“This is Illyria, Lady”

6 Oct

Its contemporary name is Istria. Somewhere along this coast Shakespeare’s Viola stumbled cold and grieving from the sea. Its vineyards, olive groves, and truffle grounds would have made Orsino a very rich man indeed. I had two days to see it before getting on a plane for Texas. Over 48 hours, we visited a tiny medieval church in the mountains, slept in a fortified city, wandered through two seaside resorts, and stood in the ruins of an ancient Roman coliseum.

There’s a winding road, and a cantankerous, grubby dog at the crossroad in the center of the village. Sanja asked around until she found the house of the lady that keeps the key. The key itself is enormous, silver, and looks like something out of Excalibur. Clearly, there’s a protocol: The little lady gets in your car with you, directs you on the 1K drive to the little chapel, unlocks the church door, and talks you through the series of murals depicting the life of Mary and Christ. All of this is in Croatian, of course. Someone discretely slips her an honorarium for her time, everyone piles back in the ubiquitous, tiny European car, and you drop her off at her door before getting on your way.

Basic RGB

We arrived in mid-afternoon, when much of the church interior was in shadow. The murals appear to best advantage in the morning, when light filters in from the building’s windows. So, sadly, no photos of the fascinating danse macabre that spans the wall above the door.

We stopped for tea by the seaside, where I learned that if you order Prošek, you will not get sparkling wine, you will get sherry. Even if it is spelled “prosecco” on the menu. They make lovely sweets from marzipan and chestnut cream that, fortunately, go with either.

According to Sanja, most of the ancient communities in the region had the same plan for settlement. Find a large hill surrounded by arable land, build a stronghold at the top with dwellings for the leadership, erect one or more sturdy walls around it, and then develop the larger area for agriculture and animal husbandry. Most of them have a historic castle or fortress, and a picturesque old church with the bones of some saint or other. Any one of them has plenty of charm for visitors. Motovun, however, operates on an entirely otherworldly level.


We had a full moon for the walk around the ramparts of the city, and had dinner in a restaurant located under the city’s vaults. It’s name, Pod Voltum, is descriptive but sounds much more romantic until you translate it. It means “under the vault.” Most of the dishes are liberally seasoned with truffles, from soup to chocolate cake. I had both. There might be a few things that truffles don’t improve. I haven’t found them yet.

Truffle soup is good food!

We stayed at the hotel Kastel, which sits at the pinnacle of the hill. The views alone would have been worth the room rate; it’s undergone a recent renovation that included the addition of a really posh indoor pool area. And wifi! Some of us tend to experience a species of the DTs without it. At under $100 per night, the two Americans in the group were nigh giddy. I get a bit lightheaded at that much travel dollar bliss.  Yes, this is still Croatia.

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