Friday, June 26, 2009

Exploring--Croatia's Istrian Peninsula--Roman Ruins in Pula & Rovinj

Pula is perhaps the best-known destination in Istria, a Croatian peninsula hanging into the Adriatic Sea. Pula is a bustling, modern port city with several successful shipbuilding companies. The busiest ferry from Venice disembarks here, bringing tourists and business people. However, Pula appeals to tourists mainly for its ancient attractions.
Here, extensive Roman ruins remain, including an intact Roman temple and a portion of a second temple (which now forms the back wall of a newer city building), 2 remaining city gates (of the original 12), and ongoing excavations of more Roman buildings and other ancient treasures. We saw a new archaeological excavation at a mid-city site where an unlucky businessman had invested in the building of a parking garage--until construction digging revealed the remains of Roman structures.
One photo above shows a city gate that was commissioned by a wealthy Roman woman to honor a military hero in her family. The proud Latin inscription asserts, "Silvia of the Sergius family paid for this with her own money." All these Roman buildings are now in the central city among alternative music shops, cafes, court houses, apartment buildings, public schools, and parks.
By far the most notable Roman site in Pula is a huge amphitheater, a small portion of which is pictured above. For those of you who have read my other Eastern European travel posts, notice our knowledgeable and fun-loving Rick Steves tour guide, Saso Golub, walking toward us in the photo, sporting sunglasses & his ever-present day pack. Although Saso had provided extensive background on Pula as we rode there, Croatian law stipulates that every tour group must hire a local guide on location. In Pula, our local guide, the energetic Marjam, gave us her fascinating, rapid fire take on the history and present day life of Pula. Thus, we benefited from the insights of two excellent guides, here and at all other stops in Croatia.
The Roman amphitheater in Pula is the 6th largest remaining in the former Roman Empire. However, some of our fellow travelers, who had been in Rome, thought it looked as large as the Colosseum there. The main reason for this structure's impressive impact is the fact that it is one of the most fully intact of the amphitheaters left. Almost the entire surround with arches, most of the stone seating, and 2 of the original 4 towers are still standing. Built around A.D. 80 into the slope of a hill, the stands held more than 25,000 cheering fans for "sporting" events until the 5th century, when gladiator battles (with or without exotic wild animals) were outlawed. Marjam vividly described the spectacles, including the heavy smells of sweat, blood, and bodies. The odors were somewhat mitigated by rainwater collecting basins at the top of each tower--mixed with fragrant essential oils, this water was sprayed over the frenzied crowd.
During our free time, my husband and I wandered through the city to a harbor side park, looking out over pleasure boats and large ships.
On our drive back north to our hilltop hotel in Motovun (see previous post), our group also stopped for some leisurely strolling time in the romantic, very Italian-looking old town of Rovinj, which is pictured above. Again, being pleasure sailors ourselves, we were drawn to the harbor and the sparkling views of the Adriatic Sea.
Question of the day: Do you most enjoy travel with an educational component, complete relaxation, or some of each?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Exploring--Croatia's Istrian Peninsula--Hill Town of Motovun

