Thursday, February 5, 2009


A 2001 NASA satellite map of the Istrian Peninsula. The Gulf of Trieste and the Alps are shown in the left of the satellite capture. The Croatian islands in the Gulf of Kvarner are to the right.

The largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, Istria comprises land areas of three countries: Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Situated in the northeastern Adriatic opposite Venice, Istria's northern border is the Gulf of Trieste (Italy); the eastern limit is the Gulf of Kvarner, with its deep water port city of Rijeka (Croatia).

Croatia (Hrvatska in the native Croatian language -- important to know) occupies 89% of Istria's land mass, and most of the remaining portion lies within Slovenia. Italian Istria is just two tiny municipalities, Muggia and San Dorligo della Valle, both of which lie just south of Trieste. Click on map to enlarge.

In modern times, Istria was part of Italy until 1945. For some 500 years it was the summer playground of the Venetian Republic. The city of Venice, just a two hour boat ride away , is visible across the Adriatic on a clear day. Istria retains a distinct Italian flavor. Architectural reminders, such as piazzas and Tuscany-style stone farmhouses, are everywhere. Most towns have at least one church with a campanile (bell tower). Italian aromas fill the air from restaurants serving gnocchi, truffles and classic northern Italian fare.

Note for tourists: In Italy and Slovenia, the Euro is the unit of currency. In Croatia it is the Kuna, although Euros are widely accepted throughout Istria. One US dollar buys 7 Kuna.

The name Istria comes from the Histri tribe of the Illyrians. It took the Romans two military campaigns to subdue them (in 177 BCE). After the fall of the Roman Empire, Istria was occupied by Goths, Lombards, Franks (Pippin III in 789), and the dukes of Merano, Bavaria and Carinthia, before becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1267. The area near the border between Slovenia and Croatia was especially valuable to Venice, because of its salt pans, which remain productive today. Inland portions of Istria were under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, and later the Hapsburgs and Napoleon.

Note to travelers:
I would suggest using the Trieste, Italy airport (TRS airport code) northwest of the city at Monfalcone just off this map at the tip of the top left arrow. There are twice daily Lufthansa nonstop one-hour flights from Munich (MUC airport code). Trieste (black area at top of map) abuts Slovenia (orange area of map). Green area is Croatia. Visit in order Piran, Groznjan, Motovun, Hum, Porec, Pula, Rovinj. The best (Piran and Rovinj) are thus first and last.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Piran (Pirano)

Piran is a small walled town (population +-5,000) in Slovenia occupying a promontory on the Adriatic coast southwest of Trieste, Italy. Situated at the tip of a scenic peninsula, the town looks thoroughly Italian, with medieval, Renaissance and neoclassical architecture. The photograph shown in this blog's title box is of Piran. Narrow streets and centuries-old buildings give the town its special charm. Most of Piran is a pedestrian area; in 2008 the main square was remodeled to eliminate automobile traffic and parking.

Piran is one of Slovenia's major tourist attractions, and along with the towns of Koper, Izola and Porotorož, forms the principal coast area of Slovene Istria. The municipality is bilingual, and both Slovene and Italian are official languages; the Italian name for Piran is Pirano.

Piran is the birthplace of noted Baroque composer and violinist Giuseppi Tartini (b. 1692). In 1892 the city erected a large-than-life statue of Tartini, which is placed on a pedestal at one end of a large polished marble oval that forms the main area of the town square, Tartinjef Trg (Italian: Piazza Tartini). Prior to that time this area was a protected inner harbor, but sediment and stagnation led to its being filled in.

High above Tartinjef Trg is Saint George's Cathedral, from which expansive views can be enjoyed. A separate octagonal baptistry and clock-faced campanile share the cathedral grounds (see photo below).

Standing at the tip of Piran's peninsula, in the vicinity of the church of St. Clement, it is possible to see the Italian Alps, the Gulf of Trieste and the Croatian coast, all in one sweep. The photo below shows the Italian Alps across the Gulf of Trieste, as viewed from atop the old city walls. The church in the foreground is St. George's Cathedral.


Tartini's statue can be seen in the lower right of this photo:
The view of Piran's harbor as seen on the walk into town from the municipal parking lot (a free shuttle bus is also available).

The ancient crenelated walls protected the town from an attack by land. The coast of Croatia is seen in the distance in the first photograph below.

