The lure of the Adriatic

  • 18 August 2022
  • Prue Scott

We could go to Rovinj, said xPat.

We were desperate for sea breezes and turquoise waters where one didn’t have to edge in bit by bit with the “ooh” thing going on.

I thought it a bit late to be trying for Rovinj via Venice, but xPat went off with her phone and did some digging.

“I’ve got us Prima tickets on Italo for Firenze to Venice, a hotel in Venice and a ferry the next day. We’re staying in an apartment one street behind the promenade,” she said.

I needed no further encouragement. We got out the trusty carry-on luggage and packed the swimmers, sunscreen and floating pillows which took a mere four breaths to inflate.

Italians travel by train. Why wouldn’t you when they can take you just about anywhere you want to go. City to city, rather than airport to airport and then a bus into town. This means Santa Maria Novella in Firenze was a sea of human fish, some with dogs, many with very large suitcases, and some wondering where they were and why.

Italo is a competitor to Trenitalia on the main routes and often cheaper. Air con and a cruisy 300kmph get you to Venice in a couple of hours. There’s not much scenery; it’s mostly tunnels at which the Italians are most proficient. Some NZers may remember the construction of the Tongariro Power Scheme; they used Italian tunnellers. They’re doing it again for part of Auckland’s City Rail Link.

Venice was crowded and hot, but it was just one bridge to the hotel. If you’re going to Venice, make sure you don’t have to lug a 30kg suitcase over too many bridges. You’ll come home with one arm longer than the other, a snarly disposition from the exertion and shredded wheels.

Lunch, a walk, a shop that wouldn’t replace xPat’s broken bracelet, some coffee, dinner, a sleep cooled by efficient air con. More walking around and then across town to the ferry. It’s situated precisely where the Venetian ferries don’t stop unless it’s a Monday with an x in it. We did a dozen bridges with our carry-on bags, ripping rubber off the wheels. Mine now limps in a rather vaudevillian way.

The policeman looks at my passport, counts on his fingers. Yes, I’ve been here four months. He disappears, clearly to find a superior, but returns within seconds. I produce my phone and the agreement between NZ and Italy that says I can stay here six months. Ok, he says, and off we go.

The forward cabin on the ferry is freezing; the middle cabin is just right until we’re nearing Rovinj when it appears they turn off the air con. We swelter. Passports are stamped and off we go to meet Mauro, our host.

Rovinj has a small port for the ferries and then a second little bay which is the harbour. Small fishing boats and tour boats bob around, there’s a wide promenade and many many restaurants selling the most wonderful seafood. I was almost drooling.

The apartment is new, sleek, has everything and is quiet once the shutters and double glazed windows are shut. The air con is sheer bliss.

At 10pm there are still many people having dinner and promenading. Our restaurant of choice has a spiced calamari salad. xPat orders the rose. Drinkable, but not much more than that. The calamari, on the other hand, is cooked to perfection with a salad full of crunch and tang. The staff are delightful and we eat with gusto.

Croatia was once Italian, so most signs are in both language and many people speak both, sometimes a mix of both. xPat made me learn a few Croatian phrases, so now I speak five languages. All of them badly.

The Adriatic is turquoise or azure depending on where you’re looking.

It works like this. You don the swimmers and your beach cover-up item, walk around the harbour until you find a space you like the look of. You squeeze your feet into reef shoes because you are going to enter the sea via rocks,  many of which are covered in slime. This is when you discover the lack of Pilates classes really counts – my balance is appalling. However, once in the very salty water, all you need to do is float. No exertion required. The only sound is “ahhhh” as your body drops below melting point. One clambers out, rests, re-enters the water for another round of “ahhhh”, and re-packs everything for walk home. Shower and out to aperitivo and dinner.

There is good Croatian wine; we just didn’t find it. We avoided anything Italian for obvious reasons. Fresh sardines or grilled calamari were firmly in my sights. Oh, look, there’s a Mexican restaurant, with a dimly lit interior and a massive courtyard. Mine host is disorganised; he seems to be new at the job. The wait to order is long; the waiter doesn’t order the whole meal; we wait, we wait, we wait. We collar Disorganised Man and advise that we will shortly become dangerous. Food arrives – but not all of it. Waitress (who didn’t take our order) sighs heavily and I commiserate with her. The food is ok, the wine is so-so. Disorganised Man then delivers tequila shots by way of recompense. Neither of us want tequila shots. We pay and leave. It seems everyone knows about the Mexican restaurant in Rovinj. “So, how was the service,” several people asked with mischievous looks. Ah, so it wasn’t a one-off.

Back to the sardines and grilled calamari and the other fish on offer – fresh, the sardines are plump, the calamari tender. Our mistake was ordering a fish platter; there was enough food on it for four hungry rugby players – about a kilo of potatoes, three entire fish including the mouth-watering branzino, two scampi, four large prawns, a handful of deep friend calamari rings (awful) and some stir-fried peppers and other veg. We agreed we should have just had the branzino. We brought the leftovers home but couldn’t face them the next day. Lesson learnt.

Coffee was hit-and-miss but the cocktails were good. People flock to the harbour’s edge for sundown – flaming ball of orange performance if you’re lucky – and if you can get in, a tiny stool perched on a tiny piece of rock down perilous steps. The Hugos were good; the wait staff skilled as they ran up/down those steps with trays of drinks.

Istrians – since we were on the Istrian Peninsula – understand pastry, from savoury borek through to calorie-laden confections and the inevitable gelato on which I’d overdosed in Lucca.

A bus down the scrubby coast drops you in Pula, site of a magnificent, ruined amphitheatre. An extraordinary feat of engineering no matter how many you see. Pula was searingly hot and we retired to the outdoor garden of a restaurant for fish, beer and a chat with the owner and his Italian chef.

And so the days went. Our trip back to Lucca began with a 4.30am alarm because we were told we had to be at the ferry by 5.45am at the latest. Out of bed, not a word spoken. Shower, dress, close bags, leave keys, drag bags across more wheel-destroying cobbles, maybe there’d be a coffee stop somewhere, no coffee stop, arrive at the same time as the boat crew. We board; ferry is nearly empty. At 5.45am – a good 30 minutes before the advertised departure – we cast off. What??!!! Ah, we take on a load of tourists (that’s everyone but us) and their guides; they’re off to Venice for the day (a loonnnngggg hot day). We duck into Poreč to pick up more people. The ferry is full when Tour Guide #1 starts a hideously long description of Venice and the day ahead n German. Just to make sure, he repeats it all in English. I look at some of the participants – they’re not going to make it over more than one tiny bridge in the heat.

Will I be allowed back into the country? Go for the woman, xPat says. I obey and there is no problem. The tour group zips off to San Marco by water taxi for the obligatory photo with pigeons, a ride up the Grand Canal, photo op on Rialto, lunch somewhere nasty, a trip back down the Grand Canal to the ferry and a slow trip home.

We drag our bags over numerous small bridges, moaning the whole time. Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia has almost no seats inside; outside it’s searing sun. We retreat to a café and buy calories to keep us occupied until we reach Lucca…where we finish dragging our cases over cobbles and start complaining about the heat again.


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