Waking up in Istria

by Tia on February 27, 2011

Nothing brings promise like a summer morning. I should have been lingering in bed, sleeping away the fatigue of the ride from Venice through Slovenia to Croatia and of finding a place to stay the night after the unexpected encounter with Piran’s inexcusable tackiness forced us to seek alternative habitat. Finding ourselves in Kastelir did not exactly follow the dream path I had envisioned for our visit to Istria. My two travel companions and I wanted to spend a few days by the amicably whispering waves of the Adriatic. We hoped to be risen from sleep by the siren call of the aroma of strong Turkish coffee and spend sunny afternoons discovering the chestnut-shaded nooks of medieval hilltop towns in a region that many had labeled the new Tuscany. I effortlessly imagined walking into an ancient, stone-plates-covered square where timeless old men would let me watch them play backgammon. We did not anticipate ending up in an unambitiously quiet village, displaying vague intent to capitalize on the budding efforts of European agriturism, at the hotel of a penny-pinching owner who kept promising to provide soap for our bathroom but never did, finally forcing us to venture out and get our own sanitary supplies at the drowsy local store. Which is undoubtedly what the penny-pinching owner was hoping for all along. The hot shower could not wash off the nagging feeling that we were wasting a precious vacation day at a place that had little to offer.     

Waking up at dawn the next morning was not the result of romantic anticipation of the day to come. It was merely the product of my long established inability to remain under the soothing spell of Morpheus while experiencing sharp audible stimulation, the source of which in this occasion was the village street sweeper truck. The cooing of doves and the cool morning air, flowing through the window, were all it took to make me feel compelled to go wander outside.  

The village streets were remarkably clean and empty in a hospitable way that conveyed alternative human occupation, not abandonment. I walked past stone houses with narrow eves and perky chimneys, covered with miniature fortress-like roofs. It was hard to tell if the closed pastel-colored shutters were meant to provide protection from the encroaching heat of the day or indicated their occupants were away. In front of a beautifully restored cream colored stone house, lush pink and white rhododendrons enshrouded the trunks of two svelte palms in an elegant reminder that the warm Adriatic coast was only miles away. The road took me to the village ends, where newly planted olive groves stretched their shimmering silvery branches and young vineyards healed the urban eye with the gentlest hues of green. The only presences sharing the road with me were the precarious early morning shadows of softly swaying acacias.  

On the way back, I walked by the village square and greeted the small assembly of elders at the bench across the church with a courteous nod. Fittingly, they displayed little curiosity and regarded me with the matter-of-fact acceptance of folks that had never experienced the frivolous need to go on vacation. They knew as well as I did that I was merely a passing visitor, unequipped with true intent to penetrate the village life with its practical rituals and unpretentious needs. Everything fell into place. We were even. I hadn’t chosen to visit the village; the village hadn’t chosen to invite me. It wasn’t burdened by a need to live up to my travel-article-fueled expectations of picturesque quaintness and orchestrated charm. And then, freed of my self-imposed limitations, I began to enjoy the place’s unfeigned simple vitality. I didn’t even mind the pained look in the hotel owner’s eyes when at breakfast we asked for a third coffee refill.

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