The cobbled pedestrian-only streets and arched passageways are stage-set picturesque. Venetian Renaissance architecture on Tartinjef Trg:

Piran's streets were built intentionally narrow for protection from the wind and rain, since the town is built along a slender peninsula.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Pula Roman Arena

The Pula arena is an ancient stone amphitheatre located in Pula, a port city on the southwest coast of the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia. This arena is the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four side towers and all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved. It is the sixth largest surviving Roman arena, having replaced a smaller stone ampitheatre in 79 AD; the enlargement to a capacity of 23,000 spectators was necessary in order to accommodate crowds drawn to the gladiator fights. This arena remained a part of the gladiator circuit until the 5th century, when Roman emperor Honorius prohibited gladiator combats. However, it was not until 681 that battles between convicts (with a death sentence) and wild animals was forbidden (and to think we get upset about dog fighting these days).

Each of the four towers had two cisterns filled with water that fed a fountain and powered primitive misters that sprinkled perfumed water onto the spectators. This amphitheatre could be covered with large sail cloths to protect the spectators from sun or rain, as attested by intact rare construction elements. A series of underground passageways was built underneath the arena along the main axis, from which animals, scenery, performers and fighters could be released; stores and shops were located under the rows of raked seating. The present day museum under the arena has exhibits of Roman wine making and olive oil processing; both of these Istrian products were goods highly valued by the Romans.

In the Middle Ages the interior of the arena was used for grazing, tournaments by the Knights of Malta and fairs. In 1583 the Venetian Senate proposed dismantling the Arena and rebuilding it in Venice, but this plan did not come to fruition. In 1709 some stones from the arena were used for the foundations of the belfry of Pula’s cathedral. In 1932 it was adapted for theater productions, military ceremonies and public meetings. In its present state it seats some 5,000 spectators.

Il Divo: Amazing Grace
Recorded and videotaped at the Arena in Pula, September, 2008, complete with bagpipers and full symphony orchestra. "Amazing Grace" is from the Il Divo CD "The Promise" and DVD "Il Divo at the Coliseum."
Extreme trivia: bagpipes play only in the key of E-flat, so we don't have to guess which key they sing in after the bagpipes enter.

Il Divo (Italian for “star” or “celebrity”) is a multinational operatic/pop vocal group created by Simon Cowell (yep, the one from “American Idol”). Cowell conducted a worldwide search for young male singers who were willing to embark on his 2001 “Il Divo” project in an effort to create a “Three Tenors” ensemble with repertoire leaning more toward pop music. And, like the Three tenors, they tend to bellow full throttle. In December, 2003, a fourth member, American tenor David Miller, was signed. Il Divo comprises a renowned Spanish opera baritone, Carlos Marín; two classically trained tenors, Swiss Urs Bühler and American David Miller (he starts the second verse in the video above); and a French pop singer, Sébastien Izambard (the only group member who was not classically trained; hint: he's the one singing solo at the start of the video posted above). Definitely not to everyone’s taste, but Il Divo has become an international sensation, and (in an age rife with spin-offs) to date they have no serious competition. Plus, they have caused a spike in sales of Armani suits. Way more than you wanted to know.

October 18, 2003: Cravat around the Arena

Staged as a major work of world performance art, which was seen on television throughout the world by an estimated one billion viewers, “Cravat around the Arena” was considered the most ambitious promotion of the Croatian identity in the world to date. The necktie originated in Croatia in the seventeenth century. This installation, incorporating the largest cravat in the world, symbolically brought together the ancient and modern ages, and the red color of the cravat sent a message to the world of love and life together of peoples and nations. Most of the grunt work of the installation was accomplished by Pula high school students.

Trivia: the knot was not tied beforehand, and its execution presented major complications and trials for the installers; between the knot and the harbor, the tie was strung up over a street (which remained open to traffic) and extended over to a large parking lot.

Few people are aware that neckties originated in Croatia around 1635. The word “cravat” is derived from the word “Croat,” and neckties are descended from the neckwear that Croatian mercenary soldiers wore. Because some Croatian mercenaries were stationed in large, fashionable cities such as Paris and Prague, this “Croatian style” greatly impressed their foreign counterparts. Croatian military officers wore tied neck scarves made of silk, and French men adopted this new fashion during the reign of Louis XIV, referring to it as “a la Croate.” Eventually, it became known by the French word “cravate.” The tie entered the bourgeois fashion of that era as a sign of cultivation and elegance and went on to conquer the whole of Europe. In contrast to the lace collar that had to be kept white and carefully starched, the cravat was simply and loosely tied around the neck without need for any additional care. Today, men across the entire civilized world wear neckties. Unlike many fashions, which fade or disappear over time, the necktie has retained its popularity for hundreds of years and is still considered a basic item of most men’s wardrobes, rather than just a decorative accessory.