Motovun, Istria’s Minas Tirith.

Lit by the shy autumn sun, surrounded by mist, towering above the landscape, there it was – Motovun, the Minas Tirith of Istria.

There aren’t many towns as elusive and, at the same time, as present in the local picture, as Motovun. Located on the hill, rising above the valleys, olive groves and vineyards, it majestically looks over the area, as befits a medieval fortress of the like. It’s been over a year since my visit, and only now I am ready to write about it. But from the start.

A hilltop town

Last August, I left my life in the UK and headed South, to the sun-kissed Croatia, where I hoped to learn a lot and find inspiration (and motivation!) for further projects. Istria, as this is where I settled for my two-and-a-half-month stay, wowed me in a way that no place had before. It took me off guard: I was completely unprepared for its peacefulness, mellow hills, sleepy towns, villages consisting of only one or two families, and for its incredibly delicious food. Upon my arrival at Bolara, a tiny village near Groznjan (getting to which by the way – if you don’t have a car or other means of transportation – would take a fair amount of time if walking from the main road), my knowledge of the region, its people and food, was scant.

Of truffles I knew they existed and were expensive; rakija (or grappa, in the local parlance) I associated with strong, undrinkable alcohol I once tried in Dubrovnik; olive oil was something that did not have any distinct flavour. Instead of doing frantic, last-minute research, however, I decided to throw myself into the Istrian reality without preconceptions, prejudices and baggage of facts collected from the internet, and learn from people and places there.

I could not have imagined a better teacher than Anna, my host at Bolara60 where I stayed and volunteered for two months. Her knowledge of local culinary practices, of ingredients, recipes, and history of food is vast, and the love she puts into making the meals – even greater. Never have I seen so much care put into the smooth running of a guesthouse as there. In fact, Bolara60 is not just a guesthouse. It’s home.

No wonder, then, that I quickly got absorbed by the new countryside life, shared between the everyday chores (ranging from looking after the chickens to cooking dinners for the guests) and discovering local cuisine on countless visits to konobas, food festivals and fairs. The sensations that came with the many firsts I encountered there, are still fresh in my memory, ingrained in my palate and forever associated with the time and place. The overwhelming explosion of flavour when eating my first truffle pasta. The smell of garden-fresh sage, rosemary and thyme, that I used for the flower compositions, as well as for cooking. The grassy, velvety hug of the freshly squeezed olive oil, the olives for which we helped pick. The array of grappas, with their fairy-tale sounding names. The refreshing lightness of malvazija wine. The intensity of sensory experiences and incredible pace at which new knowledge was absorbed, made it nearly impossible for me to look further than Bolara for extra stimuli. I was busy collecting my Proustian madeleine moments.

There were some places, however, that kept coming back in conversations, described with awe, praised for their uniqueness. With time, they acquired a status of places almost too mythical to visit, as I feared that the reality will shatter the image my consciousness weaved for them. But as my stay in Bolara unfolded, many of these towns became little memory postcards that I carry around with me now, ready to revisit when in need of warm, Istrian sunshine.

And so there was Groznjan, a hilltop town closest to Bolara, to which I walked on the winding forest path uphill; now the town of artists, jazz and many, many cats. There was Buje, with its stunning old town, where we went for shopping and an occasional beer or espresso. There was Novigrad, a seafront town where we went to the beach. There was Buzet, somehow more grand and touristy, where we saw 2018 eggs being scrambled in a giant pan and then served with a generous grating of white truffles. There was Oprtalj, a charming little village that held an annual chestnut festival, Kestenijada. And there was Motovun, the most mythical of them all.

Rainbow and a hilltop town

I have seen Motovun countless times before I first set my foot there. During many drives to markets, festivals and konobas, there it was, majestically sitting on top of the hill, bathing in the warm Istrian sun by day, and glittering with hundreds of lights at night. From almost anywhere we drove, we saw it: proud but humble, mythical but real, tiny but grand. It took me two months to finally be ready for my encounter, and the time I chose to do so added a lot to the magic of the experience.

As we drove through the hills, we kept catching a glimpse of Motovun, from the turns of the winding hill road. The weather added an extra mistery to the experience, hiding the villages, meadows and forests under the veil of fog so that the hilltop towns seemed to be hovering somewhere midair. Lit by the shy autumn sun, surrounded by mist, towering above the landscape, there it was – Motovun, the Minas Tirith of Istria. I read somewhere once, that climate in Gondor was most probably the Mediterranean, but to tell you the truth: I always imagined it rather gloomy.

It was November 1st when we set off from Bolara intending to finally get a closer glimpse of Motovun: a special date in the catholic calendar, marking All Saints Day. It’s the time of the year when families from far and wide come back to their hometowns to honour the memory of their ancestors. The atmosphere of pathos, something important and otherworldly is in the air, interrupted by the chit-chat of cousins, aunties, and other family members reunited at the graveyard, amongst chrysanthemum plants and flickering candles. In Croatia, as people here are mostly catholic, the holiday is alive and well and commemorated by many. We, too, started our visit to Motovun from the graveyard, in front of which we parked the car.

Motovun, in Italian called Montona, is a medieval town built on a site of an ancient city called Castellieri. The current name of the village, Motovun, is of Celtic origin and means ‘a town in the hills’. And let me tell you this: once you’ve stepped on the cobblestone path leading up to town from the parking, you instantly feel as if the time had stopped and you were a part of some back-to-the-past experience. The stillness of the walls surrounding the town, the whispers of the old houses, the dimness of narrow, steep streets, and the view – stunningly clear. The walls that surround Motovun (that were of help when adding Motovun to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites) were built by Venetians when they took over the town in 1278. The city walls are now walkable, offering views of all four corners of Istria.

It’s hard to pin down what is it about Motovun that steals people’s hearts and draws tourists from near and far to embark on a lengthy car ride through hills and valleys. It’s not one of these places which you’d visit with a ‘Must see’ or ’10 things to do in’ list. I found it, that many places in Istria are not simply visited, but they are experienced. And it’s often done through a mix of culinary pleasures, charming little towns, mellow landscapes and the hospitality of people here. Motovun is no different: surrounded by the famous Motovun Forest that gives truffles in abundance, by vineyards providing grapes to produce Teran, Malvazija and then grappa (or rakija), brewed from the discarded grape skins leftover from winemaking, and by olive groves that later become olive oil (which is to die for!). One doesn’t come to Istria to tick off famous churches, palaces and other sights from the list. One comes to Istria to live, to learn how to enjoy life with its simplest, tastiest offerings.

Motovun stole my heart. I promised myself that I’ll come back in July, to take part in the Motovun Film Festival that is held there every year. According to locals, the town comes alive then and is home to many independent filmmakers, directors and everyone else who loves good cinema. The medieval setting for the open-air movie theatre, gentle hills around, the smell of something delicious being cooked and a glass of Teran in hand – this is how I imagine my return to Motovun.

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