I woke up last Wednesday with sun lighting the floor of my room. Stepping outside onto my balcony, I breathed in the fresh, salty air—the air of a Croatian summer.
It was a beautiful day, and one that marked the beginning of Rovinj’s summer season. Last Wednesday was also a national holiday, Worker’s Day (the European equivalent of U.S. Labor Day), and pretty much all Croatian employees were free to do as they pleased, many even taking a long holiday by connecting it with the weekend. While I didn’t have this luxury, I was determined to take advantage of my one-day holiday and the summery weather. So what better way to do that than by going to the beach?
Initially Stephanie and I had intended to go to Punta Corrente as BBQs and parties are held in celebration of Worker’s Day along the beach and in the park. But we opted for a more low-key locale and went to Rovinj’s “other side,” located just a bit northwest of the town center. During the summer this side is also filled with tourists, like most of the town, but before the peak season comes into full swing, it’s quiet, serene. Here, we met up with a friend and her husband, laid down our towels and took in some much needed sun.
Rovinj from “the other side”
We played Briscola, ate delicious vegan chocolate cake, and drank some Italian spritz. We alsoall went on our very first swim of the season. May 1st is still considered too early for swimming by most since the water is still quite cold. Yet discomfort had to be pushed aside to celebrate the start of summer with a proper swim.
And wow. It was cold. Oh. So. Cold. I let my legs dangle in the water over the side of the stone pier to get used to the chill. After about five minutes, I started out slow. I went up to my calves, then to my knees. And then I stopped. With each small step forward, the water stung like ice. I shook my head “no” to Stephanie, who was already well into the water, swimming around. Yet I knew I had to go in. In my mind, it marked some rite of passage that would make me a real coastal Croat.
View from the beach
And sure enough, I dove into the water, yelled in mild horror, and then swam until I got some feeling back into my body and found one of those random warm spots in the sea. The initial jump was the worst part, but after you were in, it felt like normal sea water that was just a tad bit colder than usual. I’m glad I took the plunge. I felt a sense of accomplishment, even though the act didn’t mean much beyond me and my friends, but who cares? Sometimes these can be the most meaningful accomplishments.
Once late afternoon rolled around, we called it a day and packed up, then went on a walk to explore the rest of Rovinj’s “other side.”
Rovinj’s most famous building is its church on the hill, St. Euphemia. Yet Rovinj is also home to a far lesser-known landmark, the orthopedic hospital and rehabilitation center, “Primarius Dr. Martin Horvat.” One reason for its lack of attention is that the hospital is not open to the public and it is generally frowned upon to visit the grounds as a tourist. But, seeing as we’re essentially locals we went through the area without a second look from the hospital guard.
The hospital was built by the Austrian government in 1888 and was originally intended to be a children’s treatment center. Following World War I, it was converted into its current purpose, a clinic for orthopedics, and is one of the oldest orthopedic hospitals in Croatia and Europe. The hospital was specially constructed on this particular part of Rovinj because of its special micro-climate that is supposed to aid in recovery.
While the hospital is still in use today, the small buildings once constructed around this health resort, including a cinema, lookout tower, pool, church, and greenhouse, no longer function. These forgotten buildings are all in various states of disrepair. Walking through the area, a feeling of sadness comes over me as I long to see this place in all its glory. Yet, that would surely draw tourists and ruin its eerie charm.
Gothic staircase in the hospital
And no, that wasn’t a typo or ill-fitting word choice. The hospital area is both eerie and charming. It’s closed off from the rest of the world, enveloped in a pine forest and boarded by a secluded sandy beach. As you enter from the beach side, you see the hospital—alive, yes, but with peeling, dirty yellow paint and splintered window frames and shutters. Immediately to its right, there’s the old, unused pool that doesn’t even look like a pool. It’s a hulking piece of grey that has too much concrete and far too little space to showcase the pool itself.
If you zigzag a bit to the right and keep walking for a minute or two up another path you’ll reach the hospital lookout tower. Climb up to the top and catch a glimpse of Rovinj’s old town and the island Figarola.
The hospital tower
As we walked back down to the hospital building, we passed the old cinema (now used as a gym), whose gothic veneer gave us all the chills.
