National Geographic TRAVELER: Where the journey begins.

The 190-foot campanile of St. Euphemia, topped by a statue of the saint, crowns a seaside scene as two fishermen motor toward an evening mooring in Rovinj, on Istria's west coast. (Click images to see larger views.)
Yesterday I looked from a medieval castle into the chasm traditionally believed to have inspired Dante's entrance into the Inferno, and inspected some 16th-century graffiti.

Last night I ate seafood risotto served in a scooped-out circular cheese, polished it off with a spirit flavored with fìgs and honey, and paid for it in kunas. Tonight I shall go to bed in the most glittering seaside resort of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. And then it will be on to Hum, which claims to be the smallest town in the world.

Where am I?

Where else in the world but on the peninsula of Istria. It is a wedge of land at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, about 50 miles long from north to south, and never more than 30 miles wide. It was mostly Italian until World War II, Yugoslavian until the breakup of Tito's Communist republic, and it is now the northwestern extremity of Republika Hrvatska, aka Croatia, except for a narrow strip at the top of it, which is in Slovenia.

Istria seems to me one of the most beguilingly complex and bewildering corners of all Europe. Its indigenous people now are Slavs, but it has been ruled, in one part or another, by Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Austrians. Bavarian counts and Italian patriarchs have lorded over Istria. Napoleon declared it part of his lllyrian Provinces. German, American, and British armies have occupied it, and it has been threatened in its time by Ostrogoths, Lombards, Genoese, impious Turks, and fìerce Uskoks. I met an elderly man the other day who said his family had never moved from Istria, but that his grandfather was born an Austrian citizen, he himself was born Italian, his children were born Yugoslav, and his grandchildren hoped to goodness they would remain Croatian - four nationalities in three generations. Yet out of this historical maelstrom Istria has emerged with a sort of enigmatic calm. The recent wars in the former Yugoslavia neer came close to the place, and its various ethnic deposits subsist amicably enough side by side, or on top of each other, gradually blending into Croatian homogeneity.

The core of this strange place is hilly, but around the coast the fertile land yields cereals, grapes, olives, and vegetables. Long ago, though, in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, people in Vienna realized that the real potential of the Istrian littoral lay in tourism. On its upper eastern shore they created a Riviera, an Adriatic Cote d'Azur, and Viennese society flocked to enjoy its rnarvelous landscapes, its beautiful beaches, and what was authoritatively declared to be its particularly health-giving climate. The most expensive Viennese doctors recommended it; the grandest Viennese invalids took their advice.

It is a coastline so magnificent that no number of concrete hotels and beach discos can demean it. This is a heroic coast. The gleaming white tourist complexes that speckle it cannot compete for splendor with its pellucid blue bays (where the Uskoks once beached their piratical galleys) or its windy promontories just made for Venetian campaniles. Blue-gray islands lie Homerically off this shore, and everywhere ships slide among archipelagos or nose into secretive creeks. The chug of fishing-boat engines wakes you in the morning; along every waterfront old sailorly-looking men stroll from bollard to bollard, swapping - who can doubt it? - brave stories of the sea.

So the concrete pleasure-places cluster apologetically in their enclaves, and the trailers and campsites hide themselves among pine forests and olive groves. They provide every kind of modern tourist razzmatazz - para-gliding and rave parties, nudist beaches and folk displays - and the thump of rock and rap sounds always through their cafes.

A mile or two off Istria's western coast lies the wooded archipelago called the Brijuni - the Brioni Islands. Here Josip Broz Tito, the dictatorial leader of Yugoslavia's Communist Party from 1939 to 1980, enjoyed the fruits of his power. He had a couple of villas, a yacht or two, a love-nest on an islet, and a menagerie of creatures given him by the heads of foreign states. Armed guards protected him from his enemies, and the statesmen of the world warily came to visit him.

Today the islands are a national park. You can visit them only on sufferance, in tour groups that are conducted around the villas and through the safari park in one of those sham steam-trains beloved of tourist departments everywhere. I prefer to look at them from high ground on the Istrian mainland, because seeen from there, lying silent and flotilla-like, they still seem properly mysterious to me, and perhaps, in a historical way, a little ominous too.

