As a young person, I read a lot. I wonder now if I was motivated solely by a love of literature. Even more than in style or story, I delighted in the chance to visit all the various, vividly realized times and places to be found in classical literature. As time has gone by my interest in fiction has flagged a bit. It feels like a challenge to sit still that long for one thing but, honestly, I suspect the real problem is that traveling has supplanted reading as a way into the new and to the unexplored. And that brings me straight to a mention of Fazana, Croatia and my recent visit to this wonderful new-to-me place.
Nancy Doll, Weatherspoon Art Museum’s director, and I were there last week at the conclusion of the museum’s trip to Venice and The Biennale. It’s a very easy drive through Northern Italy, then across a little spit of the otherwise landlocked Slovenia and finally down into Istria, Croatia’s northern section. You can be, as we were, at Venice’s Piazzale Roma picking up a rental car at 10:00 a.m. and arrive in Croatia in time for lunch. It's that close.
This part of the world is full of surprises. Partly I think one is just not sure what to expect. The ghost notion of the Iron Curtain is there along with an awareness of all of the harm and chaos that occurred as the former Yugoslavia dissolved in 1990’s. This makes for an odd conceptual pairing with Croatia as a new ‘it’ vacation destination.
So what did we find? In Fazana, an absolutely gorgeous village centered around a medieval town square and with a pristine beach running as far as the eye can see in either direction. A snow globe world with very real and very warm inhabitants. We were utterly charmed with everything including and perhaps most especially our accommodations, Villetta Phaisana, where every morning we woke to church bells followed by a perfect Istrian breakfast of cured meats, fresh fruits, delicious pastry and strong coffee.
If the lure of Fazana is to relax in the embrace of sleepy, old-world charm then the surrounding towns offer treats of an entirely different character. It is in Pula, Istria’s largest city with just under 60,000 inhabitants, that you are most aware of the legacy of area’s communist past with its vast and dreary working port and harsh and crumbling concrete apartment blocks that ring the town’s center. Just at the moment you begin to doubt the wisdom of the decision to leave the charm and quiet of Fazana, you catch sight of Pula’s crown jewel—one of the world’s largest extant Roman amphitheaters—and a mighty thing of beauty it is, too. Beyond this stunning edifice lays the old and beautiful heart of Pula, steeped in Roman and early Christian history and replete with beautiful architectural examples of both.
Another architectural and cultural wonder is to be found up the coast from Fazana in the town of Porec where the Euphrasian Basilica is located. The basilica dates from the 6th century and is the largest early Christian complex in existence. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, the Basilica has mosaics that rival any I have ever seen including those of Ravenna and Torcello. Here one has the not only the sense of great age but also of a powerful centuries-old reverence for the holy that I have to admit stirred even this doubter's heart.
I should also mention one other standout feature of this area of Croatia—its agricultural products—wines, olive oil, honey and truffles. Yep--wine, olive oil, honey and truffles. Really just about all you need for a complete and happy culinary existence. The olive oil we had at the excellent Rosignola was some of the best I have ever tasted (actually, maybe the best…I’m trying to exercise some restraint here but, really, I think it was the best…) . The memory of the truffle pizza and local white wine that we had one day for lunch will be reason enough to keep living if ever all else is lost. No kidding, it was that good. Honey? Well, we ran out of time before we could get to the honey sampling so that will have to wait until next time. But there will be a next time—in fact, I hope there will be many next times. And to you, dear reader, I advise a visit sooner rather than later--before Istria loses that special innocence of a beautiful place that is not yet fully aware its of own appeal. Fazana and environs make for that rare treat, a new and unexplored place...