The old cinema
Right next door is the Church of St. Pelag, also abandoned. It’s architecturally beautiful, despite its unkempt nature. Inside, you’ll find that it’s being used as storage space. Old documents, binders, and books, some even dating back to the 1930s, crowd the building.
The Church of St. Pelag
Inside the Church of St. Pelag
Upon leaving the grounds, we all agreed that the hospital would be the perfect horror movie set. While I’d love to see the buildings repaired, repainted, and revitalized, I like them this way. It gives the place a sense of struggle, of loss even, which, like any good writer will say, builds character.
I’ve lived in Rovinj for almost a full year now and I’ve seen its many sides from its crowded summer to its lonely winter and all the craziness in-between. Many picture Rovinj as an idyllic, romantic coastal town and while this is true, the town is so much more. Rovinj is complex, layered with history, with culture, and with many stories—both remembered and forgotten.
Creative, open-minded, and overly-analytical are three words that most accurately describe Marija Durakovich, which she attributes to her Croatian upbringing within American culture as well as to her education at the University of Michigan where she cultivated her worldview; and to fresh experiences which she has independently ventured through. She pursued a Master’s Degree in Education, mainly to get qualified to teach in the classroom but, despite her passion for working with kids, decided that there was something better suited for her out there. It is here where the road carved out by discernment for a ‘professional calling’ has unveiled passions that, while perhaps not leading to a single career path, have bolstered her footing in an ocean of possibilities. It is here in Croatia—where she now lives and works after relocating from her hometown of Detroit four years ago—that she has come alive and wishes to build her future.
1. What is your favorite place to visit in Croatia, and why?
My favorite place to visit in Croatia is not a specific town, per say, but any town that bears the following characteristics: quaint, historic, clean, coastal, and authentic. Perhaps a cross between Cavtat, Mali Lošinj and some undiscovered town on Hvar.
2. What places or sites would you recommend to a tourist visiting Croatia, and why?
Here, I’ll refer back to previous question, (Cavtat, Hvar, Mali Lošinj), but place more emphasis on ”undiscovered” as I, myself am in search of these places. This summer I’m headed to Istria which I’ve only caught a glimpse of. Based on what I’ve heard and from whom I’ve heard this, I am confident that Istria will be my newest top recommendation. And I’m making it my mission to find some part of Istria that is yet to be discovered. Oh, and I have a true affinity for the city of Zadar – likely a product of my numerous summers with some of my best girlfriends there, which were loaded with inside jokes and spontaneities.
3. Do you have any favorite Croatian writers, poets, artists, actors, or musicians? If so, who are they and what are some of their notable works (or works of theirs you admire)?
I really enjoy Croatian klapas, especially while spending time on the coast. I’ve been to 4 TBF concerts, the last of which I was determined to catch Mladen for a chat post-concert – and succeeded in this, by the way! Besides the classics like Prljavo Kazalište and Gibonni, I always enjoy Urban (&4), Croatian jazz, and up-and-coming authentic artists who clearly play with their hearts and not for the meager money to be made. I have yet to discover my favorite literary heroes.
Marija hiking up Sljeme (the Medvednica mountain that borders Zagreb)
4. Which Croatian people have you come to admire in your life (political, artistic, familial or otherwise)?
Perhaps a cliché but the true nonetheless: Ante Gotovina. I recently listened (live) to a speech by esteemed scientist Davor Pavuna. Let’s just say that it’s been years since someone’s performance of words moved me so much as did his. As for artistic admirations, I think x4 concert attendances says enough here (TBF); their lyrics are ‘real’, they’re to a great extent pioneers in their genre, and they’re genuine on and off the stage.
5. What changes do you hope to see made in Croatia?
The change I wish to see is peoples’ acceptance and application of foreign approaches to those things that most every Croatian admits need to change. Croatians have readily-available knowledge from, for instance, its diaspora which must be taken to its full advantage. However, these fresh ideas are too often suppressed out of a fear of change, losing one’s status, or simply choosing the path of least resistance. The first sub-change which needs to take effect is the belief and promotion of teamwork. It is only when groups think, work and act collectively that change can occur.
