Monday, August 26, 2013

Hotel Kyjev denied protected status

So this isn't exactly breaking news, but back in May this year Bratislava's monuments board announced that it was denying the request to turn the commie-era Hotel Kyjev/My Bratislava/Tesco complex into a protected cultural monument. This comes at a time when the developer that has purchased the entire block is devising plans to radically renew the whole premises, potentially putting the buildings in jeopardy. Initially, the board offered vague reasons about how certain criteria had not been met, citing the building's relatively poor condition. But several weeks later, Metropola, a free local monthly magazine, ran a piece in June that discusses the monuments board's objections in a little more detail. 




The board objects to the fact that the communists razed an entire city block to make room for the buildings and the adjacent public space (called Kamenné námestie), and made zero attempt to blend them with the surrounding urban fabric. They also argue that just because an architectural concept was "interesting" back in the 1970s, that doesn't make it "interesting" today, and is not enough to warrant protected status. They also point to visual similarities between Hotel Kyjev and the Radisson SAS in Copenhagen and the Lever House in New York, implying that the hotel's design, by Ivan Matúšik, is not so unique anyway, so why the hell can't people just shut the hell up and let the developer get on with its plans for the space?




Granted, I can kind of see what they're getting with their first point. I mean sure, it is horrifying to contemplate all the unique and attractive historical buildings from centuries past that the communist regime bulldozed to make room for this complex. And some of the damage they hamfistedly inflicted on other parts of the city is deeply depressing and should stand as a prime example to all of how not to redevelop an urban setting.

A colorized postcard of Kamenné námestie and Špitálska Street, probably from around the start of the 20th century
That same view today. 

And yes, the communists arrogantly plopped the Kyjev/Prior complex right down in the center of town without any regard for its surroundings. But they did that with just about every building or monument they built in the city, pounding their rigid, blocky aesthetic into any hole they could open up. The damage done by Kyjev is peanuts compared to what happened to the old Jewish borough and the Podhradie area when they built the SNP Bridge.

Kamenné námestie long before the communists got their hands on it.
Kamenné námestie today. Only the Bata building (center) remains. 

This is troubling because it means the monuments board could use this excuse to deny protected status to any one of the city's numerous and unique mid-20th century modernist commie-built buildings. Was it worth tearing down large sections of the old town to make this stuff? In most cases, probably not. But the fact of the matter is that these commie-era buildings are here now, and some of them are genuinely unique and striking examples of mid-20th century modern architecture and design, and to leave them vulnerable is to potentially undermine an entire era of the city's rich history.

The board's second point is one of the stupidest things I've heard. So, does this mean that we're going to just cherry pick the historical eras and designs that we like and give the finger to those that we're not that into? Just because a renaissance palace was "interesting" in the 1600s doesn't necessarily mean that it's "interesting" today, but because many of us agree that this history is an invaluable part of the city's landscape and is therefore worth preserving, we keep these old buildings around. So, why should a unique and era-defining building from the early 1970s be treated any differently? Do we really have to wait a century or more for a building to suddenly become "interesting"? To favor some eras of history and disregard or whitewash others is a colossal mistake, especially when that particular historical chapter had an undeniably massive impact on society that still lives on today. And with so many other era-defining buildings from throughout history having been tragically knocked down because they were deemed uninteresting or in the way, why do we have to keep making the same mistake?

And to the monuments board's third point - yeah, Hotel Kyjev does appear to have been inspired by those other hotels, but upon closer inspection, you can find numerous differences in the details, which makes the building more unique than it might appear from a distance. Plus, the way that the hotel and the lengthy rectangular slab it sits on (most of which is inhabited by Tesco) work compositionally with the adjacent triangular building sets the whole thing further apart. Besides, think of how many gothic cathedrals or baroque palaces look nearly identical to each other. You could never get away with denying protected status to one of Slovakia's wooden carpathian churches simply because it looks like all the others. Granted, Hotel Kyjev may not have the same broad appeal as one of those, but still, I think that this particular argument of the monuments board is pretty weak tea.

We've already got a bunch of old Carpathian wooden churches that look like this, so what's the harm in mowing this one down so that we can put in that new shopping center? What - all these churches have protected UNESCO status? Damn!
It's the details of Kyjev/My Bratislava that really help set it apart. 


The general attitude of the monuments board seems narrow minded and myopic to me, and is indicative of the kind of mindset prevalent during the communist regime. The communists in Bratislava razed entire blocks of priceless historical buildings, arguing that because these structures were the product of a diametrically opposed ideological system, and because they were impractical and stood in the way of their vision of a modernized city, they were therefore deemed to have scant historical value or architectural merit. Of course the monuments board is not sanctioning full-on demolition of priceless commie-era mid-20th century buildings, but it's currently not doing much to protect them either, and it doesn't appear to be concerned that some of these buildings are in serious need of repair and maintenance. Instead, they seem to use the buildings' shoddy condition as an excuse for not granting them protected status, as is apparently the case with Hotel Kyjev.

