October 1, 2011
A week ago in Rovinji, Croatia, I went to sleep and woke up to the sounds of waves lapping at the sea wall three floors below our apartment window. As the morning progressed I could hear gulls calling, flocking around the boats that had been seining all night for sardines, now coming into port, their wakes made the slap against the sea wall more pronounced. At 7 AM the church bells at St. Eufemia called the city to wake. If you go to the window, just then, you can see the sun rise over the tower of the Franciscan Monastery. Then a single fisherman wearing bright orange rain pants standing in his batana boat, a flat bottomed craft made in Rovinj, makes a final morning set right under our window. It’s a wonderful way to start the morning. We were at Rovinj for the Weekend Media Festival. We had taken a flat for the weekend owned by a diplomat currently posted in Belgrade. Rovinj is one of those quasi fortified towns on a peninsula, that, until the mid 1700s has been an island but it spilled over to the mainland so they filled in the channel. The flat is on the working side of town, where the fishing boats dock, as opposed to the tourist side with its sailing yachts and water taxies and hotels, but it’s only a 10 minute walk across the isthmus.
While the flat’s windows overlook the harbor, access is from a narrow cobbled street. Entering the building, it looks like an Italian movie flat taken by a pretty and lovelorn American woman, either just getting over an affair (Think Julia Roberts in “Eat, Pray, Love”) or looking to get into one with some handsome, romantic Italian guy. The paint is peeling from the stairwell, a clothesline runs between railings, a baby carriage partly obstructs the exit, there are flowerpots on the landings and a basket of potatoes sits in front of the flat on the first floor. This small flat is a very comfortable place to spend the weekend.
Rovinj has three sources of income. It’s a commercial fishing port, a tourism destination and it makes cigarettes. The old Ronhill tobacco factory no longer makes cigarettes but houses a modern art gallery, a summer stock theater, a historical museum, the headquarters of Adris Group, Ronhill’s parent, and a conference center the venue for the Weekend Media Festival, mostly on the old industrial floor. The old factory is on the water overlooking the tourist side of Rovinj. The new tobacco factory, about 10km out of town, still provides major employment.
On Friday night we went out on a boat with some friends celebrating Sasa’s 40th birthday. Offshore, between myriad islands, we saw brilliant lights. Seiners have huge light rigs on their boats. Fishermen claim light attracts sardines. I don’t know if it does, but one bar along the waterfront has underwater lights that swarm with the small fish, casting schooling shadows along the sea wall.
Rovinj (Rovingo in Italian) is one of those places with a complicated history and, as a result, a mix of cultures. Its 13,000 people are Croat, Slovene, Italian and Istriot, remainders of the original people of the Istrian peninsula that points south from the northern head of the Adriatic. Street signs are in Croatian and Italian and it feels more Italian than Balkan, with the main church based, in design, on St. Marks in Venice. It was originally an Illyrian town conquered by Rome before Christ, a few hundred years later it was part of the Byzantine Empire. The Hapsburgs took Rovinj and Istria in the mid 700s. After the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire Rovinj became an independent city state, with Hapsburgs controlling the hinterland and Venice patrolling the sea. In the 1200s it became part of the Venetian Republic and remained so until Napoleon conquered it in the very late 18th century. Following the Napoleonic wars Rovinj was re-incorporated into the Habsburg Empire. At the end of World War I it became part of Italy and in 1947 part of Yugoslavia and now Croatia. If my mother had been born in Rovinj she would have lived in 4 different countries without ever leaving home.
Istria has had engineered several of those population transplantations common in Balkan history. In the 1600s the town was decimated by the plague and the Venetians imported Albanians and Montenegrins to fill the empty houses. They were glad enough to get away from constant warfare with the Turks. Albanian names still are recognizable. In the 1920s Mussolini imported southern Italians to replace some of the Slovenes and Croats they threw out. After 1947 the newcomer Italians were tossed out by returning Slavs, although the town is still 16% Italian. Most people in the region seem to be proud of being Istrian, of mixed culture.
We attended the festival on Friday and Saturday but spent Sunday and Monday morning wandering the town, riding water taxies, snooping through narrow alleyways and walking the docks, looking at different fishing gear. It’s nice getting lost in the narrow streets, paying attention to details of decoration, finding broom closet sized shops. I found one stall selling hand turned baseball bats. They weren’t well balanced. Even the great DiMaggio would have trouble keeping a streak going with a Rovinj slugger. When lost, getting found is never a problem. If you go up hill you’re at the church, down you find the sea. Rovinj is the place to sit in a café and watch. Look in one direction to see a parade of people, and being the last weekend in September there were fewer tourists and more working folk. Look the other direction and see a parade of boats silhouetted against the sunset, working boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats, ferry boats, two masted sailing boats, even a pocket cruise ship.