6. Where do you see the country in 10 years?
To be honest, I haven’t a clue. But I do know that this (not knowing) is why I am here. There’s a passion for preserving my heritage that is ingrained in me and, quite frankly, in the last four years I’ve felt that this heritage has been threatened. I sincerely hope that younger generations will soon recognize that their passivity is destructive to Croatia’s future. I hope they will realize that their critical thinking requires action. I hope they will realize that without voicing their thoughts, they are actively surrendering not only their microcosmic worlds but something far greater with endless potential. I hope that they will think not only for themselves but for their beloved grandparents and great-grandparents, who likely made incomprehensible sacrifices. More importantly, I hope that they will consider their impact in terms of a future they are creating for their own children and grandchildren. Finally, I hope that they will stop taking a copy+paste approach and start thinking critically, incorporating foreign ideas into their own, synthesizing information versus rotely transplanting it onto foreign soil, thus creating an unsustainable formula. I hope authenticity takes flight!
Marija with her mother at a river park near Samobor. She highly recommends the trout served here.
7. If you could tell someone just one thing about Croatia, what would you want to tell them?
Come, see, explore, absorb but consider its history. That being said, tolerate while at the same time persisting in depositing your knowledge regardless of the resistance to be faced.
8. What is your favorite country dish or food?
Palačinke, što drugo?! Yes, yes, they are really French, but I’d say our bakas have an irreplicable Croatian recipe for them that is hard to beat.
9. What do you love about Croatia?
The thirst for knowledge that people have, despite the rampant resistance to incorporate tried foreign methodologies (quickly enough). There’s a controlled urgency to this regard which I sense around me. For example, I see a plethora of people of my generation unceasingly, and without regard to costs, actively packing up their evenings with learning experiences ranging from learning a 4th language, learning a new craft, or attending public seminars and lectures. In light of a struggling economy and record high unemployment, this “thirst for knowledge” is one significant step in the right direction and one that is contrary to my belief of the apathy epidemic I described earlier. I admit to the inconsistency I am pointing out here – the coexistence of apathy and activism (whilst perhaps only for self-promotion). And it is precisely this polarity that I think can be applied to the state of things in Croatia in general. There exists a culture of thinking here that has taken seat on one of two sides of any spectrum, be it political, religious, or economical. It is my sincere hope that the on-setting “kriza” (or crisis) will bring people together for one, good, long, emotional think-tank in which they’ll weed through the mumbo-jumbo that has staked itself for way too long in every crevice of society. I see this, perhaps on a minute scale, transpiring amongst my friends and family who have integrated their personal beliefs with the beliefs of true experts and a realistic approach to the future of their homeland.
Strossmayerovo Setaliste, which Marija says is the best street with a view of Zagreb during the spring/summer/fall
10. What is your favorite Croatian saying or expression?
Svaka rit dođe na šekret.
(Rough translation: A day comes when every ass comes to justice.)
11. When and why did you decide to move to Croatia?
They say that things come in threes. For me, this was 1. deciding to leave education, 2. deciding to move to Croatia, and 3. deciding to stop spreading myself thinly and zeroing in on my passions. The three epiphanies that lead to these life transitions were the best I ever made because without them I would have “tracked” myself onto a path driven by monotony, tradition, and cultural deprivation. That being said, I can confidently say that my life has become increasingly dynamic, non-traditional, and culturally rich.
I moved to Croatia (from Detroit) 4 years ago and I still get bombarded with equally as many ”Why did you move here?” questions, to which I honestly respond with ”because of my love for Croatia.” Don’t get me wrong, I love my other homeland as well but they don’t say that distance makes the heart grow fonder for just any reason. During these last four years I’ve learned a lot about tolerance, morals, and my patriotic roots. I imagine that amongst those of us “returnees” I’m not alone here.
The question that typically follows is ”Do you want to move back to the US?”. Quite honestly, no. I love the palette of cultural activities Zagreb has to offer – from theaters to film festivals and live music performances. I love walking to work, roller-blading around Bundek park, hiking at Sljeme (which is literally a tram ride away) and playing beach volleyball at Lake Jarun. I love being able to sit outdoors (in all seasons) at a different café every day, if I wish, to read the newspaper and people watch. And finally, I love proximity…. and Zagreb has that too!
