The Hilltowns of Istria

The Hilltowns of Istria

Many people think that Croatia is all rugged coastline and sea. The Istrian peninsula is an exception to that generalization, an region of green rolling hills that will remind many visitors of Tuscany (in Italy). One of the highlights of visiting the region is discovering some of its medieval hilltowns. This post covers 8 different hilltowns that we visited – all unique in different ways – with our recommendations on which to prioritize.

 

Map of Istria, Croatia

Above: Hilltowns in grey rectangle. Map credit (with alterations): find-croatia.com.

 

Below, in order of our visit:

 

Motovun

Motovun is the most famous and popular of the Istrian hilltowns. It is situated prominently on a hill 270 m above sea level. You can see the town from many of the other towns I’ll cover below. It dates back to the 9th century but the fortress walls that it is known for were built in the 12th century when the town was under Venetian rule (as were all the towns in the region). Highlights: walking the walls around town, fantastic viewpoints, well-maintained buildings. Lots of bars and restaurants, there’s even a very fancy hotel at the top of the town. Motovun has a film festival in the summer.

montovun

 

Oprtalj

Oprtalj is right across the valley from Montovun. It couldn’t be more different.

This small town is practically uninhabited. You’ll see a lot of ruined buildings with collapsed roofs and much of the pavement is crooked and crumbly. Highlights: Many of the buildings have been painted in vibrant colors. The main square is very pretty. You may find yourself the only people in town (as we did) which was a bit eerie having just come from popular Motovun.

oprtalj, Croatia

 

Grožnjan

Grožnjan is the 2nd most visited town after Motovun. It is known as an artists village and unlike some of the other towns it feels vibrant and lived in. You’ll see a lot of galleries,cafes and restaurants. It’s a hip, happening place and in the summer it has a jazz festival.
Highlights: great views, pretty cobbled streets, colorful, a nice place to stop for lunch or a coffee.

groznjan, croatia

Grožnjan, croatia

 

Završje

Save for a couple of houses that seem to have inhabitants, Završje is an abandoned town of broken buildings covered in ivy. It is in fact a little creepy. Like Oprtalj, you’ll most likely have the whole town to yourself. Highlights: lots and lots of ruins and ivy, rustic cobbled streets and walls. A hilltown unlike any other on this list.

Zarvsje, croatia

 

Buje

The northernmost of the towns we visited, Buje is a regional center and larger than the other towns covered in this post. The highlight is the church of St. Servolo, dating back to the 16th century. It was the most impressive church we would see among the hilltowns and the square had a unique, un-touristy vibe.

buje croatia photos

 

Buzet

Buzet is known as the “City of Truffles”. We had planned on coming here for lunch but all restaurants were closed and we were recommended a pizza place outside the old town center. Maybe we were there too early in the season (it was mid-May). The town is very pretty and has local life. Views are fantastic as is the geography – Buzet is backed by a chain of high mountains unlike the rolling hills that dominate much of Istria.

buzet, croatia

buzet croatia photos

 

Roč

Roč is tiny – but we’ll always remember it as the place that saved us when we had tummy problems (blame it on the pizza from the above mentioned Buzet). Many thanks to the nice lady at Rocka Konoba !! (a very atmospheric restaurant that gets great reviews). Pretty town, very quiet, with impressive stone buildings and fortifications.

Roc, Croatia

 

Hum

Hum is supposedly “The smallest town in the world” according to the Guiness Book of World Records. Searching the internet I found no direct references to that and, having seen smaller towns, I think the claim is a bit dubious.

Based on the above I didn’t know if we would like the town. And after arriving and seeing 1) a paid parking lot and 2) quite a lot of tourists I thought it might all be a bit of a tourist trap. But we were pleasantly surprised. Hum is very pretty, has some impressive medieval buildings and great views. Yes, it’s a bit touristy – there are a few guesthouses, a restaurant and bars, and some souvenir stores. But the atmosphere (in mid-May) was pleasant and the townspeople friendly. We really liked the town.

hum, croatia

 

 

So, based on the above, which should you visit?

