03.07.2013 - 03.07.2013
Our plan today was to visit a series of Istrian (EE-stree-ah) hilltowns, highlighed by Motovun (moh-toh-VOON) and Groznjan (grohzh-NYAHN). After these towns we planned to pass into the Slovenia to the coastal town of Piran (pee-RAHN) before visiting a cave and castle near Postojna (poh-STOY-nah). We then drive to Ljubljana to stay the night.
First we had one last tasty breakfast at Casa Garzotto.
Lets start with a random thought. Setting out on the freeway on our way to Istrian hill towns I realized that I’ve never seen a Balkan driver use a turn signal while changing lanes on a freeway.
The first Istrian Hill Town we visited was Motovun. It was very small, but also inviting and adorable. Hiking up from the parking area to the town we encountered an older man making and selling woodcuts. From the wood he carved out amazing images of the hilltown, along with some other images. We watched him work for awhile and were very impressed. Finally we asked him how long I took him to carve the wood reliefs. After broken English and scribbling on some paper, he relayed that it took 8-12 hours to make each one. He was asking only 250 kuna (~45$) for each woodcut. We don’t purchase many souvenirs, but when we do we like to purchase locally made items. Especially in rural areas where unemployment is probably sky high. So after we walked around the ramparts of the town and did some wine and truffle tastings, we swung by and bought it on the way out.
We stopped by the truffle capital of the world, a small town called Livade and grabbed some truffle oil.
Drove through another hill town called Oprtalj
We then walked through an old, nearly abandoned hill town called Zavrsje.
This dog met us not far from our car and lead us on a walk of the only road through town, like it was familiar with tourists. We called him our pissing tour guide. As he would sprint ahead of us, he would pee on things to seemingly mark a path for us. When we would stop, he would wait patiently for us. It was hilarious.
The last hill town we visited was Groznjan. This town was full of artists and their galleries. The wonderful and windy streets were easy to get lost in, especially since every landmark was a gallery. Here we grabbed lunch.
Leaving town we headed north, passing into Slovenia. As we left Croatia, I thought back to an interesting and controversial subject that came up with a local Croatian, race. We were talking about all the bad blood between cultural groups in the former Yugoslavia, so talk turned to somewhat parallel situations in the US. I mentioned that race relations in the US are complicated. Despite the fact that things have improved a lot, at minimum subtle racism is still a daily reality for minorities in the US, and that although it is widespread, some areas are worse than others. The Croatian responded that this is not a problem in their country, and that people don’t care about interracial relationships. I had to bite my lip. I get the sense, and maybe this is completely unfounded, that many Europeans believe they have no racial relations problems in their country, and that is not surprising given everyone wants to think the best of their culture. The US is full of minorities, so the opportunity for conflicting interactions is high. With 20% of the world’s immigrants entering the US, you could flip your perspective and ask why there is not even more racial issues in the US. It is easy to claim that racism is not a problem in Europe when 99% of the people belong to the same overall ethnic group, and minorities are rarely encountered, giving the impression problems don’t exist. However, I think many Europeans that believe this are fooling themselves and are being a bit disingenuous. I wonder if these Europeans have ever asked any of the immigrants in their country (~0.01% of the population in some places) about their experience before forming their opinion?
For example, before I arrived in Croatia I read a news story about how multiple times Croatia’s soccer clubs were fined, and fans were excluded from some games, for racist chants at black players (for example, making monkey noises). Now to be fair to Croatians this was only ~10-20% of the stadium, and this has happened in other European countries like Italy. In other words the majority of Croatians are not misbehaving like this, and this problem is not unique to Croatia. However, if this happened on the same scale in a major American sports stadium, I imagine those people would get the snot beat out of them by the remainder of the crowd. Maybe this would be possible at a small US sporting event in some isolated areas of the country, but probably not at a major sporting in a major city. Then again, maybe I am being naïve. Are Americans perfect in this regard? No, but at least many will admit that improvement is needed so the problem can be faced and dialogue can happen.
The first coastal town we hit in Slovenia was the coastal town of Piran, part of Slovenia's measly 29 miles of coastline. Piran has a lot of bang for the buck though. The architecture of the town felt more a mix of Germanic and Venetian, since this part of Slovenia used to be part of the Austrian Empire and Venetian Republic. Language and some cultural aspects of the people still seemed more Italian flavored, probably because at the beginning of the century, most of the town's inhabitants were Italian, so this aspect is not much different than the Istrian coast we just came from.
At this point in the day, I unfortunately realized this was going to be the second day that felt a bit rushed. Oh well, you live, you learn. So far only two days rushed and hopefully 14 days more relaxed.
At the end of the day we visited the Postojna Caves, the largest series of limestone caves in the world. It was very impressive but it also felt a little like Disneyland. First of all, to visit you must take a tour. For part of the tour you get on this little moving train. The train moves through caves that sometimes look like the caves found in a Disney ride, except all of the cave formations are incredible because they’re real and not made out of concrete. Secondly, they are trying to wring every last euro out of you. Employees try to up sell you on the tour before you even reach the cave entrance, and the audioguide has five ads slipped into it trying to sell you stuff. The audioguide says no flash pictures because they may disturb the cave wildlife. They insinuate that this sensitivity is part of the reason why the caves are pristine, and hence the cave wildlife has been conserved. However, the entire cave is artificially lit and the biologist in me is wondering “where are all the bats at and why don’t they ever mention them if this cave is so pristine, this is a cave right?” The floor of the final cave is covered with concrete and it contains gift shop where you can buy all those postcards of the pictures you couldn’t take (yes the gift shop is INSIDE THE CAVE). I’m not saying don’t go, the caves are a must see, but when the attraction is nature itself all that ‘unnatural’ stuff and Disneyfied atmosphere really takes away from the enjoyment or sense of wonder. Also they should have a ‘must be shorter than this to ride this ride’ sign. That train is lawsuit city - I’m vertically challenged and I thought that a stalactite was going to smack me in the head a couple of times. This train would be a good way to shut Charles Barkley up.
We also visited the nearby Predjama Castle. The castle is incredible looking in pictures, with the castle nested in a cave structure. I was unexpectedly impressed with it in person. The thing that is difficult to perceive when you view the picture is how huge the castle and cave is. Supposedly this castle was inhabited by some rich robber. He holed up in the castle which protected him from army authorities, and survived by using a secret tunnel to assess supplies in an adjacent town. The army got him by bribing a servant in the castle to indicate when he was using the outhouse on the top floor of the castle. They then shot him with a cannonball while using the toilet.
Overwhelmed with sightseeing, we sped off to Ljubljana, the capital and largest city in Slovenia. On the way we got stuck in traffic. I turns out that Americans are not the only people who create traffic jams by gawking at nothing. Luckily we found a parking spot right across the street from where we were staying in the city. Tonight we grabbed a late dinner and stayed at Stari Tisler.