Sprinkled among the detritus of tourism, like mountain peaks above suburbia, four fine cities of the coast stand as living testamnets of Istria's tumultuous past. At the extreme souther tip of the peninsula is Pula, where you'll see spectacularly above its harbor one af the greatest and best- preserved af alI Roman amphitheaters, brilliantly floodlit by night and for a week in June host ta the Pula Film Festival. Rome feels remote here, but Vienna is still close by. It is embodied in florid barracks and dockyard cranes, in a cafe where the strudels are authentically creamy, and in a luxurious old navy club that was frequented by the Emperor Franz Jaseph himself. And by the shipyard island in the middle af the harbor, where a great freighter under construction is likely to dominate the whole town almost as absolutely as the amphitheater. Ten days before the end of World War I two Italian divers penetrated the nets and booms that protected this haven to sink the former flagship of the Austrian Navy [Viribus Unitis}. There is a sense of dark consequence to Pula, as though somebody might stilI sneak into port and blow up that shipyard.

There are no such vibrations up the coast at Rovinj, where Venice is stilI an ever-present influence. Rovinj, a copybook example of a Venetian colonial town, is embellished still with the imperial lion of St. Mark and crowned with a triumphant replica of the Campanile San Marco in Venice. While there are cheerful seafood restaurants along its promenade, and bright yachts at its moorings, and crowds of young people eating ice creams in season, and a general sense of slightly sticky merriment, once you are through the old city walls you are back in the Middle Ages. Cobbled narrow lanes (marvelously shiny if it has been raining) lead you precipitously up the hill to the church of St. Euphemia. Its eponymous saint is represented by the weather vane on its campanile, and her corpse lies stilI in its sarcophagus inside, where it was miraculously deposited out of the sea in 800 A.D. Could anything be more Venetian than that?

Then there is Poreč, once a Roman town but for centuries held by the Venetians. Its grand claim to fame is the Byzantine Basilica of Euphrasius, a complex of sacred buildings that is not only a World Heritage Site but also one of the most truly numinous places I have ever visited. A gang of boys was larking noisily about when I entered its enclosure, but the peace of the place easily rode above their joyful irreverence, and the lovely figure of the Madonna, which gazes down in mosaic from above the high altar, seemed to me to be smiling indulgently. When I walked away and ate at a nearby pizzeria, I found some of the boys in there too.

Had I liked the basilica, they asked?

I said it was a lovely place, and they all nodded solemnly. "A lovely place," they reverently agreed. "A very holy place."

And finally we pass, in a tunnel, through Istria's not very high highest mountains, to the celebrated watering place of Opatija, better known to the world as Abbazia. What grandeurs followed when in 1885 a medical congress declared it a health resort. Princes and archduchesses swarmed down on the brand new railway line, immensely posh hotels were built, and by the turn of the 20th century it was one of the great fashionable resorts of Europe. The Grand Hotel Kvarner, the originaI pleasure palace, still looks almost impossibly grand, at least from the outside; holiday villas writhing with cherubs and dolphins spill down the mountainside toward the sea gardens are fragrant with jasmine and magnolia; the famous waterside promenade, seven miles long, is still named after Franz Joseph, who loved to come here for dalliances with his favorite actress.

Wind-stunted pines in northeastern Istria overlook the Mirna Valley, site of tiny Draguĉ (population 60). Perched on a narrow highland, the medieval village is distinguished bz the liveliness of its church's frescoes (and the absence of visitors).

This is what you must do when you arrive at Draguĉ, in the very heart of Istria, far from the sea in the limestone uplands. Leave your car at the entrance of the village, which has only one narrow street, and walk among the terraced houses in the small piazza. The pIace will seem utterly deserted, but if you shout for assistance, four or five doors will open and four or five old ladies will tell you where to find the key to the chapel of San Rocco. "Number 24," they will say, and sure enough there at its door you will find a sixth old lady already holding out a venerable iron key for you.

Up to the end of the village you must go, and where the route peters out into muddy, rutted farm tracks, all alone you will fmd the little church. A bit of a struggle with its ancient lock, a loud creak as the door opens, and before you is a glorious surprise in this peninsula of surprises. The church, about 20 feet long and empty of pews, is covered with wonderfully lively frescoes. They are naive representations of the Christian story, a Bible in bright color painted by an Istrian master sometime in the 16th century. They make the hill hamlet of Draguĉ, for my tastes, the happiest pIace in all Istria.

Pleased to meet the rare American visitor, Guido Grzinić beckoned photographer Vince Mus into his home in the village of Draguĉ, where he served up local white wine, accordion music, and a dinner of wild asparagus and manestra (a Croatian minestrone soup). Grzinić's dog, offstage, provided vocal accompaniment.

