Lit Major Abroad: Istria, Home of the Famous Colossal Trousers

Porec StatueAustralians are a travel-hungry people generally, not content to sit on this hot, boring little island for too long at any one time. So we generally go overseas and sit on hot, boring little islands there, because it’s interesting and the people are fun and the food is better. Also we can collect those little bottles of soap and hair conditioner that you find in nicer hotels. Because, let’s face it, you never know when you might ten millilitres of runny, fifteen-year-old shampoo from a bottle that is older than all three of your children.

So in true Australian fashion, I have once again abandoned my home, and have headed to the home of my forefathers – Croatia – on the first leg of a year-long stint which will include plenty of travel, and a year of university study in the UK wedged in there somewhere (but let’s not talk about uni just yet, because it makes me terribly anxious, and also I haven’t bought all of my books yet).

What all of this means, of course, is that it’s time for a new round of Lit Major Abroad posts. I swear that this time I will endeavour to make them more informative, better written, and significantly shorter. Knowing me, however, if I fulfil even one of these criteria I’ll be ecstatic.

So – Croatia. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s all that much literary history to be found here. And it’s true that Croatia lacks the literary acclaim of, say, Dublin, London, or Paris, where you’re practically tripping over literary tourists as you walk down the street. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own fascinating literary history, and that one of its best-known parts is a secret well of literary titbits.

The Tuscany of Croatia, Only It Doesn’t Make You Want To Throw Things At Fellow Tourists

Istria is a beautiful part of the country. Green and hilly, it is often dubbed the ‘Tuscany of Croatia’, with the added bonus of lacking the insane number of tourists that Tuscany enjoys (fifty-five sweaty Americans and Australians crammed into a tiny bus wending its way to the teeny-tiny hilltop town of San Gimignano – no, I don’t miss the summer crowds of Italy one bit, thank you). It’s dotted throughout with Italianate towns on hills, but despite the influence of its western neighbours, Istria has managed to retain a certain unique quality all its own.

Motovun

The view from the walls of Motovun.

Unsurprisingly, the landscape of Istria has inspired many folk tales. Stories about giants building towns perched on its many hillsides, tales of spirits and ghosts flitting across the vast swathes of countryside… Istria is rich in folk tradition, and has inspired many a modern writer of fairy tales as well. In the hilltop town of Motovun, for instance, we found wall paintings and (possibly) straw statues of the giant Veli Jože; according to the tale written by Croatian writer Vladimir Nazor, the giant is said to have lived near Motovun.

Motovun Straw Man

Giant straw man in Motovun. Could it be Veli Jože?

It’s in Istria, too, that the Glagolitic alphabet was used and preserved; an old Slavic script created by monks in the ninth century BC, the Glagolitic alphabet, or glagoljica, has become something of a symbol for Croatia. Kids learn it in school, and it’s found in souvenir shops across the country. In the tiny hilltop town of Hum (which, aside from its Glagolitic link, is famous for reputedly being the smallest town – it has its own mayor – in the world. Population: 17, although walking down its two deserted streets one has to wonder whether that count includes cats as well as people), Glagolitic writing on the walls attests to the use of the alphabet throughout the centuries.

Hum i Roc

Ancient script: sculpture in the town of Roč (left); the tiny town of Hum (top right); sculptures inspired by the Glagolitic script on the road between Roč and Hum (bottom right).

But in terms of literary history, perhaps the biggest name to be associated with Istria is that of… *sigh*. Here it comes once more. The name that just seems to keep recurring wherever I go, like a nagging voice that’s constantly berating me for not engaging more with famous modernist literature, the name that instantly evokes boredom and struggle and irritation.

Yes, it’s our old friend James Joyce – although, to be honest, if James Joyce were ever our friend, he’d be the one we’d reluctantly meet once a year for coffee and whose calls we’d then resolutely dodge for the next eleven months.

