Motovun is one of Istria’s most beautiful and best-preserved medieval hilltop settlements. It’s best known for its film festival, which transforms this otherwise sleepy town into a cultural and party hub for one week every summer, a cross between Sundance and Glastonbury. Surrounded by truffle-rich forest, which provides the key ingredient for top local restaurants here and in nearby Livade, Motovun stands atop a 277-metre hill overlooking the Mirna Valley. Sunsets are spectacular, as are the views from the main bar in town, the Montona Gallery.
RECOMMENDED: where to eat, sleep and drink in Motovun.
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The best things to do in Motovun
Revived in modern times as a cycling and hiking trail, the Parenzana was a narrow-gauge railway in the Habsburg era. Built in 1902, it ran from Trieste in Italy, through the Istrian interior before terminating down the coast at Poreč. After the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918, it was overseen by Istria’s new occupiers, Italy, but fell into disrepair and was closed in 1935. Neglected for decades, it was revived section by section after Croatian independence. Now it is used for panoramic walks and bike rides, the route taking in picturesque Motovun, Buje and Grožnjan around Istria’s hilltop landscape.
In the historic heart of Motovun, with an elevated terrace overlooking the rolling Istrian countryside and an interior of bare brick, candlelight and a blazing fireplace, Pod Voltom is the most prominent restaurant in town but also the most intimate. Martina and Benjamin run a tight ship, in operation since 1991, but the dining experience is friendly and relaxed. The menu is, of course, Istria-focused, truffles with many dishes, maneštra soup, fuži pasta, game and asparagus, while the wines come courtesy of Arman, Kozlović and Matošević.
Once selling itself on its location in the historic centre of Motovun and its reassuringly traditional appearance, blending in with the Italianate buildings around this pretty square, the Hotel Kaštel took the wise step of investing in a top-quality spa facility. Guests and non-guests alike can relax in a Cleopatra’s bath of milk and honey, enjoy a body scrub and facial in warm lavender oil, sample wine or truffle therapy treatments or go for a classic hot-stone massage. Those are just a few of the attractions on offer – you are probably just as well opting for a detox package or spa day. There’s a pool, too, with hydro jets, the outdoor section open to non-residents in summer.
The live piano that accompanied Aki Kaurismäki’s silent movie Juha in August 1999 ushered in a groundbreaking annual event that has transformed this hilltop community every summer since. Back then, a few thousand gathered in a renovated theatre that had been closed for decades. Now the Motovun Film Festival attracts some 40,000 visitors, who descend upon this little town for five days every July, sleeping at a campsite set up for the event, sleeping in their own cars, sleeping wherever they fall. Star guests such as Vanessa Redgrave and Ken Russell are provided with more comfortable accommodation as some 100 films are screened – the best winning the annual Propeller award – in two indoor and two outdoor locations. The party goes on non-stop with live music and dancing, independent filmmakers mingling with producers, actors and festivalgoers.
Just outside Motovun, near the natural spa waters of Istarske toplice, Motovunska šuma is a small area of forest protected by Natura Histrica, the same body responsible for Brijuni National Park and Učka nature reserve. The Venetians were the first to single out this particular pocket of woodland in Istria’s verdant hinterland, partly because of its particular beauty, partly because the European oaks so prevalent here provided such perfect wood for shipbuilding and wine barrels. Fed by a tributary of the Mirna, the forest here also features white poplars, hornbeam and lowland ash. From mid-summer until autumn, the best time to visit, the bright purple blossoms of clematis viticella provide vivid colour and attract hosts of swallowtail butterflies.
Once a ‘bistro’ now a money-spinning ‘pizzeria’ the Montona Gallery hasn’t really changed all that much. It’s still the main bar in Motovun, the meeting place for gallery owners, expat residents, artists and artisans, a hive of lively chatter until way after midnight. For most visitors, though, the Montona Gallery means one thing: its terrace, overlooking the historic city walls and the rolling Istrian landscape beyond. Time it right, and you’ll also see a bright orange sunset slowly melt below the horizon, as one glass of finest Istrian Malvasia turns into two.
