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Travel and Field Guides
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In Istria

[Source: Horatio F. Brown, In and Around Venice, with illustrations. Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, 1905), "In Istria", p. 264-283. H.F. Brown is also the author of Venice: An Historical Sketch of the Republic and Life on the Lagoons, 1884, which also includes this chapter.]


On a clear day in March the faint blue outline of the Istrian coast, rather suggested than discerned from the campanile of Saint Mark, looked tempting enough to waken the spirit of spring wandering. Venice has always been intimately connected with the Istrian peninsula; it was one of her earliest conquests. And though the custom-house now excludes the famous Istrian wine, Venice owes no small debt to Istria for the famous stone her artists used so well. The question was how to get there. The Austrian-Lloyd steamer, that lay off the point of the Dogana, did not look tempting; and besides, that would take one to Trieste and not to the Istrian coast proper. A sailing-boat was clearly the right carriage. While revolving this point, an old friend of my friend Antonio, Paron Piero, the captain of the Beppi, offered us a berth or, rather, half a berth apiece on board his boat, that trades between Venice and the Istrian coast. We were to sail that same night at two o'clock with the ebbing tide.

Paron Piero was as tough and hearty an old salt as [265] you could meet with on the coast of Argyle. A Pelestrinotto by birth; for hardly a single Venetian is engaged in this coasting trade, and the masters and crews all hail from Burano, Pelestrina, or Chioggia. Piero had served under Austria, and loved the name of emperor; he insisted on announcing the birthday of the King of Italy, which we kept at sea, as " la nascita del nostro Imperador." He had fought, been wounded, smuggled, and finally settled down to this trade of carrying wood. A man with a quick temper, a warm heart, and a flow of things to say that left him often high and dry for words, so that most of his sentences ended in "diavolo," a compendious symbol for whatever might be wanting. The Beppi had cost him twenty-five thousand lire, and he had owned her fifteen years, though she confessed to a greater age with a tell-tale "1849," half worn out, upon her bows. The Beppi was a boat of that build which, in these waters, is called a trabaccolo very similar to a Dutch galliot, with round, blunt bows, round ribs, and a flat bottom. She was about forty tons burthen; and carried two square sails on her main and mizzen, and a jib. Her bulging prow had the two inevitable eyes cut and painted on either side of her nose; for in Venice, as in China, they ask you, how can a vessel see where she is going if she has no eyes? Inside, the Beppi contained a large hold in the centre for her cargo of firewood, and there an occasional cask of wine might be hidden from custom-house inquisitiveness. [266] In the bows was a cabin for the crew; and in the stern another for the paron and his son, which we were to share. The cabin of the Beppi was at most six feet square and five feet high. All round it was panelled in walnut-wood, roughly carved into arches and pilasters. At one side, close to the ladder of the hatchway, hung hams and smoked quarters of mutton, called castradina, and dried fish. Under these, three tubs, the one containing yellow maize-flour for polenta, another "paste," and the third peas and dried beans for soup. This, with a string of biscuits, formed the provision for the voyage. Next the hams came an array of hats and coats of all ages, to suit all weathers; then a little table and a stool; over the table the "Madonna della Seggiola." The opposite wall was entirely occupied by a large recess; in the middle of this hung an engraving of a very Correggiesque Madonna, the patroness of the boat, surrounded with a wreath of olive branches, maize, and oranges. Before the picture a lamp in a glass globe was kept constantly burning. The rest of this recess served as a store for ship's lamps, oil cans, one bottle of rum, and a small keg of wine. The two remaining sides of the cabin held two bunks, broad enough for two people to lie heads and tails. It did not take long to make one fond of the little cabin, in spite of its strange variety of smells.

The weather was fine when we went on board about ten o'clock, hoping to get some sleep before [267] starting.  But March is the very month for the stormy lord of Hadria to play some trick; and we felt, as an old Italian poet had sung, that "di doman' non c' certezza."


Next morning the rain was dripping steadily on the deck. "That son of a dog, the scirocco," as the paron called it, had played us the trick we dreaded, and the weather was fairly broken. The regular patter of the reefs against the sails showed that the Beppi was anchored off Fort Alberoni, just at the mouth of the Malamocco port, only nine miles from Venice; that was all the way we had made. And it seemed probable that we should have to remain where we were throughout the day, for the Adriatic was thundering on the sea walls that keep the lagoon and Venice itself from being swept away. From the deck nothing could be seen, nothing but dense banks of sea fog, through which the roar of the sea sounded strange and unreal, for inside the shelter of the walls all the lagoon was grey and still. After breakfast was despatched, there was nothing to be done but to set about cooking the dinner. Our kitchen was a portable stove lashed to the bulwarks; with two holes for the fire and places for two pots. The paron was proud of his iron kitchen; hitherto he had carried a wooden one only; and it was always taking fire. Fourteen times had it set his cargo of wood in [268] a blaze; "but," he added contentedly, "I never lost it all."

