Not too long ago, a friend, originally from the small Istrian city of Vodnjan, described his home town this way:
“I like returning, but I can’t stay more than four days. After that the negative energy really bares down on me. It’s not good.” Tales of “strange” people followed, of odd habits, of infectious narrow-mindedness. He mentioned a documentary on the town that aired on state TV which described the very “thing” he was describing.
No, he’s never worked for the local tourism office. Which is probably a good thing for the city fathers since his brief description managed to lodge itself in my gray matter more firmly than any trite tourism slogan would or could. I appreciate honest frank assessments much more than checklists of things to see and do.
But yeah, despite that review, we were delighted to accept an invitation to spend a few days there, getting to know new friends while spending perhaps one last weekend near the Adriatic coast.
Vodnjan is just 12 kilometers from Pula –along with Rijeka a key northern Croatian port town– and just seven kilometers from Fažana, the small seaside city known mostly as the take-off port for Brijuni National Park, the archipelago made famous by Yugoslav President Tito who kept the 14 Brionian islands largely to himself for three decades. (Yes, I finally visited; more about that pilgrimage another time.)
But first, this brief Vodnjan notebook.
We pulled in just as darkness was descending. That the city proper is home to about 3500 people –the municipality by the same name has a population of just over eight thousand– was hardly evident. Besides some teenagers hanging out on a street corner here or a park bench there, the local bocce ball court was the primary hive of activity on this Friday night. We had time to kill before our hosts arrived; Danijela snubbed my invitation for an intimate bocce game-watching date, so we fled the parking lot next to the dusty floodlit courts and went for a stroll into the bowels of the 1000-year-old city.
The old town center was typical Venetian Istria, with narrow cobblestone streets that grow narrower as they approached the main central square. But unlike other more tourist-friendly towns where pedestrian areas are the rule, in Vodnjan they appear to be the opposite. Not that there was much traffic — which was welcome. The drivers of a couple cars that did pass were the kind who believe speed limits don’t apply to them.
As we walked a scruffy town quickly emerged. The prevailing shade was a dirty light brown, interrupted by the occasional spurt of color on murals that popped life onto select walls.
The night still loomed heavy as we entered National Square, or Narodni Trg, its main plaza. On its eastern side, the square is dominated by an attractive turn-of-the-last century Neo-Gothic municipal building; it too was dark, which struck me as odd. In any other similar town, such a structure would be lit up at night, the center of attention. The main illumination here, besides some scattered street lamps, came from two café cum pubs at opposite ends. We opted for Al Fondaco where eight people, four sitting at tables on opposite sides, chatted, drank and chain-smoked. I can never remember if there’s a ban in Croatia on smoking in public places.
We chatted with the bartender-owner, a friendly sort who genuinely enjoyed the company of unfamiliar faces who showed up at his counter in what was already off-season in Vodnjan. He poured me a locally-produced herb grappa, one of the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s sweetness lingered, smoothing out those rough edges that lingered outside.
Vodnjan was much more inviting the next morning, when I managed to explore, albeit briefly, during a mission to buy some bread. It was a shopping trip I extended to about 25 minutes and snapped most of the pictures here, thus the title of this post.
It was pleasant, even charming at times, despite the scruff. (An aside: I bring that up again because Vodnjan does appear markedly more rundown than most other traditional Istrian towns I’ve visited. For that, a few people I talked to, our friends included, blame the current mayor.)
Like the night before, most of that exploration was on or near Trgovačka, or Commercial Street, which is, at more than a kilometer in length the longest street in Istria. While vast swaths of it remained shuttered, several small shops appeared, an entertaining mix of small contemporary galleries and old skool “everything” stores whose appearance and stock haven’t changed much since the days of the Yugoslav federation. Those, and lots of boutique olive oil shops. Some of the best olive oil in the world comes from Croatia’s coastal regions, and much of that from Istria.
That’s as good as any reason for a return visit. And to take a closer look at the bell tower at St. Blaise Church, the tallest in Istria. And to check out the mummified remains of some of the 250 saints whose remains are in the church, the largest in Istria.
But never for more than four days.
The rest of the gallery follows and below that, a very brief video notebook. Apologies in advance for the vertical video. I meant to add those scenes to an Instagram story, but I forgot. Istrian wine tends to draw my attention elsewhere.