By Purva Grover
The whiff of fresh oil paint draws me into the room. I spot a wooden jar holding a bunch of paintbrushes, as I lift a bottle of oil and declare to my husband that it’s baby oil. “To clean the brushes,” I say, flaunting my knowledge of the arts. A cat is meowing on a couch, resting behind a stack of canvases. The steam from the cup of coffee also suggests that the artist will be returning soon. Yet, I’m inside here taking my time to absorb in the aromas of artistic freedom. For two days, I’ve decided to forget the courtesies and invade the privacy of strangers; and my husband has reluctantly (initially) joined me in exploring Grožnjan, the unworldly sleepy town in Croatia’s Istria county. Just that this sleepy village is a real place, and not a utopian idea.
We’d done our homework, long before we drove down from Poreč to here. We’d secured print outs for directions, you can’t always trust Google map to lead you to a Medieval hillock nestled between olive groves and vineyards. After having parked our car in the parking lot, which also happened to be the only broad piece of land till where we could see, we walked to our guesthouse with a small, cosy and clean room; and squeaky floors and period furnishings. No welcome drinks here, but a friendly host, who quickly checked us in and went about her day. We left too, right after — ‘to spy’ as my husband would label my behaviour.
“You are not supposed to know where you’re headed to in Grožnjan,” I tell him when he expresses concern of us getting lost on the cobbled streets. “We’re wandering,” I correct him. “And there aren’t many people to ask for directions,” he replies and we have a good laugh. Grožnjan is home to 736 people only, and perhaps 100 or more cats. It’s a winter month, which means the residents are far fewer than the official statistics. The town comes alive in the summer months when the best names from music, art, drama and beyond host workshops and sessions here, and the breeze gets filled in with sounds of jazz and classical music.
Nevertheless, even now the doors of the 20 odd galleries-studios-homes are open for anyone chasing the whiff of arts. Next, I spot a man sitting on the floor, engrossed painting. He’s surrounded by half-done paintings and pots of plants. He smiles at us as I engage in a conversation and politely ask him, “May I step inside the studio?” He nods, as we learn that he’s working on his next collection. He’s chatty, humble and of course, supremely talented. The sun will set soon so he suggests we eat a good meal at one of the few eateries here. He allows me to click pictures of ‘artist at work’ as well, as he goes about playing with colours. We continue to wander, peeping in windows and doors, and being welcomed warmly each time.
When we head to the room and my WiFi finds me, I learn the artist who suggested we try hot chocolate at Caffè Bar Vero is Marko Brajković. Greedily, I begin to devour his work on the Saatchi Art portal, read about his exhibitions, from the neighbouring town Rovinj to the Fountain Art Fair in New York. Amidst all this, I let the Internet throws up many other names, who I’ve just rubbed shoulders with. I pinch myself mostly to convince myself that yes, breathing art is a real emotion. No wonder, the place is christened the ‘town of artists’. On our second night, we run into Marko again, and he asks if we’re having a good time, as he sits there, attending to his guests in the caffè. I begin to stalk him on Instagram and tell him I’ll be back seeking refuge in this town one day.
Purva’s travel journal is full of extremely ordinary stories