The communists' neglect of a lot of pre-war historical buildings resulted in many of them rotting and disintegrating, sometimes irreparably. It's pretty ironic how in "punishing" the communist regime and its buildings, the monuments board is essentially adopting the same general mindset that it claims to object to.

I would just hate for the city to let this truly unique historical layer go to waste. I think we can all agree that the communists' approach to urban renewal was generally highly destructive and totally insensitive, but that doesn't mean we have to toss out the things they created that really do have merit. If anything, these structures should be left to stand in part to illustrate both the political and aesthetic rigidity of the regime, so that people can see how its uncompromising starkness contrasts with previous architectural styles. It's a fascinating layer of history that makes the city, with its numerous other layers, all the richer.


Turning Kamenné námestie into a usable and attractive public space

At the same time, it's crucial to make the city as livable as possible for its half-a-million inhabitants - a concept that the communists were clearly not always in tune with. And that's why I'm all for any efforts to improve Kamenné námestie, the public space in front of and around Kyjev/My Bratislava, to make it an inviting and functional place.

The monuments board has talked about how crappy Kamenné námestie is, and I agree with them on that point. As a public space, the square is an unmitigated failure on every level: it's totally uninviting and slightly scary; it's cluttered with ugly, randomly placed makeshift cafes and snack stands as well as unsightly juniper hedges and other threadbare shrubbery that you can often see men peeing in; the surface of the pavement is a jumbled and warped patchwork of asphalt riddled with cracks, pockmarks, and potholes (some of which fill up with ice in the winter, turning sections into a slippery obstacle course); the square's western tip has been given over to a small parking lot and some disused underground toilets; much of the square is hemmed in by these ugly grey concrete planters that are empty for more than half the year; hideous colossal billboards overlook several sections of the square; there are a few loud, gaudy casinos at one end of the square; and the whole thing feels like something you merely pass through to get to somewhere else, rather than a destination in and of itself, like a well-conceived public space should be.


Does this look like an inviting public space to you? 
Tacky, massive billboards add to the noisy clutter.

There is also a long, narrow parking lot that runs along the north side of the complex, which is another unsightly weed-strewn and potholed mess, and usually only half full, to boot. That is some primo space that's not being utilized wisely at all.

Kamenné námestie is screaming out for a complete overhaul. There is oodles of potential and loads of space to work with. I'd concentrate on that rather than fuss with the Kyjev/My Bratislava buildings.


What lies in store for Hotel Kyjev?

Even though the monuments board insists it doesn't want Hotel Kyjev to be knocked down, and the developer, Lordship, says it plans to keep the structure intact and work around it, the fact that it's not protected could still open the door to substantial changes. The hotel's interior has reportedly been emptied and is slated for "modernization", which in itself is upsetting since the late 60s/early 70s design was quite unique and striking. But who is to say drastic changes won't be made to the exterior as well? Just because it's not being knocked down doesn't mean its appearance can't be altered. As long as it's not protected, anything's possible.

And I'm leery of Lordship's apparent intention to essentially clog the space up with flashy new buildings full of retail, office, and hotel space, as you can see in a few visualizations below. There is already ample room for this stuff in the buildings that are there, and I'm sure the interiors could be reconfigured in a way that utilizes the space more efficiently. But we've also got a huge three-level mall called Eurovea that's a mere four blocks away, which is part of a sprawling complex that also includes a hotel, upscale apartments, and a bunch of trendy, overpriced restaurants overlooking the river. Just two blocks in the opposite direction from Kyjev we've got Obchodna Street, the old and recently revitalized shopping district which already has many of the same retail outlets that can be found in Eurovea, in addition to other malls that are further out, like Au Park, Central, Polus, and Avion. 

Honestly, It seems like the default, knee-jerk approach of developers when revitalizing any area in this city these days is to put in another shopping mall. There are only so many malls that a city with less than half a million people can handle, and I don't think clogging up the downtown with even more retail shops and hotels is what the city really needs.

At the time of writing, this is what the developer has on its website. This plan appears to retain the Hotel Kyjev high rise, but does away with all the other buildings with a pretty radical overhaul of the space.

Here is a visualization that the developer released last year. It doesn't reveal a whole lot, and it actually raises more questions than it answers, but it will nevertheless be interesting to see how they approach this. What's especially amusing here is the artist's lax attitude towards reality and the actual spatial relationship of the buildings. I tried to take a photo to match the visualization with real life, but I couldn't! The view in this visualization would be physically impossible to achieve without picking up all of the surrounding buildings and moving them back, like toy blocks.

One of Lordship's visualizations.
What you see in real life when standing in about that same spot.
More real life, but shot from an angle where you can actually see the area that Lordship is working with. Notice how the artist has chosen to keep and integrate the beige, curved building in the center of this photo. 

At any rate, this proposal keeps that beige, pleasantly curved, early commie-era apartment building on the corner and attaches some new glass-n-steel structures to either side of it, forming a wall of buildings around Hotel Kyjev so that you can't see it from the western end of the square. But this wouldn't leave a lot of room between the buildings and the street for a public space, and would result in a good chunk of Kamenné námestie being buried beneath the new buildings or hidden behind them.