Now considered a rare delicacy, boškarin meat comes from the specific long-horned Istrian cattle of the same name. A beast of burden for generations, the boškarin ox was rapidly going the way of the dodo when farmers turned to motorised vehicles from the 1960s onwards. By the 1990s, there were a few hundred left in existence. Like the regional revival of the wine and olive oil industries, so the boškarin has been enjoying a comeback, farmed for its fine meat which is now sold across Croatia. Naturally, it’s best eaten in situ, such as at the restaurant of the Hotel Kaštel in the heart of Motovun. Here at the Palladio, named after the architect thought to have created Sv Stjepan church nearby, you can find starters of boškarin carpaccio or the house spread of Kris, a boškarin-truffle mix. Boškarin also shows up with home-made noodles and rocket, or as a meatloaf in the main courses. While you’re here, you may as well sample some of the finest desserts in town, namely pears in Teran wine or the home-made apple pie with cinnamon.
Starting up in May, local outdoor adventure company Paragliding Tandem Istra offer four kinds of soaring jaunts over the Motovun countryside. Standard ones take place in tandem with an experienced instructor, hence the name, but you can choose a basic-level flight of 15-20 minutes or one of around two hours. For those keen to learn more, there are courses lasting a day or a whole week, each requiring at least two participants.
From the vantage point of the sturdy walls enclosing Motovun’s historic centre, it is said that you can see all four corners of Istria. Certainly, the Venetians knew what they were doing when they built them as defensive fortifications in the late 1200s. Note the city gates as you walk alongside, created in Gothic or Renaissance styles over four centuries. With all the ramparts intact, and you still can do a complete circuit, perhaps rewarding yourself with a drink at the Caffe Bar Bistro Montona Gallery afterwards.
Just outside Motovun at Kaldir, the Benvenuti family of Livio, Albert and Nikola grow three grape varieties, Istrian Malvasia, Teran and Muscat, on south-facing vineyards. This sandy soil produces a honey, fruity wine, best sampled when aged in the barrel for 18 months to create Muscat or Malvasia San Salvatore. But Benvenuti is not only about wine sampling – the villa here is hired out to discerning guests, the fireplace roaring in winter, the pool surrounded by sunloungers in summer. At least half a dozen guests may stay at any one time, making this the perfect choice for a getaway celebration with friends or family, wine essential to the party, of course.
With no city museum to speak of, Motovun hides its history in strange nooks and crannies – it’s not even certain who built the main church, although an expert can quickly detect that it’s Venetian. And what of the locals, who worked the land for generations, tending the hillside vineyards and hunting in the surrounding forests? The easiest way to explore local history is to take a wander around Motovun’s main cemetery, set at the bottom of Vladimira Gortana, named after an Istrian freedom fighter from the 1920s. Stroll around the graves, most with a portrait photograph of the occupant, and you’ll soon see how so many of the local populace were of peasant stock, with Italian family names. Dates also play an important role – the greater number of Slavic names after the 1950s reflected the post-war population exchange that saw families uproot and head to Italy.
One of the most romantic tours on offer in and around Motovun is a day trip on a Vespa. Zipping past olive groves and vineyards, your guide takes you along roads with the most stunning views, stopping at a local konoba for lunch and sampling truffles and wine on the way. Tours, organised by Montona, take place between April and mid-October and are open to over-18s holding a valid driver’s licence.
Outside Motovun, off the roundabout that leads into Livade, the Konoba Dolina attracts local regulars and the elderly Italian ladies who frequent the nearby Istarske toplice spa centre. Both are drawn by the great-value, fresh, seasonal dishes: in autumn, for example, huge plates of meaty porcini mushrooms come served with olive oil. Asparagus appears in spring. Most times of the year, you’ll find heavenly fuži pasta with truffles, either in a cream sauce or without. Sugary kroštule doughnuts should finish things off nicely – the elegant signore also indulge.
