Ivana’s Istrian Fingers

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I woke up in the dark. I pushed open my lumbering shutters. The heavy rain storm had cleaned the air, and an early-morning light invigorated the colors. Glistening red-tile roofs led to a rustic stone rampart. On the rampart was my co-author, Cameron, pointing his camera at a lush landscape of rolling hills and simple farms. This was Istria.

Feeling overworked, I scheduled a massage for 8:30. When I booked, for some reason I decided I’d enjoy it more if it wasn’t a male Croat working me over. I requested a woman. The receptionist assured me it was a woman…“a young woman.”

So I traded breakfast for a “sport massage” and climbed up to the hotel’s spa room, where Ivana met me. The experience seemed Yugoslavian (even though that country is long gone): No chat…no soft music…no candles…just the radio and hanging neon lights. Still, Ivana’s hands were strong. She did her work dutifully. It was an hour and $40 well spent.

With me in tow, Cameron valiantly tried to unearth some gems in Croatia’s Istrian interior. But either our luck was bad, or (more likely) there are few true gems to be found.

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Compared with the rest of the former Yugoslavia, Istria is charming enough. But a history of poverty leaves it with a disappointingly weak veneer of culture — an ersatz Tuscany. While nice roads lace together a lush green countryside, it’s cinderblocks rather than bricks, broken concrete rather than marble, rust rather than rustic. Istria’s much-flouted truffles may be tasty…but not tasty enough to shape an itinerary. The hill towns are hill towns…but so poor that they inherited nearly no distinctive architecture.

My advice for Istria in a nutshell: Motovun (where we slept…and Ivana works) is a fine hill town, uniquely Croatian with a fun splash of Italy (Mario Andretti was born here). The smaller hill town of note, Groznjan, was too sleepy for my taste on our visit in the shoulder season. The big city of Pula is great for its Roman amphitheater and a walk through work-a-day Croatia. But the saving grace of Istria…and one of my new favorites anywhere in Europe…? I’ll tell you later.


11 Replies to “Ivana’s Istrian Fingers”

  1. I’m wondering if Croatia will soon be part of the European Union. I keep hearing rumors to that effect. Undoubtedly, the best part of Croatia is the people. They are extremely warm and friendly. That will never change.

  2. Glad to hear you had the great experience of a massage while traveling. While in Istanbul I went to a traditional Turkish Bath, which was great as both a travel rest and a cultural experience. The Bath was alnmost 2000 years old, last 2 hours (with a vigorous Massage on a 1800 year old slab of marble) and cost the equivalent of $2.00. It was like being in a time warp, and experiencing it like a roman traveler. Since you are going to

  3. (Sorry Rick, I got cut off by a phone call, and did not realize until I went back to my comment, that I left off the last couple of words.) I was going to suggest that since you are traveling to Istanbul soon, you might want to try a Traditional Turkish Bath. Good traveling, Vince Ceccacci

  4. Hello, My husband and I were all over Istria earlier this month. This is actually the birthplace of many gastronical cuisines and famous chefs. We stayed in a wonderful place near Buje in Kremenje, Istria. The konoba has a famous restaurant that has won several awards and also the place where they celebrated a dinner with the world’s largest truffle found in the late 1990s. They also own a winery in Momjan. Their wine has also won recognition and awards. There are many wonderful restaurants all over Istria. Truffles are wonderful and dirt cheap in this region where they are hunted in October. It’s a shame if you don’t appreciate them because they are astronomical in neighboring countries such as France, Italy and the U.S. You can have homemade pasta and desserts with freshly shaved black or white truffles. To die for! On the coastal side where Novigrad, Portoroz and Rovinj are located, there are many restaurants that serve roasted meat and drive by the aromas!

  5. Rick, I am eager to hear what destination is one of your new favorites in Europe. I traveled throughout Croatia a couple of years ago and enjoyed it immensely. Two places in Istria that I particularly liked were Opatija and Plitvice Lakes National Park. Opatija has a faded beauty about it, but the lengthy promenade along its coastline offers stunning views. It was interesting to see villas that were once quite fashionable and were favored by many of Europe’s aristocracy. There are a number of charming villages that are located in the hills above Opatija, which were well worth a visit. Plitvice Lakes National Park was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The waterfalls that were everywhere and the azure blue water of the lakes was a sight unlike any I had seen before. In my opinion, Plitvice is one of Europe’s hidden gems. Perhaps it was the awesome surprise of it all that made the park so appealing to me. Posted by Linda G., a Rick Steves fan

  6. One of my adult music students is from Croatia. When I’m ready to go there, he can help me out on where to go and help me with the language. We can exchange services! He could get free music lessons while I can get help from him! How lucky for both of us! Even with his help, I will still buy your Croatia guide book. I always have to travel with my friend Rick!! Lisa P.

  7. Rick, Did you notice all the outdoor basketball hoops located throughout Yugoslavia, especially in Istria? No wonder there are so many Yugos in professional basketball. Reminded me of Indiana where school children dribble a basketball from home, up and down curbs, across streets, in order to make it the whole way to school without a double dribble. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – At the Plitvica National Park (near Zagreb, Yugoslavia), sixteen lakes are connected by thousands of little, hundreds of medium, and dozens of large waterfalls. We walked down the hill on the four feet wide wooden pathway that meandered over lakes, under waterfalls, through the Plitvica forest, up and down some steep ramps and stair steps. A scary walk through a gorgeous natural treasure. (1989) – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  8. we are heading to croatia in july .. we are comiong ffrom venice.. any tips.. only have a 5 days there…? how can we squeeze as much in in croatia and learn as much as we can in such a short time? help thanks Darlene

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