Here is another visualization, which appears to nix that beige corner building, and fills up a lot of Kamenné námestie with glass-n-steel structures, which again doesn't leave room for a very substantial public space in front of the complex. However, it appears that the artist is trying to unify the surrounding space and adjacent streets with some nice landscaping in an attempt to make the whole area larger.


Visualization courtesy of Lordship.


Of course, the problem with both of these visualizations is that neither give any clue as to what they plan to do with the Hotel Kyjev/My Bratislava buildings themselves. 

When Lordship first bought the site, they initially wanted to knock the whole thing down and replace it with a kind of massive biodome looking structure. A few variations on this theme were presented to the public back in 2006. But then when some people, including modern architecture conservationists DOCOMOMO, spoke out against the plans to raze everything, the developer began talking about incorporating the hotel into their plans instead. I fused together an aerial satellite image of Kamenné námestie and Hotel Kyjev/My Bratislava with one of the developer's previous design proposals, which actually isn't a million miles away from what they've got on their website at the time of writing.

Now, at first glance it appears that Hotel Kyjev is still there, albeit after an exterior make-over, but on closer inspection, notice how that Kyjev-looking high rise is actually shifted to the left so that it is much closer to the street. Is this another case of the artist playing fast and loose with physical space? I suppose something like this could still work with Kyjev where it actually is in real life, but I was told by the developer when I asked them about it that this design was no longer a contender. And yet, as mentioned above, it's not so different from the plan they've currently got on their site.



We'll just have to wait and see what happens. I'm a firm believer in getting the most efficient use possible out of the buildings that are already there, especially when the buildings are such unique examples of an important (if generally dark) era in history. All they really need to do is redo that public space, clear the clutter, and transform it into an open, attractive, and inviting spot that will compel people to meet and hang out. Alas, building retail/hotel/leisure facility space that can be rented out or purchased is where the real money is. 

Keeping these grand commie-era architectural gestures will only make the city a richer and more interesting place than over saturating it with ugly new shopping complexes. And for a city that's desperately trying to lure more tourists, and to get those tourists to stay here for longer periods of time, marketing this unique commie-era stuff would be a wise move: an increasing number of people are interested in both the history and the mid-20th century modernist aesthetic, and Bratislava has a lot more of this kind of thing than many of its central-European neighbors. I say flaunt it if you've got it.

In an article I wrote for the 2012 Spectacular Slovakia on changes to Bratislava's urban fabric, I ended by saying that it would be a shame for Hotel Kyjev to exist only as an engraving on a plaque near to where it once stood (in reference to the engraving of the old synagogue located by the spot where it used to stand before it was demolished in the 60s). While it looks like we won't have to worry about that for now, it would still be sad if Hotel Kyjev/My Bratislava were to end up hidden behind or buried under yet another soulless glass-n-steel shopping center.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My new favorite commie-era mural

I can't believe I've been living here for nearly two years and I only just found out about this:



This is my new favorite commie mural in Bratislava, and it's located in a courtyard of the otherwise fairly drab technical university, right by the corner of Radlinského ulica and Jánska. I've walked by here numerous times, but never bothered (or had any reason) to venture into the university. I'm not sure if I can really decipher it, but I love how it's kind of a crazy amalgam of styles: like a weird fusion of Kandinsky, constructivism (esp. Moholy-Nagy), a touch of Charley Harper, maybe a smidgen of Klimt, a wee bit of art deco, and a dab of 60s Yellow Submarine psychedelic pop art. I love it.

Click on the photos to enlarge them and see more detail.




I discovered it courtesy of a photographer who passed through Bratislava this summer and posted photos of it on Flickr. As soon as I saw the photos, I had to head over there to see it in person.

I've already worked it into my self-guided walking tour of communist-era Bratislava.

Of course, this makes me wonder how many other murals like this are out there that I haven't stumbled into yet. If anyone reading this knows about any other similarly cool commie-era murals that are tucked away around the city, please let me know so I can check them out.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Camping on the Croatian Coast

Terezia and I are usually hesitant about traveling with other people. The reason being is that all parties will inevitably have to compromise at certain points along the way, and you're simply not going to get to see or do everything you want, which could potentially lead to some unpleasant grumbling and sour the vibe. But when Terezia's brother Tony and his girlfriend Sylvia invited us to go on a five-day camping trip on the Croatian coast (aka the Slovak shore) in the Istrian region, we figured we'd go along. I mean, why pass up a car ride to a cool country we've never been to with someone who knows the terrain, and, most importantly, with people (and family, no less) we genuinely like? We've been dying to visit Croatia anyhow, so this seemed like a good way to at least get a taste of the place.

Tony was like a broken record about how if you leave Bratislava at 4:00 AM you can get to the Istrian coast in a mere five hours: "We get to the campground by 9:00, set up the site, and I swear to god, you'll be in the water by 10:00!" So, we spent Friday night at Tony and Sylvia's place and rolled out of bed, Picasso-faced and groggy-eyed, at 3:30 (after not having gone to bed earlier the night before so as to get more sleep, like rational people would) and managed to get on the road by 4:00 AM. In theory, Tony was right about the timing, except for one crucial oversight.