In this, the heartland of Istria, the people are pure Croat, tough and reserved, very seldom fat, up early, and unlikely indeed to cheat you. Theirs is very stony country - wines and olives are almost the only products. The villages are built all of stone. Dry-stone walls pattern the countryside, piles of stone, pillars of stone, quarries of stone are everywhere. It is a hard pIace, and its scattered towns and villages are mostly in defensive positions, on ridges or hilltops, and surrounded by walls. They seem defiant, too, because they have been for many centuries the inner keep of the Croatian culture and in particular of the ancient Glagolitic script, which was the first of alI Slavic scripts. Brought to Istria in the ninth century by Byzantine Christian missionaries, it became, as it were, the repository of Croatian culture and of everything most dear to Croatian patriots. Everywhere are references to the script or examples of it. There is even a memorial to it - an avenue of sculpted monuments in the inner hills.

I sensed the presence of Glagolitism always here - a wistful, waif-like cloud drifting through the stony hills and the wine valleys. Most of the bigger towns are Venetian in style and memory, but the countryside is pure Slav. Many of the villages are half deserted, a few altogether abandoned, because their inhabitants either emigrated abroad to escape the Yugoslav communist regime, or moved to the coastal towns in search of jobs and modernity. The most famous of the ghost villages is Hum, once a thriving medieval municipality. Now all that's left within its city walls is a deserted tumble of gray stone houses, many of them derelict.

When I wandered around Hum one dank and blustery morning, I met nobody. A cock repeatedly crowed, a dog barked somewhere, but all the houses seemed locked and empty, and the wind blew cruelly through the dilapidations. Faintly, from some inmost hovel, I heard a telephone ringing. It rang and rang, while the wind blew, but nobody answered it.

Istria is a haunting place, and there is a plethora of graffiti here. The slogans and texts scrawled on pillars and walls of the churches and bleak rock faces in the mountains are like the handwriting of history. Sometimes they are just contemporary punk. Sometimes they are political mantras from the past. On a memorial to Tito's partisans in the hill town of Buzet, which shows a fighting man about to throw a grenade at an unseen enemy, someone has written: "Mummy, can I kill someone tonight?"

The words that moved me most of all, that spoke most touchingly of this country's harsh and demanding past, is in Glagolitic script on the wall of a cemetery chapel outside Hum. It was written sometime in the 12th century and seems to have been a priest's memorandum, for it records that Martin the Blacksmith is entitled to have 30 Masses said for the salvation of his soul, and stilI has one to come.


JAN MORRIS (above) is one of the world's most acclaimed travel writers. Enchanted by her first visit 50 years ago, she returns frequently to the Croatian area of Istria. "At the end of World War Il, I was in Trieste, which stands at the head of the Istrian Peninsula. It's a short drive from the city to the Istrian countryside, and because Istria was Italian before the war, it has always played a large and fateful part in the Trieste consciousness," Morris says. "Many Istrians remain in the city, having fled Tito's communist regime." Morris has written some 40 books on travel, history, and politics. She takes on Istria in "An Adriatic Cote d'Azur" (above).

In the 1500s, Italian nobles who had hoped to use pieces of Pula's arena back home in Venice were dissuaded by a Pula-born Venetian. 

Istria

When I visit this corner of Europe, my greatest pleasure centers on soaking up the sensuality of Istrian life. After a morning of sun and sea, I might retreat to the cool marble streets of a coastal town for a lunch of local seafood and wine. An afternoon in the quiet interior of the penin- sula provides a breather from the seaside resorts, which are especially busy in late July and early August. But come sundown, the pIace to be is near the water.

Getting around

  • By bus: Towns are well connected by frequent buses, but transport to the interior runs less often. Fares are low-Rovinj to Pula costs about $2.50.
  • By car: Agencies with offices in Pula include Avis (800-331-1084; http://www.avis.com), Hertz (800-654-3001; http://www.hertz.com), and Budget (800-472-3325; http://www.budget.com). Rates start at about $36 a day. 

Festivals

Pula's summer arts festival (http://www.gradpula.com), late May-Aug., attracts national and international stars to perform in the Roman amphitheater. The summertime Pula Film Festival (52-210-486; http://www.pulafilmfestival.com) draws cinemaphiles. 

Attractions worth seeing

The following attractions are free and open daily unless otherwise noted. 

  • At Pula's 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, visit the subterranean cells that once may have held doomed gladiators, Christians, and wild animals. Fee. 
  • Byzantine mosaics illuminate Poreč's Basilica of Euphrasius; climb the belfry for splendid views.
  • Home to a zoo, gardens, and 9-hole golf course, the Brioni Islands can be seen only with a group tour. Book with Atlas Pula (52-214-172) for $24 or Brioni Islands National Park (52-52S-883) for $19. 
  • In Rovinj watch fishermen returning to port with their early-morning haul, then visit the Church of St. Euphemia, with its Venice-inspired bell tower. 

Places to stay and eat

Prices indicate the range of rates for a double room in high season (July-Aug.); prices drop at least 20 percent out of season. Meal prices include a three-course meal with a beverage, tax, and tip.

