In Croatia, don't be surprised if a two-hour coffee overflows into three. People have time. During a summer tour including the seaside Croatian region of Istria, the capital city of Zagreb and the Dalmatian Coast from Brestova to Dubrovnik, I ran into many locals with rooted and real Mediterranean dispositions. In a country that endured a divisive war 10 years ago, the mellow rhythms put me in mind of the Bob Dylan line, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."
In late July, I hitched a ride from Wels, Austria, to the Motovun Film Festival. Motovun is an isolated hilltop settlement in the Istrian region near Trieste, Italy, along the Adriatic Sea. The ancient fortified city once ruled by Romans sits high above valley vineyards and golden lowlands.
For the past six years, the little town has transformed an unassuming film festival into a big-time bash. This is not Cannes or Sundance. Croatians looking to dance, drink and socialize easily outnumber film freaks. And forget the movies, because a lot of people at the five-day festival never see one.
As the festival has gained popularity over its six-year life, each year there is more real-life drama and less of the celluloid. "The first two years, this was about watching movies, but now, it is about drinking," remarked Boyan Szabo, a 24-year-old veteran of all six festivals. "If they wouldn't show films, it might be better. Just make it a party."
One night I labored through "Land of Plenty," the latest Wim Wenders movie. Only a temporary chain fence with a vinyl drape separated the movie area from the main plaza. As the plaza crowd grew and the buzz got louder, the audience's preferences began to show. In twos and threes, people stood up and waded through lawn chairs for the exit. After dwindling further for a half-hour, Wenders' movie audience was left to sleepers and introverts.
Around midnight, every corner of Motovun pumped to life with DJs grooving in beer gardens, meat sizzling on grills and taps and bottles in the full tilt boogie. A few thousand people on holiday enjoyed July's T-shirt weather. Most roamed uneven alleys nursing a drink. In some spots, the crooked cobblestones became the dance floor and the crowd tripped around.
The group perspired through sunrise and slowly disappeared with the daylight. On the way down from the old city, I noticed people passed out, faithfully holding their last beer.
Throughout the festival, cold Ozujsko beer was on tap for 10 kuna ($1.65). Most of the grape growers in Istria produce homemade wines and spirits, and local products are available at farms surrounding the Motovun (signs simply read "vino"). Next to the bus drop-off, a fruit stand is open for the entire festival stocking the local wine for 10-15 (2.50) kuna per bottle, along with potent liquor called rakija, which can reach 50 percent to 60 percent alcohol.
Motovun's film festival facilities are less than ideal, but somehow that makes it more charming. The theater venues are 14thcentury buildings, not a multiplex with reclining seats or clean bathrooms. In Motovun, seats are hard and either plastic or wood. Rooms have low ceilings and subtitles are sometimes only visible to the first few rows. And almost everyone uses the portable toilets or at night, nature.
The largest theater is located outside on the square and near the town gate, so noise can be a factor. Several hundred chairs comprise the seating, and each audience rearranges them so you might find yourself feeling surrounded and marooned from the exit. During the sleeper "Antares" by Gotz Spielmann, my neighbor napped like a cat on my shoulder, and I tilted back, watching the stars overhead.
Compared to Motovun's carnival atmosphere, Zagreb was a morgue. Trams and sidewalks were deserted except for city workers resurfacing roads and a few lonesome policemen. As Croatia's capitol, with nearly 1 million residents, Zagreb celebrates culture through numerous museums, galleries, concerts, dance, and dramatic performances each year. But this was August, and everyone was at the sea.
During this peak tourist season, stores, companies, and restaurants hang out their "Gone Fishin'" signs and migrate to the water. By the look of it, Croatians are not at all tempted to forfeit their August holidays to earn more tourist money in Zagreb.
To get oriented, I took a two-mile walk and toured the city walls, climbing up Lotrscak tower to see the cannon they still fire every day at noon. From the tower, St. Mark's patterned tile roof and the panoramic view of the Mount Medvednica highlands to the lazy Sava River are worth the 10-kuna entrance fee ($1.65). Down the street, Catholicism is practiced at the city's Stone Gate, where people pray to statues and hundreds of red candles flicker in the wind.
The narrow alleys and streets are ideal for walking, but to move more quickly, public trams and buses are efficient and inexpensive with day passes for 15 kuna ($2.50).
At Jelacica square, the city's nerve center lined with majestic 16th century baroque buildings and upscale cafes, I headed for Praska Avenue. I walked the warm park blocks listening to hissing water fountains and enjoying flowers preening in a late-summer bloom. Within a few minutes by foot, I passed the Gallery of Modern Art, the Archeology Museum, the Art Pavilion, and the National Theater.
I stopped in at the plush Hotel Inter-Continental to gamble. After two guards checked me for guns and dress code violations, I played blackjack in a tomb called Casino City. The place had the lonesome scent of desperation and only two other customers. A dozen assorted pit bosses, dealers, guards, and slot jockeys stood around with spinning roulette wheels for eyes. I won, but it felt like losing. By then it was dark, and the 13th-century Cathedral of the Assumption's glowing towers looked like gothic chandeliers.
Outside the town core, some of the architecture has the same punitive effect found in zoos and jails. One complex in New Zagreb is a famous concrete monstrosity built in Marshall Tito's era with over 1,000 units. A university student who once lived there described conditions as "not human, but cheap."
A local friend introduced me to traditional Croatian cuisine at the upscale Paviljon restaurant in the center of Zagreb (22 Trg Tomislava). The patio looked a lot like what you might find at a Los Angeles country club, but the plates told a different story. The first thing I saw was Fred and Wilma Flintstone sharing a kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef served on a platter. The meat, beer and bread were the stars of the show as decorative crinkle-cut carrots, infant potatoes and cabbage wisps sat untouched.