After zipping through Austria and traversing the length of lush, hilly, tree-lined Slovenia, while speeding past hordes of cars with Czech, Slovak, Austrian, and Polish plates along the way, all crammed with camping gear and kids, and all racing to the same coast that we were with the same palpable sense of intense determination, we managed to get to Koper, the last Slovenian town before the border crossing with Croatia, in just under five hours. Not bad! But even though Croatia has just joined the EU, it has not yet joined the Schengen zone, which means that its borders aren't totally open to neighboring EU countries. A colleague of Terezia's who went to Croatia a few weeks ago said cars with EU plates were nevertheless just being waved through, but that wasn't the case on this particular morning, and we wound up sitting for nearly an hour in stop-and-go traffic for several miles until we got through the border. But from there it was a short distance to the campground, at which we arrived a bit after 10:00. Still not bad, all things considered.

We frantically set up camp at the Pineta campground, on the shore of Bašanija (a tiny seaside village north of Umag), as fast as we could so that we could get our butts into the refreshing water of the Adriatic.

Setting up the campsite. 


A few words on European car camping

It seems that most European car camping grounds are basically just big open fields (some with trees, some not so much) with vaguely defined individual campsites and almost zero privacy and virtually nothing in the way of natural foliage to separate one spot from the next. Sure, you can find campsites like these in the US too, but I'm accustomed to places in northern California where the campgrounds are situated in dense forests and the sites are secluded from each other by large trees and other greenery. The campsite at Pineta, like pretty much all campsites we saw on this trip, is basically akin to a big parking lot. Most people bring trailers or erect tents that are big enough to house a family of Mormons, and create a sense of privacy by stringing up ropes from which they hang beach towels and clothes, or erecting large canopies.

Two other campsites as seen from ours; it's difficult to discern where one campsite ends and the next begins.

Croatian campsites also tend not to come with fire pits and picnic tables, things that are pretty much a given back in California. So everyone here brings their own collapsable tables, folding chairs, and propane grills.

A lot of people seem to bring along oodles of crap from their homes as well. You had people with all manner of appliances, including TVs and even laptops, with everything set up under the canopies attached to their large family trailers. This had the effect of making the place feel more like some kind of a cramped suburban housing development. For most people, this experience isn't about getting in touch with nature; it's about bringing all your creature comforts with you so that you can avoid nature while keeping the kids distracted and out of your hair.

The more inland section of the Pineta campground - really not my scene. 

This is absolutely not my idea of camping, but again, we were going with the flow here, and in any case, at least we had a spot that was literally just a few steps away from the sea, and the plan was to spend most of the time on the beach or in the water anyway. Still, I would love to find a nicer and more secluded car-camping site in Croatia, if such a thing actually exists.

But Pineta seemed to be a well-oiled operation. The bathrooms were constantly being cleaned by these middle-aged women who would sometimes sweep or mop the floor right around my feet as I stood at the urinal to pee. And the park and adjacent shore seemed to be kept pretty tidy as well. The whole campground was packed, and adding to the whole man vs. nature conflict here, the place even has an outdoor discoteque called Bora Bora, where teens and young 20-somethings get soused and flirt to a soundtrack of trashy, pumping Euro disco.


The weather was punishingly, suffocatingly, swelteringly hot, which made swimming in the Adriatic all the more pleasurable. Even the occasional breeze from the sea felt more like the hot air from a hair dryer. Only in the dead of night did the temperature inch down into the lower 80s before shooting back up again in the morning.


Swimming

Croatia doesn't have sandy beaches - its shores are largely made up of jagged, craggy, yet picturesque rocks. If you see a beach with sand, it was brought in from somewhere else. This means that buying special aquatic shoes is a must unless you have a masochistic penchant for slicing the soles of your feet on sharp stones or prickly sea urchins. You also have to bring a foam mat and find a relatively flat/smooth surface among the rocks so that you can lie on the "beach" with a modicum of comfort.

Terezia testing the warm waters of the Adriatic sea.


One of my very favorite things to do in life is to swim in natural bodies of water. For us, it's all about lying on the beach under the sun and reading until you become insanely hot, and then jumping in the water and swimming around for a while to cool off, and repeating the cycle until the sun goes down. The water in the Adriatic was perfect for swimming: clean, clear, and almost tropically warm, and in some spots surprisingly calm.



We checked out several beaches around the area, in addition to the one at the campground. One of our favorites was across the bay from the Slovenian peninsula town of Piran. The shore consisted of an intricate network of concrete slabs and steps interspersed with gnarled rocks. What was nice about this place was that you didn't need the shoes - you could just jump right off the rocks and into the sea.



The neighborhood you had to get through to access this hidden beach was this hideous, new-ish, upscale development full of the kind of pretentious pink and beige stucco houses that people in San Diego build to look vaguely Mediterranean, as well as an ugly new Hotel Kempinski that looked more like some new science hall at UC Davis. But once on the shore, the scene was incredibly picturesque, with warm and pleasantly tranquil water.



