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Image: Motovun
Striking examples of Venetian colonial architecture are revealed in Motovun’s intricate system of towers, walls, gates, and piazzas. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi

Day Trips in Istria and Its Surrounding Regions

In TRAVELER magazine’s September issue, veteran travel writer Jan Morris guides you through Istria, Croatia’s, main coastal cities and interior locales, including Draguc, Hum, and Buzet. Here, we offer five other day trips also well worth a visit.

Beyond coastal cities and resorts, the Istrian region offers a surprising variety of treasures. A short ride from Pula takes you to Vodnjan, known for its mummified saints. Offshore is the rugged island of Cres, home to the gargantuan griffon vulture. Between Pula and Opatija lies the hilltop town of Labin where you can amble through a former coal mine or admire exquisite Venetian architecture. While the interior villages of Draguc and Hum have slowly experienced depopulation, once-abandoned Groznjan has been reborn as a thriving arts colony. Even remote Motovun hosts an annual film festival within its medieval walls.

Vodnjan (seven miles or six kilometers north of Pula) Behind the altar of the Baroque 18th-century Church of St. Blaise lie the desiccated remains of six saints. The clothed bodies of St. Leon Bembo, St. Ivan John Olini, and St. Nicoloza Bursa, as well as assorted body parts of three other saints, lie enclosed in glass. For unknown reasons, the bodies and body parts failed to decompose. The skin and nails darkened and dried, making the corpses look curiously wooden. The church reliquary contains 380 relics enclosed in glass, including the undecayed tongue of St. Mary of Egypt. Among the less grisly exhibits, notice the 14th-century polyptych painted by Paolo Veneziano that depicts scenes from the life and death of St. Bembo. Tourist Information: 385 52 511 700. E-mail: tz-vodnjan-dignano@pu.hinet.hr

Groznjan (16 miles or 26 kilometers northeast of Porec on the road to Buje) Perched on a hill high above the Mirna river valley, Groznjan is a 14th-century Venetian fortress reborn as an arts colony. It was nearly deserted when, in 1965, the first painters and sculptors moved into its crumbling stone buildings. A few years later the International Cultural Centre of Jeunesses Musicales Croatia set up a summer training program for musicians in Groznjan and the town’s renaissance began. Classes taught by renowned European and Japanese musicians, such as Roger Bobo, attract young musicians from around the world to study jazz and classical music. Painters, potters, and carvers followed the musicians, installing studios and galleries along the crooked cobblestone lanes. As you gallery-hop, the melodic strains of musicians rehearsing may inspire you to stay for the free open-air concerts given nightly by students from July to early September. Tourist Information: 385 52 776 131. E-mail: tzo@groznjan-grisignana.hr

Cres Island (From Opatija to Brestova it’s a 12-mile or 20-kilometer journey. There you catch a ferry to Porozina on the tip of Cres Island) Rugged Cres Island has been largely undisturbed by tourist crowds, meaning that rich flora and fauna flourish. From Porozina, drive to the Eco-Center, “Caput Insulae,” in Beli, which provides an excellent introduction to the island’s remarkable bird and plant life. The center functions as a reserve for Eurasian griffon vultures, an indigenous bird with a wing span of more than nine feet that nests in the island’s high coastal cliffs. There are usually three or four vultures in residence, which weigh up to 22 pounds. You might see one of the griffons in flight if you follow the eco-trails surrounding the center. An illustrated booklet published and distributed by the center helps you to identify the trees, plants, and bushes on the trails—wild asparagus, black mulberry, and wulfen’s spurge. As you stroll along the paths, a diverse collection of birdlife, such as golden eagles, snake eagles, and honey buzzards, soar above the surrounding woods. Eco-Centre Caput Insulae: 385 51 840 525. E-mail: caput.insulae@ri.tel.hr

Labin (26 miles or 42 kilometers northeast of Pula) A gritty coal-mining industry seems incongruous with Labin’s quaintly restored pastel houses. Yet, mining was pursued with such fervor that the hilltop town began to collapse some 40 years ago. Fully repaired, the town now honors its mining past in the Town Museum, which contains a model of the former working coal mine. In the tunnels, you’ll find coal mining paraphernalia that transports you back to the booming mining era. Spend a few minutes in the claustrophobic tunnels and you’ll find a myriad of reasons not to be a coal miner. The rest of the town is a fascinating locale to explore, displaying a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture in a number of Venetian palaces and churches. Climb up the winding narrow streets to the fortress, Fortica, on top of the town for a panoramic view of rocky Cres Island and the resort of Rabac, (three miles or five kilometers) below. Tourist Information: 385 52 855 560. E-mail: tzg.labin@pu.tel.hr; www.istra.com/rabac/eng/labin.html

Motovun (15 miles or 25 kilometers northeast of Porecv on the road to Buzet) With its elegant system of towers, walls, gates and piazzas, Motovun is a striking example of Venetian colonial architecture. Reminders of the former Adriatic overlords are everywhere—lions stand sentry over the town gates and coats of arms adorn the buildings. Architect Andrea Palladio designed the late-Renaissance town church of St. Stephen. Francesco Bonazzo contributed the marble statues of St. Stephen and St. Laurence, and an unknown 17th-century Venetian produced the painting of the Last Supper behind the altar. Take a walk around the town walls: The sweeping view takes in the vineyards that produce Motovun’s fine Teran and Malvasija wine and the forests that harbor Istria’s prized white and black truffles. If you visit during the last week of July, don’t miss Motovun’s International Film Festival, which presents independent and avant-garde films from the U.S. and Europe. Tourist Information: 385 52 681 735

—Jeanne Oliver

Jeanne Oliver wrote the TravelWise on Istria, Croatia, in TRAVELER magazine’s September issue.