"Polenta, castradina," said Antonio, announcing our bill of fare; and he was to cook it, for among his other accomplishments he numbered a skilled hand at polenta. The castradina (smoked mutton ham) was brought up and chopped into huge hunks; these were set to boil for two hours in the larger pot, to flavour the water. Then they were taken out and set aside to keep warm, while the yellow maize-flour aild the salt were poured, slowly by handfuls, into the boiling water, and stirred round and round, as we make porridge. When the polenta had reached the proper consistency, the whole yellow mass was turned out on to a slab of wood, and the paron came with a piece of string and sliced it into the proper portions. Then the crew were summoned to dinner, from their cabin in the bows, to the cry of "Polenta! polenta! figlioli; polenta! cari tosi." And up scrambled the "dear boys" through their hatchway and settled around the polenta board four wrinkled, weather-stained old men, all of them natives of Pelestrina. They had spent their whole lives in making voyages up and down the Adriatic, and knew every corner of the intricate Dalmatian coast. One of them, the oldest, Doro by name, was a character, and a constant source of amusement to the others. His face was like nothing human, so full was it of wrinkles; arid an irresistibly humorous twinkle lurked in the [269] corners of his old eyes. He was seventy years of age, and had married three wives, a Chiozzotta, a Pelestrinotta, and a Veneziana; he was meditating a fourth, a Buranella, but had been advised that she was likely to make an end of him. And in this advice the others agreed at large. Doro possessed a wonderful repertory of adjurations; but his favourite was certainly "corpo di Diana di Dio." The crew were a little curious as to the presence of a stranger; after some discussion, however, he was summed up and settled to everybody's satisfaction, as "uno di quei che vanno contemplando il mondo" ("one of those who go about contemplating the world").

These Pelestrinotti are passionately fond of their home; and the mere sight of it, when they cannot reach it, is enough to send them into a frenzy. Yet here lay the Beppi, idle and in sight of Pelestrina. "A c, a c!" ("Home, home!") they kept on grumbling and muttering between their mouthfuls of polenta. And Paron Piero saw that he would have to let them go. Yet when they do get home they have no occupation. They lie in Homeric idleness before the fire, drinking coffee and smoking, while each one rambles along upon the lines of his own endless yarn, to which none of the others pays the smallest heed. " A c, a c!" they all shouted when dinner was done; and home they went, and left us to look after the Beppi by ourselves. On board, the afternoon [270] went lazily by. Antonio squatted in frdnt of the fire that was cooking our supper, blew at it through a long cane pipe, like an Indian charming snakes. Then towards evening the wind changed. The scirocco still thundered on the outside walls. The Breeze freshened; the mists lifted and drove away from the sunset, leaving the Euganean Hills purple and distinct across the green expanses of the windy lagoon. To seaward the heavy clouds lay piled, and warmed to rose in the sunset; while, far away, Venice sprang up clear and coldly grey upon the water.

Our sailors came on board again at midnight, and by dawn we were under way. The great blunt prows of the Beppi began to surge through the swell. Though the wind was fair there was still a considerable sea; and the fog had settled down over everything once more; so that two minutes after passing the end of the mole there was nothing to be seen, from the moist decks of the trabaccolo^ but a hand's^breadth of cold grey rolling sea. A feeling of desolation began to lay its hand on one; a sense of having bidden adieu to everything. And now, out of the grey cloud in front of us came the first note of a fog-horn; melancholy and weird it sounded, and seemed to pervade the mist, nor was the ear sure of the quarter whence it came. Then another; and this time clearly on our weather bow. We answer from an old tin trumpet There is a pause. Then suddenly, and with awful rapidity, a huge black mass looms out of the mist and [271] seems to tower towards us, the prow of a steamer lost in the fog and seeking the port. There is an instant of confusion and contradictory shouts, and, above all, the paron's louder and authoritative voice; then the huge mass fades silently away, blotted out as rapidly as it emerged, and the mournful note of its steam siren dies slowly down the wind. A faint gleam of watery sunshine glitters for an instant on the oily rollers; then the gloom and the mist settle over us once more. Even the breeze fails, and the Beppi begins to sway uneasily from side to side. We commend ourselves to the powers of patience, while the sailors begin a long expostulation with the wind.

