To sleep in the hill town of Motovun, Croatia, a steep hike is necessary, either a short one from the car park at the halfway point or a long one from the bottom of the hill. The long one of over one thousand steps passes the quaint boyhood home of Mario Andretti.
Motovun is on the Istrian Peninsula at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. People have lived in Istria for a long time. Evidence of human existence from one million years ago has been found in a cave near the coast.
The medieval town of Motovun was built on the site of prehistoric fortresses. When the Venetians ruled the Istrian coast from the 800s to the 1800s, they began enhancing Motovun’s defenses with rings of walls, towers, and gates.
The palace and bell tower were built in the 1200s; the Church of Saint Stephen in the 1500s. After Napoléon and the Austrians took their turns, the region returned to Italian control.
Andretti was born in Motovun in 1940, during a time when the town had a different name—Montona—and was in a different country—Italy. He and his brother raced homemade carts through the cobbled streets.
At the end of World War II, most of the peninsula was ceded to Yugoslavia. That’s when some three hundred thousand of Istria’s inhabitants were forced to emigrate to Italy, the culture with which they identified.
In 1948 the Andretti family left Motovun with only a few belongings. They lived in a refugee camp in Italy for seven years and then emigrated to America. Andretti was fifteen at the time of his arrival in the United States.
Motovun has around five hundred residents. At every turn is a restaurant with a sweeping view of the valley or a shop selling mistletoe brandy.
In the valley is an oak forest famous for truffles, a pungent tuber that grows underground. They are hunted with the help of specially trained truffle-sniffing dogs. At the hotel restaurant, the delicacy is sprinkled into pasta and scrambled eggs.
Morning and evening, I walked the sturdy ramparts, admiring the 360-degree view. Low-lying clouds hovered below. The Adriatic Sea shimmered in the distance.
Croatia has long been a favorite target for conquest.
Throughout history, the usual suspects—the Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Hungarians, Venetians, Turks, Austrians, and Nazis—arrived, ruled and eventually relinquished.
After World War I, the territory joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the forerunner of Yugoslavia.
In World War II, Croatia was invaded by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Hungary. The number of Croatians killed during the occupation is estimated at two hundred thousand. After the war, Croatia helped form the Republic of Yugoslavia.
Our Slovenian guide, Tina, shared her Union of Pioneers’ cap with its red-star pin. The Pioneers were children age seven and older. The union’s intention was to instill Yugoslavian values and loyalty in the country’s youth.
However, in 1991 Croatia declared its independence. A horrific four-year war followed, initially between Croatia and the rest of Yugoslavia and eventually between the Croatians and various Serbian paramilitary groups.
Acts of genocide were committed by both sides. Thousands of Croatians died and at least 170,000 fled their homes.
Today, Croatia is a member of both NATO and the European Union (EU). The country is the size of West Virginia with a population of over 4.5 million. Its capital is Zagreb. Its currency is the kuna.
These days, Croatia’s invaders are tourists. As a travel destination, it ranks among the top twenty in the world.
Just as the day-trippers arrived at the bottom of the hill in Motovun, we left for Pula (POO la), the largest Croatian city on the Istrian Peninsula.
Like most of the rest of Istria, Pula is bilingual. Croatian and Italian are both official languages and both taught in schools. Pula (Pola in Italian) has a population of ninety thousand.
The city was a major port in the 400s. The Romans built roads, buildings, aqueducts, and sewers, the remnants of which remain. They believed Rome would never end and so they engineered their empire for eternity.
Rome was a patriarchal society. Men had absolute authority over everything, both public and private.
So, imagine a woman who, in 27 BCE, commissioned the construction of a large stone arch at one of the gateways into an important Roman city.
Upon completion, the woman audaciously dictated the monument’s inscription: “I paid for this with my own money.”
The woman was Salvia Postuma. The Arch of the Sergii was dedicated to three deceased members of the noble Sergii family—Salvia’s husband, her son and her brother-in-law.
Bread, circuses and perfume
Our guide in Pula, Mariam, led us through the Old Town, stopping to point out various sights. Sometimes we walked on Roman paving stones.
Pula was fortified with a wall and ten gates, including the Arch of the Sergii. We passed a couple more, the Gate of Hercules and the Twin Gates.
At one end of the Roman forum stands the Temple of Augustus. Built prior to 14 CE, the temple honors Augustus Caesar. In 1944 it was accidentally hit by an Allied bomb. After the war, the Allies rebuilt it.
Next door, the city hall flies five flags, those of Pula, Istria, Croatia, Italy, and the EU.