  • Valsabbion (Pjescana Uvala IX/26, 52100 Pula; phone/fax 52-218-033; www.valsabbion.com), has a small rooftop pool and a beauty/wellness center. 14 rooms. AE, Diners, MC, V. $48-$110. The restaurant is a gourmet's paradise, with fish and meat dishes dressed up with caviar and truffles. $27-36.
  • For a taste of turn-of-the-century Vienna, stay at Grand Hotel Kvarner-Amalia (Park sveti Jakova 4, 51410 Opatija; 51-271-233; fax 51-271-202) with its chandeliered dining room. Two pools. 81 rooms. AE, Diners, MC, V. $30-60. 
  • Rooms with terraces overlooking the sea make Hotel Rovinj (Svetoga Kriza 59, 52210 Rovinj; 52-811- 288; fax 52-811-2S7) the ideai spot to enjoy a sunset. 68 rooms. Open Apr.-Oct. AE, Diners. $20-30. 
  • Nono (Zagrebacka 4, 52440 Poreč; 52-453-088) is tops for pizza. AE, Diners, MC, V. $4 for a pizza. 

For more information

  • Istria County Tourist Assoc., P .0. Box 151, 52440 Porec, Croatia; 52-452-797; http://www.istra.com.
  • Croatian National Tourist Office, 350 Fifth Ave., Ste. 4003, New York, NY 10118; 212-279-8672 or 800-829-4416. 
  • On the Internet: http://www.mint.hr or http://www.htz.hr. 

WHEN TO GO

Istria's climate is mild. Winter temperatures rarely dip below freezing; in summer it can hit the mid-80s rF), with cooler temperatures in- land at night. Best time to visit is May, June, and Sept. for the balmy weather and uncrowded resorts. 

ENTERING CROATIA

U.S. citizens need a valid passport for stays up to 90 days. 

MONEY

The Croatian kuna is the standard monetary unit. As of press time, $1U.S.=HRK8.3 (HRK1=$.12 U.S). Prices of hotels are set in German marks and euros, but you pay in kuna. For exchange rates, consult a major newspaper. Prices shown here are in U.S. dollars. 

TRANSPORTATION

By plane: Croatia Airlines (14-872-727; www. croatiaairlines.hr) has daily flights connecting Pula with Zagreb. By bus: Buses connect Pula, Rovinj, and Porec with Rijeka and Zagreb (16-157-983). TIME DIFFERENCE Croatia is six hours ahead of eastern stan- dard time.

PHONE CALLS

From the U.S. dial the international access code 011, the country code 385, regional code (for Istria it is 52), and then the local number.

Contents accurate at press time. 

Jeanne Oliver (author of Lonely Planet Croatia and several other European Guides)

Web Exclusive
Image: Motovun
Striking examples of Venetian colonial architecture are revealed in Motovun’s intricate system of towers, walls, gates, and piazzas. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Day Trips in Istria and Its Surrounding Regions

In TRAVELER magazine’s September issue, veteran travel writer Jan Morris guides you through Istria, Croatia’s, main coastal cities and interior locales, including Draguĉ, Hum, and Buzet. Here, we offer five other day trips also well worth a visit.

Beyond coastal cities and resorts, the Istrian region offers a surprising variety of treasures. A short ride from Pula takes you to Vodnjan, known for its mummified saints. Offshore is the rugged island of Cres, home to the gargantuan griffon vulture. Between Pula and Opatija lies the hilltop town of Labin where you can amble through a former coal mine or admire exquisite Venetian architecture. While the interior villages of Draguĉ and Hum have slowly experienced depopulation, once-abandoned Groznjan has been reborn as a thriving arts colony. Even remote Motovun hosts an annual film festival within its medieval walls.

Vodnjan (seven miles or six kilometers north of Pula) Behind the altar of the Baroque 18th-century Church of St. Blaise lie the desiccated remains of six saints. The clothed bodies of St. Leon Bembo, St. Ivan John Olini, and St. Nicoloza Bursa, as well as assorted body parts of three other saints, lie enclosed in glass. For unknown reasons, the bodies and body parts failed to decompose. The skin and nails darkened and dried, making the corpses look curiously wooden. The church reliquary contains 380 relics enclosed in glass, including the undecayed tongue of St. Mary of Egypt. Among the less grisly exhibits, notice the 14th-century polyptych painted by Paolo Veneziano that depicts scenes from the life and death of St. Bembo. Tourist Information: 385 52 511 700. E-mail: tz-vodnjan-dignano@pu.hinet.hr