"Supia, boja!" ("Blow, you hangman") says one, addressing the fog, throwing his words languidly overboard. "Fiol d'un can!" cries another. "X porca x sta bava" ("It's a pig is this breeze"), cries the steersman, with a curious air of conviction; and all the others answer in ghostly chorus from the bows, "S, x porca." This commination service being ended, with no good results, one old sailor suggests that they have been on the wrong tack; and naturally the wind does not like being sworn at. So he begins, "Ah! he is a noble is the maestro" (the wind they wanted); "he is a count and very noble indeed, if it would only please him to come; and he will come if you give him time." And when once started blessings flow as readily as curses. "Dai, dai cara bava, cara, cara" ("Blow, blow, dear breeze, you dear, [272] you dear"). But as little came of the one as of the other. The winds were deaf, and all day long there was nothing to be heard or seen but the roll and swell of the scirocco, the desolate chorus of the sailors, and the ceaseless patter of the reefs upon the empty sails.


Midnight brought a breeze, and by sunrise the Istrian coast was in sight. The fog had cleared away; the Beppi ploughed a noble furrow in the sea, dipping almost to the eyes in the sapphire flood. To the north the Alps were clear, from Antelao past Monte Cavallo to the peaks of Carniola beyond Trieste; rosy snow against a pale blue sky; a splendid close to the great water avenue of the Adriatic. In front lay the Istrian shore; cloven by the small gulf of Quieto, whither we were making. The whole coast was visible, from the point of Salvore, with its lighthouse column, to Rovigno; line upon line of hills, each rising a little higher till they climbed to the crest of Monte Maggiore in the far background above Fiume. The scene recalled the coast of Greece. There was the same beauty of long-drawn lines and delicate declensions, unobtrusive in curve, yet delicious to the eye that follows them. The prevailing tones along the coast were the grey-green of the olive groves; the colder grey of the limestone rock; russet of the oak brakes that had not shed their last year's leaves; and every [273] now and then a flood of clearer colour from a cluster of fruit trees that were coming into bloom. As the Beppi drew nearer, the little villages that cap each height grew more and more distinct, began to take shape, and their campanili shot up from their midst. Highest and clearest of all stood Buje; called "the spy of Istria," for it overlooks the whole land.

At Quieto the Beppi was to lie four days, to ship her cargo of faggots; and this was the time at our disposal for seeing the Istrian coast. So, after packing a knapsack and to a chorus of "Buon divertimentos" from the crew, we set out to "contemplate the world." Parenzo is the nearest town to Quieto. And the walk there was most delicious in the spring. The way lies over rolling downs covered with brushwood almost as thick and as odoriferous as the Corsican macquis. A guide is absolutely necessary to avoid being lost in the bush. The whole of this limestone country was breathing after a bounteous rain. The flowers seemed to burst their buds as we looked at them violet, crocus, hellebore, aromatic shrubs, and fruit-tree blossom, all the chorus of a southern spring. The air was laden with intoxicating perfume: the lizards rustled through the undergrowth. The olive trees, hoary and arrowy as always, waved and shimmered across a glittering sea. The climate of Istria is much warmer than that of the corresponding shores of Italy: and Cassiodorus made no mistake when he praised its voluptuous and delicious airs, and compared it to [274] Baiae with no Avernus near at hand. The laughing sea, the olives, the lentisk, and the limestone down, recalled the setting of some Theocritean idyll. And most fittingly, the ancient ensign of Istria is the goat.

The country is Greek in character, but the towns remember another and more recent master. At the entrance to Parenzo, St. Mark's Lion meets you face to face; grimly regardant from a round Venetian tower. And the narrow streets of the town are full of Venetian balconies and windows. The splendid basilica of Bishop Eufrasius is a monument of an earlier period still, the time of the Byzantine dominion; while the ruins of the great temple to Neptune and Mars remind us that Parenzo was at one time the Roman "Municipium" Parentium, chief city in the colony Julia. This temple as it once stood, in all the perfection of its columned portico, crowning the promontory that overhangs the northern of the two bays on which the city is built, must have made a noble landmark for sailors out at sea. Nothing remains of the temple now but the stylobate and a ruined capital or two.

The buildings of Parenzo recall the history of the city step by step. And the history of Parenzo is that of most of the Istrian coast towns. They were Roman colonies first; then governed by the Emperors of the East. After the disturbances wrought by the Franks, Istria passed under the authority of elective governors, who soon made [275] themselves hereditary marquises. From the marquises it came to the hands of the Patriarch of Aquileia, and finally fell to the possession of Venice.