If we had to chose 5, we recommend (in no order): Motovun, Oprtalj, Grožnjan, Završje and Hum. Each are unique, from touristy to abandoned, from well-kept to decrepit.

 

Have you visited an Istrian Hilltown? If so which was your favorite?

 
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Comments

  1. Enrico Pilande says:

    Hi Frank,
    Thank you so much for these beautiful photos of the hill towns of Istria! I really would love to put this in my
    travel wish list. I wonder if some of these towns can be reached by public transport like trains or buses from Croatia.
    I always enjoyed your stunning photos! As always, keep traveling! I envy your life of full vacations:-))
    Enrico

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Hi Enrico. Unfortunately no, you really have to rent a car in Istria as public transport very, very infrequent (if at all).
      Thank you for your very nice comment, I hope you get to visit Croatia.

  2. These small towns are very charming and remind me a lot of Italy. Sorry to hear about your stomach problems…I hope that you are fully recovered now? I think my favourite will have to be Groznjan, it just looks so quaint and pituresc there.

  3. These towns look great. I’d definitely visit Grožnjan because I love a good art scene and I find that artist communities are usually more open-minded.
    Dana Carmel recently posted…Where to Stay in Cartagena: Hotel KartaxaMy Profile

  4. Oprtalj, and Završje were two that we didn’t get to, so I’d choose those. The hilltop towns of Istria, were not what I expected at all. I was thinking they would be like Italian hilltop towns as they are so close geographically. Is that just me or did you feel that too?
    budget jan recently posted…Byron Bay Beautiful Beaches and a Meeting Place of CulturesMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      We haven’t visited too many Italian hilltop towns. San Gimignano comes to mind but that was very unique. How do you find them different? Do you have a preference?

      • I tried to put my finger on the differences and how I felt about them before I made this comment. I was thinking you might have noticed the difference. My gut feeling is that I prefer the Italian, but we were very rushed in Istria so I hate to make a rash judgement!
        budget jan recently posted…Byron Bay Beautiful Beaches and a Meeting Place of CulturesMy Profile

        • Frank (bbqboy) says:

          Hi Jan. I had to refresh my memory on Italian hilltowns (in Tuscany) and found this post. Of those we’ve been so San Gimignano, Cortona and Spanky went alone to Pienza. Actually you’re right: while the Istrian hilltowns are nice the hilltowns in Tuscany much more impressive. Cortona was one of our favorite Italian towns while San Gimignano is just covered in towers (which I love). So yes, I think Italy wins the vote for best hilltowns.

  5. As always, great pictures beautiful towns, we have to start planning a trip to Croatia at least for a month to see some of what you have seen and shown to us.
    Thank you again

    Carlos

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks so much Carlos. Hey, that’s fantastic!! 🙂 Happy you’ll be coming here, I think you’ll love it. If I could suggest something it would be (if you can) is to avoid July and August. May, June, September and October great months to visit Croatia and you’ll see less tourists.

      • During Summer on the Northern hemisphere we don’t vacation because my wife cannot stand those temperatures so, we try to travel in April-May, September-October however last year October for me was very cold in Vienna and Prague (for her: very good), and of course it is not that if you can suggest, I will be grateful of your suggestions.

        Thanks again

        • Frank (bbqboy) says:

          Good to hear, I guess works out for the best. Spanky feels the same way about those hot summer temperatures. Plus she hates crowds. For me as long as I get blue skies I’m happy 🙂

  6. As soon as l saw the pictures of Motovun, l loved it. I am pretty sure that is the one l would love to visit. They all so pretty though and seem frozen in time which l like. Hey..my last 2 comments on the last 2 posts are got no replies.. payback? 🙂 😉
    Kemkem recently posted…Fathom Cruise – why you should #traveldeepMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Oh darn, nailed me!! I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice. BUT I appreciate that, means you care. From now on EVERY one of your comments gets a reply 🙂
      By the way Kemkem – yesterday booked our flights into Lisbon. Arriving July 30 and planning most of August there. No idea for Sept and Oct but we’ll definitely have a 2nd base, maybe a 3rd during that time. So open to suggestions!! But one thing is for sure – we want to visit Sevilla and I’m thinking it would be a great base in the area as well. So I’m hoping we get to meet you and Fed and finally talk in person.

