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.
The rhythm of the place, languorous like the sea outside, proved seductive. It was hard to stray far for long. In the mornings, we woke up late (Willa spoiled us by actually sleeping through the night, jet lag and all), meandered up the street to Market Barbat to pick up fresh rolls and cherry turnovers, and returned to brew multiple cups of coffee in one of those little espresso percolators (all of the lighthouse kitchens are stocked with pots, pans, and tableware). We ate our breakfast at a table on the lawn and wandered into the villa's inner courtyard and up all those steps to the top of the tower, where on a clear day we got a 360-degree view of the Gulf of Venice, the Julian Alps towering in the background, the Slovenian foothills, and the coastal inlets and rocky inland spine of Istria. Or, if the stairs felt like too much work, we'd take a walk up the coast, tromping through the caravan parks and pine forests, making the obligatory stop at a rickety playground. Then it was lunchtime.
The Venetians ruled Istria for more than 350 years, and the Italian influence is still strong: Street signs and town names are bilingual (Savudrija's Italian moniker is Salvore), the coastal cities are full of Italianate art and architecture, and on menus you'll see far more risottos than meat-and-potato stews.
Being in the continental mood, and traveling with a child who got cranky post-sunset, we tended to cook dinners in and take long lunches out. There were at least a dozen restaurants within a mile of the lighthouse, and scores more when we ventured down the peninsula. We didn't find a dud among them. Whether it was risotto with shrimp at San Marco in Umag, gnocchi with beef at Gostionica Cisterna in Rovinj, or a pizza with prosciutto, artichokes, and olives at Pizzeria Andi in Savudrija, the food was fresher, cheaper, and tastier than anything I've enjoyed on the other side of the Adriatic. And because Istrians are prolific vintners--grape obsession being yet another happy Italian holdover--we drank some wonderful local wines. Nick favored the robust red Teran, about $7 a bottle at most stores. I was partial to the milder plonk sold out of homes and at roadside stalls. An old lady up the road from the lighthouse--look for the VINO sign--poured some perfectly decent table wine ($5 for a liter and a half) out of a series of vats in her front room.
The seafood, in particular, was so delicious that I decided to cook some for dinner. This wasn't as easy as you might expect for someone staying at a lighthouse. Though I could choose from 27 varieties of cured ham at the mega Supermarket Plodine in Umag, there wasn't a fresh gill to be found. I went to Milan for help. Surely he'd know what to do. He spent much of his day weaving a fishing net--that is, when he wasn't watching goofy videos he'd downloaded from the Internet. Yet when I asked him where I could buy fish, he looked at me as if I'd just inquired where I might procure some uranium. Apparently, one doesn't buy fish around here. One catches it.
The only thing I know how to catch is a cold. So I made a few more inquiries and, early one morning, wound up in old-town Savudrija about a mile up the coast, which consisted of a couple of cafés, a church, and the port. The port was deserted when I arrived, so I sat down on the jetty and waited. Just before 8 A.M., like children arriving at school, the boats returned. I set out to inspect the goods, but the grumpy fishermen weren't interested in me so much as the big suppliers who'd shown up with their refrigerated trucks. I wheedled myself a rather sad pair of unidentifiable gray fish, overpriced at about five bucks. I brought them home and tossed them in the back of the fridge, unsure of what to do with them.
Later that morning, I returned to show the town to my family. We stopped at a café and found the fishermen relaxing over coffee and beers, and chatting, smoking, and playing cards. As Willa crawled up and down the length of the restaurant, these grizzled men stopped their conversations to encourage her explorations: "Brava! Brava!" one crusty old grandfather shouted as she successfully scaled the stairs. Recognizing an opening, I picked her up and brought her over.
"Do you have any lobster?" I asked, simultaneously dangling my child and pointing to a picture of a lobster tacked to the wall. They were supposedly abundant in these waters, so I couldn't fathom why they cost around $40 in the restaurants.
"No," he told me with a mournful shake of his head. "Not now." He beckoned me out to his boat, rifled through a barrel, and held up a fish with a mohawk of spiky fins. "This is good. You will like." He disappeared into his boat, and a minute later returned with a gorgeous pair of what I guessed were John Dory fillets, a relative bargain at nine bucks.