Considering my first ever Lit Major Abroad post began with Joyce, it seems strangely appropriate to begin this next adventure with him as well. Odd, considering I’ve never actually read any of his books. But what can I say? That dude got around.

‘A Long Boring Place’: Joyce in Pula

Joyce came to Istria in 1904, after leaving Britain with his hilariously named girlfriend, Nora Barnacle. He was assigned a teaching post in Pula, Istria’s most famous city. It’s a place that’s home to some of the most impressive Roman remains in the world, the most important of which is the beautifully preserved amphitheatre. If you forget for a moment that it was principally used for the staging of spectacles that would put many modern horror/slasher films to shame, it is a stunning structure, the crowning jewel in a lovely city full of impressive buildings.

Pula

Top: the Arena in Pula. Just try not to imagine the bloodthirsty gladiator fights that took place here, and focus on the pretty architecture. Bottom: view of Pula (including the Arena) from the Kaštel.

And was Joyce impressed by this remnant of history? By the cobbled streets and the shadow of the Kaštel on the hill above the city? Of course. After all, he managed to finish a good part of his famous book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, here. In fact, he was so inspired and thankful that he very flatteringly dubbed Istria “a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic, peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breeches”.

Well, this is the guy who brought us Ulysses, after all. Still, Joyce’s animosity hasn’t discouraged the modern Slavs who people this city (no red caps, but still some colossal trousers, because let’s face it, we Slavs may be ignorant, but man, we know how to eat well) from milking Joyce’s fame for the purposes of tourism. Not that they really need it, of course; Joyce’s stay in Pula is an interesting footnote in the story of an already fascinating city.

Today you can have a drink in the café-bar Uliks, which is Croatian for Ulysses; you can even do it with your arm around a statue of Joyce, which to my mind has its nose turned up slightly at being perched forever on a patch of soil the author hated so much. We didn’t grace Joyce with our presence, unfortunately, mostly because he seemed to have a fair bit of company already, but we did have a drink in the bar opposite, where we got a good view of Uliks, Joyce, and the Gate of the Sergii behind him.

Pula Uliks

Uliks and the statue of Joyce (left); the Arch of the Sergii (right).

Darling, You’re Simply Gorge: Jules and Pazin’s Imaginary Geography

James Joyce may not be the poster boy for the next ‘Visit Istria’ campaign. Jules Verne might have been.

At least, he would have been, if he’d ever actually visited it. He didn’t. But he did set one of his books, Mathias Sandorf, in the central Istrian town of Pazin. He read about Pazin, and its impressive caves and cliff-faces (sheer bliss for the adrenaline-hungry today) in Les Bords de l’Adriatique (The Ports/Coasts of the Adriatic), a travel book by Charles Yriarte.

Naturally, Jules Verne has earned himself a mention or two in Pazin. A commemorative plaque reminds visitors of the man who never actually visited this pretty town, and near the entrance to the town’s Kaštel there is a café called Jules Verne, which prompted an hour’s delighted pondering on my part as to possible drink and dish names. 80 Days Around the Avocado? 20,000 Leagues Under the Sandwich? Five Weeks in a Bouillon? The possibilities are endless.

Pazin Jules Verne

Pazin’s Verne extravaganza: Café Jules Verne (left) and the plaque dedicated to Verne (right).

James Joyce really couldn’t have been more wrong about Istria. Of course, he didn’t have the benefit of a fast, air-conditioned car to take him from one beautiful place to the next: the seaside town of Poreč, with its ancient basilica; the Danse Macabre frescoes on the walls of a tiny chapel in Beram; the pebbled beaches of the Adriatic coast, full of sunburned tourists, but lovely nonetheless.

Aside from its modest literary history, Istria also has one great attraction for the lover of literature: perched in a loggia overlooking vineyards, or lying on a beach under the afternoon sun, Istria provides ample opportunities to simply sit back and read, soaking up the silence and revelling in the written word.

Also, the food is pretty good.

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