I like how women here generally don't have any hang-ups about baring their breasts, which is pretty typical for Europe. We saw a number of women of varying ages (many of whom had children of varying ages) walking or lying around topless as if it was perfectly natural, of course, because it is perfectly natural.



There were a fair amount of people on the beaches, but they weren't unbearably crowded. At one point, while walking south along a trail from the campground, we stumbled on a perfect, secluded little clearing with ample shade and only a smattering of other couples, which turned out to be the nicest spot of the bunch.


Rovinj




One of my stipulations with this vacation was that I insisted on a day-trip to Rovinj. Rovinj is a small, medieval, seaside town about halfway down the Istrian coast. Densely clustered on an oval peninsula (it was once an island), Rovinj vies with Dubrovnik in all the travel guides for the title of most picturesque Croatian coastal town. The place is an atmospheric and jumbled warren of narrow, twisty, steep cobblestoned lanes that wrap around the hill, most of which lead up to the town's Venetian-style cathedral and bell tower that sits dramatically at the top.




The first thing that struck us about Rovinj was how Italian it looked and felt. We honestly felt like we'd stepped into one of the villages of the Cinque Terre, what with the romantically dilapidated, crumbly, and occasionally pastel-painted facades with jagged and exposed stonework, weathered green shutters on every window, laundry drying on lines above the streets, and shirtless locals leaning out of their second or third-story windows shouting down to their friends in the street. The leather-skinned, gravel-y-voiced fishermen pulling into the port in their battered fishing boats with the morning's catch only added to the Italian-ness of the whole scene. Even the Croatian - a Slavic language - spoken by the locals had a kind of Italian-sounding inflection.


Terka and Tony. 

These similarities are no mere coincidence. Istria was once part of Italy, and historically it has always been a place where Italian and Croatian cultures merge. Not only did the Venetians lord it over this area back in the middle ages, but Romans, of course, ruled the coast as well long before that, and both left a mark that is still very evident today, hence the Roman ruins and Venetian-style bell towers, not to mention the quaint villages and towns of characteristically Italian dwellings with obligatory green shutters and walls of exposed stone.





At any rate, we were oohing and awing like idiots the entire time in Rovinj. The apartment buildings around the edge go right up to the water because they were previously part of the defensive wall that once surrounded the entire town, and which was later converted into housing for its growing population.


While there were clearly a lot of tourists (and Rovinj was one of the few places where we heard English), the locals are still very much present here, and you could see them everywhere, going about their business and even riding their Vespas up and down the narrow and perilous lanes. We would both go back to Rovinj in a heartbeat.


The perfect storm

As we were leaving Rovinj in the afternoon to head back up the coast to our campsite, we noticed some clouds were quickly moving in. But since we were feeling sticky and gross from the swelteringly hot and humid weather, we were dying to get back into the sea despite the fact that the sky was fast becoming as grey as the walls of a worker drone's cubicle. Once in the water, we noticed it was quite choppy, but it was still so warm (and the air so hot and humid) that we swam around for a bit regardless. But we could see what looked like a truly nasty storm brewing off in the distance, and when raindrops began pelting our heads and the wind started picking up, getting out of the water suddenly seemed like a good idea.



Our timing turned out to be impeccable, as the second we got back to the campsite, this immense hurricane-strength wind started slamming the coast. Wearing nothing but our swimsuits, we were suddenly being sandblasted by an exfoliating stream of pine needles and sandy grit. Tony's nice canopy started blowing sideways, and at this point, it was all I could do to keep from being blown over myself, and I noticed sizable waves were suddenly crashing against the rocks, with the tide washing over the spots on which we'd been lounging peacefully in the sun just the day before.

For a second I honestly thought, if this gets worse, we'll have to take refuge in the toilets - it really was getting to be that serious. With Tony's canopy at risk of getting destroyed and/or blown away (despite being staked), we each grabbed a pole and held on for dear life, but keeping it up was futile. Tony noticed that one of the poles was starting to bend at the joint, and in an effort to just get the thing out of harm's way and to prevent us from becoming part of a human kite, he reached up and, with a maniacal look in his eye, yanked the whole canopy down, and in the process inflicted far more irreparable damage to it than the wind had so far done. We madly broke the pieces down and threw them under Tony's car. Tony and Sylvia then started wrestling with their collapsible table and inadvertently mangled the legs while frantically trying to break it down, before cramming it under the car with the broken canopy pieces.



While our smaller tent seemed to be holding up just fine, Tony and Sylvia's larger tent was literally blowing sideways. It was well staked, so I don't think it was going anywhere, but I suppose the support poles could've been at risk of snapping or something. At any rate, Tony madly had us start emptying their tent and deflating their double-sized air mattress. Sylvia and I had to lie on the mattress and tent with all of our weight to prevent it from blowing away. I looked up and saw someone else's tent cover caught up in a tree, while a couple of floating air mattresses that people had left on the beach were blowing through the campground. Our Swiss neighbors' potatoes, which they had sitting in a basket hanging from a nearby tree, started flying in our direction. That probably put a damper on the potato rosti they were making every night. We madly emptied and broke down our tents and crammed everything into the car. With the canopy's support poles and the legs of the collapsible table twisted and knotted beyond recognition, we threw those into a nearby dumpster.



