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Trip Report We Should Have Gone to Berlin: A (Short) Istria Trip Report

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When the subject arose of where we might venture for spring school holiday, Berlin and "someplace else" were the top contenders. Given that winter here in Vienna and its petulant dreariness has been hanging on us like an overtired toddler at Disney World to his parents, "someplace else" gradually evolved into "someplace warmer than Vienna" and claimed the top holiday spot. So, on Saturday it was off to Croatia's Istrian peninsula. Thank you to those who helped plan our itinerary.

We rented a newly renovated Mediterranean-style house through homeaway.com, complete with all modern amenities, in a little village on the east coast of the peninsula. The forecast for the week called for mild temperatures and with a chance for a rain day on Tuesday. Perfect! A down day from sightseeing to catch up on homework (the children) and some pleasure reading and napping (we grownups), with perhaps a small fire added to the charm of a "day off" during our holiday.

First, of course, was the slog to get out of Austria. Surprise! Wet and cold and snow and rain tagged along all the way through Slovenia. (Stock tip: invest in Austrian windshield wiper solvent. The ROI will set you up for life.)

Slovenia seemed little more than a drive-through country, a statement I am sure is not fair. Maybe it was the gray. Curious relics and roadside remnants from its past intrigued us, and perhaps we'll get to Ljubljana and Bled someday, but really, that was about all.

The Border Patrol Officer rolled his eyes when I asked for stamps in our passports as we entered Croatia. Croatia joins the EU in July, so I will guess the officer was too busy counting the days to his retirement to be bothered stamping passports, but he did anyway. I thanked him.

In surprisingly good time given the six hours of rain, snow, and heavy coastal fog we drove through we reached the petrol station where we were to meet the owner of the rental house. I'll call her Ilka. Ilka had explained in an earlier communiqué that many small villages in Istria do not have street names; the village name and house number served as the address, and so it would be easier if we followed her to the house. Makes sense, we thought.

Weather aside, the holiday got off to a less than idyllic start when, in response to my text that we had arrived at the scheduled time and place, Ilka said, "The house is not ready. Go have a coffee and I will text you in one hour." I explained that we had just driven six hours, the children and the dog were with us, and we were not interested in coffee. She then snapped back with, "Go get some groceries."

Realizing that sitting in a petrol station parking lot in the pouring rain would not be a good use of time, we went grocery shopping. Because, of course, there was plenty of space for provisions in an unpacked station wagon; and, I like to be ordered around by the person to whom I will eventually hand over the balance of the rental payment for my holiday.

TWO HOURS LATER, Ilka whipped into the parking lot of the petrol station, looking suspiciously like she (and her "assistant") had been out shopping for the day and hadn’t been getting the house ready. I will later discover that at least the second half of my suspicion was correct (dust on the counter and stairs; rusty water initially coming from faucets that hadn't been used in a while, etc.)

The rain had stopped, but as there were no rugs or mats at the entry to wipe wet shoes and paws, only I traipsed across the floor with my wet shoes for the information download. Dogs were indeed welcome, as Ilka had confirmed when I inquired two months ago, but now she added that she did not want our dog upstairs, on the furniture, or in any of the bedrooms.

With an artistic wave of her hand first upstairs (to the sleeping rooms and bath), a slight glance to the fire (that had clearly been started just before she raced to the petrol station en route from her shopping outing) and then finishing with a swoop across the main level, the tour of the house was complete.

Ilka offered to draw a map to the restaurant in the neighboring village at which she had made reservations for Easter lunch for us. The directions: "Go into the square. Between two buildings there is a path. Take the path to the restaurant." I was thinking that Ilka probably never earned her Croatian Girl Guide Maps and Compass Merit Badge. I had to ask her three times for the name of the restaurant.

I then inquired about access to the Internet, one of the amenities listed in the rental description. Ilka looked at me as if I were speaking in the ancient Croatian Glagolitic tongue. After a very long pause she said, "There is no Internet. You can only check your email." I will bring you The Stick in an hour. When I reminded her that Internet was included in the amenities, she only said, "You didn't ask what kind."

This is when we decided that our children may well be recruited to lead the village donkey around the corral in circles in order to power The Stick if we all wanted to check our email this week.

DH unloaded the car and attempted to stoke the fire, but lacking fire tools it was a bit of a challenge (however did Ilka get the fire started, we wondered?) DD retreated into a book; and DS, DDog and I roamed the little village while we waited for Ilka to bring The Stick.

Ilka arrived in one hour with The Stick containing the software we would need to download in order to access the mobile broadband. Ilka also provided a passcode for 72 kunas worth of Internet usage. She informed us that Internet in Istria was "very expensive," and that we would have to pay for any additional usage. We told her we felt that she had been dishonest with us, a comment that she disregarded as if we were speaking the ancient Croat Glagolitic tongue again.

It is not as if we can not enjoy a holiday without Internet. This had become a matter of principle. The rental listing also included a gas cooktop (with propane tank--remember, it was a small village), so we should no more have to ask whether there was enough fuel to cook one meal or seven than whether there would be enough Internet for one day or seven. Both were listed unconditionally as amenities.

Ilka asked if everything else was acceptable. She had prepared a bedroom for us, and a shared room for the children, but our teenage son wanted his own room and so moved the linens into the third bedroom, which seemed to anger Ilka.

