I have had the good fortune to be able to spend a few days in Istria, the peninsula to our West that I've heard so much about as a beautiful area, full of seaside Italian villages and hilltop, walled, medieval towns. It is a green and inviting place. A nice woman I met through the ethnology society in Zagreb invited me to visit her there. First I took the bus to meet her in Pazin. She works at the museum there, which is in an old castle overlooking a chasm or “pit.” This pit inspired Jules Verne to write one of his books, though he himself never visited there. The mayor only sent him pictures, but there is nonetheless a Jules Verne society in Pazin today. On the other side of the museum/castle from the pit are lovely views of rolling green countryside. There is also an impressive church. I had a good visit at the museum, guided by Olga (my host), who especially works in textile arts, which are among my favorites. So she explained well the process of preparing the thread, the loom, and then weaving. I met the director of the museum as well and had a good talk with her. Then Olga drove me around the region. On the drive we took it became obvious that the Istrian interior is more green and the hills and valleys are more distinct than what I’ve seen elsewhere in Croatia.
We went to Buzin from Pazin, where there is a little chapel with 15th century frescoes still quite well preserved. We got a woman who is the keeper of the keys to open it for us and she explained the images. From Buzin we drove to Motovun, site of an annual film festival much like Sundance. It’s perched on a high hill commanding a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and fields. We walked all around the walls, visited the church and soaked in the atmosphere of the lovely, old (14th century) cobblestone streets. From there we drove to Groznjan, another hilltop, walled, medieval village. In both Motovun and Groznjan most of the residents had left by the mid 20th century. So the government offered properties in both places to artists, who set up studios and eventually have brought the two towns back to life. In general, every town we saw in interior Istria seemed to have many artists, so you often see interesting sculptures and other modern art mixed in with the more ancient stuff. Truly post-modern.
Olga’s friend directs an international program for young musicians that is centered in Groznjan, so we met her there and all had a drink. We then met some other Americans there, one a teacher in the group (Jeunesses Musicales International), and another professor (from California) and his wife, who is Croatian originally. We all had dinner on an outdoor terrace overlooking beautiful views. Late that night Olga and I drove back to Rovinj, the town on the coast where she lives.
Rovinj is often described as the loveliest or most appealing town in Croatia, very like an Italian fishing village. So I was happy to be able to spend the next day wandering around there while Olga went to work in Pazin. One part of Rovinj rises steeply from the seaside path to a peak where you’ll find the big Cathedral of Saint Euphemia. From there a cobblestone street (one of many such) descends to the central square, right on the harbor full of sail boats. Along this street many artists have things for sale, most of it touristy junk like ashtrays made of seashells or mediocre paintings. There were a few good artists, including one well known “naïve” artist. But her work was quite expensive.
It was very pleasant to just wander the streets in Rovinj. Many little alleys, streets, and seaside points offer rewarding views. But it was also very full of tourists. In fact of all the places I went in Istria, this was by far the most crowded with tourists (in spite of contrary information from the guide books that this would be true of Porec). But when I was in Porec it was virtually empty compared to Rovinj. Perhaps as a result, the merchants in Rovinj were quite aggressive, more so than anywhere else I have been in Croatia. So I had people calling to me and then getting mad at me if I just walked by without stopping to look more closely at their wares. I also tried to bargain for a few things, but mostly the merchants were unwilling to lower their price by even a few kunas, unlike most other places in Croatia. Late that afternoon I met Olga and her boss from the museum (whom I’d met the day before) for coffee and then dinner. We ate in a nice little place on an atmospheric side street overlooking the sea. I had gnocchi with truffles, both specialties of the region of Istria.
The next day was a holiday in Istria, so Olga did not have to work and offered to take me to Porec, which is meant to have the most beautiful church around. On the way there we stopped at the ruins of yet another walled city on top of a hill. This one satisfied my appetite for ruins, which I think I explained in a previous post as having to do with an appealing mixture of architecture and nature. In Porec itself the main attraction is the Euphrasian Basilica, a beautiful 6th century church with glittering, golden mosaics reminiscent (to me) of San Marco’s in Rome (though only over the altar here as opposed to the whole church). The guide books say it’s more reminiscent of Ravenna in Italy, though I haven’t been there. There is a whole complex here (not just a church), with baptistery and a courtyard in between, a bishop’s palace (with a garden), and a museum. In various places you can also see mosaics dating back to the fourth century. The whole places is appealing, with many other nice architectural details besides just the mosaics.
