The Balkans – Day 4

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Sept 19 – Tuesday

Map Link

I woke up to the sound of rain. I love waking up to the sound of rain, unless I know that I then need to get on the motorcycle and ride through it for possibly hours at a time in gear that leaks.

We went downstairs and had a wonderful breakfast, full of fresh breads, meats, cheeses, yogurts and cereals to choose from. Once we were packed we hit the road. It was chilly this morning (8.5 °C) and the rain made sure to eventually seep through my pants, but it was not nearly as uncomfortable as it had been the previous two days.

Today our destination was Pula, on the Croatian coast, but we had all day to go not very far. We planned to meander our way there and see some recommended sights along the way. In fact, our first stop was just five minutes down the road in the village of Skocjan. In the museum display after yesterday’s cave tour we learned that there was a massive sinkhole in the middle of the town and we felt it was worth checking out.

Skocjan, Slovenia

Looking into the sinkhole

A diagram that shows the sinkhole’s shape

The view from Skocjan

Once we had perused Skocjan we got fully geared up and ready to cover some miles. We followed the roads across forested land and then hit a mountainous region, where we found a different kind of challenge: the Bora winds.

Backroad views and perfect roads

Into the mountains again

The winds were strong and constant as we wound our way down one side of the valley and up the other. There were few towns and the civilization that we did see was comprised mostly of rough homes and outbuildings. I saw a couple flocks of sheep but otherwise there was no indication of farming or animal raising. I don’t know what people do here, but they must make it work somehow!

As we rounded a bend in the forest we came upon the border into Croatia. It was a surprise, as I had not been paying much attention to my GPS. Instead I had been admiring the countryside, the smooth pavement and the current lack of rain. But now here we were, crossing into another country. There were no other vehicles at this crossing, which made it the best kind of crossing. Dan pulled up to one booth and I decided to slip into the next one over, despite the sign that indicated it was for buses and trucks. In my Sena, Dan was complaining that he needed his passport (and not just his Swiss ID card, like he usually gets away with) and had to pull his bike off to the side while he dug around for it. There was no one in the booth that I had pulled up to so I looked over at the guard in the booth ahead of Dan. He gave me the friendliest, silliest grin and pointed back to Dan: I needed to go back to where he was and use the other line.

I swung the bike around and snuck passed Dan, who was still fishing out his passport and trying to get his bike back in line. I had checked out of Slovenia and the friendly Croatian guard was now perusing my passport. He kept his smile as he placed the stamp on the page and waved me through. Dobrodošli, Croatia!

The change from Slovenia to Croatia was immediately noticeable. Billboards and signs sprouted up in the roadside. More buildings lined the road sides and villages were larger and more frequent. It suddenly felt crowded. Fortunately a few kilometers later the GPS suggested that I get off the main road and head towards our next destination: Grozjen.

Leaving the main road behind

The skies remained overcast as we meandered through the lonely farm roads of northern Croatia. We eventually entered a wide, flat valley and in the distance we spotted what would be the first of many: a walled village at the top of a mountain.

The town of Motovun (I think)

Eventually we reached our own village on a mountain: Grozjen. We stopped part way up to enjoy the view and I was surprised to see blue on the horizon: the Adriatic Sea.

Dan is astounded by the beauty! (Grozjen in the background)

We worked our way through the winding and slippery roads to the parking area near the entrance. Being on lithe motorcycles, we passed by many open spaces because we knew that we could find something right next to the town itself. And we did: front row parking, just behind the “Motorcycle Parking Only” spots that were occupied by a car.

It had stopped raining and we were able to enjoy a leisurely saunter around the hilltop town. It was pedestrian-only and there were a few other tourists wandering around as well. I am not sure how this town would survive without tourists, as most of the shops that we passed catered purely to the visitors: truffles, restaurants and art galleries were the norm. A point of interest for us was the sign that indicated that we could go on a truffle hunt, complete with truffle-sniffing dogs!

Streets of Grozjen

A fun mural above a restaurant

We had seen most of the town in a short while, so we went back to the bikes and grabbed our lunch. We had made a stop earlier for some snacks and we enjoyed a wonderful view while we ate.

Our lunch view: the Adriatic Sea

There wasn’t much to say about the rest of the ride that day. We passed through towns and forests and fields. Sometimes it was dry, sometimes it rained and sometimes it poured. The signs warning of “slippery when wet” road surfaces were frequent and matched with what I had read often on the Internet: Croatian roads are to be treated with respect when they are wet. At least Dan knew not to tuck his motorcycle pants into his boots by now, so his feet stayed dry.

Croatian town

Filling the tanks in the pouring rain

Yep, raining again

“The Kazun is a small stone house in the Istrian countryside, offering shepherds and animals protection from the weather.”

