Thursday, 1 October 2015

Pula, Kamenjak and Bale: Now look over here

Pula, Croatia (Pula, Hrvatska)
It was in the ancient town of Pula that we first discovered the Croatian phenomena of cheap apartment accomodation. It seemed too good to be true that we could pay €30-40 per night for an entire place to ourselves (including kitchen and bathroom) for three people. Surveying the apartment, Fabienne nodded her head that the bedroom was acceptable - but then when presented the rest of the apartment she was gobsmacked. "This is all ours? Really?!" We were given free food and maps and it was wonderful. 
The next morning we set out to explore the town. (We had planned to the evening before but enjoyed the apartment so much that we stayed in.) The ancient Roman amphitheatre from the first century AD still stands, and is entirely constructed from locally sourced limestone. A stage had been arranged in the centre for a concert of electronic music the night before. I'm not sure how they charged people to listen, as you could stand quite far away from the amphitheatre and still be privy to the music and sights. There are big holes in it, you see. 
Following where the city walls once stood, we came upon the Triumphal Arch of Sergius, which was built in 27BC. A passing tour guide, who didn't seem to understand how guiding worked, explained to his group how his local wisdom could be advantageous as "most people do not know where to look, but I will give you some tips". Pointing at the arch, he said "Look over here." The gaze of the congregation obediently swung arch-wise. "Now look over here", he continued pointing at another bit of the arch. Job done, he led his flock onwards. €50 well spent!
The Temple of Augustus is a dominating Roman structure on the main square. Thomas Allason, an English architect and draftsman, produced a set of engravings entitled 'Picturesque Views of the Antiquities of Pola in Istria' in 1819. It was at the temple that I bought three postcards showing what Pula's ancient monuments looked like nearly two hundred years ago, courtesy of Allason. When seeing them next to their modern day counterparts, I could see how much more unearthed the antiquities were - less overgrown with foliage and more overgrown with modern buildings surrounding them on all sides.  
Inside were a few interesting remnants of the temple's decorations, including someone's feet in elaborate sandals. Man or god? If it was Augustus himself, then the answer is both man and god. Oh, those Romans. 
Another interesting tidbit was a poster (for sale, not a historical document) showing the origin of the Cyrillic alphabet. According to legend, brothers Saint Cyril and Methodius crafted an early version, and their disciples honed it into the Cyrillic alphabet we know today. Though Cyrillic isn't used in Croatia, it is employed in Serbia and the countries were connected under the former Yugoslavia. 
We took a break from our explorations to partake in a drink at Facefood, which was a blatant and hilarious rip-off of the most popular social media network. Get that food in your face. 
For lunch we chose the much more sophisticated Vodnjanka. Serving traditional Istrian food at affordable prices, it was well worth the unpleasant view I got of a man shitting in a lawn opposite the entrance. I'm sure that doesn't happen often. The waiter recommended Pasareta, a shockingly red soft drink that was surprisingly tasty. With a sweet mandarin flavour, Pasareta is produced in the area, and I was unable to find it after moving on from Pula. Our meaty mains were followed by what was described as a 'cheesecake', but turned out to be much lighter than the American-style dessert of the same name. Whenever there is only one dessert on the menu, it should be sampled as it is always well selected and prepared. The airy cake was accompanied by a fig jam that was made fresh the day before by the chef. 

It was here that we began to understand how friendly and engaging the Croatian people really were. On our way out, we thanked our waiter for the manner in which he had so helpfully made recommendations and explained all the food to us. He replied that this is how it should be, and happily said he always liked people from New Zealand as they would actually give him feedback on the dining experience, as opposed to Americans who just said everything was "great!" even if they hated it. We struck up a conversation and he proceeded to enthrall us with his seemingly endless knowledge and enthusiasm for Istria (he was thinking of setting up his own tour agency). We learned that the Istrian language is more similar to ancient Venetian than Croatian or Italian, that the land here had four different types of soil thanks to the continental drift's geological tourism, and that Pula was where the first U-boat was built and had been bombed multiple times due to its strategic value as a military factory. 
Venturing on from Pula, we took an afternoon detour to Kamenjak National Park just south of Premantura. Though there appeared to be a ticket office at the entrance to the park, we were instructed that we were required to buy tickets in the town. Through trial and error, we eventually discovered the ticket office inside the acquarium (silly me!) and paid entry for our car (pedestrians and bicycles are free to enter Kamenjak). Relatively secluded, the dusty paths led to rocky beaches. Foolishly I hadn't brought my swimsuit, but Yannick frolicked in the water and ruminated in a superheated rock pool like a cold-blooded aquatic lizard. 
Heading back to the car, Yannick saw a golden photo opportunity and snapped a picture of the sun setting through the pine forest. I often feel that photos don't do justice to the real sight, but this photo turned out better than in real life!
Thinking it would be simple to find camping further along the coast, as it had been thus far, we were quickly proved wrong when Denis' navigation system (who we have now taken to calling Lady Cynthia for her posh manner of speaking - "turn around when possible") advised us that the next camping would be hours away. Fearing that it would be closed by the time we arrived or worse (nudist camping), we decided to turn back and take our chances on the Pula side of the coast. The first campground we came across seemed to have been converted into a large car park. "You're here for the festival, right?" A series of further unsuccessful inquiries led to us setting up in the dark in the last tiny spot we could find much further up the coast than we had intended to travel. Exhausted, we went to sleep and the bacon and Grana Padano we had purchased for Caesar salad creation was left to spoil in the back seat of the car. 
Though we had ended up in a half-half nudist camp, the view from our tent in the morning was pretty spectacular once the bare bottoms got out of the way. 
Though pitching our tents at 11pm on a scrap of outcrop that was a ten minute walk from the bathrooms was frustrating, without it we would not have discovered the village of Bale. A quaint series of sand-coloured streets immediately drew me in and we wandered around the cobblestones for part of the morning. 
Apparently the infamous Casanova also had a fondness for Bale, which is officially bilingual in Croatian and Italian (it is known in Italian as Valle d'Istria). The Venetian playboy chased girls here so often that an "informative" plaque was erected to honour his presence. At least, I think it was supposed to be informative, and yet I couldn't make the connection between Casanova and Bale's jazz bar as I'm fairly sure jazz wasn't popular in the eighteenth century. 
After posing in a well-placed frame, we threw out the lettuce and began the long drive to Zadar.

Today's post was almost called: Caesar's Forgotten Salad Amongst Roman Remains (or Pula'p a Chair, Let Me Tell You of Istria)