A few sites down, someone's trailer had actually tipped over. The wind was so strong that we didn't even hear this happening. Nobody was inside and no one was injured, luckily, but I felt sorry for the owners, who didn't appear to be around and were going to be in for a fun surprise when they returned from wherever they were.

This storm really was pretty severe, and apparently extremely unusual for this time of year. Sure, you may get the odd summertime shower passing through, but nothing like this. Terezia and Tony's mom actually saw coverage of this storm, which engulfed all of Istria, on the evening news back home in Slovakia, and was worried about us. We heard reports of downed power lines, fallen trees, and even a yacht out at sea capsizing (although no deaths or injuries were reported). It really could've been worse.

Anyhow, we had to figure out what to do next: wait out the storm in the car or just pack up and go somewhere else? We hastily decided that since we had no idea how long this storm would last, we would pay the bill, leave, and head south toward Pula to look for a hotel or apartment where we could escape from the rain. A barrage of rain and wind pummeled the car on the hour-long drive down the coast. I was very into the idea of going to Pula, Istria's biggest city, as it's a bustling, historical port town just south of Rovinj, and I figured there'd be plenty of options for places to stay, with it being a more happening metropolitan area and all.

But Tony had another idea...


Medulin

Medulin lies at the southern tip of the breast-shaped Istrian peninsula. It is absolutely not mentioned in any of the travel guides for reasons I'll get to in a minute. Nevertheless, Tony had his heart set on Medulin, so that's where we went.

First, a little back story. In the 90s, Tony was, quite literally, on track to becoming an Olympic sprinter. He was part of a Slovak track team and, by all accounts, was one of the fastest runners in the country. The team traveled around the continent to compete in races, the winners of which would, in theory, eventually go on to compete in the summer Olympics. At any rate, in '96 or thereabouts, shortly after the war between Serbia and Croatia cooled, Tony's team traveled to Croatia for a race, and it was here in Medulin that Tony's running career came crashing to a halt when he badly sprained his ankle. This put him out for the season, and when his coach pushed him to resume running before his ankle had properly healed, he never fully recovered. At that point, Tony became horribly depressed about the whole thing and left for America to join his sister, who had already been living there for a year or so. So, Tony wanted to show us the exact spot where his running career died, and we joked about getting a bouquet and some candles to mark the site.

At any rate, finding accommodation in Medulin was initially daunting, and was possibly exacerbated by the fact that we were all still in soggy swimming gear and covered from head to toe in a film of wet sand and brown grime from the storm. The first several hotels we checked were either booked or too expensive, but we found a tourist info center and thought we'd inquire with them. The lady there, who was far too involved in something totally non-work related to deal with us, shoed us away and told us to check with the motel in the back. This motel, a pink stucco affair with an old neon sign, looking like something out of Miami in the 1950s, was run by an even grouchier woman who, when Tony and Sylvia asked if we could first see the rooms, angrily spat out something along the lines of, "You want to see the fucking rooms? Get the fuck out of here and go see someone else's fucking rooms!"

So, we went to another tourist info place up the street, which was fortunately staffed by an extremely friendly and helpful guy who hooked us up with a reasonably priced sobe in the old part of town. In Croatia, sobe are basically like small pensions where people section off their houses into small hotel rooms or vacation apartment rentals, and they're usually more affordable than traditional hotels. This place was tacky but extremely clean and run by a friendly lady who, fortunately, was totally cool about letting us see the fucking rooms first. Our room had a terrace with a nice view of the surrounding area, from which we watched the crazy lightning storm that was happening around us that night.

The, er..., lovely tropical scene painted on the wall above the bed in our sobe room in Medulin.

A typical sight in Medulin's old center.

The most striking thing about Medulin is how much it's changed since Tony was last there over 15 years ago. Back then it was a sleepy, little, nondescript port town with less than a few thousand people. But sometime between then and now, a mayor apparently hooked up with some investors and transformed the place into an unrelentingly hideous, booming summertime tourist destination, a bit like Pier 39 or the Santa Cruz boardwalk on steroids, complete with hyper-tacky tourist shops, horrible gelato stands with sleazy cone-juggling vendors, whining kids stuffing their faces with cotton candy, and outdoor bars/cafes with those ubiquitous, dark brown, contoured plastic wicker seats filled with crew-cutted and bikini clad German youths bobbing their heads to deafeningly loud, pumping Euro-trash disco. The adjacent beaches, once rocky and tranquil, have all been buried in imported sand, and the harbor, once lined with fishing boats, is now a parking lot with rows of jet-ski rentals. Nearby is a kaleidoscopic cluster of spin-cycle carnival rides designed to make people lose their lunch.

Medulin's tacky tourist trinket beachside sprawl. 

I suppose it's kind of bittersweet. Faced with extremely high unemployment and an economy that's based almost entirely on tourism, there are countless towns like this up and down Croatia's coast that sold their souls to attract hordes of European tourists from colder and/or landlocked countries up north. While this kind of thing provides seasonal local employment and considerable profits for the towns, these places have to put themselves through three to four months of vomit-inducing chaos every year just to stay afloat. I'm sure most of the locals welcome the opportunities and financial security this presumably brings, but damn, it's a truly depressing sight.