The menu boasted a variety of pork, beef, lamb and seafood by the kilogram. There was also pag and lika (sheep cheeses), Bosnian cevapi (spiced sausage), and Slavonian kulen (paprika- flavored salami).
For something lighter, I enjoyed the fresh tomato soup and a Croatian vegetable plate, which was a sampling of pickled vegetables (tursija), grilled onions and peppers, roasted potatoes (przeni krumpir) and a pasta and cheese pie called strukli. The lunch tab was very reasonable at 100 kuna ($16.60) for two.
Zagreb is not an electrifying city, but it has a fair share of discos, nightclubs and entertainment listed in a free guide. One of the most popular places with the locals is Sidro, a dingy club featuring Croatian rock and open all night long. Ludnice (Insane House) offers a cultural experience with Serbian folk music. Global is a gay discotheque open all night with commercial dance music and a "crazy" atmosphere. One local described Hemingway's, a singles and tourist bar, as a "terrible elite place, very boring."
I found myself returning to Melin (Kozarska 19). This bar is a phenomenon because it seems everyone in the 18-to-35 year age group meets here for a drink before going out. Melin has the feeling of a giant living room, and it is easy to strike up conversations with strangers. Patrons often buy drinks for each other, and it is important to reciprocate. The price is right as a half-liter of Karlovasco beer costs 10 kuna ($1.65).
For late-night snacks, there are sandwich shops, bakeries and pizzerias. One treat many people eat after a night out is a baked roll called burek sa mesom (with meat) or burek sa sirom (with cheese). These are perfect for soaking up any remaining rakija in your system.
As I traveled through Croatia, Bob Dylan sang in my head, "The times they are a changin'." As the former communist country embraces the European Union and outside investment pours in, the nation is learning the ropes of capitalism. I hope that the times don't change the place too much.
IF YOU GO ... CROATIA
Videos, travel, hotel and festival information is available through the Croatia Tourist Agency Web site at www.croatia.hr and the Croatian National Tourist Office, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 4003, New York, NY, 10118 (cntony@earth lin.net).
WHERE TO STAY, ZAGREB
For accommodation in Zagreb, the Hotel Inter-Continental is a luxury option ($190-$230). The Central Hotel across from the train station is a generic mid-grade hotel at ($75-$90). For budget travelers, the 10-bed St. Patrick's Hostel at $18 a night is a great value for a quality hostel experience.
MOTOVUN FILM FESTIVAL
For more information and a program, see www.motovunfilm festival.com.
WHERE TO STAY, MOTOVUN
The campground is one option for film-festival accommodation. However, conditions are very crowded. The Hotel Kastel (www.hotel-kastel-motovun.hr) has rooms and apartments starting at $60. Rooms in private homes are also available.
FERRY GETAWAY ON THE CROATIAN COAST
The Croatian coast is an easy place to forget time. Was it Thursday? No, couldn't be. Friday? Perhaps. After a few shoulder-to-shoulder days with tourists in Pula, a well-preserved Roman military outpost, I decided to disappear for a while.
Pula's picturesque 1st century amphitheater is still used for pop concerts and festivals. The former site of gladiator battles and executions rivals the Roman Coliseum, but I was tired of buildings and longed for solitude. I wanted to swim with the fish and not flop around on land anymore.
To escape the masses, the ferry system is ideal. I jumped on the local boat in Brestova, Istria, and we docked 25 minutes later at the deserted Porozina harbor on the quiet island of Cres. I found a remote campsite in brush overlooking the beach, and I snorkeled alone for hours through clouds of glittering sardines. When plunging through the shimmering schools, I felt like I had smashed through a glass door. The game had the same childhood attraction as running through a flock of pigeons at the zoo. Beside the sardines, the water seemed lifeless except for urchins looking like fallen fruit on the flat ocean floor.
Along the coast, the hot climate painted the landscape browns and yellows. From the fishing boats moored in the soft blue shorebreak, I could see 1,000-year-old stone houses in sun-drenched vineyards. Each was a Mediterranean postcard.
After a few days on Cres living off the local market and a pizzeria, I caught another ferry to the island of Krk and found the old Roman seaside village of Baska, homemade liquor and rocky beaches hosting fewer tourists than the mainland beaches.
Aside from short routes where ferries act like water taxis between two islands, larger ships transport people and cars the coastal length of Croatia from Rijeka to the ancient seaside city of Dubrovnik, Croatia's most popular tourist destination. The historic trading city has deep Roman and Venetian history, and the old town is nicely restored after suffering extensive damage during the 1991-95 war. While Dubrovnik is worth visiting for a couple of days, it is crowded and expensive compared with other coastal locations.
The Dalmatian Coast is loaded with untouched islands, so sailing through the chain is a highlight for most mariners and scuba divers. Hopping off the coastal ferry is the name of the game. For the price of a through ticket from Rijeka to Dubrovnik ($40), passengers can get off at any port for up to one week, which is less expensive than buying individual tickets between destinations. From Zadar, Split, Hvar, Korcula and Mljet, you can take local ferries to more remote locations.
From Zagreb or Rijeka, catching a bus to Split and then a ferry to Dubrovnik or vice versa is the best way to see the Dalmatian Coast as well as the interior Mediterranean landscape and architecture. For accommodation, hotels or private rooms are the most convenient option while on coastal islands. Hotel listings are available at tourist information offices located in ports, and rooms are advertised on houses with the word "Sobe."