Motovun, Croatia: Visions Of Elusive Paradise Before The Pandemic
Story by John Wright

On a grand driving tour of Croatia from end to end, a couple unwittingly gets their last look at paradise for a while.

Croatia Travel Story

I awoke in paradise before dawn on my birthday. It seems like half a lifetime ago even though it wasn't long before the coronavirus broke loose and upended everything. In the new reality as we lose our jobs or worry about getting infected, wondering when things will go back to normal as our lives seem stuck in perpetual neutral, we need a vision of paradise, even if only fleeting, to which we can cling.

My own paradise lasted just a day, and as I remain stuck close to home, it keeps running through my head. In dream-like sequence, it played out like this: In the dim light, billowy, almost misty clouds haphazardly played peek-a-boo with the verdant hills far below Motovun, stuffed into the cracks between one hill or another, then rearranged in slow motion on celestial whims. All night, nature had displayed its grandest ethereal, almost other-worldly, symphony: lightning illuminated the eerily black sky with momentary flashes of blinding light, punched by fearsome cracks of deafening thunder, with unprecedented, almost frightening, intensity. Rain pounded with the hypnotic speed and the relentless fury of a machine gun on the glass door, seducing me into mystical slumber: witnessing nature's majesty all night even while descending into the most sublime and profound sleep.

This being paradise, I bounced out of bed with youthful energy and unrestrained enthusiasm to greet my special day. Such a magical event appeared as if created by some hidden force, even though it happened by design with my express consent.

The previous day we had plied the serpentine roads through the enchanted hills of Istra, Croatia's northwesternmost province shaped like a jagged slice of pizza, near Slovenia and Italy, before embarking on the steep climb up to Motovun. From afar, Motovun is a City of Oz, a distant spire ringed by stone walls and gothic houses clinging to a steep hill that would allow only those worthy of ascent to its Elysian heights. Curiously, the modern world, in the form of an electronic gate, blocks outsiders from driving into the Medieval town. Visitors must park before the gate and climb uneven cobblestones on the narrow streets built for people on horseback, not vehicles. We passed restaurants offering delectable works of art topped with locally foraged truffles and inviting gift shops selling oil made from locally grown and locally pressed olives. If ever you were tempted to succumb to food porn—that odd fetish to photograph a meal before consuming it—this is the place to indulge.

Motovun, Croatia Travel

Come daybreak, my wife and I energetically hiked several blocks to the top, where we ate at the only hotel a breakfast of flaky croissants, cheese, and truffle omelets, tangy and sharp. This is not my favorite use of truffles but it was certainly a memorable birthday breakfast befitting paradise. We were greeted by smiling employees offering a hearty dobro jutro, or good morning in Croatian. Everybody was so cheerful. Then again, if you are granted the right to inhabit paradise, cheerful ought to be the norm.

The day before, I had ambled along the city walls to marvel at the splendid thick oak forest spread out as a tapestry atop rolling hills in all directions, along with a few pinpricks of tidy villages in the distance. Besides the hotel, Motovun has a handful of guest houses, ours a centuries-old home converted into a few apartments, the vaulted ceilings supported by irregularly shaped ancient rough beams thicker than my legs.

Our Personal Version of Paradise

Motozun, Croatia mountainsideParadise is an elusive, even slippery concept that varies by individual. Even when discovered, paradise does not last forever, as the story of the Garden of Eden or John Milton's epic poem attest. Instead of suddenly vanishing, however, our paradise faded ever so gently and gradually until it became a memory.

Paradise may be a secluded beach, a majestic mountain peak, or wandering through ancient ruins. It may simply mean being mesmerized by great art or music, or a baby's laugh. It is when the self merges into a perfect union with something greater and grander, a profound oneness which poets and philosophers have conveyed through the centuries. Some call it the divine or a gift from the heavens. We want to revel in the fulfillment as long as it lasts; paradise is a momentary sensation we don't want to lose. Yet there is no guarantee that we will feel the same if we return to the spot where this grandeur entered our being and seemed to take over.

We reluctantly departed Motovun and once again took to the narrow, winding roads out of paradise, past charming hamlets with tongue-defying names like Karobja, Trviz, Cerovlje, and Barjkovici. Although I could stumble through basic Croatian phrases, trying to enunciate the mouth-mangling double and triple consonants still tripped up my mind and mouth. Luckily, many people in Istra speak either Italian, which I find easier to understand and speak, or English.

Croatian coast

Looking back at this trip through lens of recent events, I wonder how the citizens of Motovun are doing now as well as how they fared during the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Did the walls keep out the horrible bubonic plague in a few European cities, or did they fell victim to the horrible buboes, oozing, and other painful symptoms?

Across Croatia to Zagreb and Dubrovnik

We had just enough time for a brief stop in Pazin to visit an imposing 10th-century castle perched along a deep, plunging ravine. Then it was back to a succession of highways and tunnels, one as long as 5,062 meters, for the three-hour drive to the capital, Zagreb. This route revealed a stunning glimpse of Rijeka, spread out so far below that it seemed to be viewed from an airplane, astride an expansive wedge of the shimmering Adriatic. It's a good thing that I can read maps because the GPS in our rental car showed us entering Budapest, more than 200 miles away across the Hungarian border. After dropping off our Renault, the waning daylight allowed us to see Zagreb.

