatment of chronic rheumatic, respiratory and dermatological diseases and physical aches.
My one week therapeutic indulgence started with the appointment with the specialist who assessed the state of my spine, muscles, heart and lungs and recommended treatments. As I’m not covered by the Croatian health system, but am joining hordes of Italians and Slovenians on their annual fix of health therapy, the specialist designed my therapeutic programme according to my wallet. With an uncomfortable tingle in my lower back and London prices in front of my eyes, I nodded to all professional recommendations. After all, as local legend says, even the ancient Romans were using the healing qualities of the water from the spring of the Istrian spa and soaking their backsides. The living proof of this are some inscriptions in stone and Roman money and jewellery found close to the resort.
The first written document mentioning this resort dates to in 1650 when a certain bishop Tomassini noted down “A spring of hot sulphurous water rises in the forests of Motovun and flows into the river Mirna. The peasants wash themselves in the water and treat rheumatism and many diseases of the skin.” Many years later - in 1858 - the first analysis of the water was performed and the Istrian spa became one of the best in the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy.
I signed up for eight intensive therapeutic mornings and nothing made me feel more contented and calmer than the smell of sulphurous after a morning of mud therapy, partial massage, group exercise lead by a professional therapist, soaking in the swimming pool (the indoor “healing” pool of sulphurous water was often overcrowded and only occasional swimming strokes were possible), galvanisation and electro-therapy sessions. It doesn’t matter for how long and how often you shower or how rigorous your strokes are; it’s virtually impossible to wash the smell of sulphur out of your hair.
Full body anti-stress aromatic massage was my most extravagant therapy at the SPA (£28 approx) and it was more than worth it: smooth music, oozing essential oils and a relaxing paradise of the senses. As the professional hands stroked down my back, my memory erased the hassle and bustle of London, the tension of long hours behind a desk and the wobbly nervousness of stepping into the underground maze of the overcrowded tube lines. By the time the smooth and firm hands reached my legs, I was more than sure that this was the best spent money of my life.
The mud therapy was slightly uncomfortable. The cabins, which are in desperate need of updating, consist of two beds and I found myself in Eve’s outfit discussing the current show business gossips with a chatty Italian woman wearing a minute silly G-string. Once you get over this shocking intimacy with a complete stranger and the highly professional and friendly nurses apply a two-three centimetre thick layer of hot curative mud directly on your skin, wrap you in a layer of plastic and then a few layers of greyish and brownish blankets which reminded me of old movies about Partisans, you body slowly loosens up, relaxes and a sudden feeling of happiness and bliss runs all over you and closing your eyes and turning to your own world of reverie seems the most natural reaction. Half an hour later, your mud nurse will unwrap you and take some mud of your back and send you to wash the rest off under a strong jet of mineral water. OK – the shower cabin is not very modern, but the feeling is great.
Cosmetically, the Istrian SPA needs some fine touches, but when it comes to the healing properties of its natural resources and the professionalism and friendliness of specialists, nurses and other staff, they deserve a high place on the list of European healing spas. Mud wrapping, rigorous massage and swimming do make you tired, but it’s a kind of self-satisfied tiredness, superior smugness and contentment with yourself. You feel like you’ll live to reach a hundred.
Spa is open all year around and it features 240 modest guest rooms (33 euros for bed and breakfast and 42 for full board). Whoever wants serious swimming had better head for the modern “Wellness” centre next door, which features a 25 metre non-sulphurous water swimming pool, fitness facilities and saunas. Even if the hotel advertises mini golf, table tennis, tennis court – they are in desperate need of modernisation. However, you can rent a bike and go cycling – if you have energy after the therapy - through the unspoiled nature.
No need to worry about the evening entertainment either, as a musical double act – a middle aged man and a young attractive girl – will croon passionately Simon-and- Garfunkelesque tunes alongside with Croatian Eurovision-style refrains. Everyone is up and dancing leaving behind empty bottles of Favorit, the local hops brew from Buzet.
After a morning of strenuous treatments, I would crave a strong espresso and a blackcurrant juice in the café next to the outdoor pool with a copy of the local paper in my hand and pricking my ears to the loud and fast conversations at the neighbouring tables about the gorgeous food guzzled in the restaurants nearby.
A short drive via the scenic route between olive trees, vineyards and fruit gardens takes us to breathtaking scenery of small towns and villages scattered along the hilly countryside echoing the medieval spirit. There are many dogs jumping on the road and countless cars are parked on the edges of the forest. After all, this is the world centre of truffles, as it says in the Guinness book of records. The biggest ever white truffle weighing 1.310 kg was found here in November 1999 by the local businessman Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana. Since then, Zigante’s name has became a trademark and he has his own line of products as well as a posh restaurant in Livade, less than 10 minutes drive from the spa. His attractive restaurant serves world class meals based on white and black truffles found in the forest around and his menu is as posh as it is his rich clientele. For £50-60 pp, his carte du jour offers meals such as “fushi”, a homemade local type of pasta, with truffle sauce and veal with minced black truffles. Truffle based dishes can be found in most restaurants in the Mirna valley, but truffles are never cheap and my budget said “no”. After all, they never were on the poor peasants’ tables.
