Souvenirs of Croatia – Istrian treasures

And now something less adventurous—As travel agents, we often get asked by our clients, what to take home, what are the best and most authentic souvenirs? And our answer is usually always the same: get olive oil, wines, fig spread, truffles, rakija… It is better to support a local wine maker than an importer of foreign made fridge magnets. And there are plenty of choices all over the country! Istria, has so much to offer that I always get a bag or two of Istrian stuff before heading home.

Motovun

Motovun

One of my favorite places is definitely a Natura Tartufi store in Motovun, Istria. These guys have EVERYTHING!

Natura Tartufi right on the main street

Natura Tartufi right on the main street

Let’s get one thing straight: this is a touristy shop. It caters mostly to the hundreds and hundreds of tourists visiting Motovun daily. But, there are many different local delicacies that I don’t mind paying a bit more for a jar  of truffle paste, bag of Istrian pasta or a bottle of great malvazija wine.

Made of truffles!

Made of truffles!

Small part of their great selection of superb rakija!

Small part of their great selection of superb rakija!

Another great features is that one can sample almost everything worth sampling! Starting from famous Istrian pršut ham and cheese with truffles.

Istrian pršut

Istrian pršut

Yeah, one can argue that there are better and more authentic stuff somewhere else, that wines can be bought in a different place or that truffles are better in another store. But I am usually trying to be as efficient as possible and cannot be visiting 10 places to do my “shopping”. In short – I don’t waste time visiting many stores as long as these guys have such a superb selection of Istrian delicacies. Definitely worth stopping at.

Travel in Croatia

Military Tunnels of Vis Island

Vis Islands holds many historic secrets. From still unearthed Greek town, sunken ships and planes, fortresses hidden in the hillside… But, some of the most attractive are the military tunnels dug throughout the island after 1945 when the island was a major military base for Yugoslav army.

View of Stupisce with Bisevo island across the sea

View of Stupisce with Bisevo island across the sea

There are over 30 different military objects now scattered across the island: from tunnels, underground hospital and command center, army barracks… and most of them are abandoned. One of the most attractive is the missile base at Stupisce point near Komiza. It was a huge base for land-sea missiles with quite impressive tunnel and bunker complex to be on alert in case of an invasion from Italy. Yugoslav authorities were paranoid of invasions, enemy attacks from abroad…while the country finally collapsed from within back in 1990s.
There are two ways one can reach the base: one is from the panorama point on top of the hill (on the main road) and it is a longer way. A much shorter way is to simply to drive to it. One has to pass a garbage depot and although small, it is not the nicest smelling point of Vis Island in the peak summer month.

That morning, we decided to hike…

Stone huts

Stone huts camouflaging gas exhausts

The hike is scenic but long. As soon as we saw the barbed wire fence, we knew we were close. And soon, stone huts appeared. These stone huts are not real huts but camouflaged gas exhausts for huge rocket gas tanks buried deep in the ground! But we just started discovering all the secrets of the base.

The tunnel

The tunnel

The dirt road leads to the very interesting tunnel. We had no idea what it was but it looked very scary! Almost like something from the Walking Dead. The wire frame above the entrance was covered with big pieces of styrofoam to mask it and to appear as the natural, rocky surface of Vis Island. Now it is nearly gone but still looks quite impressive.

Out in the sun

Out in the sun

The tunnel

The tunnel

The tunnel is not too long but the central part is quite dark. Luckily, we had light on our cell phones and were able to see the rooms for missiles.

Behind the massive doors

Behind the massive doors

Now empty, the rooms are still in fairly good shape with ceramic tiles on the floor. I guess it had something to do with highly dangerous gas fumes. The base was holding up to 12 Russian made, 20 meter long, P-21 missiles with half-ton war heads each.

The rooms for missiles

The rooms for missiles

And then we went out to explore the rest of the base.

Stupisce base

Stupisce base

Many bunkers can be seen all over the place and many of them can be entered through several openings. We explored a few just to get a proper perspective and the view.

Typical bunker

Typical bunker

Inside the bunker was fairly light.

Inside the bunker

Inside the bunker

But the most interesting part of the base are definitely canons pointing out from a series of bunkers facing Bisevo and open sea.

Ansaldo canon, Italy, 1941

Ansaldo canon, Italy, 1941

It was strange to see an enormous base defended only by ancient Ansaldo canons from 1941 (Made in Italy) but I guess, the military knew why they kept them there. The cannons have been disabled before the JNA left the island in 1993. and they have been like this ever since.

Guarding the ghosts

The view of Stupiste, Bisevo and Svetac

One of the bunkers.

One of the bunkers.

One can get behind the canon and explore the tunnel connecting all the bunkers. It is a fairly big complex. Somewhat of a maze but not that difficult to navigate as there is a pattern. Most of the rooms below served as classrooms or storage rooms and some still have broken furniture.

