Giants and argonauts!
Central Istria has many medieval hilltop towns and villages, dotted around lush green landscape amid forests, vineyards, and farms. These villages grew on the sites of ancient Celtic and Illyrian fortresses, taking advantage of natural defensibility with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Legend says that many of these hilltop villages, including Motovun, were built by giants, because how could ordinary men possibly carry the huge stones we find on top of these hills?
According to legend, the Mirna River valley was inhabited by giants who cared for the land, and the river itself was a furrow dug by a giant named Dragonja, who named it after his wife, Mirna. This is the river sailed by the mythical Jason and the Argonauts, and runs past the foot of Motovun. Legends persist that the son of Dragonja still lives in the Istrian forests. Croatian politician and author Vladimir Nazor wrote a story in 1908 named Veli Jože, about a hard-working, gentle giant living near Motovun; the story is an allegory representing the struggle of Croats for autonomy during the time of Venetian rule.
Motovun is perched on a hill that is 270 meters above sea level—and when we say “perched,” the views from the town’s terraces and 13th-century Venetian walls can make you feel like you are soaring high above the Istrian countryside. A 13th-century Romanesque-Gothic bell tower tops the hill, adjacent to the 17th-century Parish Church of Sveti Stjepan. The inner wall of the 1607 Twin Gates at the top of the hill showcases stone coats of arms from Motovun’s historic ruling families, as well as 1st-century Roman tombstones. The current loža was built in the 17th century, but a town loža (loggia) was first mentioned in 1331. Because Motovun has preserved its medieval characteristics, it is included on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Across the Mirna River is the protected Motovun Forest, which is a rich source of black truffles and the world’s largest natural habitat for precious white truffles. Nearby are indigenous Teran and Malvazija vineyards; the red Teran grape has been grown on the Istrian Peninsula for more than six centuries, while the white Malvazija Istarska is believed to have originated with the ancient Greeks.
Motovun also has its share of modern culture, including hosting an international film festival every year. And it is the birthplace of race car driver Mario Andretti and his brother Aldo–you can just imagine the boys racing homemade cars down the steep stone streets!
Land of giants and argonauts—and artisans—in beautiful Istria!