After ten minutes drive up a narrow, zigzag road up through deep forest – which made us feel as as if we were on one of James Bond’s Eastern European missions – we reached the town of Oprtalj, a military camp in Roman times. It didn’t take me long to figure out why my sister years ago turned down a job in the local school. Her red, ancient “yugo” wouldn’t have survived more than a couple of journeys up and down this serpentine road. Oprtalj is 380 meters above the sea level and it offers breathtaking views of almost the entire peninsula. Its medieval architecture offers inspiring facades, narrow streets surrounded by charming windows into everyday life and an impressive loggia with overwhelming views of the charming hills and gentle lines of the fields.
On the opposite hill lays Motovun, the jewel in the crown of Istrian towns with medieval features. Over the last few years, Motovun became a well known spot on the map of the word with its International movie festival. It was here that in 2000 Jamie Bell and Stephen Daldry tested the waters with “Billy Elliot” and when the audience at the main square of Motovun dedicated to the renaissance artist Andrea Antico - born here in the 15th century - stood up and applauded with tears in their eyes, they knew that they have a cinematographic winner.
I prefer a hassle-free Motovun without the scary heaviness of the enormous movie loving crowds marching along its ancient streets like some contemporary Roman conquerors. In the medieval tradition of central Istria, Motovun sits on the top of a hill 277 metres above the sea level and the city wall, massive town gate, a charming loggia from the 15th century and steep cobbled streets take you back in time. The imposing baroque church of St Stephen dominates the main square, while the charming hotel “Kastel” lures visitors to its shadowy terrace for a relaxing cup of espresso or a drop of the local brandy. You can choose between “biska” (mistletoe brandy),“medica” (honey brandy) or fig brandy. Motovun is also known for the famous Italian Formula 1 Champion Mario Andretti who was born here in 1940, when Istria was under Italian rule.
Ten minutes drive from Motovun along the picturesque road in the valley, there is the sign for another of Istria’s gems – the town of Groznjan. Sitting enchantingly on its 288m high hill, Groznjan is a town of arts and history. The Jeunesses Musicales International Cultural Centre which organises concerts every night during the summer is based here as are many painters and sculptors with galleries selling their own art alongside authentic Istrian souvenirs. Full of smells and sounds, Groznjan palpitates with creative youth energy and its streets offer a unique and inspiring promenade through the region’s resourceful history and an inventive present. Nearby, slightly offf the beaten track, is Zavrsje with the gothic church of Our Virgin Lady of the Rosary as the centrepiece of ghostly and deserted streets where only the mythical “strige” and “striguni” from the local fairy tales are meeting after dark.
Michael Palin visited the town of Buzet last September while filming for his “New Europe” programmme and he enjoyed a portion of the enormous scrambled eggs which are annually done with the number of eggs representing the year (2008 this year) and around ten kilos of truffles. September and October are the best months to visit this fascinating town. It is during this time of the year that the town of Buzet celebrates its rich history of folklore and food. The old town - embraced by protective city walls - steps back in time and old handicraft masters, blacksmiths, peasants with donkeys, soldiers, brass bands, musicians with accordions, bakers and many other forgotten artisans take over. The celebrations of “Subotina” last for the whole weekend (the second weekend of September) and the party goes on till late in the night. October is locally known as the “truffle season” and many events in Buzet and surrounding areas are dedicated to these “magic mushrooms”.
And it’s already time to go back to the hectic and rainy British capital and I promise myself that next time I will allow more time for visiting and revisiting other parts of Istra, such as the alley dedicated to Glagolitic alphabet or Glagolitsa – the oldest known Slavic alphabet - Hum the smallest town in the world, Momjan, Sovinjak and many other hamlets with peaceful and meditative streets belonging to some other time.
THE COUSINE OF ISTRIA
The real Istrian food is simple peasant food; health, tasty and easy to prepare. During its dynamic history, Istria was for many years part of the Venetian Republic, it was divided in half between Austria and Venice, geographically is close to Italy, and Istrian food is very similar to Italian. In particular with various home made pastas, simple pasta sauces, vegetable dishes and its own version of the Italian “minestrone” - a thick vegetable soup with pieces of cured meat. However, also more continental dishes like staffed papers and “sarma” (staffed cabbage leaves) are wildly spread in Istria. It’s here that Germanic, Romance and Slavonic cultures crashed, but also bridged their own differences and integrated into a unique cultural and cooking entity. All these different traditions have left their traces on the Istrian table. From sea foods dishes to various home made pastas and “maneshtras”. In Istria you can eat grilled meats and baked octopus, as well as pasta with truffles and smoked sausages and ham.