Groznjan (16 miles or 26 kilometers northeast of Porec on the road to Buje) Perched on a hill high above the Mirna river valley, Groznjan is a 14th-century Venetian fortress reborn as an arts colony. It was nearly deserted when, in 1965, the first painters and sculptors moved into its crumbling stone buildings. A few years later the International Cultural Centre of Jeunesses Musicales Croatia set up a summer training program for musicians in Groznjan and the town’s renaissance began. Classes taught by renowned European and Japanese musicians, such as Roger Bobo, attract young musicians from around the world to study jazz and classical music. Painters, potters, and carvers followed the musicians, installing studios and galleries along the crooked cobblestone lanes. As you gallery-hop, the melodic strains of musicians rehearsing may inspire you to stay for the free open-air concerts given nightly by students from July to early September. Tourist Information: 385 52 776 131. E-mail: tzo@groznjan-grisignana.hr

Cres Island (From Opatija to Brestova it’s a 12-mile or 20-kilometer journey. There you catch a ferry to Porozina on the tip of Cres Island) Rugged Cres Island has been largely undisturbed by tourist crowds, meaning that rich flora and fauna flourish. From Porozina, drive to the Eco-Center, “Caput Insulae,” in Beli, which provides an excellent introduction to the island’s remarkable bird and plant life. The center functions as a reserve for Eurasian griffon vultures, an indigenous bird with a wing span of more than nine feet that nests in the island’s high coastal cliffs. There are usually three or four vultures in residence, which weigh up to 22 pounds. You might see one of the griffons in flight if you follow the eco-trails surrounding the center. An illustrated booklet published and distributed by the center helps you to identify the trees, plants, and bushes on the trails — wild asparagus, black mulberry, and wulfen’s spurge. As you stroll along the paths, a diverse collection of birdlife, such as golden eagles, snake eagles, and honey buzzards, soar above the surrounding woods. Eco-Centre Caput Insulae: 385 51 840 525. E-mail: caput.insulae@ri.tel.hr

Labin (26 miles or 42 kilometers northeast of Pula) A gritty coal-mining industry seems incongruous with Labin’s quaintly restored pastel houses. Yet, mining was pursued with such fervor that the hilltop town began to collapse some 40 years ago. Fully repaired, the town now honors its mining past in the Town Museum, which contains a model of the former working coal mine. In the tunnels, you’ll find coal mining paraphernalia that transports you back to the booming mining era. Spend a few minutes in the claustrophobic tunnels and you’ll find a myriad of reasons not to be a coal miner. The rest of the town is a fascinating locale to explore, displaying a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture in a number of Venetian palaces and churches. Climb up the winding narrow streets to the fortress, Fortica, on top of the town for a panoramic view of rocky Cres Island and the resort of Rabac, (three miles or five kilometers) below. Tourist Information: 385 52 855 560. E-mail: tzg.labin@pu.tel.hr; www.istra.com/rabac/eng/labin.html

Motovun (15 miles or 25 kilometers northeast of Porec on the road to Buzet) With its elegant system of towers, walls, gates and piazzas, Motovun is a striking example of Venetian colonial architecture. Reminders of the former Adriatic overlords are everywhere — lions stand sentry over the town gates and coats of arms adorn the buildings. Architect Andrea Palladio designed the late-Renaissance town church of St. Stephen. Francesco Bonazzo contributed the marble statues of St. Stephen and St. Laurence, and an unknown 17th-century Venetian produced the painting of the Last Supper behind the altar. Take a walk around the town walls: The sweeping view takes in the vineyards that produce Motovun’s fine Teran and Malvasija wine and the forests that harbor Istria’s prized white and black truffles. If you visit during the last week of July, don’t miss Motovun’s International Film Festival, which presents independent and avant-garde films from the U.S. and Europe. Tourist Information: 385 52 681 735.

Jeanne Oliver

The following note came from the coordinator of the article who also refers to the September 11, 2001 tragedy.

Sources:

  • Jan Morris (text) and Vincent J. Misi (photography), "An Adriatic Cote d'Azur", National Geographic Traveler, September 2001, p. 7, 88-93. © Copyrights to author and publisher.
  • Jeanne Oliver, "Istria", National Geographic Traveler, September 2001, p. 7, 88-93. © Copyrights to author and publisher.
  • Jeanne Oliver, "Day Trips in Istria and Its Surrounding Regions", National Geographic, September 2001 Web Exclusive - http://www.nationalgeographic.com/traveler/0109/istria.html.

Main Menu


This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran and Marilyn Terrell

Created: Friday, September 21, 2001; Last updated: Monday August 19, 2013
Copyright © 1998 IstriaNet.org, USA