Dubrovink, Croatia Travel

Under a dark, foreboding late-afternoon sky, we viewed the stately neo-classical pale yellow train station fronted by four white Greek pillars and statues of human figures, a building that evokes images of setting off on an adventure aboard the Orient Express in a stately leather- and wood-trim Pullman car. Turn around and the broad plaza spreads out with a fountain in the center illuminated with white and purple lights and behind it, an imposing building that resembles a museum. In a split second, the drizzle mutated into a downpour, forcing us to run for shelter. Instead of dinner at a pleasant sidewalk café, we ended up eating bland room service at the hotel—pizza and fried fish—a fitting capstone to a vacation in which paradise had emerged in scattered moments interspersed by episodes of frustration and confusion.

It was only a week earlier that we started our trip by heading immediately toward Plitvice Lakes National Park. Our B&B, a Swiss Family Robinson cabin, had a steep, A-shaped peaked roof, suited for the Velebit Mountains, where snow starts falling in October. At the park, we hiked miles and miles up and down steep hills on dirt trails and wood-plank boardwalks to reach each glistening aquamarine lake and waterfall bursting out of every hillside. Paradise was overrun, unfortunately, with hordes descending from each successive new shiny bus, spitting out passengers on guided tours speaking French, German, Chinese, Italian, but curiously, we didn't hear any English.

The next day was devoted to an all-day drive to Dubrovnik, at the claw-shaped nation's southern tip close to Bosnia and Montenegro, fellow former Yugoslav republics. The rain was so heavy through the lush mountains as well as the arid brown coastal hills that we sometimes slowed to a crawl and hydroplaned across vast pools of water gathered on the smooth asphalt. By the time we arrived at our B&B in late afternoon, the daylong storm had zapped out the power, so we showered before it got dark and slept early. Our jet-lagged bodies woke us up in the middle of the night, so by daylight we reached the walled city before any mobs.

A Final Search for Paradise

We had the old burg pretty much to ourselves at dawn, but after traversing the top of the outer walls encircling the city, as high as 275 feet, fierce Adriatic waves slapping far below, we descended into mayhem, as if every tour bus in Europe had disgorged its contents. We visited the Catholic and Orthodox churches and monasteries, built between the 13th and 18th centuries, with elegant arches, towers, frescoes, and works of art. As in Venice, rising sea levels flood some city streets regularly, forcing visitors to take refuge inside churches until the tides roll out.

Dubrovink, Croatia Travel

Once we wriggled free of the crowds, we rode a cable car to the top of 1,300-foot Srd Hill where Napoleon built the Imperial Fortress overlooking the city two centuries earlier. On a clear day, the old walled city with red tile roofs far below, flanked by the azure Adriatic Sea, is breathtaking. Inland, beyond the trees, are rolling hills in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These peaceful views belie the recent violent past. During the early stages of the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991-92, Serb snipers used these lookouts to shoot Croats in the city below, still evidenced by the walls and streets pockmarked with bullet holes. Former Yugoslav citizens who lost loved ones in the civil war still carry the pain with them, but the next generation has largely forgotten the violence that came when they were children or before they were born. "The young people don't think about it. They don't hate the Serbs. They go to Belgrade for the weekend because it's more cosmopolitan with more attractions than the cities here," a 20-something Croatian told me.

The next day we began to work our way slowly up the coast toward Istra. We toured Pula's Roman coliseum, Trogir's castle with crenellated towers, the intricate religious mosaic tiles at Porec's cathedral, mummified remains of saints and martyrs at Vodnjan. We fell in love with the spellbinding island of Primosten, surrounded by pristine turquoise water.

Roman Coliseum in Croatia

The highway linking Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia passes for 12 miles through a section of Bosnia and Herzegovina, another former Yugoslav republic, where people speak another language and use a different currency. We stopped in Neum, a pleasant seaside town with waterfront views and plenty of seafood eateries.

If this isn't paradise, then what is? As we endure the worst pandemic in a century, we need such visions and memories of paradise—past, present and future—to escape the ennui and fear that can grip us if we allow it. When the world is once again safe for travel, I'll leave the confines of my home and head back to paradise, wherever it may be.

John Wright has lived and traveled in Latin American for the past four decades, writing about everything from Brazil's swampy Pantanal to surviving hyperinflation, embarrassing pratfalls in learning a new language and customs, and run-ins with law enforcement. He is the author of Lost & Found in Latin America and two other books, as well as co-author of another.

Related Features:
Biking Across Borders in the Balkans - Tim Leffel
A Place to Not Think in Central Serbia - Jonathan Arlan
Moving Beyond the Bullet Holes in Bosnia and Herzegovina - Tim Leffel
Days of Celebration in Small-town Umbria - Debi Goodwin

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