ISTRIA’S HILL TOWNS

Location: Istria, Croatia

The Istrian region has been described as the Tuscany of Croatia for its abundant and high quality produce. On a map it is the heart shaped pendant that dangles from the top of the country, and its heart land is one that drastically contrasts with its sea front fringe. One thing I wanted to do whilst in this incredible region was to tour some of the hill top villages I had heard about from my father, who described it as a medieval and fairytale landscape like none I had ever seen at home in Australia. And since Siu On and I were here for our honeymoon, what could be more romantic than wandering around old stone walled hill top cities, whilst sampling the local fare? We had to go!

Getting there and around

Unfortunately, transport between the hilltop towns of Istria is limited, as local bus timetables and routes can be difficult to locate if you’re not in the know; otherwise your options are to join a day tour with other people or hire a car.

Views from Motovun's walls

Siu On and I stopped into a car hire place whilst we were staying in Rovinj the day before we planned to drive around, and the process was extremely easy and efficient. I had an international drivers licence and also some experience driving on the right hand side of the road when we went to America two years ago, so I felt confident that it wouldn’t be an issue. After ten minutes I was turned loose with some sagely words of advice (parking is always paid in the cities and stay on the right) and we were on our way!

Although, hiring a car is not something that Siu On and I have done on many of our trips, with the only time we’ve hired a set of wheels was the two weeks we spent driving around South Australia, and even then it was a camper van that we slept in. However, on this occasion hiring was convenient for us and comparable to a tour, and we were able to visit a few towns easily in a day.

Our hire car in Istria next to one of the local cars

Your hill top hoods

Siu On and I have become very akin to slow travel over the years, preferring to visit less places and stay there for longer periods of time, so instead of packing in four or five hill towns like you would on a tour, we chose two that were different from each other.

Motovun

Siu On and I choose to include Motovun in our day as many people had told us about its stunning 360 degree valley views over the Mirna Valley, and it’s well preserved historical town which is also the largest and most visited in the area. As you drive through the country side towards Motovun you really can’t miss it – it’s the hill with the medieval stone village on the top of it. So as I descended up the windy roads, paid 10 kunas for parking and began walking through the old archway, I felt like I had walked out of modern 2016 and into a technicolored Robin Hood movie.

Looking up at Motovun's Church

There’s a lot here that’s old, really old. From the original cobblestone roads to the town square and church, it was a lot to take it at first. What struck me was how casual the locals were about it all, you know, living in a hill top fortified town that was hundreds of years old. As Siu On and I walked the length of the town’s walls (no charge) we were constantly struck with amazement at how ‘everyday’ things were here, for example, the satellite dishes mounted on the tops of old and crumbling terracotta tiles, rows of vegetable patches and fruit trees fenced in by dry stone walls, and people hanging their linen out to dry as tourists (myself and Siu On included) gawked and snapped photos of everything – EVERYTHING!

Mirna Valley views from Motovun

Walking the walls was the big draw card for us though, and we kicked ourselves that we hadn’t thought to stay here a night to catch a sunrise through the valley. The views over the valley and to the other hill top towns in the area make for incredible viewing, and we stopped for a coffee at one of the many cafes lining the walls to soak more of it in. The main square contains the beautiful gothic style bell tower and Church of St. Stephen (dated from the 17th century), and on the outside of the walls the cobble stone street is lined with small stores selling local produce including truffles and wine.

A Cheese store window in Motovun

Grosnjan 

At only a 25 minute drive away from Motovun, Siu On and I headed off to Grosnjan which may be one of the most creative and intriguing towns I’ve ever visited in Croatia. Like many other towns in region, Grosnjan was dying as residents moved away for schooling and work, never to return. To prevent the town from falling into ruin and disrepair, it was opened up to artists and creatives to populate; a move which had paid off handsomely and lead to the town being crowned the ‘town of artists’.

Grosnjan's artistic flair

The town is well preserved, colourful and full of life thanks to this bold move to offer cheap rent in exchange for people to make Grosnjan their artistic home. As Siu On and I entered the town we wandered through a small market selling local crafts and produce, and found the streets lined with small stores and galleries offering all kinds of food, trinkets and art works for sale.

Local farmers market in Grosnjan

Grosnjan is tiny in comparison to Motovun, and it is easy to see all of it in a short amount of time, however you’ll want to take your time here and browse all the stores and galleries and soak in the lively atmosphere. A coffee in Cafe Vero’s stunning outdoor seating area will give you uninterrupted views over the valley, and there are many informational plaques around the town which will explain buildings and point out areas of interest.

Grosnjan's old treasury

Is Istria the new Tuscany?

Ok so maybe visiting only two of Istria’s hill top towns can make it difficult to judge whether or not Istria is the new Tuscany; however, I have visited Tuscany and from what I saw and experienced here has made me see that the comparisons don’t do either regions any justice. I don’t agree with the statement that Istria is the new Tuscany, though I can understand the comparisons and acknowledge that as compliment to the quality of Istria’s local produce.

Although I have visited Croatia on many occasions, this was my first time exploring Istria and I don’t think it will be my last as visiting Motovun and Grosnjan has made me want to see more of these tiny hill top villages and valley towns that makes Croatia’s green heart beat with life.

Until next time everyone,

Jelena and Siu On

All photography by Jelena Stipanicev.