His fingers are thick but nimble, looping the black cord in quick practiced movements around the shimmering blue glass pendant. His pale yellow shirt isn’t all plain; maybe the bright orange flakes in the blue pendant are responsible for those washed out stains on his shirt.
“Do you make all of these here?” My eyes dart from one Murano glass piece to another. I wonder if I’ve made the right choice. Should I pick the maroon triangular pendant over the blue? Do I need a glass clock? Or maybe a serving plate?
“Yes.” He has an accent. “In my workshop.” He vaguely points to the small door behind him. I can’t see much except that it’s messy and full of paint cans. In Vetro Veritas is one of many gallery-studio combos in the artists’ colony of Grožnjan and, like the rest of the town, the bright, colourful artwork plays off against the weathered facade outside.
These cracks and tears are remnants of the town’s run-down history. During the 15th century Grožnjan, like many other present day Croatian towns, was a fortified Venetian town. The surrounding Mirna Valley and the Adriatic close by mimicked Italian geographical conditions, making this an ideal Italian settlement. For a while Grožnjan functioned in its self-sufficiency, building ramparts and churches, growing grapes and making wine, but when the Second World War started the Italians moved out, leaving behind a crumbling ghost town.
Today that shabby look works to the town’s advantage – it lends artsy legitimacy. Wild grass grows in bursts and bright flowers shoot from their midst. Many of the old structures are slightly lopsided with patched cement work and paint that has soaked into the walls so deeply that their colour has changed. The lanes are crooked and made of stone, creating the illusion of rising and falling when walking around the town, or maybe that’s just the turpentine at work.
The idea of an artists’ colony first took shape in 1965, when local artists rediscovered the abandoned hilltop town; they moved into the dusty ruins and set up studios, workshops and music schools, turning Grožnjan into a cultural centre. Some reached for their tool boxes as soon as they arrived and patched up the years or hid them behind wooden frames. Others let things be, channelling the chaos into creativity.
A soft drizzle greets me as I step out of the studio; tourists take shelter under the old town loggia across the street. The rain makes everything sharper – the faded colours look brighter, and the aroma of truffle-laced lunches and rakija is particularly strong. I contemplate breaking for lunch as I duck in and out of every open door I pass and peek into fenced-off kitchen gardens. Standing on my toes I see tomatoes and squash, along with flowers I can’t name. From the distance a soft tune can be heard coming from the music school. The students are scheduled to perform at the town square later in the evening. Through the morning, I’ve eavesdropped on the rehearsals.
As I step into yet another hollowed out cobblestone, the collected water soaking the hem of my jeans, I notice a solitary wooden frame propped up against a coarse white-gray wall. The wood is wet and has come apart at one of the corners; the gap is dark and ugly. Like so much of the town, it too looks old and wasted and oddly beautiful. I pull out my camera.
Neha Puntambekar is a freelance writer from Mumbai, currently based in Zagreb Croatia. When she isn’t on her laptop, she is at her favourite cafe, a cup of coffee in one hand, a paperback in another. She blogs at www.nehasweb.com
Featured photo by: Aconcaqua