During our lunch hour, I tracked down a preserved Roman floor mosaic. The mosaic, dating to the 200s CE, portrays a tragic revenge story of twin sons who killed their dad and tied his mistress to a rampaging bull. (On a separate trip, I saw a statue telling the same myth, partially carved by Michelangelo, in the Naples Archaeological Museum.)
At Café Uliks, a statue of Irish writer James Joyce sits enjoying the sea breeze. During the early 1900s, the real Joyce taught English in the building next door and worked on a collection of short stories, Dubliners. The café’s name, Uliks, means Ulysses in Croatian.
Pula’s crown jewel is its Roman amphitheater, one of the sixth largest and best preserved in the world.
The arena has fifteen gates and is the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four towers. It was constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE.
The towers had systems for spraying perfumed water on the crowd. (The smell of blood and guts tends to be off-putting.)
The amphitheater could be shielded from sun and rain with large awnings. Beneath the floor, hidden passages allowed gladiators and animals to enter the arena from dramatic angles.
The amphitheater once held twenty-three thousand spectators and is still in use for concerts and sports events.
Italy in Croatia
If Pula is history class, Rovinj (RO veen) is recess.
The town pokes out of the water on the western edge of the Istrian Peninsula, as if emerging from the sea. The buildings are hundreds of years old and crumbling picturesquely. Steep, cobbled lanes twist up the hill and arrive at the Church of Saint Euphemia.
For five centuries, the town was governed by Venice and so it goes by two names, Rovinj (Croatian) and Rovigno (Italian).
Accordingly, Rovinj is officially bilingual. The local blend of the two languages is called Istriot, a dialect still spoken by a few residents. The town has a population of fifteen thousand.
Remnants of the Venetian-built defensive walls still stand, but have been incorporated into the homes. Narrow stone staircases between the buildings lead down to the water and sometimes a waiting boat.
The highest point is the church’s bell tower, a replica of the one in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice. Euphemia’s relics are kept in the church.
I wandered the narrow streets, where crowded cafés alternate with art galleries. The streets are free of traffic. The pace is slow and the locals easygoing. Tourists browsed for wine, espresso, or gelato. Above my head, laundry was strung to catch the salty breeze.
Vendors offered free samples of black and white truffles at the market. Art students sat in doorways, sketching. In the harbor, local fishing boats rested at anchor.
If an ancient Tuscan hill town were moved from Italy to the coast of Croatia, it would look like Rovinj.
Walking the planks
At natural attractions in the United States, warning signs and barriers help protect tourists from their own stupidity.
Europeans, however, rely on the process of natural selection. If someone is foolish enough to take risks (for example, walking too close to the edge of a cliff), they deserve whatever happens.
This policy was on full display at Plitvice Lakes National Park, where visitors crowd narrow, wet boardwalks over crashing rapids. There are few railings.
Plitvice (PLEET veet suh) is a five-mile-long series of sixteen lakes, connected by waterfalls. The national park is one of the oldest and largest in Croatia. Each year over one million people visit Plitvice from around the world.
On the day our group arrived, the Upper Lakes section of the park was closed due to flooding. The boardwalk trails were underwater.
Instead, we took an electric boat across Kozjak Lake to the head of the Lower-Lakes walkway, as did thousands of others.
The “trail” is just wide enough for two single-file lines, one moving in one direction and one the other.
The planks were slippery. In several places, rapids surged over the boardwalk. We may as well have been walking through a waterpark.
Hikers from both directions started and stopped, as they navigated their footing and jostled each other to take photographs. One misstep or unintended bump is all it would have taken to hurl someone into the whitewater.
We picked our way back and forth across the lakes and the connecting cascades. Near the end of the trail, the largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, roared and shrouded the air with mist. There, the Plitvica River plunges the length of a football field into the valley below.
Drenched by the spray we climbed out of the canyon.
Nearby, the first shots in Croatia’s war for independence were fired on Easter Sunday in 1991. During the conflict, UNESCO added the park to its list of endangered heritage sites.
After the war, the new Croatian government made it a priority to remove landmines and reopen the park.
He was the most powerful man in the world.
Then, in 305 CE, he retired.
Diocletian reigned as emperor of Rome for twenty-one years. He was the last emperor to persecute Christians and the first to voluntarily abdicate.
After accepting his gold watch, he moved back to Croatia, his place of birth. On the island-flecked Adriatic coast he built a new home, a retreat where he could enjoy his retirement.
His new digs measured 323,000 square feet. Diocletian spent his remaining years tending his gardens.
Much of Diocletian’s palace is still intact. It forms the historic centerpiece of Split, the second largest city in Croatia, and is the most complete set of Roman palace ruins in the world.