Zagreb from Gornji Grad (the upper town)
12. What advice do you have to those looking to either temporarily or permanently move to Croatia?
Aside from my answer to question number 8, I’d add that they should have low expectations, but come with boldness, a job-searching strategy having already established some contacts, and some savings to get them through the rough spots in terms of job-less periods. By NO means should they even consider bribery, which is a small form of corruption that has infiltrated so far into many parts of society that it might quickly and easily seem acceptable to newcomers.
Winter has finally come to an end here in Istria and warm, sunny spring weather has been dominating most of our days now. As the second installment in my Istrian road trip series, last Sunday I spent the day touring Croatia’s Kvarner region with three of my good friends. This was one of the first days we experienced summer-like warmth and all-day sun, which of course made the day all the more perfect.
With our Central Istria trip, we made a point of seeing some of the historical and cultural monuments of the little towns we stopped in. But this time around, since the weather was oh so good, we took our merry time and went on short causal strolls around each town, soaking up the long dormant sun.
Our first stop was the small town Ičići. It’s a beautiful place situated amongst more well-known Kvarner region areas like Lovran and Opatija. During the summer months, I hear that Ičići is a prime tourist destination, and especially notable for its Blue Flag beach. While you might encounter certain crowd pockets in this town during Croatia’s peak season, you can find an easy escape from it all in your rented apartment or home as these are situated a bit outside of the immediate center.
Sea view from Ičići
In Ičići, we walked under a building with a very cool, colorful ceiling in order to reach a café-bar, where everyone grabbed some morning coffee and I got myself a scoop of Snickers-inspired ice cream. While looking out at the sea here, we noticed an interesting phenomenon: random self-perpetuating circles in the water. I wish I had a proper picture of it. We couldn’t figure out how the water just randomly formed into a circle in the middle of the sea. Perhaps there was a natural spring underneath? Who knows. If you have any idea what was happening, please feel free to enlighten me.
It’s summer all over this ceiling
From Ičići, we decided to hop up onto the famous Lungomare, Kvarner’s seaside promenade. It stretches 12 kilometers (7 miles) in length from Preluka to Lovran.
View from the Lungomare
More beauty from the Lungomare
Once on it, we ambled towards Lovran, stopping briefly in Ika, a small town we are told has a fantastic fast food place called Archie. Unfortunately, we did not get to stop in & grab some grub there on this trip but it is on my list of places to go next time around.
Once we reached Lovran, we sat in the sun at an outdoor café and drank some coffee and lemonade. While we didn’t spend a long time in Lovran, I found its architectural landscape captivating, as if you just walked into a classic European movie set.
A beautiful building in Lovran
After Lovran, our stomachs were grumbling and so we made our way back onto the Lungomare towards Ičići. We hopped into our rental car and drove for about 10 minutes to reach the stunning Opatija. I find practically every Croatian town beautiful, but Opatija is well, a fairytale. It’s extremely popular among tourists and was already quite full of them when we arrived. Opatiaj’s architecture is similar to that in Lovran, but buildings are more plentiful and have a more regal quality to them. Plus, the town has yellow-brick sidewalks! You can get a tan, go for a swim, eat some delicious dessert, grab some local goods, AND feel like you’re in The Wizard of Oz. Can you really beat that? One day I’d love to own property here so I can skip along the yellow-brick sidewalks whenever I please.
Opatija’s “Maiden with the Seagull” statue
We actually ended up spending most of our day in Opatija. We situated ourselves on the sea shore and made ourselves a little picnic. After scarfing down some food, we just laid in the sun, enjoying the beautiful day, and then played some poker, placing bets using K-Plus Party Mix Crackers (the BEST mix there is). Naturally, we ended up eating most of our “money” so no one actually knew who won, but that never mattered in the first place.
Soon after, I went for a short walk with two friends, Nadia and Tonči. On the way, we listened to a hippie play bongos for money, were stopped by a friendly, energetic saleswoman selling her illustrator husband’s art work, and entered a jewelry store called Sonora that contained dazzling hand-made pieces, all of which I wanted to buy.
