The more we learned about the northern peninsula of Croatia (Istria), the more hidden delights we found! Prehistoric, Antique, Roman, and Early-medieval settlements dot the terrain, most of which still have inhabitants today. Poreć and Pula both contain archeological treasures from their Roman days. Some of the best Byzantine art in the world including 6th century mosaics are located in Poreć. Istrian towns are also well-known for their artistic frescos (wall paintings). Surrounded by all of these artistic and archeological treasures we could not resist an impromptu road trip!
An Istrian Road Trip
It was easy to hire a car for the day. Searching for the frescos made us feel like Indiana Jones. We scouted out remote villages, searched for local officials who held the key, and persuaded them to unlock the sites so we could have a look inside. We scribbled a loose route on our map and set out from Rovinj to find these artistic treasures.
In the Late Middle Ages, illiteracy was widespread thanks to wars, famine, and the plague. Stories were told through vivid illustrations. Highly educated painters produced particular fresco cycles. Frescos were texts transformed into pictures that people could understand just by looking at them. An Istrian cultural publication outlines the process:
According to Mr. Branko Fučić, a well renowned expert in Istrian fresco painting, the Istrian masters painted using the following pattern: ﬁrst of all, a master would plaster the walls inside the church. Then he would sieve the lime to mix it with the ﬁnest sand to spread the ﬁrst rough layer. After that he would gradually spread the second, ﬁner layer. The master would spread as much of the second layer as expected for a day’s painting. Using an earth-dusted thread he would chart the ﬁelds on the surface outlining the image. At the end, the master would cover the wet roughcast with lime-milk. Only then would he start painting. –The frescos of Istria
First up was Bale, the closest village to our home base of Rovinj, noted for its especially memorable frescos. Arrival was confusing but we parked near the center. Now what? Follow the signs I guess!
As for the signs, the word”Crkva” didn’t register with us, but “Chiesa” did from our time in Italy. So did “BVM.” The photo helped too. The largest building with the tallest tower should be it right? So we went.
It took a half-hour to walk all the way around the building. What we found was the Soarto-Bembo Castle. Not what we wanted, but still a fun walk around the interesting cobbled castle. Confused once again, we flipped through our minimal notes for Bale.
Not giving up. Two streets away the hill sloped back downward. We see a handful of visitors exiting a tiny chapel. Could it be? No key required? This tiny site was open on the day we arrived. No more detective skills needed in Bale. We made it! This 600-year old artistic treasure we worked all morning to see, was all to ourselves!
Master Albert from Constanca, on Lake Boden, painted a number of other churches in Istria during the 15th century. He was inﬂuenced by the Venetian Floral Gothic (gotico fiorito), and by Czech/German styles, but the early Renaissance characteristics could also be noticed in his work. Besides the usual scenes from the cycle of the life of Christ painted on the altar walls, he also painted a scene featuring the Throne of Mercy with the images of the Saints. –The Frescos of Istria
Bale behind us, the road became more picturesque. Hills grew in size. The landscape was a cross between Iowa and Ireland. One corner we rounded rewarded us with the ruins of a long-forgotten castle. Further along the valley we found a cemetery. This was the church of St. Mary of Lakuć close to the abandoned medieval city of Dvigrad.
We were the only two people around. Our notes included a house number of the woman with the key, but there were no houses anywhere! Unfortunately, we were unable to access the inside. We did get a few good photos of the exterior.
These fine frescoes were made towards the end of the 15th century by one of the best-known Medieval Istrian painters, referred to as the “Colorful Master”, because of his recognizable, vivid colors and fantastic colorful eﬀects that made his works so exquisite. The well-preserved fresco on the façade of the church depicts the Virgin Mary who protects the parishioners under her cloak. –The frescos of Istria
It was time for a rest-stop. Along the road we found something unexpected. Grappa, truffles, honey, olive oil, brandy, and various other items were for sale at roadside stands. From our vantage point we see a glimpse of water snaking east from the Adriatic sea. The bay, known as Limski Zaljev (Lim fjord) is a protected natural wonder located in a flooded canyon. Lush vegetation surrounds organic seafood farms. Looks like a fun place to cruise in a boat!
Next up – the larger city of Poreć. The area around the town was inhabited in prehistoric times. Its development began in 1 B.C. with Roman colonization. Magnificent Roman villas dot the countryside, where famous olive oil and wine production thrived.
We were especially excited to see the Euphrasian Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage site with magnificent mosaics. Since its construction in the 6th century, very little has changed. It is the best-preserved Christian cathedral complex in the world.
Christians came to Poreć in the first centuries after Christ. Mauro was the first bishop of Poreć who preached Christianity when it was forbidden. In his home he gathered secretly with his clergy and laity to pray and celebrate Holy Mass. Later, Bishop Maurus and his members were martyred. He is the patron Saint of the city of Poreć.
The 6th century mosaics are considered some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in the world. Entering the basilica proper the air was electric.
More Istrian adventure to come!