The diagnosis of a mineral deficiency is not usually met with joy, but when my doctor said it was only a few hours to the sea and that he recommended I go as soon as possible, I dusted off my wish to walk the entire 12 km Lungomare, or seaside promenade, in Opatija, Croatia, and started looking for a hotel within walking distance of the Adriatic. I found the Hotel Opatija, where we slept well last weekend. It was clean and quiet, possessing all the decrepit charm of a former K. und K. hotel worn down by the Tito years. If you’re looking for the ex-Yugoslavian cousin of the Grand Budapest Hotel with an uninspired breakfast buffet set to Muzak, it’s your place, but I think next time we’ll opt to dish out the extra euros for a cushy wellness hotel even closer to the sea. The point was not, however, the hotel. Most of our time was spent strolling.
Opatija developed into a resort town in the late 19th century when it was still known as Abbazia, before being caught in the tug-of-war between national borders and ethnic groups pervading the 20th century. You could hop on the train in Vienna (or Graz, for that matter) and ride the Südbahn to the Adriatic without having to leave the Austro-Hungarian empire. In keeping with the history of this seaside resort, the majority of tourists today still appear to be German-speaking. Dating back to the 1880s, the Lungomare is sandwiched between the sea on one side and city parks and stately villas built by prestigious Viennese architects on the other. Many of the latter are now hotels; some are private residences. TC and I decided that we’d buy this one and fix it up if we had the money.
It wasn’t just the Austrians who previously flocked to the sea here. Russian literati including Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov spent time in Abbazia, the hometown of Leo Henryk Sternbach, the inventor of Valium. Traces of their presence can be found by the careful tourist. This bust of Chekhov can be found near the Kvarner Hotel, while a commemorative plaque to Sternbach graces his birthplace along one of the main thoroughfares.
The weather was just beautiful and I was able to wear sandals for the first time this year. Spring is so slow in arriving in Austria and I’m still bundled up in Icelandic wool as I type these lines. What a relief to escape to a milder climate and get enough Vitamin D from the sun for a change. In a conversation last week, the topic came up of how great it is that if you just go three hours in any direction from Graz, you end up in an entirely different cultural and geographical landscape. Three and a half hours away to the south, the figs are already ripening on the trees.
As you might expect, seafood is everywhere on the menu in Opatija. Specialities include cuttlefish risotto that leaves your lips and tongue black and fried scampi. For the vegetarian in your party, there’s a special traditional pasta called fuzi served with Istrian truffles and vegetable risotto, though if you are suffering from a recently discovered acute milk allergy, as I am at present, you have to be careful and avoid delicacies like sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. The local white Malvazija wine is excellent, as is the red Teran. My big discovery, however, was blitva, or Istrian-style Swiss chard.
Istrian-style Swiss chard
500 g Swiss chard
500 g potatoes
3 garlic cloves, minced
Peel and dice the potatoes. Cook for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, wash the Swiss chard. Remove the stems and blanch the leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the chopped Swiss chard stems and sauté about 10 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and blanched Swiss chard leaves to the garlic and stems. Season with grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
I’m guessing that the hoops in these skirts are not made of whalebone. All this contact with the sea and my current preoccupation with iodine has inspired me to reread Moby Dick, one of my favorite American novels. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Ishmael, explains his many reasons for deciding to join the crew of a whaling expedition, arguing that all humans have an innate fascination with the sea. I heartily agree.
Starting to read a book is like embarking on a voyage. I hope you have a good one at hand – or will have the opportunity to set off on a real trip soon. Good luck getting your ship ready to sail!