The dust thrown up by the ageing Toma Vinkovi? tractor stung Zoran's eyes as he strained to see the devastation caused by the ploughing. Three-quarters of his precious vines ploughed under. The plants which produced the grapes for the family's wine destroyed. With so few vines remaining, there will be no surplus to exchange for little luxuries this year.
His son had instigated the ploughing. Zoran hoped his logic was sound.
The tourist philosophy adopted by the various organisations and individuals concerned with Istria involved much debate. With argued agreement the Croatian Peninsula geared itself for the high end of the market. The wine makers took advice and reluctantly destroyed the bulk of the vines. This allowed the remaining plants to luxuriate, soaking up the nutrients once shared with so many.The olive oil producers opted for low quantity, high quality products and the hospitality industry geared itself for the affluent.
Zoran's faith in his son's decision eventually paid dividends, with high quality wine fetching commensurate prices on the domestic and international markets. Whether he publicly acknowledged the wisdom of his son's decision is not on record, but one hopes he paid due tribute.
Istrian produce for sale at a local market
My first experience of this revolution in tourism was in the coastal town of Pore?, where I stayed at the Hotel Palazzo, 74 rooms including four presidential suits. I felt out-of-place, this was not the budget establishment I normally frequented. My room was palatial with a large bathroom which boasted underfloor heating. Control of the room's electrical systems is from strategically placed and complicated 'touch pads'. So complicated that the hotel manager was at loss to explain one particular pad. I left it alone in case it activated some 'self-destruct' mechanism so often seen in 'Bond' films.
Hotels of this calibre exist in most of the larger coastal towns of the Istrian Peninsular. I however felt more at home in the Casa Romantica La Parenzana at Volpia. An inland rustic hotel, Intimate and secluded. While the coastal areas obviously excel in seafood cuisine, the Casa Romantica produced a superb meat dish cooked in a ?ripnja. This is a cast iron pot with a cast iron lid. Chunks of chicken and pork with potatoes coated in olive oil were place inside and the lid fitted. Then completely burying the ?ripnja in burning cinders and allowing the contents to cook slowly. The result was wonderful, succulent meat and I have never tasted better potatoes.
Food is obviously very important to any tourist industry and Istria boasts many fine restaurants. There are many seafood restaurants such as the Sveti Nikola in Pore?, while inland establishments such as the Restaurant Zigante provide for those who prefer their food to have legs rather than fins. Common to all hotels and restaurants is the truffle, the jewel in the culinary crown of Croatian Istria. It comes in two varieties, the more expensive white truffle and the more abundant black. It is eaten with almost everything. Grated onto a scrambled egg and asparagus dish or minced and added to soups and goulashes. They are even used to flavour the local spirit Grappa and I hesitate to say it, also ice cream. Being one of the worlds most expensive foods it is however ubiquitous in Istria. I won't even try to go into the supposed aphrodisiacal qualities of the fungus.
The Peninsula has had a turbulent past with many nationalities leaving their mark. The Italian language and its culture both past and present is much in evidence. Pula, Istria's largest city has some of the finest examples of Roman architecture outside of Rome itself. The amphitheatre in Pula is the only one in existence today to have the four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved. While Rovinj, further north is the Venice of Istria. Pleasure craft of all descriptions bob about in the gentle swell of the harbour. They intermingle with the many Batanas, these are the traditional fishing boats of the area, under power and not sail these days but still retaining the same ancient hull design. An inland town, that of Grožnjan has a unique story. At one time almost deserted, then in 1965 it was 're-invented' as the e Town of Arts. Some of the housing was given to artists from Croatia, Slovenia and Vojvodina, and some to the International Music Youth Federation in 1969. It has a wonderful ambiance and is also the only town in Croatian Istria to have a majority of Italian speakers.
My main impression of the coastal towns was one of tiny streets where smoothed cobbles, worn over the centuries, lead in apparently random directions. Confusing for the senses but so charming. It was pleasant to wander the narrow thoroughfares and look in wonder at the houses which stand on the very water's edge. The diminutive waves of the crystal clear Adriatic lap below their very windows.
Topography and culture may be some of the tangible assets of a country, but it is the people who define it. Off the coast from the town of Fažana are the Brijuni Islands, former home to Yugoslavia's wartime leader Tito. He led his people against Hitler and also defied Stalin, making the Yugoslav people independent, self reliant and a proud nation. The Islands are now an integral part of the tourist industry and also a place of pilgrimage. The people who are helping to mould the tourist industry are following in this tradition of self reliance, with family businesses growing and adapting through the years. Peter Poletti, for example is the latest in line of wine producers who started in 1842 with a capital of only 113 florins. The family firm is now one of the important wine makers in Istria. It is known not only for the excellence of the wines but also for total commitment to the Peninsular.
The Ipša family produce top quality olive oil from their plantation in North-western Istria. The lush vegetation offers the optimum conditions for the trees. This family not only take pride in their produce but also their hospitality. Sitting in a rustic low beamed room with an open fire blazing in the corner, we informally discussed the olive making process and the finer points of oil tasting. On a rough-cut Holm Oak table a traditional meal lay before us. Istrian cheese, scrambled egg and asparagus with grated truffles, slices of pork cooked in the traditional method and a succulent salad.
I certainly shall not forget the hospitality of the many people I met in the region nor the excellent cuisine. Whether the hotels are 'top end' boasting presidential suits and saunas or more rustic, beamed and basic, they were all welcoming. The warmth of greeting and the attentiveness of the staff was exceptional. As a tourist destination it is unique, small industries producing high quality produce by committed individuals.