Cute little cat coaster I bought from the sidewalk saleswoman
Before leaving Opatija, we stopped at the hoppin’ Caffe Grand at Hotel Milenij. While Stephanie and Nadia grabbed some more coffee, Tonci and I opted for dessert. He got a cherry fruit cake whose name I have forgotten and I ordered a deliciously creamy walnut cake. My plate was empty in a jiff. I’d love to stop into the shop again, as they also had house-made chocolate bars on sale that looked scrumptious.
My walnut cake
To have a proper meal, we left Opatija and headed for Rijeka, one of my favorite Croatian cities after Zagreb. Anytime Stephanie and I are in Rijeka we must go to Peking Wok, the city’s new Chinese restaurant, and this time was no different. I think they actually have the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. It’s fresh, not overly salty or oily and is always delicious. I wasn’t too hungry after my cake, so I just ordered vegetable soup with glass noodles and noodles with stir-fry veggies. So, so good. Mmm…I can’t wait to go back!
Just like our last road trip, this one was equally delightful and refreshing. We discovered little bits & pieces of mostly new-to-us Croatian towns and had a relaxing time doing it. What a day!
New article on LikeCroatia.com! :D
“Dubrovnik always steals the spotlight, and for good reason. Considered ‘the pearl of the Adriatic,’ the city’s famous historic walls, energizing summer weather, and pristine coastline continually captivate the hearts and imaginations of thousands and thousands of tourists that visit each year.
But what about Croatia’s other walled towns? This time, their magnificence will not be overshadowed by their more popular cousin. Here, we give you Croatia’s other fortified towns in all their glory. Catch the next plane or bus to them and you won’t be sorry, guaranteed.”
Usually when I go to a new place I make it a point to learn just a little bit of the country’s language so that I somehow feel more connected to the people and culture. Plus, it’s always a delight to see the smile on a local’s face when you say something in their mother tongue.
The Hagia Sophia
When I was prepping for my trip to Italy last year I borrowed a language MP3 player from the local library and forced my mother to practice with me during our daily walks. She, wanting to just chit-chat, easily got annoyed by my constant exclamations of “e zucchero” and “buon giorno” and “per favore” while I attempted to exercise my extremely limited vocabulary.
By the time I ended up in the pasta capital of the world, I knew only the bare essentials but I was eager to put them to use. Fortunately and unfortunately, my family was with an Italian-speaking family for most of the trip so I never actually got the chance to say anything in Italian. And so now, even though I’m in Rovinj and surrounded by Italian speakers, I can’t remember anything of use.
Steph & I with our Turkish friends
Because of this experience, I didn’t put very much effort into learning Turkish prior to arriving in Istanbul because I figured I would pick up on at least a few words and phrases while visiting since there would be no guide or family friend to help out.
But as frequently happens, my expectations were still somehow much too high and I ended up leaving Turkey with only four words/phrases, none of which I actually used there but all of which I will probably remember forever. So to celebrate the little slice of Turkish knowledge I gained, here is a recap of what I learned:
Obviously the most useful combination of phrases. But hey, I’m still proud. :)
Oh Istanbul, how I miss you so! Stephanie and I spent about 5 days in Istanbul and it was perfection! On many of my previous trips someplace, I feel like I’ve always had to cram in all the sights, museums, etc. into a short time frame to see everything so I really liked the way Stephanie and I did things this time. We of course saw many of the major sites, but we never rushed and we didn’t cram. We mainly took our time to get up in the morning, then grabbed some Turkish tea/coffee and brunch, and then went on our merry little way, leisurely walking through the city. Our approach was quite refreshing and caused zero anxiety or restlessness so it really was a perfect vacation.
Where we stayed & ate
We stayed in a hostel in Galata and met many interesting and friendly people there. I really loved the area we chose for accommodation because it wasn’t as touristy as the Sultanahmet side of Istanbul or as busy as the Taksim area. Moreover, Galata was quaint, artsy, and much cheaper than the other two areas.
Additionally, Galata had many delicious restaurants to choose from. For dinner and fresh-squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, we usually headed to Star Bufe. Their prices were cheap (5-8 liras per sandwich, around $2.50 to $4) and the food was always fantastically prepared. The wait staff was also wonderful: friendly, attentive, and loved to joke around. Each time we sat down they’d happily greet us with smiles and they always gave us free tea so naturally, we befriended them.