Pola, at the extreme end of the peninsula, has always been the chief town of Istria. Its position confers this pre-eminence; it lies in the recess of a deep gulf, a land-locked sea, secure from storms; while behind, the country is barren and broken into gorges with abrupt sides, cloven through the limestone rock. Tradition says that in this bay the people of the Colchian king found a resting-place after their wanderings, when the pursuit of Jason and his stolen fleece had grown a hopeless quest. But the real history of Pola begins when it became a Roman colony in B.C. 181; and its connection with Rome is the feature most clearly stamped upon the town even to this day, in spite of Austrian barracks and arsenal and "Franz Josef" in gold letters everywhere. Augustus dismantled the town as its punishment for taking the republican side in the wars that followed on the death of Julius Caesar. But he rebuilt it again under the name of Pietas Julia; and dedicated the exquisite little temple to Rome and to Augustus, which still stands perfect upon the piazza.

The most curious fact in Polan history is that this place witnessed the close of so many tragedies. Here [276] Constantine the Great ordered the execution of his own son Crispus, that "chaste, too chaste Bellerophon" of Roman story, on the false accusation of the Empress Fausta. And here, too, Gallus, the brother of Julian, died at the bidding of Constantius. Under Justinian, Pola was the capital of Istria and the seat of the governor, the master of the soldiery; and Belisarius used its harbour as a roadstead for his fleet Later still, in A.D. 932, when Istria made a temporary submission to Venice, the Bishop of Pola signed the treaty after the Marquis of Istria, proving that Pola still ranked highest among Istrian sees. This early treaty was a warning of the fate which lay in store for Pola. Her great rival on the other side of the Adriatic awakened her jealousy; and in the wars between Genoa and Venice, Pola sided with the Genoese. This brought upon her the vengeance of the Venetians, and she passed into their power in 1331.

Few approaches are finer than the sea approach to Pola. The mouth of the bay is hidden by a promontory, crowned, as are all the neighbouring heights, by Austrian forts; and it is only as the vessel rounds the point that the bay opens up, with Pola lying at its further end. The attention is instantly caught by the great amphitheatre which stands at one side of the town; its arches, tier upon tier, spring up in perfect symmetry from the level of the shore.

No monument of ancient Rome, not the aqueducts [277] of the Campagna, nor the baths of Caracalla, conveys a more impressive sense of the solid splendour of Roman architecture than does this arena at Pola; beside it the amphitheatre of Verona seems a dwarf, while the Colosseum is broken and ruined; but here the whole outer circle is complete; and the Istrian stone looks as clean as the day it was cut. Inside, it is true, the galleries have disappeared. But one does not feel their absence on first seeing the arena from the water. With the evening sunlight glowing over the creamy whiteness of the stone, the whole pile looked like the work of some magician, not fashioned by the hand of man; and it is easy to sympathise with the pride which the people of Pola feel in their treasure, and with their legend that it was built by the fairies in a single night. The Venetians at one time proposed to remove the amphitheatre bodily to the Lido at Venice. But the undertaking proved too costly, and both Pola and the Lido were spared the misfortune.

Pola is rich in Roman remains. But after the Temple of Augustus and the arena, only one other is especially worthy of being named. That is the little arch, miscalled the Porta Aurata. It was raised by the great Polan family of the Sergii in A.D. 99, and is an exquisite piece of Roman work, with delicate traceries finely cut and keen, thanks to the qualities of the Istrian stone. Indeed, at Pola the traveller finds the two things in which the country excels [278] the creamy Istrian stone and the ruby Istrian wine, Francesco Redi sent his Bacchus wandering through Tuscany. But had he been a Venetian and not a Tuscan, he might have changed the scene to the Istrian coast; and there, rioting along the olive-shaded shores of some Istrian bay, the god of wine might well have found another Ariadne to translate to heaven.

After dinner and a due tribute to the Istrian wine, it is pleasant to stroll along the quay and look down the long and winding estuary, ruffled into tiny waves by the land breeze. The Austrian navy lies drawn up in one long line of ships, their sterns close against the quay. There were troopships coming and going; and the song of the soldiers, borne over the water, sent us to sleep that night.


In Istria nothing is worse than the railway, the solitary railway which it possesses. It was built for the convenience of the arsenal at Pola; and some doubt hangs over the hour at which a train will start, while no one knows at what hour it may arrive. One fact alone is certain, that the journey from Pola to Trieste by rail will not take less than thirteen hours. The traveller will probably choose to give up the railway for the little steamer which performs the journey to Trieste in eight hours. And the coast [279] is so interesting that he will not regret his choice. Each of the little Istrian towns has a character of its own; and a history, if one cares to study it. But one feature they all have in common: they are built upon promontories, boldly looking out to sea; their campanili serve as landmarks for miles around.

