Istria is its own little world…a part of Croatia but unique.
It is a land that combines the best of two worlds…life on the waters of the Adriatic and the inland hill top towns known for their food and wine.
Join us as we explore the hill top towns of Istria.
History of the hill top towns
During my research for this trip, I read that there were 136 fortified towns in Istria. Many are built on prehistoric hill fort settlements which were thought to have been inhabited by the Celtics. Around the 2nd century BC, the hill top towns were important Roman settlements. During the course of their history they were ruled by the Venetians, the Austrians, Napoleon and the Austrians again. After World War 1, Istria was part of Italy but this changed after World War 2 when it became part of Yugoslavia, now Croatia.
Whilst many were abandoned, others have retained their historic walls, churches and buildings. Many are now centres for wine, truffles and oil and have become important tourist towns.
We spent a couple of days exploring just a few of these hill top towns but you could also visit one or two as a day trip from Rovinj, Porec or Novigrad…..
This was probably my favourite hilltop town. It retains the charm of its 12th century origins with beautiful old stone buildings and alleyways that lead you from one pretty corner to the other. It has become well known as an artist town with many of the buildings now converted to art galleries.
As you walk into the town you will see trees with table and chairs set up under it. This is where you’ll find the Kaya Energy Bar, a cute little cafe where you can enjoy fabulous fresh juices and home made cakes.
North of the town of Buje is Momjan a small hilltop town that is the centre of Istria’s wine area. The small roads around here are take you on a pretty drive through the vineyards of many of the Istria’s leading winemakers.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the town as we were headed to one of Istria’s well known restaurants, Stari Podrum which was neaby.
There is no menu….rather a set menu based on the best seasonal produce. It was truffle season so each course was garnished with slices of this fabulous tuber. Truffle cheese, their famous garlic soup, fuzi with truffles and a beef dish with truffles. Home made apple strudel finished a relaxing, enjoyable lunch.
Whilst you’re here, turn left and pop down the road to the Koslovic Winery….
Set high on a hill amongst the vineyards, the modern design of the winery was a surprise.
We also popped into Kobola Winery to taste their award winning wines. As well as wine, Kobola produces an excellent olive oil.
It would be very tempting to base yourself in the area and spend a day or two wine tasting but night was coming and it was time to head to Motovun and find a room.
Motovun is one of the best preserved hill top towns and probably the most famous. It’s a town that invites you to wander around the cobblestoned streets, walk along the medieval walls, stop and try the local truffles, wine and olive oil or just sit and take in the fabulous views. An international film festival is held here every July
Enter through the New Gates Tower…a structure that originally dated back to the 11th century but was restored in 1495 and 1607. Coats of arms including the Venetian Lion of St Mark decorate the walls.
Restaurants and bars spill out onto the cobblestones of this area. Just behind these is the 17th century loggia from you will be able to see the view over the countryside. Opposite here, another set of gates, the castle gates leads you to the square on the upper level and the Hotel Kastel. From here you can walk around the magnificent walls of this 12th century town.
We stayed at Villa Borgo, a small B&B with a stunning terrace that overlooks the valley below. If you’re looking for rooms, also try Hotel Kastel, once the 16th century Polesini Palace.
Eat at Konoba Mondo just outside the walls.
Our plan was to continue along the main road to the towns of Buzet, Roc and Hum but at the last minute we decided to detour and cross the river, passing Livade, a town we had visited the previous year whilst staying in Slovenia. Livade is known for its truffles and is the headquarters of Zigante, a famous truffle producer in this area. Zigante Restaurant is well known for its truffle dinners but we were disappointed with our meal. They also have rooms where you can stay the night. There is a Zigante shop in the town but they also have shops in many of the larger towns, Motovun included.
We weren’t sure where we heading but we were glad we found Oprtalj.
Our first indication that there was even a town here was the pink loggia on the side of the road. There’s a car park just before it with a little kiosk under the trees.
Stepping under the arched entrance to the town opposite the loggia was like stepping back in time. The town had a fabulous feel about it. I only saw a couple of people as I wandered around its circular road. Restoration has only just started in this town. There were still many beautiful old buildings waiting for a sensitive hand to make them liveable. Like many of the other towns in the area, truffles and olive oil are important. An antique festival is also held here very year.
Back on track we finally arrived in Buzet, one of the oldest settlements in the area. As with the other towns, Buzet was important in Roman times and during the Venetian reign. Subotina is a local festival that is held here at the beginning of September where the town is transformed back into the days of old and where you can also try local food and wine.
There’s a one way system happening in this town. We managed to park opposite the Hotel Vela Vrata, a lovely spot which we returned to for a drink and to take in the stunning views. From here walk up the hill and into the town through the gates that date back to 1547. This street leads you into the main square and then on to another square with an old baroque well as its centrepiece. As you wander past the old buildings, you will notice that many are decorated with with the coats of arms of early Venetian families.
A little further along the road is Roc. The town has a different feel to it than the other towns we visited. Even though it is a hill top town, it is not hilly and the roads are wider. Again it is very quiet as we wander past the rustic buildings.
In the 13th century Roc was a cultural centre where printing, typography and Glagolithic Literature were important.
The Glagolitic alphabet or Glagolitsa (Croatian: glagoljica) is the oldest known Slavic script which was introduced in mid-9th century and was used in the Slavic world until the 16th century, when it was eventually replaced by the Latin script (Croatian: latinica).*
Glagolitsa was used in Croatia – and only in Croatia – up until the 19th century, which means it was the official script in Croatia for 1000 years!*
* from http://www.learncroatian.eu/blog/glagolitic-alphabet
The drive from Roc to Hum
A section of the drive between Roc and Hum is known as the Glagolitic Alley. Along this seven mile drive you’ll find eleven stone sculptures representing the glagolitic alphabet. These were carved in the years between 1977 and 1983 by a famous Croatian sculptor.
Known as the smallest town in the world, Hum’s population figures have been cited at anywhere between 17 and 23 for a while now! Enter through the town’s gate and you are immediately in the main square where you can see the church, the belltower that was built in 1552 and the loggia with its stone table.
The loggia dates back to Venetian times when it was the heart of the commune. Every year, the mayor of Hum for a year was elected. This practise was introduced again in 1977 and continues to this day. Hum is also famous for miska brandy made from mistletoe.
Istria is perfectly situated to start exploring Croatia or to even head north into Slovenia but don’t leave before visiting the coastal towns lining the Adriatic coast!