After some posts about life at home, I can't resist returning to the topic of travel. This will be the first of three or four posts about less-traveled destinations in Croatia, a lovely coastal nation, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
Most tourists visit Croatia's shimmering Adriatic coastal towns and islands (you may hear it called the Dalmatian Coast), but Croatia offers many other charms. Of course, we also enjoyed the Dalmatian Coast on our Eastern European journey this past September and October, and I will post Dalmatian photos and memories sometime in the next few weeks. However, I thought it would be interesting to begin with less well-known, but equally delightful Croatian destinations. First on the list is the north Croatian hill town, Motovun, in the interior of the Istrian Peninsula.
The wedge-shaped peninsula called Istria hangs into the Adriatic Sea across from Venice, Italy--visitors in Venice looking for a unique side-trip can easily reach Istria by ferry. We stayed two nights in a hotel that had once been a small castle on the peak of the steep hill crowned by Motovun. From that base, we explored Istria's highlights.
On our two-week Rick Steves tour, Motovun was the first stop in Croatia over the border from Slovenia. If you are interested in reading about Slovenia, please see my posts from May 20, May 24, and May 27--Slovenia is fascinating and beautiful.
Motovun is reminiscent of Tuscan hill towns, yet is distinctly Croatian. No commercial traffic is allowed on the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town, so we walked up the steep approach road from the parking lot of a small church--as far as our bus could go. Surprisingly, the race car driver Mario Andretti was born here--he must have practiced racing somewhere else. The main gate into the old town displays carved stone crests from various rulers over time. The most obvious architectural influences are from the Venetian period. Andrea Palladio (1508 - 1580), the famed Venetian architect, designed the simple, neoclassical St. Stephen's church pictured above, with a tower that served both religious and defensive functions.
The two vista photos each give just a taste of the magical views from our Hotel Kastel windows, which let us enjoy fresh, cool breezes as well as amazing scenery. We had a lovely, comfortable corner room on the upper floor of the small former castle. Note the rocky outcrop on the right side of one photo to get a sense of the sheer drop that made this such an ideal fortified town. Walking the ramparts on the town's wall provides panoramic views of the surrounding countryside with vineyards, small towns, farms, and forests where the truffles so prized in gourmet dining grow wild.
Our guide, Saso Golub, had arranged a premium wine and truffle tasting party for our first evening in Motovun on the hill-top balcony of a lovely shop. Indescribably delicious, complete with a gorgeous sunset. We truly loved staying in Motovun as a base for exploring the region.
Question of the day: Can you imagine yourself in Motovun?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Growing--Landscape Painting Part II

This painting, based on the photo in my previous post, emerged slowly. My priorities for focus and scope changed as I worked in ways I would not have predicted. I will spare you a long description of all the twists and turns of the creative process, but will mention some of the insights and adjustments I made along the way.
First, I assembled all the reference photos taken at the bend in Little Pottsburg Creek--wider panoramas and close-up details as well as the main photo. I recalled the mild, still air, the musky, but not unpleasant, smell of the flat, muddy bank, and the colors that had danced in the sunlight and softened in shadow. I decided to incorporate some elements from other photos and to use a horizontal layout showing a greater expanse of water and some tall grasses in the foreground.
My first instinct was that the soft reddish grasses on the right would be my focal point. My husband viewed some of my thumbnail sketches along the way and was drawn instead to the taller grasses in the left foreground. Being torn among various interesting elements, I painted an adequate, but unfocused scene--too much competition for attention. My subsequent efforts to improve the composition and balance were unsuccessful, and I set the canvas aside for awhile to rest my mind by working on a small floral piece.
My painting mentor, Linda Blondheim (see her web site for beautiful paintings), suggested that she found the reddish grasses interesting as a texture contrast to the rocks I had indicated (but not featured) in the foreground. That was the trigger I needed to complete the painting--featuring an area of varied textures. Without fully realizing it, I had been captivated by the multiple textures in the scene as well, from the placid water to the jagged rocks and both soft and sharp-edged grasses. The texture contrasts on the right side of the painting, from foreground to mid-ground became the focal point, while other areas became less detailed in order to let them recede in importance. There's that matter of balance again, which keeps emerging as a theme in recent posts.
Another artist would have painted quite a different rendering. Your answer to the last post's question regarding what you would feature in this scene might be radically different as well--and wonderful in its own way. I have often heard that one must be able to truly see in order to paint. Along my creative journey, the opposite has more often been the case for me--that painting is a vehicle to enhanced seeing of what is around me. Every painting in process is a growing and learning experience to treasure.
Question of the day: What pursuit or activity is your growing edge?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Learning and Growing--Landscape Painting, Part I