We also wandered the streets of Porec, which as I noted, were surprisingly free of tourists (apparently there are quite a few huge tourist hotels nearby Porec). It may have been less crowded that day because (according to one merchant) there had been a shooting in town that morning. In fact we could not get to the ethnography museum because that area was taped off and police were still investigating the scene. We even saw a taped outline of a body on the street there. But what we were able to see of Porec was quite nice, typically blending lovely cobblestone, narrow, winding streets with views of the sea and old architecture. We had a good lunch in Porec, gnocchi again for me, before heading on back to Rovinj for me to catch a bus home.
On the way back from Porec to Rovinj, Olga stopped along the road (full of roadside stands selling wine, truffles, and honey to tourists), to show me a great view of a river valley known as “fjords” because of geographical resemblances. The bus ride from Rovinj to Rijeka seemed long, at three and a half hours, but with many great views, especially as we came to the eastern coast of Istria which melded into that Kvarner bay. Amazingly I met up with another Fulbrighter (Bess from Zagreb) at the bus station in Rovinj--amazing in terms of being a coincidence. She had come to Istria for a few days too with her friend Vera and was taking a bus to Pula (the same bus that then goes on to Rijeka--where I was going). So we rode together for the first few hours.
The next day a friend from home (Doug who has posted many comments here) arrived with his German friend Gunda (with a car). They are here for a week. Since they also were interested in seeing Istria, we went back, this time to Pula, which is especially notable for the giant first century Roman amphitheatre there. To me the most interesting fact about this is it’s a huge amphitheatre that seats 20,000 people, but the town was never bigger than 5,000 people. So it’s a mystery why such a large arena was needed. Today there are classical and pop music concerts held there at nights in the summer. I looked into getting tickets and going to one of these, but it seems like it is not to be.
In Pula there are also Roman walls, arches, mosaics, a temple, and various interesting churches, many of which we visited. This town too is on the sea. We were meant then to visit this woman I’d met in Groznjan since her work coordinates well with Doug’s. But we got lost, so we ended up on the road to Rijeka and never made it to Groznjan that day, unfortunately. But we noticed that a slight detour would take us to a couple of interesting sounding places, so we visited Roc, another hilltop town with walls and apparently an amazing musical tradition (playing accordion like instruments). During their festival apparently all (20-30) residents join in and play. There the tourist agency woman opened a few churches for us and showed up some Glagolitic script in one little church and old frescoes in another. She also recommended this “Glagolitic Road” that winds from Roc to Hum, which we thus drove along. Glagolitic script is a form of Croatian writing from the middle ages that people are very proud of today (though it is no longer used). I think there is an academy in Roc that teaches it and there are many examples of it that exist in the region. So this lovely country road is a monument to that script. Along its seven kilometers a sculptor in the 20th century erected a series of stone monuments all commemorating the script (often these sculptures were stone blocks somehow in the shape of the letter or with some of the letters engraved on them). I found it quite appealing.
At the end of the trail one is rewarded with Hum, which bills itself as the smallest village in the world (8 to 30 inhabitants). It’s another gem of a town on top of a hill. I feel like I’m just using the same superlatives and descriptive words over and over, because all of these places are so nice and interesting. They are also similar to each other and yet quite distinct. Hum is small, and hilly with cobblestone streets, many interesting architectural details (like little stone arches between buildings and over a road), and an interesting old church, and also striking and alluring modern details added by sculptors, like some impressive, new, sculpted brass doors on one very old barn like structure, and a newer wall in the fashion of the older walls overlooking an especially appealing view. This new wall had little niches built into it for flowers and other plants to grow right in the wall. And there were openings as though there were holes in it through which one could see the countryside. There were also many lovely flowers and plants, like a huge and fragrant rose tree in one courtyard. And lovely views of the hilly, green countryside abound.
In addition to all this beauty in terms of nature and architecture, Istria is known for its wine, its pasta, its truffles (though this is not truffle season), and of course its seafood. It’s no wonder that so many tourists flock there.