The car gently rolls along an endless collection of hills, brushing past vineyards, olive farms, and dainty, terra cotta roof tiled homes; it’s lunch time and most are gathered around wooden tables under a canopy of greenery. The bottles of olive oil glisten under the sun and my parched throat can almost taste the home made wines. It’s not easy keeping our focus on the road but with some effort, we chug along.
This is Croatia’s Istrian coast. This is where the Italians retire to when the tourists flood Tuscany.
Istria has strong historic ties with Italy and the Italian influences are visible everywhere – from the singsong dialect of Croatian spoken here to the many historical landmarks that are scattered across the peninsula. My husband and I are on a five day trip across the region. We’ve narrowed down our itinerary to five stops, all of which allow us a slice of Istrian culture and more than a fair share of wine.
First Stop: Pula
We anchor at Pula, the largest town in Istria, and its administrative capital; a title it has enjoyed since the beginning of Roman rule. Despite this being peak tourist season, we have no trouble finding an apartment close to the city’s ancient core.
The sun is bouncing off the white stone that makes up the Old Town. Beads of perspiration materialize within seconds, but I brush them away without a second thought; the heat is no competition for history in Pula. This pedestrian only quarter is flanked by reminders of early Roman presence – there are ruins, monuments and Roman temples all around, and at the end of this elaborate history lesson, stands the most significant of Pula’s monuments – the amphitheatre. Like its older cousin in Rome, the Arena, as it is locally known, is complete with underground lairs where animals were held before the gladiator events, morose corridors, a multi-level seating area, and a museum displaying artefacts excavated from the region. They say the Italians wanted to dismantle the Arena and ship it back to Italy. It never happened.
The Piercing Blue at Rovinj
By the time we get to Rovinj, it has already succumbed to a tourist stampede. Throwing caution to the winds, we attach ourselves to the moving mass clogging the town’s narrow cobbled streets. Rovinj is one of Istria’s little beauties. Once she entranced the Venetians, now she lures the world. The hours simply vanish along its meandering alleyways, art studios and souvenir shops. From the tiny gaps between homes, the sharp blue of the sea pierces through, and at regular intervals, a series of stairways leading to the water materializes. Resisting the call of waves, we choose to head up to Rovinj’s crowning glory, the Church of Saint Euphemia. A customary 10 Kuna fee, and some 200 odd wooden stairs later, we stand over Rovinj, in her Bell Tower. I am out of breath, but I’m not sure if it’s the stairs or the view.
We’ve been told Hum is the world’s smallest town. The folks at Guinness World Records say so, and that’s enough for the town to draw in the tourist. We’re no different. This walled town, a country village for all purposes, comes with an 11th century iron gate, two streets, two churches, one museum and 23 residents. Ironically, Hum’s cemetery has far more residents than the town itself. On this day, a wedding is taking place in one of the local churches and the whole town is away. It gives Hum an eerie deserted movie set atmosphere; the towns material processions look like well placed props. We cover the sights in about ten minutes! And just for kicks, we go around town once again.
A Slice of Motovun
The first glimpse of Motovun reminds me of a multi-layered cake. It sits on a hilltop and offers one of Istria’s most dramatic experiences. It’s the end of July, and the usually quiet town is preparing for its annual International film festival. Between the newly installed film posters and giant speaker systems, we take in all the medieval landmarks, including the main square, which in a few days will transform into the main screening centre. The ancient wall that runs around Motovun is tacked with a walking trail. It allows us to take in the falling views of a ripe green Mirna Valley; this is where all the wines and truffles, so abundant in Motovun’s kitchens, come from. As a soft breeze sets in, we find a spot at a small cafe set up against the wall. On one side we have views of the valley and the forest, on the other is a tiny town hurrying about.
Among the Artists of Groznjan
Where spring flowers bloom elsewhere, the air in Groznjan is spiked with turpentine, a respectable aroma, I guess, for an artists’ colony. They say a dragon sleeps under this hill and it is his energy that inspires the art that is created here, in the small alleys, dotted with lopsided galleries, studios and workshops. Outside the paint is chipped and the signs are faded, inside, the artwork is priceless. Courtyards are littered with busts and paintings, some are a work in progress, and others sport price tags and red ‘sold’ stickers. A summer melody seeps in from somewhere in the background. The music school must be in session, preparing for a concert later in the day. The sun dips slowly in this world of art, but the art never sleeps. As we settle down for a quiet dinner, a Jazz troupe sets up at the town square. We sip on local red wine as the impossible notes of the saxophone touch the purple sky.
A version of this appeared in the HT Cafe on 12/09/09