People from America and other English-speaking countries could, of course, pass through Croatia without ever realizing such towns exist. Americans already have their grotesque Pier 39s and Jersey Shores; they want quaint, old-world ambience and ancient history. Europeans, on the other hand, seem to crave this tacky crap that the Americans (at least the types who would travel to Croatia) are trying desperately to get away from, and judging by what I saw, they are absolutely eating it up.

As Rick Steves confirms in his Eastern Europe book: "Every coastal Croatian town has two parts: The time-warp old town, and the obnoxious resort sprawl [where] main drags are clogged with gift shops and tasteless T-shirts. While European visitors enjoy this tacky-trinket tourism, Americans are generally more interested in Old World charm."

Our sobe was in the older part of town, just up the hill and away from all the nauseating, beach-area commotion. While certainly not home to anything that would be of any real interest to visitors like us, it did have an appealing low-key quaintness with its small labyrinth of narrow, one-way roads and rustic, old, stone houses. The helpful guy at the info center told us the restaurants in the old town were better than those by the beach, but even these all had guys literally standing out front in the streets, desperately trying to lure passersby on foot and in cars. They'd come right up to us, pushing multi-lingual menus into our faces, asking "Deutsch? Czech?" Tony decided that we should tell people we were American - since Americans would be a novelty in Medulin - just to see if we receive better treatment, because Slovaks apparently have a reputation for being cheap.

Medulin's church with its twin towers, which you can see from all around below.

It was interesting to get a taste of what a lot of Europeans apparently want out of their summer vacations, but I could live a full and wonderful life without ever setting foot in a place like Medulin again.


Pula

With all traces of the storm gone the next morning, we decided to go to Pula and check out its old town. Pula is a bit underrated, and if you look at the travel-related message boards and Trip Advisor reviews on the web, you'll notice that a lot of people are pretty vocal with their disdain for the place. I can sort of see why it doesn't get the universal love that Rovinj enjoys, but I also think people aren't really giving it a chance, or aren't approaching it with the right expectations, because what we saw in Pula was actually a bustling, picturesque, and fascinating small city with more than enough attractions and intriguing ambience to justify a day trip.

Pula's remarkably intact Roman amphitheater - how many towns can boast of having one of these?
A typical pedestrian lane in Pula's old town. 
The Roman temple of Augustus on Pula's visually striking historical main square.
Tony and Sylvia in front of the Roman-era Arch of Sergius, in Pula's other main square. 

Firstly, Pula isn't all quaint, historical buildings and postcard-perfect sites; it's also a gritty, congested, and busy port city - the largest in Istria - with a big, modern, industrial port on a peninsula that juts out right into the middle of an otherwise scenic, bright blue bay. It's got, among other things, an amazingly intact Roman amphitheater, a Roman temple in a beautiful Venetian-esque medieval square, and a web of meandering and atmospheric cobblestoned lanes. But it's also got a lot of romantically crumbly 19th-century buildings that reminded me of parts of Rome, as well as an outer layer of dystopian commie-era bleakness. It's a fascinating jumble of eras and colors, and we really dug it.

Pula also has a sprawling food market with an explosion of local produce in the outdoor stalls, and an amazing seafood and meat market in the historical, iron-and-glass, liberty-style hall. Terezia was in heaven in the fish market, saying, "If I lived here, I'd never have to worry about what to put on the menu!"
Pula's amazing outdoor produce market. 
The fish market. 

Not only was Pula big enough in Roman times to justify a large amphitheater, but it also has a somewhat intact outdoor Roman theater for theatrical productions. Nearly two millennia later, James Joyce actually lived here for a while with a girlfriend of his, and there's a statue of him at a cafe that he allegedly used to frequent. Pula struck me as a gritty, attractive, and vibrant place with plenty of low key charm and a healthy local to tourist ratio, and I'd be interested in spending a little more time there.

After Pula, we headed back south toward Medulin, where we found another rocky beach on a remote peninsula and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and destroying our skin cells with UV rays.


Motovun 

Approaching Motovun.

On the way back home we decided to head inland and make a stop at Motovun. While Rovinj mirrors the Italian riviera, Motovun, a medieval village clustered atop a steep hill surrounded by sloping vineyards and truffle-filled forests, looks like it was plucked straight out of the Tuscan countryside. Like Rovinj, Motovun is laced with narrow, cobblestoned lanes winding up the hillside, lined with crumbly facades with characteristic green shutters and tiny shops selling local wine, art, and truffle products. A walkable rampart encircles the uppermost level of the town, offering vertiginously jaw-dropping views. The attractive main square at the center of town has as its focal point an extremely Italian-esque church with a crenelated medieval clock tower and an adjacent, shady, tree-lined terrace.



