FEATURE STORY

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.

By Gayle Forman, Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007, 12:00 AM

The lighthouse steps

(Joshua Paul)

Of course there's a ghost.

If you're staying in the base of a 189-year-old lighthouse, the kind that juts out from a rugged cape and has 152 spooky spiral steps leading to a mist-cloaked tower--well, you'd feel a little cheated if there weren't a spirit or two tromping around the place.

We encountered ours on our first night in Savudrija, a small town on the northern tip of Croatia's Istrian Peninsula. We'd rented an apartment attached to the whitewashed, two-story, courtyard villa that sits underneath the 105-foot-tall lighthouse, the oldest in Croatia. My husband, Nick, my year-old daughter, Willa, and I were drifting off to sleep when the banging started. I suspected the kelly-green wood shutters that covered each of the sea-facing windows, so I padded around the two bedrooms and kitchen, securing the shutters. The clattering got quieter but didn't go away altogether.

When the clanking continued the next night, I consulted Milan Milin-Ungar, Savudrija's lighthouse keeper. Seven of the 11 Croatian lighthouses with vacation rentals have on-site superintendents, whose duties vary depending on the lighthouse. At remote island spots, like Susac, he might catch a fish and cook it for your dinner, although this is something you can certainly do yourself, as all of the lighthouses have kitchens. Otherwise, the keepers act more as hosts: helping you procure groceries, picking you up from town or the port if you don't have wheels of your own, offering sightseeing advice.

One thing the keepers don't do much of anymore is turn on the lights or keep them flashing. A sensor detects when it gets dark and automatically activates bulbs not much bigger than the sort found in a bedside lamp. I was surprised the dinky things could create such a high beam, but Milan showed me the mirrors, mounted on top of the white-block tower, that magnify the light. Over the past 30 years, Milan has worked in four of Croatia's lighthouses, sometimes with his wife and two sons with him, other times--as when he ran Palagruza, which sits on an otherwise uninhabited island in the middle of the Adriatic--mostly on his own. As such, he bears that streak of nuttiness you might expect from someone who's spent much of his life away from civilization. A wiry, excitable man with graying hair and blackened teeth, he's prone to hopping around, waving his arms in the air, and speaking broken English in bulleted duplicate imperatives, like Roberto Benigni's long-lost nautical twin.

"Ghost! Ghost! Legend! Legend! Yes! Yes!" he said when I asked if there was someone spooking us. "Metternich! Metternich!" he exclaimed, referring to the 19th-century Austrian prince who was a power player in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Over the next two days, in an elaborate game of charades, Milan and his wife, Danica (with the eventual clarification from their English-speaking daughter-in-law, Andrea, who also lived at the lighthouse with her husband and baby son), gave me the whole story: Prince Klemens von Metternich fell in love with a Croatian woman he met at a ball in Vienna and ordered the construction of Savudrija, not to keep seafarers from crashing into the rugged coastline, but to escape to with his lady friend. Unfortunately, she died of pneumonia on the very day her lighthouse was completed.

Justifiably unhappy about this unfair turn of events, she now haunts the home that should've been hers.

When most people think of Croatia's ghosts, their reference point is more modern--and more bloody. The country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and shortly thereafter Slobodan Milosevic began the ethnic cleansing of Croats from what he saw as Serbian soil (a practice that continued in Bosnia and Kosovo). After more than a decade of peace, there's little evidence of those dark times. These days the only invading forces are tourists: 10 million of them visited in 2005, according to the Ministry of Tourism. While the influx has been great for the economy, it has had less-positive effects on parts of the landscape. Construction cranes are permanent fixtures along the Adriatic Riviera as concrete apartments and bars shoot up. In addition to being inexpensive, the lighthouses are an excellent way to experience a coastal Croatia that's threatened by a growing layer of tourist ticky-tacky.

But like all good bargains, the lighthouse slots go quickly. Nick and I wanted to travel in late September, and I was hoping for a miracle when I called the booking agency in July. A helpful rep told me autumn was officially off-season, so prices were not only lower, but the minimum stay--a week in summer--dropped to three days, and, best of all, there were still pockets of availability. (He didn't mention that many restaurants and hotels in tourist areas shut down between October and May.) He then gave me the rundown on the different lighthouses. "Families with children prefer Savudrija and Rt Zub, both on the mainland, or Veli Rat, which is reachable by ferry and has a village nearby," he advised. The only other mainland lighthouse, Sv. Petar, is too close to Makarska for us: "It's one of the hotspots during the summer," he said. "Not recommended for people seeking peace and quiet."

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.

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.

That night, I ditched the slimy gray fish and cooked the John Dory in a butter sauce with a dash of the black truffles I'd bought in Motovun. The meal was so rich that not even bottomless-stomached Nick could finish his. I half-joked that we leave the leftovers for the ghost.

"OK," Nick said.

We set the fish on a clean plate in the middle of the cleared table. The next morning I was a little disappointed to find it still there, gelatinous and untouched. It was only after I'd thrown it away and brewed a couple of cups of coffee that I realized there'd been no clattering the night before, and indeed, things remained quiet for the rest of our time at the lighthouse.

Booking a Croatian Lighthouse
In 2000, Plovput, the national lighthouse authority, began renting out 11 lighthouses in order to raise funds to maintain these and the country's 37 other coastal beacons. All but three of the tourist lighthouses are on islands, and most are accessible by scheduled ferry service. At the more remote spots, visitors must cart in their own provisions. Plovput is also the central booking agency (011-385/21-390-609, lighthouses-croatia.com). Its website has information on each of the lighthouses, including details about transfers. Reserve at least nine months in advance for a stay in the high season--from June through mid-September, rentals are on a weekly basis--although if you have your heart set on a specific lighthouse for a particular time, it wouldn't hurt to inquire a year ahead. Prices range from around $525 a week for a four-person apartment in the low season to $1,700 per week for an eight-person apartment in the high season.

Food

 

  • Konoba Barbacan Barbacan 1, Motovun, 011-385/52-681-791, entrées from $13
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  • Pod Voltom Trg Josefa Ressela 6, Motovun, 011-385/52-681-923, veal with white truffles $33
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  • Restaurant San Marco Rijecka 25, Umag, 011-385/52-751-039, risotto with shrimp $10
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  • Gostionica Cisterna Trg Matteotti 3, Rovinj, 011-385/98-421-779, gnocchi $7
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  • Pizzeria Andi Basanina bb, Savudrija, 011-385/52-759-834, large pizza $13
  • Shopping

     

  • Zigante Tartufi Gradiziol 8, Motovun, 011-385/52-664-030, small jar of black truffles $9
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  • Market Barbat Pineta bb, Basanija, 011-385/52-759-406, turnover $1.30
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  • Supermarket Plodine Vrh bb, Umag, 011-385/52-743-742