Landscape painting is a balancing act and requires priority setting and focus. I wrote about balancing life goals and projects last time, then realized that a similar balancing process goes into the decisions involved in painting. 
Few, if any, painters copy what they see in exact detail. We must discern what aspects of a particular scene drew us in and feature them. Other aspects need to recede in importance or even be left out. Sometimes an element needs to be moved or added for the sake of the composition. However, such changes require restraint. If a weathered barn is surrounded by purple wildflowers except for a trash pile in my sight line, filling that area with similar or compatible plants or a glimpse of bare earth is an acceptable adjustment to enhance the overall scene. However, it wouldn't make sense to paint a profusion of tropical passion flowers or cacti instead. The integrity of the location matters. Now I know that some lovely landscape paintings are completely "made up" by the painter from some combination of memories and a desire to create a scene that looks a particular way. I have done that myself, with fairly good results.
However, the "made up" places, at least when I paint them, do not resonate with the same depth as those based on an actual location. If I have truly been there, have seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched the natural elements, I believe the truth of that experience shows in the art work. Yet, I do not paint simply what I see with my eyes or experience with my other physical senses. The painting arises out of my personal response to a natural place. 
Holding the real and the "ideal" mental vision in tension to produce an interesting painting of an observed scene is infinitely rewarding. Sometimes this is quite difficult and requires extensive adjustment along the way--at other times, the process flows more easily. Wrestling with the balance of light and dark tones, with the way colors appear under variations in natural light, and with the arrangement of shapes and elements is a deeply moving, uniquely personal, creative experience. 
The scene in the photo above is near our home. It's no place special--definitely not on anyone's sight-seeing itinerary--just a wide bend in Little Pottsburg Creek. Chunks of old concrete jostle the rocks and mussel beds in the muddy shallows, and trash lies half-submerged in the water. Still, something in the scene drew my attention. So I carefully recorded details mentally, snapped a few photos, and went home to figure out what the appeal was. If I tried to capture the feeling I had experienced in this everyday North Florida location, what would I paint? The result was an excellent learning exercise for me, which I will show you in my next post.
Question of the day: If you painted, drew, or more carefully photographed this creek bend, what would you feature?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Growing--Balancing Self-Improvement Goals and New Projects

For a person who values peace of mind and tranquillity, I am a world-class "self-underminer" sometimes. Balance and inner peace don't just happen; they require awareness and intention. I mentioned in my most recent post that although my husband and I love to entertain, I can sometimes make too much work of food preparation--completely unnecessarily. When I do that, the time with friends turns into hard work, and I feel less like entertaining again for awhile.
I sometimes make similar mistakes in my self-improvement and project goals. Unwisely, I try to do too much at once. Why is it that when I have decided to drop a couple of pounds by increased exercise and decreased calories, I suddenly get ambitious to change four other aspects of my life? One key to success in changing habits or pursuing a new goal is focus--focus I lose when I pile on the resolutions and projects.
Creative everyday life generates joy and purpose. And in some ways, I am almost addicted to creative living, even in the smallest undertakings. I want to soar, like the seagull I photographed at the Maryland shore. However, I tend to try ten new things at once instead of following one pursuit with more depth and focus. The gull knows better--she has chosen a direction to follow until she has a very good reason to turn. 
When I lack focus, I become stressed even though my pursuits are self-chosen. For example, when I am near completion with a painting and decide to work on it, I might suddenly realize that I have not completed the skirt I started 2 weeks ago. Then again, there is that new dinner recipe I want to try, and it requires preparation steps this morning to serve it tonight. My, oh my, there is too much to do! I only need to stop a moment to realize that no one has assigned me any of these tasks and that they are not of equal importance to me at this moment. Why am I  doing this to myself on a day off from work?
I am capable of intense focus and self-discipline. So why do I sometimes pile on too many projects at once and lose focus? Why do I feel stress over a skirt hem when the hemming can easily wait while I work on my landscape painting? 
I have no easy answers--after all, it is myself I'm trying to cope with here. However, it is helpful to have articulated this situation and to see myself a bit more clearly. Now, once again, I can laugh at myself, choose my highest priorities and immerse myself in pursuing them. I think I will go paint now.
Question of the day: Does anyone else out there get up in the morning and try to head in several directions at once?  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Savoring Our Friendships--Easy Entertaining & Hummus Recipe