We unknowingly hit Motovun during its annual summer film festival, which is a pretty big event, apparently attracting as many as 20,000 film buffs. Several town squares had plastic seats set up facing large movie screens. And when we were there, an Iranian film director was giving a lecture to a crowd of young film student types in the shady terrace by the main square. But luckily, the town was surprisingly not very crowded, as I think most of the action here is at night, and we saw lots of people literally camped out in makeshift campsites around the base of the hill, just outside the old town.

Motovun's main square, church, and bell tower.


Just like with Rovinj, walking through Motovun's atmospheric streets left me feeling like this is exactly where I need to be. Even Tony at one point said "Banska Stiavnica isn't shit compared to this."

The views from Motovun's uppermost rampart.


Motovun is a big truffle area and the restaurants all feature specialties that are conducive to the potently flavorful funghi. Sadly, we didn't have time to eat at one of those places and opted instead for a quick sandwich from a bar just outside town, since we apparently had to get on the road to get back to Bratislava at a decent hour. I deeply regret not getting to eat at one of these places, but we'll hopefully be back someday.


The Food

Like much of formerly communist central Europe, Croatia isn't necessarily known for its cuisine (or, for that matter, its customer service). While good food is certainly findable, you really do have to work to seek it out. Terezia and I didn't really do any research prior to this trip, and we just kind of winged it, initially going to a few restaurants that Tony knew about in the village by Pineta, and then in Medulin just going with what the friendly tourist info guy recommended.

One rule of thumb about the Croatian coast is that you're going to want to focus on seafood, which is exactly what we did. Tony was obsessed with eating grilled calamari, and we kept trying places that had that on the menu. Most of the restaurants were pretty unremarkable, except for a few.

Porto, in the seaside village of Savudrija, near Pineta, has the distinction of being the first and so far only restaurant where I actually sent back not just one, but two dishes! For my starter, they gave me a "mixed greens" salad filled with sad pieces of droopy iceberg covered in dark brown spots and bits of grit. I sent it back, received no pushback from the staff, and 10 minutes later was given a totally different salad with a super fresh mix of greens fit for any food snob. For my entree, I made the unthinkable mistake of ordering the scampi risotto. I thought this would be like a creamy, saucy, aggressively seasoned and flavor-filled Italian shrimp risotto, but what I got instead was a dry clump of rice (characteristic of Slovak "risotto") with one - that's right, just one - lonely prawn. I got the young waiter's attention and apologized profusely while firmly insisting that I had to exchange it for something else. I told him why, he shrugged his shoulders, and I ordered the grilled calamari that Tony had, which was still underwhelming but at least edible.

A restaurant in Medulin had a decent, if not mind-blowing, tagliatelle with black truffle sauce and a pretty good wood-oven fired pizza with black truffle pate and prosciutto. Another Medulin restaurant had a decent spaghetti with frutti di mare. While the spaghetti was clearly of the dried (not fresh/homemade) variety, at least the seafood seemed fresh, and a healthy dose of fresh herbs nicely enhanced the flavors.

Tony and Sylvia after an okay meal in Medulin.

Next time we go to Croatia, I want to do a bit more research on the food front and find at least a couple of places that are really worth writing in a blog about.


So, it's come to this

You may notice in a couple of photos (if you click on the link to the photos below) that I'm wearing a silly hat. That's because my gradually thinning hair has crossed into that crucial point where there are now small areas of scalp that are exposed to the elements and which got fried from spending the first couple days of the trip in the sun. In Rovinj, I bought a ten euro hat from a street vendor because parts of my scalp were really starting to hurt. It's a really demoralizing reason to have to buy a hat, but what can I do? My DNA is against me. I suppose I'm lucky the hair I still have has held on for this long.



In summary

Croatia obviously has loads to offer - to a disorienting degree - and while we feel lucky that we live driving distance from such a stunning and scenic country, 5-6 hours still feels way too far away, and we'd go back at the drop of a hat. Of course, we only saw Istria, which is just one section of Croatia's sprawling coast. We obviously didn't get anywhere even remotely close to Split, Trogir, or Dubrovnik - some of the other places much further down the coast that we are dying to see. But Istria alone has more than enough to fill out an entire week.

We both dug Istria's Mediterranean vibe. A lot of the coastal terrain has that lush/green yet at the same time kind of arid quality that you find on Mediterranean (as well as Californian) coasts, and you could hardly walk two feet without coming across an olive tree. And with me being the shameless Italo-phile, I really appreciated the strong strain of Italian culture that's so prevalent in the region.

One thing we found particularly interesting about Croatia is how much more western European, or Mediterranean it feels, especially when compared to Slovakia or Hungary, or the rest of formerly communist central Europe. It's as if the seaside and the sunnier climate sort of cancel out some of the commie bleakness. Of course, Yugoslav-style communism under Tito was different in many ways than life in the Soviet Bloc, and while some communist-era sediment is still there, it's just not as abundant, at least in Istria. Croatia also seems much more on top of it than Slovakia in terms of its roads and general infrastructure. I suppose with the amount of tourists Croatia gets, there's no way in hell it could get away with slacking off in that department the way Slovakia does.

At any rate, I hope I can bore you to tears with another blog post about Croatia in the future.

(To see the whole set of photos from the trip, click here!)