Split is in the Dalmatia region of Croatia, a narrow strip of Adriatic coastline and attendant islands. The city has a population of nearly three hundred thousand. Its surfaces are covered in graffiti, all in support of the local soccer team, Hajduk Split. But there is not a speck of litter.
A local guide, Maya, toured us through the emperor’s retirement community.
Diocletian used to park his ship in the palace’s basement. The back gate was open to the sea, which allowed him to board inside his house, raise the gate and sail away.
The extensive vaulted cellars have been used in the filming of Game of Thrones. “This is where the dragons were kept,” Maya said.
Upstairs, the massive walls of the palace protected Diocletian’s luxurious villa and housed seven hundred bodyguards and servants. The walls connected sixteen guard towers.
A few of the original structures remain, including the lower floors of Diocletian’s apartments and the peristyle, an ornate open-air courtyard in the center of the palace. Now, in the evening, the peristyle transforms into a wine café with live music.
Four hundred years after Diocletian died, his octagonal mausoleum was converted into the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It is the oldest building used as a cathedral in the world.
Domnius was a bishop who Diocletian had killed, as part of his war on Christianity. Now, ironically, the bishop’s name has a place of honor inside his killer’s palace.
Outside the church is a thirty-five-hundred-year-old granite sphinx, one of thirteen brought to the palace from Egypt.
Another surviving building inside the compound is the Temple of Jupiter, now Saint John’s Baptistery.
In the Middle Ages, locals took shelter in the empty palace and grafted their homes onto the walls.
Today, those buildings are shops, restaurants and apartments. Three thousand people currently live inside the palace walls.
On my own, I explored Split’s other sights, its harbor, squares, markets, and national theater. Most enjoyable was sitting at a café on the Riva, the town’s seafront promenade. Maya referred to it as “the catwalk.” There, I saw many Dalmatians, but only one dog.
Marco Polo was not the first European to visit the Far East, but his dictated travelogue was a huge influence on explorers and merchants of his time. Even Christopher Columbus was inspired by the book.
Polo’s birth on the Croatian island of Korčula (CORE choo la) is a point of pride among locals.
Korčula is a postcard-perfect seaport with fifteen thousand residents. Everywhere I turned, I found Polo’s specter.
Marco Polo-branded shops on the island sell Marco Polo-branded souvenirs. His childhood home is currently being converted into a museum. In another museum, wax figures tell the incredible story of his twenty-four-year adventure.
And in Yangzhou, China, a museum recognizing the native son of Korčula was inaugurated by a past president of Croatia. He described Polo as a “world explorer, born in Croatia, who opened up China to Europe.”
All of which would be lovely—except no proof exists that Polo was born in Korčula.
The Croatians are perpetrating a birther theory in reverse.
Scholars say Polo was born in the Republic of Venice in 1254 CE. At that time, Venice controlled a vast empire that included Korčula. But the exact location and date of Polo’s birth are unknown. The purported “childhood home” in Korčula was not standing in the 1200s.
Croatia’s claim has the Venetians livid. They perceive Polo as Italian, not Croatian. An Italian newspaper described the Croatian assertion as “ridiculous.”
The kids playing in the pool aren’t the only ones that can’t find Marco Polo.
Donkey milk and sea salt
We caught a mid-morning ferry from the island of Korčula back to the Pelješac (PALE yuh shots) Peninsula. The number of wild-boar signs on the peninsula indicate boars are as common in Croatia as deer in Ohio. We passed through small villages of limestone houses with red roofs, vineyards, and orchards. The landscape was on fire with yellow Scotch broom.
In Kuna we stopped to tour the Antunovič family farm. The farm raises cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. Milk is produced from each.
After visiting the donkey herd, we gathered in the village at the farm’s dimly lit tavern, Konoba Antunovič. Sausages and hams hung from the ceiling like a colony of bats. The proprietress removed a huge loaf of bread from the wood-burning open-hearth oven.
For starters, we sampled pršut, salami, cheeses, olives, pickled garlic, white peppers, fresh bread, strawberries, cherries, and wine, all produced locally. Roasted veal, pork, lamb, and potatoes were the main course.
We did not eat donkey meat—but we did sample donkey milk.
Access to and from the Pelješac Peninsula is guarded by the village of Ston. When the city-state of Dubrovnik acquired the peninsula in the 1300s, it set about fortifying its gateway.
Ston was important not only due to its strategic location at the peninsula’s isthmus, but also because of its extensive salt pans. The extraction of salt from the sea was a major source of wealth for the merchants of Dubrovnik.
Five fortresses, forty towers, and a 4.3-mile wall were constructed in just eighteen months. Over the centuries, wars and earthquakes damaged the Wall of Ston.
