A View With a Room
The spectacular coast of Croatia is studded with centuries-old lighthouses. Eleven of them have vacation rentals that allow guests to play keeper for a week.
Nick and I chose the most accessible, Savudrija, just 10 miles from the Slovenian border. We flew into Ljubljana and made the 100-mile drive to the lighthouse in about two hours, down new motorways and across the world's most lax border crossing. When we arrived, we pulled the car onto the lawn, underneath a clothesline where a row of white sheets billowed in the breeze.
The lighthouse sits on the edge of a small peninsula, with an expanse of grass that slopes down to the water. Croatians brag that the Adriatic is the bluest sea on earth. I beg to differ. The color of the warm water lapping against the shore wasn't so much blue as an almost otherworldly bluey green. If Crayola hasn't made a crayon out of this shade, it ought to. The coastline alternates between large flat rocks--ideal for sunbathing--and small pebble-beach inlets. A few hundred yards away is a larger rocky beach, which a sign informed us was the official Savudrijan Riviera.
As Willa chased bugs, Nick and I breathed the sea air: salty, humid, and redolent of the pine needles that had dropped from the nearby trees. "The good thing about staying at a lighthouse," I told him, stretching my arms out toward the open view, "is that nothing stands between you and the sea."
Well, at least until the weekend. The lighthouse is surrounded by campgrounds; mostly this was a good thing because they served as a buffer between us and all that construction. Come Friday night, however, droves of camper vans arrived, many of them parking not in the allocated spaces behind and adjacent to the lighthouse, but right alongside the water. The weekend warriors didn't bother us much. We still had our sea view from most angles, and really, there's not much as entertaining as Germans strutting around in nothing but Speedos, sandals, and socks.
Once upon a time, the isolation of an island lighthouse would have been hard for Nick and me to resist, but now that we have Willa in tow, less-romantic things take priority, such as reliable scheduling and proximity to distractions. And Savudrija had plenty of those. When we weren't admiring local jungle gyms, we toured Istria. One afternoon we puttered 40 miles down the coast to Rovinj, a Venetian-style hilltop city with sunny piazzas surrounded by pastel buildings and an 18th-century baroque church. On a drizzly morning, we set off inland into the Mirna Valley, amazed at how, within just a few miles, the crowded coast melted into rolling hills, pretty vineyards, and bougainvillea-covered stone villas. From the base of the valley, we spotted Groznjan, one of several medieval Istrian hill towns. With coffee-colored stone walls and towers peeking out of the clouds, it came off as very Disney, the kind of place where you wouldn't be all that surprised to find a cadre of singing elves.
No elves. Instead we got artists, lured here with cheap rents by the government in an effort to reverse the depopulation that once threatened to destroy these historic villages. We explored the maze of narrow cobblestoned streets and browsed in the galleries, which were full of blasé, cigarette-smoking creative types who produced everything from traditional Croatian ceramics to abstract modern color explosions to silly sculptures. At one stop, an Italian-speaking sculptor showed off his collection of anti-cell-phone art (various mobile phones that had been hacked, smashed, and melted into oblivion) before unveiling his pièce de résistance: a pair of plastic chicken legs wearing black lace panties, hidden behind a peep-show curtain.
"Porno poultry!" I joked.
"No pornography," he huffed, whipping the curtain back over the chicken.
Having satisfied our daily quota of artiste attitude, we headed toward the hill town of Motovun, where the art was of the edible variety. Konoba Barbacan is reputedly one of the best restaurants in Croatia, especially in autumn, when truffles are harvested on Istria's wooded hills. As we wound our way along the steep mountain roads, playing the real estate game ("Would you buy that farm?" "Nah, I prefer the stone villa"), we got a little lost and arrived--starving--at 3 P.M., only to be told that Barbacan's kitchen had closed a half hour early. Dispirited, we walked farther up the hill and found the cavernous, wood-beamed Pod Voltom, where we enjoyed an indulgent meal of veal medallions in a white-truffle sauce. On the way back down, we picked up a jar of black truffles at Zigante Tartufi to cook with back at home.
Home. We actually called the lighthouse home because it felt precisely like that. Which was a little strange because the interior was the opposite of cozy--more like classic utilitarian blah. The two bedrooms weren't so bad: hardwood floors and comfortable beds and a view to the sea that compensated for any aesthetic shortcomings. But the view couldn't save the kitchen, bathrooms, and sitting room. White walls, white tile, nautical art, and plastic tablecloths. Plus, there was no bathtub, though Milan's daughter-in-law generously loaned us a plastic basin in which we were able to bathe Willa.