September 2015 – Volosko.
When we embarked on this journey, Matt and I realized it would not be like previous travels. The pace and style would be different. The substance filling our days would be different.
To stay on the road long term and thrive, for us, the very image of travel needed re-framing. We are not on vacation. Not ticking sites off a list. Not trying to do and see everything. We are living life, within a new culture.
We have chosen to embed and reach for understanding of a few places instead of gliding over the surface of many. It’s a way of travel we jokingly refer to as “slow crawl, free flow.” For the most part, with the exception of a handful of plans to meet friends here and there (like in Morocco in 2 days!!,) we decide from day-to-day where to go and how long to stay.
Listening to that little voice
While we enjoyed immersing in the Renaissance history of Spello and exploring the pine-tree lined beaches of Zadar, there were too many tourists this time of year for our taste. So after three nights in each city, we moved on.
We were packing no expectations to the southern Italian city of Acropoli and instantly felt at ease with the city’s welcoming people and low key vibe. With a rich history, (unknown to us until we arrived,) along with easy access to beaches and mountains, this town by the sea could occupy our interest for a long time. Every afternoon for eight days, one of us would say, “Let’s stay another day.”
A similar scenario in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, except we went through the “another day” ritual for fourteen days. Who could have guessed we would have felt immediately at home in Croatia’s largest city. We dove in head first, explored every corner, and gained an insider’s perspective on this rapidly changing spot.
Now we find ourselves embedded in a surprising new place that came to us almost by accident while spending a few days in Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city. We enjoyed Rijeka’s lively arts scene and bustling port, but craved calm.
On a whim during an afternoon run, I dropped into the tourist office of a quiet fishing village eight miles away. As I questioned the nice man behind the counter about places to stay, fate entered the door in the form of a fatherly fellow named Lucio. Overhearing my conversation, he said his family rented an apartment and he would take me for a look if I hopped on his motorcycle.
A day later, we became neighbors with Lucio and his lovely wife Fiori, in their “house,” a historic villa facing the sea. Our slice of paradise is a postage stamp-sized apartment boosting greater square-footage on the terrace than the interior.
The kitchen is so tiny, my elbow bangs against the wall opening the mini-fridge. The large windows, even with shutters closed – the ocean blue shutters I’ve always dreamed of having – welcome in a flood of light too early every morning.
Outside, we have a tiny iron table and two sturdy chairs for morning coffee and evening wine. The smell of rosemary, basil, and sage drifts from Fiori’s garden. We have our own personal kiwi tree. I’ve never actually seen a kiwi tree before.
We have a million dollar view. For $35/night.
I have no doubt fisherman across the bay heard the screeching of our brakes echo across the water as we realized…this was home, at least for a spell.
A few months ago, many people asked, “Why Vattaro?” when we chose to spend two months in that tiny Italian town.
Maybe we like obscure sounding places that start with “V.” Or maybe we just like places where we instantly feel like part of the fabric.
Located on the tip of Istria in western Croatia, Volosko occupies the spot on Kvarner Bay where the Adriatic comes most deeply into the country. Facing the water, with the Ucka mountain range behind, you feel as though the whole sea begins here. The winds are strong and consistent making it a prime spot for windsurfing. There was a sunrise regatta last weekend that we missed, or should say, slept through. (We’re living life, not vacationing, after all.)
The village is officially part of the glamorous resort town of Opatija, easily reached via a meandering stone pathway along the sea. Since 1889, the lungomare (aka: Franz Joseph I Coastal Promenade,) has provided visitors and locals with a scenic avenue for strolling along the sea, by dramatic cliffs and pebble beaches, majestic villas turned luxury hotels, lush gardens of oak and palm, and festive restaurants and bars.
Just a few kilometers separate Opatija and Volosko, yet the feel couldn’t be more different. The larger neighbor is lined with gorgeous mansions from the town’s golden age of tourism from the mid-1800s to early 1900s when Austrian nobility roamed the waterfront and names like Franz Ferdinand and Princess Stephanie were whispered in ballrooms. It is also filled to the brim with busloads of German and Austrian tourists.
With centuries’ worth of attention directed elsewhere, Volosko has remained just under the radar. The homes, a little less grand yet stunning in their own way, proudly show the passage of time. The overall look is more lived in. The people are a little saltier. The feeling is authentic.
