After having spent eight days exploring Istria, the peninsula in the northern part of Croatia that markets itself as “the new Tuscany.” Visually, I’ve decided that many Istrian towns lived up to the description. Hill towns glowed gold in a warm, spring sun, and all the ones we visited were crowned by weathered stone buildings, many dating back to Roman times.
The villa we rented, Captain Morgan’s Villa, sits in a small hilltop town called Mrgani, named after the pirate, Captain Morgan, who allegedly founded Mrgani after giving up his plundering ways. Other than the town name and our villa, there’s nothing very nautical in town, so I’m not sure why Captain Morgan would have settled there (except perhaps to attract tourists like us).
The closest town to Mrgani that you can (sort of easily) find on a map of Istria is the marginally-larger town of Kanfanar, which boasts a post office and a tiny supermarket. Mrgani is a collection of two dozen stone buildings and made for a quiet getaway. Most mornings, Jon and I went running past vineyards and country views to reach Jural, 2 km away. Jural is an even smaller hill town than Mrgani and distinguished only by the number of barking dogs we found there. If you brave all the barking, though, and walk through Jural, you come upon a stunning bird’s eye view of the Lim Fjord.
Also near Mrgani were the ruins of Dvigrad. The name means “two castles” or “two towns,” which is what used to stand there during Roman times in the 700s. Apparently the towns survived into the 1400s, when the Venetians took over Istria, and then soon after that, the residents cleared out or died out because of disease. If this description sounds totally vague, it’s because none of our three guidebooks (Footprint, Rough Guide, Time Out) could tell us much, and Dvigrad isn’t the kind of place that comes with audiotours.
The good part about Dvigrad’s obscurity is that were able to explore the site by climbing around ruins and wandering aimlessly through crumbling towers overgrown with weeds. I felt like I had discovered an archeological treasure. On the other hand, the ruins are haunting and substantial enough that I wished some organization were watching over the ruins and perhaps giving some context about the original use or history of the buildings that used to stand on the site. Maybe in ten years, Dvigrad will be regulated and preserved (though this would probably mean bus tours and souvenir stores would follow).
My favorite hill towns were Motovun and Groznjan.
Motovun is a hill town that’s marketing its truffle-rich forests and picturesque Medieval buildings. When we arrived in Motovun, we parked as close to the top as we could (only residents can drive all the way to the top) and then climbed the cobblestone streets to reach the oldest part of the town. The higher we climbed, the older the buildings were. On the way up, we passed stores selling the same overpriced gourmet goodies: truffles, Croatian wines (more on this in a soon-to-come post), olive oil and grappa.
First we passed through a 15th century gate that introduced views of the surrounding green valleys and rooftops. There was a café just beyond the gate where we took a much-needed Orangina and gelato break at the end of our wanderings in Motovun. Past the 15th century gate, there’s a 13th century gate that admits you to the oldest, original part of Motovun. A stone walkway encircles this collection of 13th century buildings, and as we walked along the path, we drank in views of rolling hills and forests and engaged in high school prom-style photo portraits. Very fun.
After seeing Motovun, I was ready to declare it the prettiest of the hilltop towns, but then we decided to drive another 20 minutes to see Groznjan, which really took the cake for sheer beauty. Groznjan is today an artist colony, which is a result of the Croatian government’s effort to save hill towns from abandonment by offering cheap rents to artists. The town has survived two near-wipeouts – the first one in the 1600s from the bubonic plague, and the second one in the 1960s after Italy gave up Istria and the town was abandoned by Italian residents who moved out of Istria. I think the repopulation of town by artists has paid off, because everything from the flower pots to the building signs is picturesque. The town is small enough so that you could wander every winding street in less than half an hour, but it’s so pretty we spent over an hour ambling around and admiring the views. You can see the Adriatic in the distance as well as dramatic valleys below. Groznjan was hands-down the prettiest town we visited during the week.
Not all the hill towns were worth a visit. For example, we wasted part of one afternoon in Zminj, which Villas Forum (the agency managing the rental of our villa) described as a must-visit because of an “agricultural fair” that takes place there during the second Wednesday of every month. We were expecting the color, bustle and tourist goodies like those you’d find in markets in Provence or Tuscany. Instead, we found only one short street lined with stands selling cheap, unattractive clothing and shoes. Blue overalls or olive-green canvas jackets, anyone? Other than a rotisserie chicken stall at one end of the street and a few grappa sellers, there was no food for sale. It wasn’t much of a market, much less an “agricultural fair.” The rest of the town was not particularly picturesque, either. I’m curious if anyone has had a good experience in Zminj?
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