Former underground barracks

Former underground barracks

The JNA troops were up to 4000 strong on the island in its peak days always ready to give a refuge to Tito and his staff or to be the defense base in case of even a nuclear attack. Vis and Lastovo were off limits for foreign tourists for decades but that helped them stay nearly untouched oasis compared to the rest of the coast.

Sunset at Stupisce

Sunset at Stupisce

Today, all these abandoned military bases are guarding the ghosts of of once mighty army, ideas of unity and brotherhood that existed in these lands.

Travel in Croatia

Bulls and wells of Svilaja

The weather this October was truly beautiful with mild temperatures and lots of sunshine. One day we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and visit a fairly remote place in the heart of Zagora- Svilaja mountain is one of the iconic mountains of Dalmatian hinterland but I visited only few times. It is easily accessed by car as the road Drniš – Vrlika takes one across the mountain but that is not a proper visit. One really has to walk to experience the mountains and nature.

Svilaja

Svilaja

The main reason for me going there was to finally visit one remote field with several interesting wells. The satellite images show 7 nicely positioned wells in the middle of nowhere. I simply had to see them in real life!

The wells

The wells

So, we boarded the Defender and headed to Ogorje Donje and up Svilaja. The dirt road was not in the best shape after all the rains we had during the summer, and we did not have the proper tires so we had to stop at one point and continue on foot.

Rocky hillside

Rocky hillside

A very rocky road

A very rocky road

Svilaja is a beautiful mountain but, like other mountains in the region, with not so many woods. Mostly rocky plains with some wooded areas.  It is only about 30 km in length and its highest peak is Bat at 1508 meters. It is also a very pleasant mountain for hiking and walking and abandoned stone huts prove that there was life here not so long ago. Actually, one can see several modern huts and houses that people still use. Some of them grow cabbage, some have cattle…

Cows on pasture

Cows on pasture

We also saw several signs for land mines warning of recent war activities in this area as Svilaja was right in the middle of unfortunate events. As we later learned, the signs are positioned much closer to the road than the actual mines are, just to warn the potential hikers of the dangerous zones.

Scenic landscape and dirt roads

Scenic landscape and dirt roads

And then we reached the wells.

The valley of the wells

The valley of the wells

The valley, or vrtača as this would be in Croatian, is quite spectacular and off the main road so not so easy to spot. It is also much. much bigger than I assumed looking at the satellite images! The descent is not so easy as the slopes are very rocky and one has to be careful. But once at the bottom, it is a huge and flat field.

One of the 7 wells

One of the 7 wells

The wells are quite interesting with sides made of nicely positioned blocks of stone. Some blocks look quite ancient but, as we later learned, the story goes that 7 families each built one for their cattle some 300 years ago. It was always puzzling why 7 and not one but I guess it is easier to manage one’s cattle by one’s well and not get in conflict. This is a rugged land and the people had little finesse in dealing with each other.

We spent some time next to the wells soaking up the serenity of this ancient place and then, as the clouds were slowly moving in, we decided to go back to the car.

Modern Svilaja cowboy

Modern Svilaja cowboy

On our way back, we saw quite a noisy bull being chased away. We immediately moved from its path as it did not look happy! Ante, the modern Svilaja cowboy, was chasing this young bull as he keeps bothering his bulls on a daily basis. And always gets his butt kicked. So it is not so smart to stay on its way when he is frustrated and angry going back to his herd…

Ante was happy to join us part of the way. It is not so often that he meets people up in the mountain. He is actually from Split but works with his cousin in the hillside for summer months.

Picturesque pastures of Svilaja

Picturesque pastures of Svilaja

We learned a lot from Ante: about the actual mine situation, history of the wells, local bull fighting, wolves… He was accompanied by his faithful dog that, according to him, is a proper menace to all the wolves of the mountain. And there are plenty of wolves!

We also saw Ante’s bulls – gorgeous animals all belonging to ancient and indigenous cattle species called buša.

Timeless image of Svilaja

Timeless image of Svilaja

Buša (busha) is also known as the Illyrian cattle and some scientists are saying that it has been in these areas from the Stone age. In the 19th Century, Busa from Croatia and Bosnia ( Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time) were crossed with an Austrian breed. This cross is larger than the original busa and it is exclusively grey in color while original busa is brown.

The bulls are not so big and up to 450 Kg in weight. There are only about 900 busas left in Croatia and it is somewhat protected with cattle breeders being subsidized for raising this very special cattle.

As the dusk was catching up with us, we decided to hurry up and say good bye to our new friends.

The dog did not want to let us go!

The dog did not want to let us go!

Dried flowers

Dried flowers

Svilaja is one of those regions well of the beaten path. Only few mountaineers, scarce dirt bike drivers, hunters… come up here. It really deserves more visitors for the hikes are great and easy.

Travel to Croatia

Tours in Croatia