In the land of Istria: a broad peninsula jutting from Croatia’s northern coastline, one can wander through seaside fishing villages, clamber up to hilltop citadels, and rediscover leftovers from the might of the Roman Empire. Among the many medieval and Roman fortified towns dotting Istria there are four that stand out as wonders of Croatia: Porec, Rovinj, Pula, and Motovun. Though we had been lucky enough to explore most of Croatia’s southern coastline, the Istrian Peninsula promised unforgettable treasures that we couldn’t pass up when the opportunity came ringing.
Our opportunity was with Ashleigh’s family on their Italian/Croatian road trip (with a side of Slovenia). After renting one of the largest family vans I’ve ever seen and visiting some of the marvels Italy has to offer, we dove back into Croatia for a magical tour of Istria. Our base of operations was an apartment in Porec, only a step away from the cobblestone streets and creaking harbour of the old town.
While it doesn’t take long to leisurely stroll from one end of Porec to the other, every twisted alleyway and mysterious stairway you pass is too tempting to ignore and will take time to explore. When I come to a new place I am compelled to explore everything, which can get pretty annoying to everybody else especially when I say, “Ooh look, another church!” With the immeasurable amount of churches in medieval Europe, it is absolutely necessary to skip over one or two, but Porec’s Euphrasian Basilica is one you would not want to miss.
Built on the site of a 4th century Roman basilica, the Euphrasian Basilica contains many levels of archaeological history. Layers of the past have been stripped away revealing Roman mosaics hiding underneath the 6th century Byzantium structure and medieval renovations. Bishop Euphrasian built this marvellous church in 553 using pieces of the original Roman structure and had many majestic wall mosaics created out of gold tiles. The most beautiful mosaic, on the central apse of the main chapel, is 1400 years old and in excellent condition. Each individual golden square of tile was angled differently so the whole masterpiece would reflect sunlight in various directions, producing a divine atmosphere around Mary and Jesus. Take lots of time to wander around the basilica as well as climb the bell tower for views of the town; the UNESCO claimed Euphrasian Basilica is an archaeological treasure trove that would peak anyone’s interest.
Our next visit on the road through Istria was Rovinj, an authentic, Mediterranean fishing harbour contained within a small peninsula. Fishing boats still cast their nets all along the port and around the green islands just off Rovinj’s shore. Leaving the crowded fishing port behind we immediately got lost in a maze of terracotta topped houses and thin alleyways. The world is catching wind of Rovinj as a tourist attraction and the locals have tried to dress it up as quaint as possible, repainting their homes in pastel colours and opening souvenir shops and hotels. Rovinj was really one of those towns where you can enjoy yourself immensely simply by walking about on a nice day, enjoying a coffee in the main square or going for a swim off the terraces along the water. If you have money to spend, during the day there are plenty of shops and art galleries happy to show you their wares, while bars and restaurants are open and ready to celebrate the night with you.
Once a great Roman city and centre of Istria, Pula holds a magnificent array of Roman wonders leftover from a golden age, including a giant amphitheatre to rival the Colosseum of Rome. I was excited to visit Pula (as I had not yet seen Rome) and was eager to run ahead to see its surviving, romantic structures while the family piled out of the van for our third stop in Istria.
Pula’s Ampitheatre was hard to miss and the first thing we saw. Built in the 1st century it is one of the 6 largest Roman arenas left in the world and is very well preserved. The Arena once had 15 gates, underground passageways from which they could release wild animals, giant sails to provide cover over the spectators, and gladiators locked in bloody, mortal combat (I just love saying that). After the gladiator fights were outlawed in the 5th century, the amphitheatre fell into shambles until 1932 when it was renovated for military parades, public meetings, and theatre productions. These days, during the summer, all kinds of festivals take place inside the arena which can seat up to 5000 spectators.
Amongst the many other Roman structures that have been amalgamated into the city, the Golden Gate and the Temple of Augustus stand out in their beauty and completeness. Upon entering the old town you will first pass under the Golden Gate, the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi, a Corinthian-style masterpiece. This 2000 year old Roman wonder still stands in excellent condition and is richly decorated with carvings of plant life, garlands and winged victories.
The Temple of Augustus in the main square of Pula has stood against the test of time and remained intact… until 1944 when an Allied air raid bombed it to smithereens. Fortunately the people of Pula were able to reconstruct it (thanks to their amazing jigsaw-puzzle abilities) and the temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Rome and her son, Augustus, stands as it did in its past glory.
Far away, in the heart of Istria, rests a not-so-magical village on top of a mountain. The villagers named it Motovun, meaning “mountain”, because their imaginations cannot be stretched by any length. Protected by the natural, defensible position and Venetian fortifications, the villagers lived in peace, tending to their vineyards, their Rakia distilleries, and all the hapless drunk people afterwards. Little did the peaceful residents of Motovun know, however, was that nothing worth mentioning would ever happen to them.
After being dumped out of the van onto the dusty road while the family drove off to do some nearby truffle-hunting, I was left alone for the day. Before me, like the proverbial mountain quest, arose Motovun, the hilltop citadel. Hefting my bag of provisions upon my shoulders I set off on my own Motovun Mountain Adventure (which is not at all that interesting).
After a weary minute I reached the base of Motovun mountain. I shrugged off gleaming, white shirts trying to get me to pay for parking at the top, “Cuz I ain’t got no wheels,” and proceeded to climb the ancient, stone steps worn smooth by centuries of pilgrim pedestrians. There is a road to drive up to the top of Motovun if you want to save your energy, but I actually found the ascent to be my favourite part of the whole experience. Steadily up the moss covered steps I clambered, winding slowly up the mountain between the medieval, stone houses of the village. Every once in a while I’d explore a side alleyway, peak into the windows of an old church, or take a look behind me at gorgeous views of the Mirna Valley.
After passing through several tunnels and archways, I finally arrived at the main gatehouse of Motovun’s fortress, adorned with royal crests and the Venetian winged lion. I wish I could say the winged lion sprang to life and asked me a riddle, but that shockingly didn’t happen. The old town within the fort is small, with a church and a few cafes, but the walk around the outer wall is spectacular and worth the climb. Motovun’s defences gives you wonderful, 360 degree view of the Mirna valley and forest for miles around (or of approaching armies, if you prefer).
With Motovun being the last stop in our Istria tour and my quest completed, I relaxed at a cafe, enjoying the sun, wind, and scenery from my lofty seat while I waited for Ashleigh’s family to come back from their truffle-hunting expedition. In reflection, the seaside towns of Porec and Rovinj, the Roman capital of Pula, and the mountain-top village of Motovun were all fun and fascinating stops in their own way. The land of Istria is packed full of archaeological treasures, cultural rarities, and gorgeous landscapes that can’t help but inspire you!