TAVERN ASTAREA IN BRTONIGLA – A PLACE FOR MICHELIN
After a hard day of therapies at the SPA and tiring walks up and down Istrian medieval hamlets, we found ourselves in the tavern Astarea in Brtonigla. Its friendly and chatty owner Anton Krenjus sat next to us and composed the menu according to our wishes (meat or fish). As always, we couldn’t resist and we nodded to all recommendations. Even ancient Romans who patrolled this land, would have been jealous of our feast. We had a selection of salted anchovies, smoked cod spread – locally known as “bakalar na bijelo” - and octopus salad with grilled bread to start, followed by two scallops each with a lingering taste of olive oil. While waiting for our main dish consisting of grilled sole, green salad which tasted as if it was picked up from the garden one minute before, boiled potatoes spiced up with olive oil and chopped parsley and Swiss chard we shared a fabulous sea-food risotto with a lip-smacking and finger licking crab sitting on the top. (Rick Stein, you don’t know what you are missing!). We washed it down with a few glasses of good local white Malvasia wine and a coke (unfortunately the drink and drive limit in Croatia is zero-zero…) and all of that for 45 pounds only.
RECIPE FOR KROSTULE – TRADICIONAL ISTRIAN SWEET
The most traditional and most well known Istrian sweets, krostule, are basically fried sweet pastry. Ingredients: 3 eggs, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 2-3 spoons of vegetable oil. Mix the ingredients adding as much flour as the liquid of eggs and vegetable oil can take. Roll it with a rolling pin until the pastry becomes one or two millimetres thin and cut long strips (you can cut strings with a normal knife or zigzag cutter). Make a bow-like shape of each string and fry them in a sauce pan in vegetable oil for a few minutes on each side. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve with coffee or a glass of sweet desert wine after the meal. Or – if you wish – a cup of English tea!
Ryanair stopped flying to Pula in winter months and the best option is to fly to Trieste in Italy - return tickets in November can cost as little as £20 including taxes. The transport connections are scarce and the best option is to rent a car. Depending on the border crossing (Italy-Slovenia-Croatia), it shouldn’t take longer than two hours to reach any location in central Istria. When hiring a car in Italy it is important to make sure the rental agency includes the “border crossing pass”. Price for a two week rental for a medium size car is about £400 pounds.
The Istrian thermal resort is only 40 kilometers from the Italian border and 10 kilometres from the Slovenian border. Rooms at the SPA hotel do need some updating, but are still comfortable, clean and with a nice size shower room. From the Spa it is easy to reach places on the coast. There is also the charming hotel in Motovun “Kastel” with 29 rooms. Ultimately, the closest coastal resorts of Umag, Novigrad and Porec offer a variety of posh hotels and the treatment at the SPA can be based on daytrips.
ISTRIA – A BRIDGE BETWEEN EUROPEAN WEST AND EAST
Istria is a peninsula on the North Eastern part of the Adriatic Sea, east of the gulf of Venice and south of the gulf of Trieste. The first people known to settle in Istria are the Euganei and by 1000 BC they were taken over by the Veneti. In 800 BC Veneti and Histri occupied the area. After Romans defeated Illyrians and Histris, they established a Colony in Aquileia (X Regio Venetia et Histria). After the fall of Rome, Byzantium invaded Istria and then Lombards (Longobards) occupied part of Italy and Istria. The Pope call the Franks to Italy and from then the feudal system will reign in Istria for centuries. At this time the first Slav farmers are called from Croatia to cultivate the empty fields. Recent archaeological excavations reveal that signs of life on the Istrian peninsula go all the way back to the age of the dinosaurs. The Histri, an Indo-European people were mentioned for the first time in the 6th century B.C. by Hecataeus of Miletus in his Tour Round the World . The Romans were then followed by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Avars, Langobards, Slavs, Franks, Venetians, Genoese, Romanians, Magyars and Austrians, and in the last century Italians, Serbs and Croats. Attila’s Huns passed through Istria and even Napoleon Bonaparte's French forces briefly ruled.
Over the centuries many famous people have visited Istria. The legendary Venetian womaniser Casanova visited Istria and in his diaries described how he made love in Vrsar. Dante Alighieri apparently visited the 14th-century Pula as mentioned in his guided tour through allegorical Hell. Some six centuries later, Jules Verne put his literary hero Mathias Sandorf into the caves of Pazin in central Istria even if he never set foot there. As homage to this literary work, Pazin has set up its own Jules Verne society. Irish writer James Joyce lived both in Trieste and Pula, where he was teaching English to Austro-Hungarian officers at the Berlitz School. In both cities there is a statue of him.