It seems a mandate that every stone house must cultivate flowers to gracefully spill over balconies. By law, every window must reveal either an undershirt-clad old-timer puffing on a cigarette while gazing at the sea or a nonna hanging pillowcases of floral print to dry. Feline sentries stand guard along each narrow lane, like their ancestors before, making it clear: this is their town.
And every conversation you overhear is a strange, yet lovely mix of Italian, English, and Croatian. At one time, after World War I, this area was part of Italy and you feel the influence in every aspect of the culture. By car or bus, you can be in Trieste in less than 90 minutes (with a short hop through Slovenia.)
Pocket-size purveyors of traditional cuisine provide a welcome mat along the small harbor and in quiet nooks around town. For a place this size, Volosko boasts a surprising number of acclaimed restaurants. Every weekend foodies in the know make the pilgrimage here to eat mounds of grilled squid and fried sardines in traditional konobas, with Konoba Ribarnica Volosko and Konoba Tramerka being our two favorites. The latter’s risotto with squid ink alone is worth a trip to Croatia.
There’s a famous bakery here, Kaokakao, creating pastries so beautiful you can hardly imagine sinking in a fork. When you give in, the millefoglie, a masterpiece of raw cake, makes you mourn its loss with every bite as you would a dear friend.
Speaking of friends, we became buds with a few regulars – as every visitor should – in the town’s only bar. A place with a name we don’t know. Maybe there isn’t one. Everyone just calls it, “the bar.” I’ve seen bathrooms in America bigger than this place. Last call is 9:45, and they mean business. Empty drink or not, at 10 p.m., you’re shown the door, along with an outside nook for leaving the dirty glass behind when you stop lingering on the sidewalk.
A few nights ago, our new friend Matteo, with arms waving wildly in the air gestured down the main street and said, “Nothing has changed here in two hundred years. Make that three hundred years! Hell, probably five hundred years!” (I think this was the point when he knocked a glass of red wine into my white sweater, but that’s neither here nor there.)
While not exactly true, even a place like Volosko changes – there is even a Konzum now (the ubiquitous grocery store chain that is a Croatian town’s sign of progress if ever there was one.) Still, it’s not difficult to see, Volosko does seem stubbornly opposed to change.
And, it is easy to understand when you contemplate the history. This whole area has lived through enormous change in a relatively short span. Just imagine…moving from Austrian influence at the turn of the last century, to Italian hands, then to Yugoslavia after WWII. Journeying the long road from communism to democracy, with regretful bursts of nationalism in between. And now striving to become part of the Schengen Zone and fully within Europe’s warm embrace. It makes my head spin, and I’m only passing through.
Could such a tiny village ever be our home?
Today in Volosko, the church and harbor are still the center of life as they have been, if not forever, for a very long time. We’ve now been here almost three weeks and it is impossible to walk down the street without seeing everyone we know. Running into a new friend yesterday in the post office, then minutes later in the market, she said, “Wow, we’re hitting all the hot spots together.”
“You’re still here?” we hear that question at least once a day. The locals simply can’t believe two Americans would like this town enough to stay as long as we have.
When I get anxious for action, I can see the lights of Rijeka, just a short bus ride away. It feels almost like a safety net. I know the big city is there within my grasp if I need her, but I get to enjoy the tranquility of small town life.
We chat with Lucio and Fiori in that wacky mix of English, Croatian, and Italian that gets more fluid each day. Two days ago when we said we would need to leave soon to make our flight from Dubrovnik to Morocco, they seemed shocked. There had been a joke floating between them that we were staying a year, maybe two.
We can’t say the thought hasn’t occurred to us. We’re just not ready to put down roots…yet. Even if the pace is creeping slow, we have to keep moving on.
For our going away, the couple prepared an elegantly simple dinner of perfectly grilled fish and spicy potato salad. Fiori set our terrace table with fine china. Lucio brought out the special homemade rakija (Croatian grappa) for a tasting.
Then we met our new friends, Frank and Matteo, at the bar for a parting drink. Like in watering holes everywhere, we talked about politics and world affairs. We laughed. A lot. We parted with hugs and promises to return and Frank’s true-blue words ringing in our ears, “You know where to find us. We’ll be right here.”