Of the many little boutiques and galleries that dot Motovun’s historic centre, the Etnobutiga Ča is probably the most authentic. This little store has been arranged in the same style as a 19th-century peasant home, with original furniture. Although the cupboards and chairs aren’t for sale, the grappas, honeys, truffles, jams, herbs, wines and essential oils are – and are equally authentic. There are also all kinds of decorative artefacts carved from olive wood, as well as ceramics.
Its façade dominating a busy street just off Motovun’s panoramic walkway, the Parish Church of Sv Stjepan is thought to have been the work of a follower of Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, in the late 1500s or early 1600s. It was built on an older church from the early medieval era, erected perhaps as early as the 11th century. The influential Palladio, responsible for the Palladian that became popular throughout Italy and then Europe, died in 1580, but the design for this church is said to have been his creation. An unknown Venetian artist was also responsible for the painting of the Last Supper on display over the altar. The Romanesque-Gothic bell tower alongside the church dates from the 13th century.
At Livade alongside Motovun, Istarske toplice are thermal waters used in Roman times – coins and jewellery have been found on the site. Beside the local landmark of a 85-metre-high rock, the Spring of Sv Stjepan provides mineral-rich curative waters. Known as the Terme Santo Stefano in Habsburg times, this spa has attracted generations of locals for treatment of rheumatic and dermatological conditions. A state-run health centre in the 1970s, the site was then developed as a resort hotel and is now in private hands. All kinds of spa detox packages are now available, as well as weekend breaks and teambuilding getaways.
Cornering the market in truffle dining and carving out a slice of local history at the same time, Zigante is both the most famous restaurant in the region and a significant local industry based around this forest fungus. In the late 1990s, a certain Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana found the largest white truffle in history, a discovery that soon led to the opening of a shop, then this restaurant, then a traditional lodging, then a large processing and canning factory. The restaurant itself remains impressive, albeit pricey, set in a beautiful house with outdoor seating. Most dishes involve black truffles, with rarer white truffles used between October and December.
The European oaks that comprise the ancient Motovun Forest are prime territory for truffles. Every autumn, truffle hunters and their expert dogs scour the woods for these sought-after treasures, a lucrative activity if you know where to look. If you’re curious to find out how it’s done, you can join an experienced guide from Motovun-based firm Miro Tartufi, plus dogs Bela and Nera, and find this precious funghi while exploring unspoiled greenery. Miro also run a delicatessen in Motovun’s historic centre.
First-time visitors looking to dine in Livade may head straight to the famous Zigante truffle restaurant – while Croatians and returning customers come to the Konoba Dorjana on the other side of the turning from Motovun. Also family-run, in this case the Basanežes, the Konoba Dorjana is all about pairing what’s in season – wild mushrooms, asparagus, snails, truffles – with a suitable staple, polenta, pasta, and so on. The steak sprinkled with truffles is said to be the best for miles around. The point here is that it’s no fuss, no formality – a homely dining room is done out with wood, stone and black-and-white photographs, the service is just the right balance of polite yet laid-back.
At this museum in Livade especially dedicated to this legendary Istrian narrow-gauge rail line, archive photographs, vintage postcards and original documentation hark back to an era when crossing this distant outpost of the Habsburg Empire was a huge adventure. Opened in 1902, linking Trieste in modern-day Italy to Poreč on the Istrian coast, the Parenzana was a feat of engineering, winding alongside thick woodland and past steep inclines. A look at the changing colours on the map here indicates the challenging terrain. Photographs depict two main types of passenger: daytrippers in Sunday finery, and locals with business to take care of, probably at the port of Trieste. The Parenzana closed down in 1935 but the route has been revived of late to cater to cyclists and hikers.