Batana house
© Ekomuzej batana / Ecomuseo batana

Go local: A cultural journey through Istria in 7 museums

From a seafaring culture based around a traditional fishing boat to the promotion of a medieval language in danger of extinction

Written by
Jonathan Bousfield

Istria can offer some of the most spectacular historic sites in Croatia, with headline attractions such as the Roman Arena in Pula and the UNESCO-listed Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč topping tourist bucket lists with justified regularity. However, this compact, heart-shaped peninsula also represents Croatia at its most diverse, offering a frequently dizzying variety local customs, folklore, indigenous architecture and traditional cuisine. Not surprisingly, this diversity is reflected in some of the country's most outstanding, original and inspirational museums. Not only is Istria full of stories, it is also full of great ways of telling them.

Batana Eco-Museum, Rovinj

One of the best places to delve straight into local culture is this stylish and inventive and revealing museum in Rovinj. It's devoted to the batana, the shallow-hulled fishing boat propelled with the help of long punt-like oars - a practice that demands an excess of both raw muscle and real skill.  What makes the museum so effective is the way it uses the boat as a symbol of local life; entire communities were involved in the ways and rhythms of the batana; whether going out fishing, making and maintaining the boats, mending nets, salting the catch or communally partying when the maritime toil was over.

House of Frescoes, Draguć

One of the things for which Istria is justly famed throughout Croatia is the wealth of medieval frescoes adorning its churches and chapels. Many of these are found in the villages of the interior, often in graveyard chapels and wayside shrines rather than in the main parish churches. Executed by itinerant artists of boundless imagination and pictorial zest, they often contained moralising messages about the transience of life and provide a fascinating window onto the local medieval imagination – mortality comes to us all, peasant or prince. Right in the centre of the peninsula, the high, ridge-top village of Draguć is home to one of the most famous illustrated chapels. The cute Church of St Rock filled with incandescent murals painted by a certain Anton of Padova in 1537.  Nearby, the former schoolhouse in Draguć is now home to the House of Frescoes, a compelling and informative visitors' centre that fills you in on the background to Istria's mural culture, with photos, videos, and a full run-down on the other Istrian locations in which similarly unique chapels can be found.

© Istria Tourist BoardPazin

Istrian Ethnographic Museum, Pazin

Located in the region's administrative capital of Pazin in the heart of the peninsula, the stocky medieval castle or Kaštel hovers dramatically above the deep karst gorge for which the town is famed. As well as being a pretty awesome building in its own right, the Kaštel is home to two not-to-be-missed museums, the Pazin Town Museum and the Istrian Ethnographic Museum. Taken together, they provide a fascinating journey into a past characterised by competing waves of Austrian and Venetian colonisation, and the struggles of the local Croatian population for cultural and political recognition. It's the beautiful presentation of the Ethnographic Museum that will have you reaching for your sketchbook; a colour-drenched voyage through local costumes and traditional crafts, which also includes powerful, emotional and nostalgic sections on the world of children, and the role of consumerism and popular culture. If a living biography of the Istrian peninsula's life and times is what you're after, there are few better places to find it.

Eco Museum of Vlach Roads, Šušnjevica

One of the undoubted joys of Istria is the chance to explore some of the country's idyllic rural byways, where stone-built villages perch between fields of corn and deep green forest. One such place is the village of Šušnjevica on the western flanks of Mount Učka, the mountain ridge that marks the boundary between the Istrian peninsula and the Kvarner Gulf. It's here that you'll find the Eco-Museum of Vlach Roads (Ekomuzej Vlaški puti), a unique institution that aims to celebrate the culture of one of Istria's historically important (but nowadays less visible) ethnic groups, the Vlachs – more properly known as the Istro-Romanians, a Latin-origin community speaking a dialect similar to modern Romanian. As well as showcasing their costumes and trade, the museum also organises language workshops for enthusiasts and kids, a crucial step in preserving a tongue that currently only has an estimated 50 regular users. However, what makes the museum an especial thrill for visitors is that it is also a museum of smuggling and contraband, rife local activities back in the 1920s and 1930s. It was during the inter-war years, when the region was under Italian occupation that the coastal strip of Opatija and Rijeka was declared a duty-free zone full of cheap imported consumer goods. The wily villagers of Šušnjevica, well-acquainted the secret trails across Mount Učka, were perfectly placed to sneak across the zone's border with bag-loads of un-taxed goods, and made a handy profit selling them on the other side.

Srecko Niketic/PIXSELLSvetvincenat

Grimani Castle, Svetvinčenat

Svetvinčenat is famous for its perfectly proportioned Renaissance town square, dominated on one side by the imposing ramparts of the Grimani Castle. Owned by a succession of aristocratic families whose job it was to garrison the region and maintain public order, it now contains a fascinating museum of weaponry through the ages, with virtual reality features providing visitors with the chance to take part in archery contests and other martial pastimes. Not to be missed is the nearby House of Mare the Witch, which relates in lively audio-visual style the poignant tale of a 17th-century herbalist Mare Radolovich, notoriously burned at the stake by vindictive locals unconvinced by her potions.

Barban Visitor Centre, Barban

Nesting in the hills above Istria’s western coast, the village of Barban is celebrated for an age-old test of horsemanship known as Tilting at the Ring, in which galloping riders attempts to spear a metal ring suspended tantalisingly above a cinder track. It’s a contest that dates from at least the 17th century and is still held every year over a weekend in late August. The event gets the full audio-visual treatment at the Barban Visitor Centre, an all-mod-cons museum that conjures up the excitement of the contest with a barrage of sights and sounds, and allows visitors to don VR goggles and enjoy the sheer exhilaration of having a tilt at the ring themselves.

Arsia Miners’ House, Raša

Quite apart from its extraordinary wealth in folk tradition, Istria can also boast some of the grittiest industrial heritage in Croatia, especially around the (no longer active) coalfields of the peninsula’s eastern coast. The village of Raša, just outside the erstwhile mining capital of Labin, was purpose-built as a workers’ settlement by the Italian occupiers during the 1930s and remains a unique example of the bold, muscular architecture of the time. Raša’s proud proletarian past is lovingly recalled in the Arsa Miners’ House, a small but powerful museum that recreates the sounds and sensations of the local community’s daily journey down into the pit. It also offers an evocative selection of films and photos of Raša’s history, and preserves the retro furnishings of what would once have been a typical mining family's dwelling – before the whole industry was wound down in the 1980s.

This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.

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