We had the Croatia Lonely Planet Guide and chatted about which days we could get away to go see some of it, but hadn’t made definite plans. One afternoon, on our way back to our Dorsoduro apartment, located in the southwest corner of Venice, Italy, we popped in to the ferry terminal to check schedules and prices. With the odd hours of departures and arrivals, it turned out that our only options were to leave in two days at roughly 6 p.m., or in ten minutes. Either way our return trip would be at 6 a.m. Given my friend’s schedule, it was ten minutes to Croatia or nothing. We chose Croatia.
We bolted back to the apartment, grabbed bathing suits, a change of clothes, the Lonely Planet Guide, passports, toothbrushes and cash. We made it back with seconds to spare. We were off; a few hours in a ferry across the Adriatic and we would be in Istria, the northwest peninsular outpost of Croatia.
We passed the Lido, Venice’s beach island, where locals and tourists alike lounge around in the sun. The Giudecca, where we’d later sit to eat risotto and tiramisu; Murano and Burano off in the distance. Eventually we exited Italian waters toward a completely unknown and unplanned adventure.
Being my mother’s daughter, I scoured the guide on our way, while my traveling friend napped contentedly. Rovinj—or Rovigno to Italians—a tiny town built on a hill directly on the coast of the Adriatic on the very northernmost part of the long Croatian border, was our destination. It is terracotta in color, led by a prominent tower rising above the town, and a fishing village still dependent on the sea. With nearby farms just inland, Rovinj, and Istria in total, are being noted as the Slow Food capital of the region. Slow Food, a movement started by Carlo Petrini years before, celebrates a slower approach to gastronomy: small, diversified farms, artisanal crafting of products, fair prices for the freshest of ingredients, a respect for the land, and an appreciation for foods prepared to highlight the true expression of their taste and place. While initially fueled by a protest against a McDonald’s being built next to the Spanish Steps of Rome, the movement has grown to exemplify the celebration of simple, fresh food prepared with reverence and integrity. Chefs and restaurateurs like Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, and Dan Barber, of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, have taken this philosophy and made it a true way of life in an effort to return to a relationship with food that our grandparents may recognize.
The ferry stopped at two ports before ours. Like Goldilocks, we felt that the first was too small, the second, too commercial, but the third, the port of Rovinj, was just right. We disembarked, walked the length of the dock, and were welcomed into a sardine festival. With hanging lights strung along the waterfront brightening the evening, tents and tables set up, and grills fired, Rovinjians were lined up for the fresh, local fish. Was I in heaven? Where was I? Talk about making a winning move in the first play. I love sardines.
We scurried off to find shelter and lose our bags, planning to return to eat dinner. The slim streets of Rovinj are made of blocks of Istrian stone, the same stone that the city of Venice is built on. The white, smooth blocks connect building to building on meandering walking paths. Above you rise ancient stone buildings with working shutters, clothes lines linking the windows of neighbors, and warm light coming from open doors and windows. Our Lonely Planet guide leads us to Dario, of Casa Garzotto, whose bed and breakfast they recommended highly.
Dario and his girlfriend, young, attractive, thirty-somethings are found in their well-lit café, where they apologetically tell us they have no vacancies. However, they have a friend that also rents an apartment, and Dario runs off to find her while we enjoy cappuccinos and our good luck.
Moments later, we have a beautiful, private apartment on a tiny path full of geraniums and Dario’s recommendation for dinner. We head back for sardines to find that the party is over. I forgive them their early retirement, appreciative that they celebrate such a fish at all. We amble, wide-eyed and excited, to Dario’s favorite restaurant, where we dine on langoustines, unpronounceable Croatian white wine, and yes, sardines. This is the perfect first day of travel.