May, 2016 – Rovinj, Croatia
Six years ago, with a dream of floating down the Adriatic, we boarded a ferry from Trieste headed for the Istrian peninsula. That particular boat’s destination, Rovinj, was chosen simply because it was the right route at the right time. Our collective knowledge of what lay ahead equaled just about zero.
I can only describe the feeling as bewilderment as we caught a first glimpse of the town materializing in the distance. Silver slabs of rock rose from the sea kindly supporting a row of lemon yellow and sun-kissed tangerine homes, each crowned with red-tile and beanstalk-like chimneys. As if to temper the whimsical effect, a church tower rose dramatically above all as a humbling reminder of life beyond man-made joys.
We both vividly remember the conversation.
Is that Croatia? It looks a lot like Italy.
Wrestling with our own ignorance, we soon reasoned that given the short distance – Rovinj is only 60 miles from Trieste – along with Venice’s historic domination of the coast, of course it makes sense for this to be Venetian in essence.
The town would continue to surprise us during that visit, then call to us to return as we pursued other travels. We are back now for what we initially dubbed a six-week immersion. In reality, six is stretching to eight, and every day there’s talk of the next visit.
Why do we love Rovinj so? Here are just a few reasons…
Matt & Jess’s fun facts, goofy trivia, & general musings about magical Rovinj
On the surface, Rovinj reminds most visitors of Italy. And, rightly so. Under Venetian influence from 1283 to 1797, much of the architecture seems but a kissing cousin of famed towns in the Veneto. A brief period, if that’s what you call a century or so, was under Austrian rule. Then it was back to Italian leadership for Rovinj, until after WWII with the formation of Yugoslavia. However, it should be said, when you dig deeper, you begin to understand the Italian influence here is but a slice of the area’s beautiful and unique culture pie.
Rovinj started life, around the 3rd century, as an island! How cool is that? Having limited space necessitated the building of tall, narrow houses which appear to prop each other up like friends closing down a pub. Seriously tight quarters (like ten family members living in one small room,) resulted in the building of the town’s distinctive exterior chimneys. Then, in the 1760s the channel separating the island from the mainland was filled, instantly transforming Rovinj’s old town into a peninsula connected with the “new city” just across the way.
Today, a walk home for us means crossing under Balbi Arch, a striking historical gate that once marked entrance to the fisherman’s section of town. As we pass underneath, it seems only appropriate to offer salute to the Venetian lion carved in stone, a forever-ferocious watchman over the city.
Rovinj has its own symbol, the batana, a flat-bottom boat unique to this stretch of coastline. The historical tradition is recognized by UNESCO for cultural signifance while shipbuilding as an art form is highlighted in galleries and museums around town.
You can’t talk about batana without mentioning bitinade, or traditional fishermen’s songs. Hearing recordings of these traditional “salty dog” folk songs could warm even the coldest fish. Thought to have been created by fishermen as a way to pass time while repairing nets, the unique music involves singers imitating musical instruments. Just imagine sitting on the dock with your closest buds, everyone smelling of sardines, yet sounding like a string section.
The church that dominates the skyline is dedicated to Rovinj’s patron saint, St. Euphemia. Yeah, I know, another church in Europe…double yawn. But, this one involves a lion mauling! Legend has it that Euphemia, a woman who would not deny her Christian faith, met her end via lion by order of Roman emperor Diocletian. A ghastly end, in an arena with spectators no less, for a pious woman. Fast forward hundreds of years when her body floats into the harbor of Rovinj. The crazy heavy marble sarcophagus is somehow lifted by a mere boy, along with his two trusty cows, up the town’s hill, site of today’s church. And, what a church it is! The current tower, built by a Milanese architect in 1651, was planned as a twin to the grand Church of St. Marks in Venice. Capped with a copper statue of Euphemia holding a swirling wind direction detector, it’s a smile generator from every vantage point.
From our window, we have a view of exterior renovations underway in the town’s historic theatre. Gandusio Theatre was named after a popular actor and comedian born here in 1873. While the stage once played host to grand operas and burlesque reviews, today it shows first run movies. If that’s what you call recently featured films like Batman vs Superman and Everybody Wants Some, (in English with Croatian subtitles.) Just another oddity, this once-glamorous theatre shares the building with Konzum, the very unglamorous, workaday Croatian grocery chain.
The town is a magical mix of Croatian and Italian, officially boasting two names: Rovinj and Rovigno. It’s also officially bilingual. (Unofficially, trilingual if you count the local dialect, a smashup of Italian, Croatian, Austrian, and who knows what else.)