In 2009, the fortifications were reconstructed and reopened. The salt pans are still in operation.
Diplomacy and ducats
Kids playing on a beach would need a full day to build a sandcastle resembling Dubrovnik.
They would first form a ring of seventeen massive towers, some round and some rectangular.
Then, connecting the towers, they would compose thick walls, supported by bastions.
At the four corners of the walled city, they would build individual fortresses. To protect the city from an attack by land, the kids would dig a moat around the back of the castle.
The project would take many bucketloads.
The real walls of Dubrovnik are eighty feet high and up to sixteen feet thick. They run for 1.2 miles around the city. They were never breached.
The city-state’s extensive fortifications were built in the 1300s through the 1600s. The castle is one of the largest and most complex in Europe.
In the 600s, Dubrovnik was founded by Roman and Slavic war survivors.
Over the centuries, the city grew to become a wealthy and powerful maritime trading center, rivaling mighty Venice.
Our Dubrovnik guide, Roberto, explained,“Because Dubrovnik was closer to the Orient, it was considered ‘Eastern.’ Because its population was largely Christian, it was also considered ‘Western.’”
Dubrovnik’s wealthy merchants were in a position to buy off the regime of the hour, whether it was Turkey, Venice, Hungary, or the Vatican.
“Thus, unlike the rest of Croatia, Dubrovnik was able to remain independent,” Roberto said. “It became the Hong Kong of Europe.”
Walls and stairs
Dubrovnik is traffic-free. The streets are too narrow and steep to drive anyway.
The best way to see the city is to walk the 1.2-mile loop on top of the walls, where Dubrovnik juts into the blue Adriatic. The city’s rooftops spread out below the walls like a red patchwork quilt. Green islands loll just offshore.
The steep ramparts pass around and through the city’s numerous towers and fortresses. Several Catholic and Orthodox church domes protrude above the housetops.
The architecture of Dubrovnik is a mix of medieval and baroque. The baroque style arrived after the earthquake of 1667 destroyed pretty much everything but the walls.
The former king of England, Richard the Lion Heart, was shipwrecked nearby in 1192. In gratitude for being helped, he contributed the money to build Dubrovnik’s cathedral. Its treasury supposedly holds Jesus’s swaddling clothes.
Inside the Pile Gate is Saint Savior Square and Onofrio’s Big Fountain, a sixteen-sided tank built in the 1400s. It once stored water piped in from the mountains seven miles away.
Beneath the first floor of the Ethnographic Museum in the Rupe Granary are fifteen cavernous silos carved out of stone. Built in the 1500s, they were used to store up to fifteen hundred tons of grain.
Our guide, Roberto, is one of approximately one thousand people who live inside the walls. He led us through several back alleys, while sharing the city’s history.
At one stop, Roberto indicated the discreet window of an orphanage where unwed mothers anonymously dropped off their newborns during the Middle Ages. At another he pointed at some wall scratchings, centuries-old graffiti, warning children to play more quietly in the streets.
Many Game of Thrones’ scenes were filmed in Dubrovnik. Tours and licensed merchandise are offered throughout the city. We visited the Church of Saint Ignatius next to the Jesuit staircase, which the character Cersei descended naked. “Shame!”
In 1991, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik was shelled by Yugoslavian artillery for eight months.
Near the Pile Gate is a map, showing each building hit by a bomb during the siege. Over two-thirds of the rooftops are marked. Despite the significant structural damage, the residents refused to leave.
Many of them helped defend the city by occupying the fort on the mountaintop above the town and risking their lives to supply troops outside the walls. Once again, Dubrovnik’s walls held.
In the Sponza Palace is the somber Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders. A large photo of each of the several hundred local residents who died protecting the city are on display. Most of them are young men.
Business as usual
I moved inside the city walls for a few days to an apartment on Žudioska Ulica. The alley was once the Jewish quarter and shares the same steep steps with the second oldest synagogue in Europe.
On a Sunday morning, I was up early, watching Dubrovnik quietly awaken.
Cats and pigeons scavenged for crumbs, while I sipped kava at a café on the the main boulevard. Priests and nuns ducked into the side doors of churches.
Throughout history, Dubrovnik has been a crowded international marketplace, its streets overflowing with travelers, merchants, adventurers, tourists, and traders.
Today is no different.
In preparation for the daily invasion, sweepers groom the passageways. Young men lug cases of wine up steep stairways. Restaurant workers linger over cigarettes.
In the Old Port, cruise-ship tenders begin ferrying passengers. Shopkeepers prop open their doors. A fisherman delivers a sack of oysters.
It could be five hundred years ago.