Fresh-squeezed juice & a wrap from Star Bufe
The other two restaurants we frequented in the area are right next to the Galata Tower and unfortunately I cannot remember their names for the life of me. They both served delicious food and were always packed with visitors. We usually went to these two eateries for our breakfasts & brunches as well as for morning Turkish coffee & tea.
Feta cheese & parsley omelet breakfast
We did try a couple restaurants on the Sultanahmet side, one of which was decorated like a country western bar while the others were just your typical traditional Turkish eateries. It seemed like wherever we went the food was always good. You can’t go wrong with food in Istanbul!
Stuffed grape leaves & yogurt-zucchini soup dog dinner
One of my favorite foods to eat though was this bagel-like bread spread with cheese. There were street-cart bread vendors everywhere so it was easy to get and only 2 liras ($1)! What a scrumptious steal!
The best bread in Istanbul
What we saw
As I mentioned previously, Stephanie and I took our pretty little time on this trip so we didn’t manage to get to every single sight on all the “must see places in Istanbul” lists. This was not our loss but rather our gain because by taking the time to actually walk through the city and see some sights, we really got to experience what life was like there.
Since we loved it so much, we ended up going to Cemberlitas Hamami, a Turkish bath spa, twice— once on our first day in Istanbul and the second time on our very last day. A perfect way to open & end a vacation, don’t ya think? For the first time around, we opted for the traditional spa treatment where you are bathed by an attendant and receive a little massage. For the second time, we just did the self-service so that we could lie on the warm flat central stone for as long as we pleased.
My other favorite thing we did in Istanbul was to walk around the Grand Bazaar, which we also went to twice. It’s a feast for the senses—so much color, texture, and chitter-chatter. I bought quite a bit at the Grand Bazaar including a little Turkish tea set, scarves, and some presents for family. Probably the best thing I purchased was a crown so that I can be a princess any time I want ‘cause who wouldn’t want that? Now that Istanbul is long gone, I occasionally yearn for the shop keeper “Hey Lady” greeting. It always put a smile on my face.
The Grand Bazaar
Me & my pretty new crown
We also stopped by the Spice Market. It was much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and I noticed that these shop keepers were not as vocal as those in the Bazaar and they also weren’t as willing to bargain. Here I just bought some apple tea and spices and Turkish delight candy as presents.
In addition to the bath spa and markets, we visited the Blue Mosque, the Archeological Museum, and Topkapi Palace. I’d never been in a mosque before so the Blue Mosque was quite a treat. It’s beautiful both inside and out, but not as blue as I had initially thought but no biggie.
The Blue Mosque
The Archeological Museum was very interesting and was stocked with a wide assortment of tools, pottery, mosaics, mummies, sarcophagi, paintings, and weapons. I think archeological museums are my favorite type of museum, mainly because you can usually snag a touch of some ancient items. I mean come on, if there’s a 4th century BC sarcophagus in front of you, don’t you just want to glide you hands over its intricate design? How could you resist?
the Archeological Museum
Like the Archeological Museum, the Topkapi Palace had a ton of art and weaponry on display in addition to traditional dress and even royal clocks. I was surprised by how many people were visiting the Palace when we were there. It was completely packed in some areas, but still a worthwhile visit.
Then one day, we had intended to go to the Basilica Cistern, but ended up on a 10 lira ($5) Bosporus boat tour instead. It was nice to see all of Istanbul, both the European & Asian sides in addition to some palaces, political buildings, and the Maiden Tower, but I’d suggest saving a boat tour for a warm day. It was an impulse purchase on a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon and so it was absolutely freezing on the boat. While we passed by some pretty things all I kept thinking was, “Get me to shore. Get me to shore.” I don’t regret going, but now I know not to get on a boat on a chilly day.
View from the boat tour
Until next time, Istanbul
I can’t say enough how fantastic the trip was. I loved it so so much. I’d really like to come back to Istanbul one day, maybe even own property there, who knows. It’s truly a fascinating city filled with life and beautiful culture, history, and tradition.