The “normal” population, meaning the steady number of inhabitants, mental-state regardless, is around 15,000. During the height of summer, that number swells to almost 35,000. While the eccentricity level drops as an army of tour-bus-loving, sun-worshipping conformists invade. (My apologies to “lovers of the tour group.” It takes all kinds. Really.)
Eats, Drinks, & Sniffs
Like any Adriatic seaside town worth its salt, Rovinj delivers on artisan boutiques and shops lining main streets and providing an elegant backdrop for passegiata, the nightly ritual of strolling through town. A novelty here, Lavenda shops sell nothing but lavender! Whole shops devoted to purple, smelly goodness! A specialty product of the area, lavender comes in every form imaginable: soaps, shampoos, sprays, edibles. The subtle scent fills the air at night. Hhm, maybe that’s why this place is so relaxing?
Every afternoon in spring, locals can be spotted walking into the woods surrounding the peninsula with empty baskets. Stick around a bit to see them emerge, baskets overflowing with ribbons of green goodness. It’s asparagus season and foraging for the wild stuff is savvy business!
It’s a gastronomic treat to be here for Restaurant Week in early April, when almost every restaurant offers reasonably-priced set menus featuring local specialties. In the name of research, we sampled a few. From pilchards (grilled sardines,) to cuttlefish and squid ink risotto, we’ve savored every bite, always with a trio of our favorite Istrian delights, 1. blitva (chard sautéed with garlic and the region’s distinctive grassy olive oil,) 2. an assortment of locally-made cheeses, 3. a crisp white Malvazija.
On that note, let’s talk Croatia wines. Although they may not be as well known as their Italian counterparts, the industry is making impressive strides. Istrian wines are incredibly light and easy to drink including our favorite, Malvazija. There’s a winer maker’s shop just down the road, San Tommaso, where Matt enters with liters of empty water bottles after a bike ride and emerges with bottles filled with wine, for less than $2 each. My kinda of shop!
Events & Nightlife
Many years and brain cells on my part have been spent (as an arts marketing professional) turning over ideas of the best way to reach audiences with a message. Slick TV commercials? Glossy brochures? Clever social media campaigns? Want to know how Rovinj reaches people with information about events, workshops, and festivals? With a method as simple in design as artistic in execution. Hand painted signs propped outside the grocery store serve as a town crier. Every week, old signs are taken away, painted over with new events – in 3 languages no less – then returned for display: a choral performance or photo exhibit, maybe a lecture or film. Every trip to the grocery store is like Christmas for event-announcement lovers like me. Who paints these signs? How long does each take? These are hot topics I must explore!
You all know about our love – okay “obsession” – of all things quesadilla and margarita. So, what a surprise to discover that Rovinj boasts a Mexican restaurant! There may be as much Croatian rakija flowing as tequila. Local people see the need to buy us a “round” every time we enter the doors, for some strange reason. Weird and wonderful, where Croatia meets Mexico, it’s hard not to love the place.
After spending way too many hours in the Irish pub in Budva, Montenegro (there seems to be at least one in every port,) we swore never to get sucked into that ex-pat scene again. Yet, guess where we head any time the words “night” and “cap” are used together? Yep, Rovinj has a lively Irish pub that’s packed just about every night with an interesting mix of locals, expats, and travelers. It’s the only game in town after 11 and go-to place for local restaurant staff and chefs. Loud, smoky, stinky, crowded. Isn’t she grand?
Rovinj is an outdoor lover’s dream. For swimming and sunning, a mix of pebble and sand beaches can be reached via a short walk from old town. For cyclists, kilometer after kilometer of quiet roadways stretch through the green hills of Istria creating rolling vistas for cyclists. For mountain bikers, the area boasts an extensive network of well-marked trails.
For divers, there is a well-preserved shipwreck nearby, the Baron Gautsch which went down in 1914. Kayakers have a dream destination of Lim Ford just up the coast. And, crewed excursion boats or exclusive rentals line the town’s two harbors ready to cruise, sail, and fish.
If climbing is your thing, this is a great place for free climbing, with a sea view! A half hour walk from the old town brings you to an old Venetian quarry where dozens of climbers of all skills are giving it a go every day. It’s fun to watch, and easy to organize an outing with the nice folks at Climb Istria.
For lovers of the nude – yes, that totally counts under “outdoor lovers,” this region of Istria offers several FKK parks along the peninsula.
And, if like me, running is your passion…well, get ready for a bold statement. This is my favorite place to run in the whole wide, round, big world!