Immediately after leaving the harbour of Pola the steamer passes the Brionian Islands, where Genoa defeated Venice at the opening of the war of Chioggia.

Then on to Rovigno, a flourishing and active little place, with a tobacco factory and a good trade in wine. It sends both cigars and wine to Manchester, where they find a ready market; but, we may be sure, under other names than that of Rovigno. After Rovigno comes the little hill city of Orsera with its square castle, once the palace of the Bishop of Parenzo in the days when he rivalled his brother of Pola in power. Then Citt Nova stands out on its headland, a picturesque town with its old Venetian battlements and ivy-draped walls. The women of Citt Nova wear a striking costume; quantities of pure white linen are wrapped about the bust and throat, and the same is thrown over the head; but there it is starched and stands out stiff like an exaggerated Normandy cap. For the antiquarian there are the Roman inscriptions built into the walls of the Basilica of Citt Nova, and for the architect there is the basilica itself.

[280] After Citt Nova the coast is flatter; and there are only two small villages, Daila and Umago, to be seen. But in the spring the monotony of line and of colour is relieved by perfect fountains of living pink and white, thrown up by the orchard trees. When once the headland of Salvore and the waters where Venice achieved one of her most memorable victories by defeating Otho, son of Frederick Barbarossa, have been reached, the prow turns towards Trieste, and the character of the coast changes. The bays become deeper and wider; the shores more precipitous; the hills behind rise higher and more abruptly. There is Pirano, with its ancient walls, perched high above the sea upon a tongue of land so thin that it must some day be eaten away by the waves that wash it on either side. Then comes Capo d'Istria, once Justinopolis, the see of Peter Paul Vergerius, the Italian martyr for Protestantism; and also the earliest home of the great Venetian family of Giustiniani. Then Trieste itself; its houses climbing high up the steep hillside. And further to the left the white and solitary castle of Miramar; a paradise of gardens, but saddened always by the memory of its unhappy owner, Maximilian of Mexico. Further away still, and high over all, the towering pinnacles of the Dolomitic Alps. [281]


Our leave of absence was up, and we had to seek our paron once more in the harbour of Quieto. The Beppi lay deep in the water, with as much of her cargo above decks as below. The bundles of wood were all stowed with wonderful neatness, and reached a quarter of the way up the masts. They were planked over the top, forming what is called a camito, a sort of raised deck on which one could walk, and from which the business of the ship was conducted. With such a camito as we had on board fifty thousand faggots of oak a reef had to be taken in either sail. The breeze would not serve till evening, and there was nothing to be done but to turn into the little wine-shop overlooking the harbour and to drink through a series of parting glasses. The room was full of men who had been working at the loading of the Beppi; for this traffic in wood is the principal occupation of the natives of Quieto wild and handsome-looking fellows playing and quarrelling over "Mora."

The ethnography of the Istrians is so mixed and obscure, so many strains have had a share in making them, that it would be rash to say to what race these men belonged. They spoke Italian, for the most part, reverting to Sclavonic only when they took to their ferocious-looking knives, which each one carried in his belt "Brutta gente, popolo selvatico," [282] Paron Piero called them. But whether savage in nature or no, they certainly possessed the savages' picturesqueness of gesture and speech. "Long life to you; and I hope to see you again; but that may hardly be," said one, raising a glass of wine. "And why not?" "No, no! the mountains stay, but man must pass," he answered, with an indescribable movement that embraced the distant hills and the parting strangers.

But we were not to get off without doing justice to the rival inn and to each variety of wine which the place possessed. This little wine-shop stood something very like a sack at the hands of its guests; and how the padrone kept an account is a miracle. Eggs were seized and set to roast in their shells among the logs upon the square and open hearth-stone; a barrel of sardines was forced and half emptied in a trice; everything that came to hand was devoured. Then came the bill and, at last, "Addio."

We walked along the shore while the Beppi was towed silently and slowly out to sea. By the waterside some women were working late, binding faggots with withs of green ginestra: the clever ones can finish as many as a thousand in a day. At the furthest point of the shore we had to wait for the Beppi. Out to sea the wide surface was all pure and liquid grey, while the moonlight made a broad and silvery path that seemed to lead to Venice, on the other shore. The Beppi stole stealthily nearer and nearer; her sails [283] and masts loomed black and large as she came abreast of us; the paron's voice hailed us from the bows and a boat was sent to take us on board. Late into the balmy night we stood upon the poop, looking back to the Istrian shore, while the coast-line faded slowly away into the darkness.

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