We pass by the obvious cafes in the open squares that have menus in English and head up the twisted cobblestone lanes that lead into the interior of the old town. We smile at the elderly lady we’ve seen dozens of times, mumbling something we probably couldn’t understand even if we did speak the language. Three young boys race past us, searching for adventure in their hometown, weaving through the tour groups that block their way. We move onto a narrower street with fewer art galleries, only one tourist shop and a simple café, which seems to invite a more local clientele. We take a seat at one of the outdoor tables. Sitting side-by-side, we face the street and observe local life in Rovinj, Croatia.
One man is holding court with most of the patrons and the staff. His boisterous voice, bushy mustache and thick waistline make me think he is a politician and we nickname him The Mayor. He saunters from the café a few steps across the street into the shoemaker’s shop where he is energetically greeted. The busy shoemaker puts aside his current task, wipes his hands on his worn, faded blue apron and pulls out a bottle from behind the counter. The two share a shot and, as they converse, the shoemaker picks up his work where he left off.
A young man busily delivering bottled beverages passes us by several times. His dolly is never bare as he takes away empty bottles and returns with full ones. He smiles and converses with passersby as he maneuvers the heavy load through the uneven streets. We wonder where he gets his supply in the pedestrian-only old town, but note that the heavier load is retrieved uphill and brought down. Still, we understand how physically demanding it must be and, as consumers, are thankful for his efforts.
We watch a woman making her way downhill toward the town center and notice that, in her flat dress shoes, she slips more than once on the slick stones, which seems to be a problem that only affects the non-local crowd. She surprised us, however, when she turned into the shoemaker’s shop. What ensued was a 30 minute conversation regarding (we can only imagine) what can be done to her shoes – or the stones – to make them slip resistant. The conversation moved to the street with the smiling shoemaker enthusiastically pointing between her shoes and the street, but, in the end, he only offered a shrug, which left us to assume there was no resolution. We speculate that this conversation is not the first for the shoemaker.
Watching this scene unfold is one of the things we’ve come to love about local life in Rovinj, Croatia. The stunning and picture-perfect seaside town has a back story full of daily life right in the heart of the old town. In just three short weeks, we’ve become acquainted with the routine schedules and daily habits of the residents.
It is the life of the fisherman that most enamors us. Like clockwork, they take their position on the rocks or follow the same route out to sea with their boats. Along the shoreline and out to the boats, fisherman exchange banter among themselves, we are curious how many years – or decades – they’ve been at it.
Even watching how the men board their boats brings about a sense community. Vessels are moored five and six deep in the harbor. In order for the fisherman to get to their boat, they hop from one to the next, using bows and sterns as stepping stones.
When we first arrived in Rovinj, we were infatuated with its idyllic charm. As the days passed by, we began to see beyond the obvious attraction: antennas and satellite dishes protrude from the rooftops, stray cats use the streets as their litter box and old wooden shutters are a flimsy defense against early risers toting suitcases on wheels, lecturing mothers and angry wives and late night revelers. But, rather than dissuade us, it only adds to the charisma.
The apartment we’re staying in (found on Airbnb), is located in the heart of the old town. With the limited space on the peninsula, we thought it was likely that every residence had been converted into holiday apartments and hotels, but we now know that isn’t true. The community is mixed – part sobe (vacation rentals), part homes to local families.
The waiter from a corner Italian restaurant lives in the building next door. The neighbors below us just brought home a new baby boy; the announcement made by the blue ribbon that hung on the door. When our host acquired the apartment from a cousin, her family had considered moving in with their children, but instead opted – for the time – to turn it into a rental. In the streets, greetings of ‘Dobardan’ and ‘Ciao’ are exchanged between friends in a melodic tone and gallery owners, shop keepers and waiters stand in the streets outside their doors chatting and smoking cigarettes.
We sit on the rocks at sunset and look around us in disbelief. “Where are we?” we’ve asked aloud, more than once. The translucent water of the Adriatic Sea spreads out before us, dotted with islands. The old town, painted in hues of pink, yellow and orange, sits behind us. Tourists filter through the streets, restaurants fill and empty and, all the while, life….happens.
We inherently know that life is always happening in the places we visit, but so often, especially in holiday towns like Rovinj, ‘real life’ is neatly tucked away from the tourists’ eyes. Perhaps, in high season it is – and if we were on a one-week vacation, escaping hectic lives, perhaps we wouldn’t be able to see it.
Our off-season, slow travel – giving Rovinj three weeks, rather than three days (or worse yet, three hours) – allows us to more clearly see the day-to-day life. We gawk at the beauty, but are fascinated by the people. It dawns on us that the laundry, so appealingly pinned on the line that stretches between windows and across the cobblestone streets, is in fact, just someone’s weekly chore…but that doesn’t make it any less picturesque.
We want to know: Have you been to Rovinj? Did you notice the local life in Rovinj, Croatia? Tell us about your experience in the comments!