Rovinj, the Emerald City
As we wind towards Istria from Plitviče, we enter the high speed toll road and race through a series of tunnels to emerge in Istria. We enter a beautiful countryside of green hills and field lined with flowers. Everything is so green. The villages of stone houses topped with red roofs dot the countryside along the road. From Plitviče Lakes National Park to the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia is a easy and pleasant three hour drive.
Our destination for the sixth stop on our tour of Croatia is Rovinj, a town located on the Istrian Peninsula. Istria is the Italian influenced area of Croatia. We immediately notice that all of the signs in Rovinj are in Croatian and Italian. Even the Croatian we hear spoken has an Italian lilt to it. Rovinj is a short three hour ferry ride across the Adriatic from Venice. Rovnj has an old town and a harbor just like all of the other towns in Croatia that we visited except Rovinj feels substantially greener. Trees shade the street and flowers are blooming everywhere.
We check into Villa Kristina, a quaint bed and breakfast just a five minute walk from the old town. After check in, we find the absolute best restaurant in the absolute best location in Rovinj. The Restoran Stella di Mare is located on the edge of the sea just far enough around the bend of the port to provide a cool breeze and a spectacular view. Our waiter, a large gregarious man, is very happy when we order in Croatian. When we explain that we are mother and daughter, he grabs a young man who is also waiting tables and introduces him as his son. He gives us a Croatian lesson. Meanwhile his son shows us photographs of Rovinj during last winter when it was covered with an unusual snowfall. By the time we leave, we feel as if we have been embraced as part of the family.
So I Thought I Could Dance Salsa
As it turns out, we accidentally, perfectly timed our visit to Rovinj to coincide with the Rovinj Salsa Festival, the largest salsa festival in the world. As we sit and watch the sunset, a group approaches us. As his friends laugh, a young man walks towards Claudia and asks if she knows how to kizumba. “K-what?” she responds. Little does this young man know, both Claudia and I are trained dancers who consider ourselves very proficient dancer partners. However, this kizumba that he speaks of, we have no idea what he is talking about. He extends his hand and ask Claudia if he can show her. His two friends start laughing hysterically and shoving each other in the shoulder. Being a good spot, Claudia stands up. The young man then proceeds to draw her very close and swivel his hips in a very provocative manner. Claudia dances for a second and then blushes and pulls away. The young man explains that this dance is kizumba and he tells us about the salsa festival. There is a large performance tonight with several stages and lots of dancing at the Factory in Rovinj. He will be there, he looks at Claudia hopefully, in the kizumba tent.
Claudia and I rush back to the hotel to change. We cannot believe our good luck. We both love to salsa dance. In San Francisco, we consider ourselves quite good. We don the traditional salsa attire, really short skirts and really high heels.
The festival activities for the evening are occurring at the Factory, a large, old factory that has been converted into a performance venue. The evening begins with a performance of salsa dancers from all over the world. My personal favorites are the dancers from Dominica and a couple from New York City. We sit next to a man who lives in Berlin who has traveled all the way to Rovinj to attend the festival. We learn that the festival is a week long extravaganza that includes daily lessons with instructors from all over the world, giant beach salsa parties, salsa dance cruises and salsa dance parties that last until 4:00 AM every morning.
After the show, Claudia and I make our way towards the main dance floor. The room is already filled with dancing couples. As I pause to take in the dancers, I realize that everyone is unbelievably good. It looks like we just walked onto the set of Dancing with the Stars except everyone is a professional dancer and the celebrities are all eliminated. Almost immediately, Claudia and I are whisked onto the floor by partners. My partner spins me through a complicated series of spins. I try my best to keep up but he seems to love to just swirl me like a weathervane in a tornado. Towards the end of the song, I am so dizzy I falter and stagger backward. I feel the stiletto of my heel skewer the leg of someone behind me. I turn to see a heavy set man hopping on one leg, grabbing his shin and wincing in pain. Horrified, I run off the dance floor. Claudia is standing at the edge of the dance floor talking to a salsa instructor from South Africa. He tells me that the man I maimed is one of the lead instructors at the festival. “Oh god,” I say, “let’s get out of here.”
We go to find the kizumba tent. When we enter this area, I feel like we entered an opium den. As compared to the wide open, well lit dance floors featuring salsa and bachata, the kizumba room is dark and secretive. The couples ungulate slowly like kelp in an undersea forest. The men stand behind the women embracing them closely in a spooning posture. Each man seems to use his hand on the woman’s stomach to direct the speed of her rocking pelvis. The music has a slow, fast, slow undulation that guides the dancers to first grind in slow motion, punctuated by bursts of frenzied thrusting. A man asks me to dance. I point to my wedding ring as I shake my head “no.” Then I go in search of Claudia. I have seen enough of this kizumba to want Claudia to have nothing to do with it.