What is better than laid-back time with friends? Here Maggie, our shih-tzu, enjoys having a couple of buddies over.
My husband and I also enjoy entertaining friends at home. It can be relaxing and budget-friendly. However, since I enjoy digging through recipes and planning special dishes, I sometimes make too much work of entertaining. That has its place and time, but can get in the way of fun and spontaneity. We also have some favorite, well-worn, quick and easy recipes.
The first step is a well-stocked kitchen, I think. Who wants to hunt store shelves for obscure ingredients just to have an informal gathering? All Maggie needs are a few milk bones and a big bowl of water, and she is ready to party. For us, homemade hummus is a favorite snack, so I keep the ingredients on hand. It is simple, healthier than cheese, and feels festive to me.
Instead of dinner, sometimes we invite people for wine and snacks (plus maybe beer and/or iced tea or soda, depending on their preferences). Late Sunday afternoon is a good time to hang out and graze. Among the easy snacks on the coffee table would be roasted almonds, fresh pears, apples or grapes, and homemade hummus with raw vegetables and grainy crackers (or pita, if it happens to be around). We are seldom without baby carrots and bell peppers--jicama sticks are also yummy with hummus.
My friend, Sarah Bayley, wins the prize for best quick hummus recipe, and I almost always serve hers--sometimes with a different twist, depending on my mood or what is in the kitchen or herb garden. You can either prepare it ahead or serve it immediately. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your recipe with all of us.
1 can garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained & rinsed
3 - 4 green onions, in two or three pieces
2 small cloves garlic, in big chunks
1/4 cup olive oil*
2 Tblsp. bottled lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
a few shakes of hot sauce
for extra flavor, add either
1/4 cup fresh cilantro or
2 Tblsp sun-dried tomato pesto or
2 Tblsp. sun-dried tomatoes, cut in chunks, plus a couple of fresh basil leaves
*I use sun-dried tomatoes in herb & garlic flavored oil and add 1 Tblsp. or so of the oil from the jar in place of some of the plain olive oil.
Puree all in a food processor until creamy. If the mixture is too thick & stiff, you can add a small amount of water (a tsp. or so at a time). Careful--it should be about as firm as a spread.
That's it--instant party--and people always love it, even when we have served it to them a number of times before.
Question of the day: What snack or appetizer do you rely on for informal entertaining?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Savoring and Growing--An Evening at the Beach

Walking on the beach, or simply gazing out over the ocean profoundly restores my soul. Monday was a fairly hot, clear day here in North Florida--good beach weather many people would say. I don't much like sweltering in the sun, however, so usually either go to the beach in the cooler seasons, spend most of my time in the ocean when the temperature climbs above 80 degrees, or go in the hours toward sunset. 
Our sweet little shih-tzu, Magnolia (usually called Maggie), also just loves the beach--to the point that we have to spell the word when we talk about going because she gets so excited about the possibility. She starts a joyful dance and spin-around routine at the sight or smell of my battered red and white striped beach bag. However, I don't like to take her in the heat and relentless sunshine of mid-day any more than I like it for myself. Early evening is a perfect time for her to race around in the sand, as in today's photo. 
Yesterday, the three of us set out for the beach (about a 15 minute drive from home) at about 7 p.m. and were home again by 8:45. There was a lovely breeze off the water--by 8:30 it was almost chilly. Several ships and a shrimp boat were visible far out on the horizon. Other than that, it was a rather ordinary evening: a pleasant sunset but too few clouds for spectacular color, no dolphin sightings, only the rather sad sight of an old sea turtle, which had apparently died near shore, now revealed by the receding tide. 
Yet the sound of the surf, the happy shrieks of children, the young couple with a tiny, very new baby proudly posing with her for pictures against the ocean backdrop, and the fresh smell of the sea breeze all were magical to me. We returned home feeling as refreshed as if we had been on vacation. I am thankful for the restoring natural beauty around us and hope that you have special places for renewal as well--and that you take the time to enjoy those places, even if just for an hour or two. It's not expensive or time-consuming to love life and live it fully, but it does require creative awareness and the willingness to do the things that bring us peace and joy.
Question of the day: What place or activity restores your inner peace?