Category: Blog

A modern Istrian fable

The sun was just beginning to wane along with my resolve to find the herb I sought just outside the castle walls of Morosini-Grimani castle in the fabled town of Svetvinčenat, or as it is known in the other dominant language of Istria, San Vincenti.  I had been feeling down of late, something likely to do with recurring back pain that had laid me low for most of the week.  I took comfort however, from suffering a pain far timider than that endured by the Spanish martyr Saint Vincent of Saragossa, for whom the town is named.

The brew I wished to concoct was reputed to solve both the blues and the back.  As a salve, I’d even heard it could ease my other current problem – a stinging sunburnt face, well-toasted from the long afternoon of foraging the nooks and crannies of the castle’s lichen etched battlements.

Feeling deflated but not yet defeated, I searched for a cool, shady spot to rest and delve into my backpack, hastily stuffed full with local produce earlier that morning in sweet anticipation of a late picnic lunch.  Settling down beneath a stand of Hawthorne trees, the sun dappling the grassy knoll beneath their canopy, I lay my blanket down, and glanced around.  Hungry as I was, my eyelids felt as if a miniature man had wedged himself between brow and lash and was pushing inexorably down.  Heavy-lidded, I recollected the young woman that I saw during my search of the castle walls for the herbs.  She had an allure that was hard to place and harder to ignore, and her clothes seemed outmoded.  Or rather outdated.  Long frocks and aprons, almost as if she were in fancy dress, which, as I entered the realm of Hypnos, I mused was not such a strange thing.   Svetvinčenat often holds historical festivals where participants don traditional garb to reenact events from its long history, recorded most profusely from the 12th century by its original Benedictine monk inhabitants.

I must have drifted off then because, after how long I could not say, I was awoken by a gentle brushing against my arm.  To my alarm, the dark-haired woman that I spied earlier was sitting beside me, holding up a bunch of vivid yellow, star-shaped flowers, numerous delicate filaments encrusted with pollen proudly jutting from their centre.  Seeing my concern, she smiled sadly as if, it seemed to me, men being wary of her although unjustified, was yet not new to her.  She spoke in a voice like one emanating from a well, not unpleasant, but somehow distant and echoed.

“You are looking for these, my lord” she nodded at the plant.

Confused at the title, since owning a boutique hotel in Rovinj called The Melegran hardly justified it, I replied dreamily.  “Don’t I need to at least own a horse to be called that.  I can only claim as mine that bicycle over yonder, verily chained betwixt those two elms.”  “What’s come over me,” I thought.  “Why am I responding as if I’m in an episode of Game of Thrones?

The lady laughed, reminding me of silver wind chimes swaying gently in a summer breeze.  “It matters not.  Take the St. John’s wort I have found for you”, she smiled holding up the plant and its flowers.  “There is no need to know how I know you search for it.  Your maladies are plain to see for those that look well and who well know how to heal.  Brew a tea with it for your back and nerves, and infuse it into olive oil as a balm for your sunburn”.

I graciously took the St John’s wort from her, brushing her pale hand as I did so and wondering how her skin could remain so cold on suc

h a warm day.  She closed her fingers around my arm, mouth upturned in that bittersweet smile and whispered her message in my ear, tickling it whilst doing so.

When I awoke, I found that I had lolled to one side of my blanket and my right ear was now being tickled by a small grove of St John’s wort flowers.  What luck!  I had been searching for just these flowers all day.  And yet a bunch of them had already been picked and were lying on my picnic blanket, moist, dark earth still clinging to the roots.

I had definitely not uprooted these flowers before my nap, I thought.  Had I been visited by Mare Radolovich, the herbalist and healer of Svetvinčenat, accused of witchcraft in 1632 and burned in the middle of Morosini-Grimani castle?  Standing up, I stretched and took stock.  Just a dream, surely, I pondered.  Yet, even so, her whispered message still lingered and is one I took with me as I rode out of town to return to Rovinj.

“The lady laughed, reminding me of silver wind chimes swaying gently in a summer breeze.”




Are Croatians Funny and How Does Rovinj’s Theatre Provide Us with a Clue?

Although perhaps a little less Monty Python-esque than their neighbouring Bosnians, Croatians are ingrained with a rich appreciation for humour that is shared by all the peoples from the former Yugoslavian Republic. Laughing at misfortunes (bestowed upon themselves and occasionally others!) is part and parcel of a country which has been held by various empires and dynasties for thousands of years, prior to the Declaration of Independence of Croatia on 25 June, 1991.

This history of gleaning a humorous nugget from uncomfortable situations has forged some of the wonderful political satire produced by Croatians in modern times.

Croatian humour has been influenced by the various cultures which have passed through it over the centuries. Of course the northern peninsula of Istria, with its capital Pula cradling a Roman amphitheater second only to The Colosseum, is infused with literal and metaphorical Italian herbs and spices.

Under the emperor Augustus, most of the peninsula became part of the Roman Empire in 177 BC after two wars with the local ancient Illyrian tribe of the Histri, from whence the name Istria derives. The Italians took over governance again nearly 2,000 years later post World War I which heralded the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, at that time the rulers of Istria. In 1919 Italy again seized the peninsula.

It was during this tubulent time where Antonio Gandusio (1873-1951), born in Rovinj, became one of the most famous comic actors of twentieth-century theatre. With the onset of the silver screen, he also had a rich career in the 1930s and 1940s in Italian cinema, again often appearing in comedies, his name high in the credits of 34 films between 1914 and 1948.

His physical characteristics, a graceless voice, a slight hump, and an irregular face, led Antonio Gandusio into the role of a comedian. The joke was on the Austrian military court early in his career, when, upon refusing to join their army upon the onset of the First World War which earned him a death sentence, he stayed in Italy, survived and prospered as a household name.

But what has all this to do with the theatre in Rovinj and Croatian humour? The theatre of Rovinj, which sits astride the main square, close to the old port of Rovinj, bears the name of this Rovinjian-born comedic virtuoso from the twentieth century. Next time you’re in Rovinj visit The Antonio Gandusio Theatre’s baroque interiors, think of a good joke and smile. It’s namesake would approve.