By this point we had discovered that several of the amenities were not quite as described, as well. We don’t expect holiday rentals to necessarily be equipped like our home, but there are minimal standards. The fireplace lacked tools (and matches, but we were prepared), save for a small shovel we found outside. The "activities and restaurant guides" were simply the leftover maps and outdated brochures from previous guests piled in a basket, but given the apparent lack of Internet and the somewhat remote location of the house, current and useful information would help guests. The "DVD Library" was a single movie (not a matter for us, but might be for some). My disappointment was with the "fully supplied kitchen” being no more than a single 6-inch sauté pan and a stock pot of such poor quality (as we would come to learn that night) that we needed an hours' head start to boil 4 quarts of water for pasta.

Other inconsistencies: the house slept 8 persons, but they would have to eat in shifts at the dining table for 6. The house was also billed as suitable for the elderly or infirm, neither of which is a matter for us, but we thought it odd given that there were stairs to get into the house, and the only shower was on the upper level. Being forthright about these amenities certainly outweighs the inconvenience of no Internet.

The house was indeed fully renovated, however, its only saving grace.

While we waited, and waited, for the water to boil, DH investigated The Stick. The software was only compatible with Windows, and we are Mac people. I sent a text to Ilka for help, and she replied with the technical support contact. We do not speak Croatian, and the technical support folks did not speak English or German. After racking up a small country's GDP worth in data roaming charges on our mobile phone, DH determined that the Mac software could be downloaded, if we had Internet access. We called it a night.

Easter morning dawned wet and breezy, but with the promise of clearing skies. By late morning we were in Labin, exploring the town before our lunch reservation at 14:30. Labin was full of Mediterranean character, and lots of stray cats! Rome may be the city of stray cats, but we saw more cats on this day than we did in a week in the Eternal City, many of them enjoying quite the life of leisure and kibble on practically every corner. I think DD chased every cat around Labin trying to capture them on her camera.

Try as we might, exploring every nook and cranny of Labin did not take the time suggested by our guidebooks. Even if the half dozen stores and galleries and the lone museum had been open, we likely could not have filled the time. We found our restaurant and sat for lunch a couple of hours before our reservation, then went to Rabac, a metropolis compared to where we had been.

Kvarner is the restaurant we had lunch at in Labin. We started with a sheep cheese plate; the proprietor brought us a plate of Istrian ham to accompany the cheese--what a pleasant surprise. Both were very good. The entrees included gnocchi with goulash, pork filet wrapped in bacon (Teenage Son’s order!), lamb shank with potatoes, and grilled fresh Kvarner squid. All of us enjoyed our meals.

Rabac, though delightful, did not take nearly the suggested time to tour either. The rocky shoreline and beaches were very different for us, and our exploration netted quite a few beautiful shells and patterned stones to bring home, but we still found ourselves back at the house in late afternoon. Ilka had provided another "map" of a path to the coast "about 1 kilometer" from our house, so we collected DDog and went exploring again for a couple of hours.

Ilka's directions: "Take the road to the end. Next to the garage is the path." We drove every road, paved or otherwise, within a 5km radius; we traipsed down every path, paved or otherwise, through private gardens and possibly undiscovered ancient Roman ruins, and never reached anything resembling a coastal path. Or the garage, or any garage or path for that matter. One of the two little boxes drawn on her map was supposed to be a market; we did not find the market, either.

By Sunday evening the mood in the house was of frustration and exasperation. Ilka had been dishonest about the house and its amenities, both inside and out; and the guidebooks seemed to have oversold Istria a little bit, at least for us.

We had taken my laptop into Labin, where Ilka had flippantly said we could go if we "wanted to surf the Web" and downloaded the Mac-friendly software to connect to the broadband at the house. By evening we had Internet, and decided to find lodging in Zagreb for a couple of nights, and scrap the rest of our week in Istria before returning home.

On Monday morning the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the breeze blowing across the fjords smelled fresh and spring-like. With a renewed sense of vacation spirit DH and I sat down with our coffee and began to search for lodging in Zagreb.

Fifteen minutes later we had used up the 72 kunas' worth of Internet. But hope was not lost. We were given the option to spend 10 kuna for "24 hours of unlimited Internet." 10 kuna is roughly equivalent to €1,31/$1.68. This was expensive Internet?

The catch? The action had to be approved by the owner of the account. Ilka. She refused, telling us that we could go to a gas station and purchase more time if we "wanted to surf the Web." Something about Ilka, and this rental began to seem, well, unseemly, and further motivated us to leave. Not having found lodging in Zagreb, though, we went ahead with plans to enjoy the sunny day in Istria and return to Vienna in the morning.

Pula was the vote for sightseeing. The former Imperial Hapsburg port city houses the largest Roman amphitheater outside of Rome, and is now used for summer concerts. The amphitheater is extremely well preserved; below the amphitheater was another remarkably preserved collection of ancient oil and wine jugs, something we hadn't even seen in Rome. Pretty impressive, we all thought.

Much of the rest of Pula was heavily bombed during WWII; as a result, the city is an eclectic mix of ancient Roman, Venetian, and Mediterranean architecture, side by side with architecture from "the social time." Wandering around amused us for hours, and although we had enjoyed the day, we all agreed to return home in the morning rather than try to map out another four days of activities.

Lunch was at the café in the fish market at Narodni Trg, but I can not recall the name. The sheep cheese plate was good, but we liked the one at Kvarner more. We each ordered pizzas, wood-fired and fresh tasting. The only thing we did not enjoy about the meal were the three smokers at the adjacent table.

The following morning Ilka arrived to collect the keys to the house. She asked us why we were leaving, and when we tried to explain that we were not comfortable in the house, she pronounced us "not the right people for the house" and told us to leave. We happily obliged.

We have enjoyed so many holidays with greater inconveniences than this one that statistically, I suppose we were due for a holiday bust. I guess we should have gone to Berlin.

Thanks again to those who helped shape our itinerary, and apologies for not being able to fully report back on Istria.

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