Claudia and I make our way through the other rooms, the bachata room, the even bigger salsa room, dancing until our feet ache. Finally, at 2:00 AM, we say good-bye to our new salsa friends who chastise us for leaving early.
The Scariest Staircase on the Planet
The next morning, we head to Rovinj’s old town to explore. We have been told that the best view of Rovinj is from the bell tower of the church on the top of the hill. This bell tower is found in Saint Euphemia Cathedral. The church was built in 1736. For those of you who have been to Venice, the bell tower may seem familiar as it was designed to resemble the tower of St. Mark’s. The church was originally dedicated to Saint George who is also the patron saint of Venice.
However, the church now is dedicated to Saint Euphemia because of the miracle that the people of Rovinj believed happened on their shores. Remember Emperor Diocletian whose palace ruins we toured in Split? Emperor Diocletian was a big persecutor of Christians back in 300 B.C. Among one of his victims was a young Christian girl named Euphemia. At age 15, she was arrested by Diocletian’s soldiers because she refused to give up Christianity. Legend has it that she was tortured on the wheel, but still refused to give up Christianity. Euphemia was then thrown to the lions. Although she died, the lions did not touch her body. Eventually, Euphemia’s body was placed in a large, marble sarcophagus that, through a series of events, washed up on the shore of Rovinj after a big storm at dawn of July 13, 800. Although many people of Rovinj tried to haul the sarcophagus to the Church of Saint George, no one could. Miraculously, a small boy with two little cows managed to haul the sarcophagus up the hill. The church then became the Saint Euphemia Cathedral and the sarcophagus with her relics can still be found inside the church.
We enter the bell tower to make our way to the top. The stairs are nothing more than wooden slates with huge gaps between them. It is more like climbing a very steep ladder with uneven slats than it is like climbing a stair case. As we go higher, my heat beats faster with fear. I feel like any wrong step and I will slip and fall through the gaps to my death. As I am going up, a mother is helping her small child who is barely two walk down the stairs. She turns the child to face the stairs and the child climbs down backwards using her hands and her feet. The gap between the stairs is almost the length of her body. I cannot watch I am so frightened that the child with slip and fall.
When we reach the top, I am shaking and my legs are unsteady. Claudia looks white as a ghost despite her summer tan. Another young woman is being held in a tight embrace by her boyfriend. I can see a tear on her cheek. We are all grateful to be alive. The view is spectacular. Rovinj rolls down the steep hill into the Adriatic in simple beauty. It is the best view of Rovinj. The descent is a little better because at least the floor is always getting closer. Afterwards, a man outside the church cuts a perfect silhouette out of black paper of Claudia and I. He tells us that we are special because we care about artists. Claudia buys a book of original poetry from a shy woman who lives a few doors down the hill from the church who does not want to be photographed.
Sunset Cruise and Croatian Time
Rovinj is our last stop in Croatia near the sea. We will head inland to Zagreb for our final destination. After almost two weeks, I have grown accustom to this lifestyle by the sea. The lazy mornings wandering the narrow streets of the old town, stopping for a cappuccino at cafes along the way. The long, leisurely lunches of seafood platters draped with grilled squid, whole fish with the head still attached and the Croatian wines. The late afternoon dip in the glittering sea that helps digest the food and reset the body temperature to cool. The shower back at the hotel, washing off the sea salt and the sweat of the day. Changing into evening clothes and some sparkly earrings. Then the promenade, the drink, the sunset, the evening, the warm summer night, the jokes, the socializing, the dancing, the not wanting the night to ever end, the long walk back to the hotel and it is already 3 AM and the deep, deep sleep. Thus is the rhythm of Croatian life next to the sea.
On our last night in Rovinj, we take the sunset cruise and watch the sun set behind the light house that sits on a little island just off the coast. Croatia has seduced me. It has peeled off my layers of stress like a determined lover, slowly and unhurried. Everything here agrees with me, the weather, the sea, the food, the pace of life. I have never been so sad to leave a place. I know we still have one more stop, but we are leaving the sea. I watch the Adriatic swallow the sun one last time.
Ono što vjerujemo o sebi i o životu postaje vjerodostojno za nas.
(What we believe about ourselves and about life becomes true for us.)
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live it slowly and unhurried enjoying every last drop of its light. What was the last vacation that seduced you? Share your stories. I would love to hear them.