Motovun – Montona to the Romans – is one of the most beautiful and best preserved of Istria’s medieval hilltop settlements. These days 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.
Motovun is on the summit of a 277-metre hill in the middle of the Mirna Valley, surrounded by truffle-rich forest. When the prehistoric settlement was founded, it would have been surrounded by water. The estuary stretched right up to the ‘Gates of Buzet’ at the head of the valley. It was down this ancient inlet that Jason and his Argonauts are supposed to have fled after capturing the Golden Fleece.
From its strategic position, Motovun controlled the merchant routes across the valley floor on the way to the coast. Although depopulated after the Italian exodus in 1945, a new wave of inhabitants – including artists and writers – has set up home here. The result is the Motovun Film Festival, started in 1999.
Motovun’s two sets of fortified walls divide the town into three sections – the higher you climb, the older it gets. In the summer non-residents are banned from driving the town’s narrow cobbled streets – there’s a car park at the bottom of the hill. As you wend your way upwards, past rather dilapidated, 16th- and 17th-century Venetian-style houses, you pass several shops, offering wine, truffles and grappa.
As the road levels it passes through the main city gate dating from the 15th century. Its walls are hung with Roman tombstones taken from the cemetery of Karojba, a village 5km away on the road to Pazin. Within the gate is a museum of antique weaponry. The entrance is on the far side of the gate. Also here is the town’s art gallery. Next door is a café, the Montona Gallery and pizzeria whose terrace is sited on the other side of the street, against the first set of fortified walls. The view should be stunning but just in case, a telescope has been provided. There’s also a rare cashpoint, and a new konoba with stunning views which has replaced Propeler Pizzeria.
A few steps further, facing the town loggia, is the 13th-century gate into the original heart of Motovun. This walkway is particularly steep and slippery – use the handrail. This entrance houses a lovely restaurant, Pod Voltom, which in summertime uses the loggia. From the archway you walk on to the main square. Dominated by a magnificent 13th-century belltower, the piazza is sited over a huge cisterna, or water collection pit, which used to supply the town. You can still see the 14th-century well. Next to the tower is the baroque Church of St Stephen and, opposite, a Renaissance palace citadel, housing the local cinema. The piazza also houses Motovun’s main hotel, the Kaštel. It’s at this point that all the climbing pays off. Stroll along the original 13th-century walls and a stunning 360-degree panoramic view reveals the whole of inland Istria laid out before you.