We followed the truck in the picture above for a while, so even though it wasn’t raining, the road spray made sure that we continued to get wet. Despite having long, straight stretches of road, either the visibility was too bad to chance passing, or there was simply too much traffic. So I tried to back off to give the road spray some time to dissipate, but we all know how difficult that can be!

Heading to Pula!

Arriving in Pula!

I had chosen our hotel almost purely on its proximity to the famous sites of Pula, and I chose well. As we wound our way through the city’s streets the GPS directed us left and then there it was: the Pula Arena

We got our room, unloaded the bikes and immediately spread out our gear so that it could dry out while we enjoyed the sights of Pula. I even had some newspapers left over from Italy and we stuff our boots with them. We immediately went back outside to take a tour of the arena. After all, we weren’t going to spend much time in the city and we wanted to see all that it had to offer us!

View from our hotel room – can’t get much closer than that!

We crossed the street, paid our admission and then walked into the arena. We were now in a structure that had been built in 27 BC – over 2,000 years old and it still held its original majesty. The grounds were open and we were free to walk around the entire space, poking our heads into corners and investigating corridors. It was really incredible how well it has survived the millennia.

Showing a restored tower on the right

Current use includes concerts – what a great setting!

“Are you not entertained?”

Underneath the arena, in the areas previously preserved for the animals and fighters and staff, now stood a simple museum. Signage illustrated points in history of the Roman conquest and habitation of this area, as well as trade routes as they spread across the continent. It was pretty cool to follow one of the routes as it stretched northwest, terminating in Augusta Raurica, a Roman settlement just 10 km from Basel.

Amphores in the exhibition below the arena

We exited the arena, somehow resisting the souvenirs offered in the Souvenir shop that one must go through before escaping. Now it was time to see some more ancient structures!

Out in the almost-sunshine

No, it was not abandoned

Staring contest (the cat won)

This was the first country I had visited where stray cats were the norm. I was used to the stray dog population in Mexico, and I have heard of the stray cats that litter the Greek shores (yes, that pun was intended). But here in Pula we saw many stray cats in the streets and alley ways. They were skinny, but generally had a healthy look to them.

Exploring the side streets in Pula

Temple of Augustus (left), City Hall (right)

Forum Square in the rain

The rain was coming back. More and more umbrellas crowded the narrow streets but Dan and I continued tramping around and through the puddles. We headed uphill, following another brown sign (Point of Historical Interest!) towards the Venetian fortress that sits on a rise overlooking the city. As we climbed the steep streets and stairs, the rain slowly abated. Who needs an umbrella?

We chose not to go into the Fortress. I assumed that it would be full of photos of past military events, and perhaps some artifacts from historic defenses, and neither of those things interested me. Who knows? Perhaps I am wrong and it was instead full of beautiful tapestries and fuzzy kittens. I will never know.

The front of the Fortress

The Croatian flag in the breeze

One of the benefits of rain: rainbows!

The famous cranes of Pula (more on this later)

After scrambling around the fortress paths, we descended back to the city streets – and more rain. Let’s be optimistic: rain can give a nice sheen to cobble streets, right?

The Arch of the Sergii

The rainbow is still with us

This time the rain was coming down hard. We didn’t have any more sights (sites?) to visit so we took refuge in Caffe Bar Uliks that stood next to the Sergii Arch, getting something to drink while we waited. A bronze statue of James Joyce sat out front – this was apparently the site of where he lived while he was teaching here. Based on the link, he was none to happy to be in Pula and left as quickly as he could. Maybe it was all of the rain that drove him away.

As our glasses were empty and the rain had again relented, we made our way back outside, this time heading for the port. As Pula was a principal port of the Austro-Hungarian navy during the late 19th century, surely it would hold our interest. Besides, we both like boats and the docks is where they tend to hang out. What little of the Port we had glimpsed had impressed us. It was time to see more!

Waterfront building (Politehnika)

Working boats moored

Did you noticed the second dog in the photo above?

Park monument dedicated to “Fallen fighters and victims of fascism”

It had been a long day with a lot of ground covered, both on two wheels and two feet. We never did end up eating dinner, since we had snacked so late in Grozjen. This was too bad, too, as a number of people had recommended Jupiter Pizzeria and I had been looking forward to trying it. Instead, we went back to our room and took a break from the rain and the walking.

As night fell we went back outside, mostly because we were feeling guilty for spending time in our room when we only had a few hours left in Pula. That’s when we found this neat model of the city, just a block away from our apartment.

Dan for scale

And then we’d thought we’d go see the famous “Pula Cranes“. The problem was, the cranes would be lit between 9 – 10 pm and it was only 8:30. As we stood on the top balcony of the ACI Marina building, the cold wind whipping through our jackets, we both realized that the cranes were probably not worth a half hour wait. And we both knew that if we went back to our room, we would not come out until morning. We went back to our room anyway.

Back to our hotel

Day 5