All roads in Istria lead to Bale. At least all “my roads”. Yet many people in Croatia have never heard of this small town. Since the first moment I visited on a research trip in 2008, I’ve been hooked.
I owe it mostly to Tomo and his Kamene Priče, a bar-restaurant-performance space where conversations and meals last for hours, kindred spirits always gather and you never really want to leave. So I keep on returning for more, always treated to a sliver of peace, a retreat from this crazy life I lead. Here, I talk to Tomo about how it all started, what it’s all about and where it’s going.
Tell us about Kamene Priče (Stone Tales).
It’s a concept, a message, a way of life that I introduced when Kamene Priče first opened in 2001. The idea originally came out of the way I lived for many years, as a consequence of the life I led. When I first arrived to Bale in 1997, stumbling upon it by accident on my motorbike, I had the first encounter with these ancient stones. I was fascinated by the houses here, by the urban plan and architecture of Bale.
Much later I found out that my house was built 1250 years ago on the same spot of an earlier house which existed in its spot over 2000 years. So, civilization existed in this very place for over 3650 years, uninterrupted. Life unrolled here all along, so I named my place Kamene Priče. I believe they are exactly that, Stone Tales.
Istria has lots of beautiful stone houses, so full of history. What made you choose Bale, out of all the places?
After living in different cities of Europe for many years, I was looking for peace. I found it here in Bale. It also has a really convenient location, close to two airports (Trieste in Italy is 90km away, Pula is 24km away), to the highway that links Istria to continental Croatia.
In short, Bale has the infrastructure required to maintain good quality of life – shops, butchers, a bank, a post office, a clinic, a pharmacy… All that in a tiny town of under 900 people.
Also, Bale are located very close to the sea. Just a couple of minutes’ drive away are some of Istria’s most beautiful and untouched beaches. It’s an almost virgin stretch of coast.
Tell us a little about the happenings at Kamene Priče.
In the inner courtyard of Kamene Priče there is a small stage that I call Throne Theater. This is where various events take place – from plays to art performances of different kinds. Most importantly, this is where Last Minute Open Jazz Festival was born. I started it six years ago, and it has since become one of the most important festivals in the region. It has no sponsors at all – I finance it myself with the help of a few friends.
The festival takes place in early August (August 1-5, to be precise) every year and attracts musicians from all around the world, more and more of them each year. Some big jazz cats passed through here and left with nothing but good vibes. We remain with the energy they leave, silence returns after the last note is played and the only music heard is that of the church bell tower. People in Bale fell in love with jazz and, in turn, jazz fell in love with them.
Can you describe a scene that somehow represents the spirit of Kamene Priče?
Kamene Priče have the most amazing energy. As if they vibrate at 440 hertz, with an almost perfect pitch. I love rainy days here, the long beautiful autumns, the smell of the fireplace, of permanence. The thick walls act as if they separate me from the world, put me at ease… In those moments of solitude, music and fire, I often write stories and novels. Here, I feel connected with some universal knowledge out there, linked up to some strange accumulator of meaning.
The most interesting moment happened to me here one autumn, as I was sitting by the fireplace and writing a story. Suddenly, out of the blue, through my body and mind passed a set of pictures from my entire life. All the reasons, all the realizations, all the small epiphanies happened right in front of me. As if in the strangest of dances. After that moment, I never ever smoked a cigarette again, drunk a glass of alcohol, took any medication, or a cup of black tea. Nothing at all that can influence my state of mind. This doesn’t happen to people just like that.
Food is also your forte. What do you like to prepare at Kamene Priče?
When I cook, it’s not me cooking. My hands may be preparing the food but it’s the tradition that creates the dishes. My approach to cooking is very simple. Everything I make has to be fresh – just-picked vegetables and fruit, fish caught that very same morning… I serve olive oil from my own olive grove nearby. I don’t use additives, poisons of different kinds. I am careful with the use of salts and sugars.
What you eat comes from the radius of a couple of hundred meters. Today, for example, we have a lamb stew slow-cooked with carrots, white pepper and red wine. It’s also the season of what we in Croatia call “blue fish” so I may prepare tuna steaks served on a bed of just-picked wild arugula.
Who comes to Kamene Priče, what kind of a crowd?
Travelers, intellectuals, musicians, painters, creative types all like to frequent my place. They love the quiet jazz that always plays in the background, the books that line the shelves inside, the fact that it’s easy to meet people. People here aren’t ashamed to sit down and strike up a conversation with strangers. It’s never crowded, there’s always a low-key quiet vibe…
What I offer people here is a concept, as I explained earlier. Another way of life that they can observe. And I’m always happy to answer questions and chat about the advantages of living in this way.
Are there any similar places elsewhere in Croatia? Kamene Priče’s siblings, so to speak.
Yes! There’s a lighthouse called Struga on the island of Lastovo, in southern Adriatic. The lighthouse keeper Jure and his wife Nada who run the place are the happiest couple I’ve ever met. Their lives fascinate me endlessly. They are filled with love, with meaning. I send all my guests to them.
Would you share your secret spots in Istria? Places you love to go.
The whole of Istria is magical. My favorite place is located one meter from my fireplace. I honestly don’t know a place more special. I do also love the half-abandoned village of Kotli in central Istria, near the tiny town of Hum. Here, the beautiful Mirna River tumbles through carvings in the limestone, creating a series of shallow pools. There’s also an old watermill… Gorgeous place.
I know you also spend quite a bit of time in Zagreb. What’s your take on Croatia’s capital?
Zagreb is a city that gave me the large chunk of my education. And I enjoyed it greatly. It’s an instrument that you need to know how to play. It’s hidden, subtle, quiet, safe, and somehow invisible. It’s unlike any other city. You really need to know how to walk it, where to find its hidden gems. What I love about Zagreb: traditional cooking, the most beautiful spring season – and stunning women!
What’s your favorite spot along the Adriatic, your own special hideaway?
The entire stretch of coast, from Istria to Montenegro, is incredible. The road that follows the coast is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I love driving along the road, stopping in any town or village that strikes my fancy and finding a nice little restaurant shaded by a large tree trunk.
Any strong stand about Croatia’s entry into the EU? What do you think are the pros, and what are the contras?
I don’t support anything that doesn’t support human evolution. The European Union in its current state doesn’t offer any alternatives in the arts, philosophy, education… It is ignoring those who are rich with knowledge but poor in terms of money. Just look at Greece, Sicily, Portugal. The value system is dishonest and without scruples. Different special interest groups, uneducated individuals and projects without true meaning are leading the EU today. I feel sorry for Croatia in this context.
As a reaction to it all I started a collective called Akademija za Sve (Academy for Everything). We now have over forty brothers and sisters, who are all focused on creating a sustainable alternative to what’s happening in Europe today. We just founded a center on a small island near the bigger island of Lastovo, where we have lots of interesting projects in the works.