      • Now you’re scaring me..haha! Every one? 😉 . Around Lisbon for the month or Portugal for the month. Perhaps second base in the Algarve region for Sept, then bus down to Sevilla whenever you’re ready since it’s only a 2 hour bus ride. It would be awesome to finally meet and talk in person.. 😉
        Kemkem recently posted…Fathom Cruise – why you should #traveldeepMy Profile

  7. I love inland Istria. Glad you enjoyed it. Have you come across the ‘Glagolitic Trail’? A beautiful path with stone carved letters of the Glagolitic alphabet? It’s close to Hum…
    Andrea Pisac recently posted…How to enjoy a Croatian BBQ even if you‘re a vegetarianMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks Andrea. No, hadn’t heard of it. That’s a pretty area, very green and hilly…

  8. Ohhh, loved all these towns. My kind of places to get lost in. Završje looks a bit creepy, but in a good way 😉 It seems May is a great time to be in this area, unless you want to be fed, or should I say, non-stomach issue food….Eeeekkk!
    Paula recently posted…The Penthouse Suite, Vancouver – CanadaMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Završje was actually very close to the top of my list just because it was totally abandoned. I was thinking that it would REALLY be creepy to visit at night.

  9. Where are the women?

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      When you have Spanky you don’t need to see any other women.

      Seriously, they’re probably in the homes taking care of the families. Only us tourists walk up hills in the midday sun…

  10. Soumi Halder says:

    This is such a wonderful post …earlier this year while deciding on Croatia I realized I need more no.of days if I wanted to include the Istria region and I sure did not want to miss atleast a few of them.. Your post reaffirms my thoughts on the places to cover in Croatia whenever I visit ..

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Happy it helps Soumi.

      Istria is very different from most of Croatia and many people may not be as impressed by the geography by comparison. But we enjoyed it in a different way – it’s very green, the people friendly, and it’s great for a family-oriented vacation (Good beaches, great cycling).

  11. I feel guilty after reading this article! There is so much to see in the Balkans and I have only scratched the surface. Thanks for sharing!
    Gaz recently posted…Mike Spencer Bown – 193 countriesMy Profile

  12. great overview:) Motovun is really crowded during the film festival in the summer. there’s a cool festival in Buzet in september 🙂 I haven’t done Oprtalj:)
    Tanja (the Red phone box travels) recently posted…TRAVEL ARTICLE APP GIVEAWAYMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Yes, I hear Motovun and Groznjan get very, very busy. I was surprised by Groznjan because it’s a dirt road all the way up…then you get up there are it’s a pretty happening place.

  13. Hey Frank and Spanky, sorry for late response, I planned to comment it weeks ago but somehow I had forget it. 🙂 I’m so glad that you liked inland Istria and route that I have suggest to you.

    You noticed situation well, unfortunately there are many abandoned medieval towns in central Istria. Main reason is arriving of tourism in last century when many young people move to the coastline looking for jobs. It is continued with depopulation until today. It’s sometime sad to see these old, abandoned towns. Some of them has manage to make some story about itself (such as Motovun and Grožnjan) and bring a new life but they are rare.

    One of them that managed to keep itself alive is of course Motovun, it is the most famous medieval town in Istria and has that very popular film festival during the summer but anyway tourist season is short and even the Motovun looks a little bit spooky during the winter. Grožnjan is another exception, it has his own story which is different from stories of other towns mainly because of energy of one man, the legendary Croatian musician Boško Petrović. He was was started the festival “Jazz is Back!” in 1999 and his summer school of jazz. Grožnjan has become popular as town of culture and art, without that it will probably look pretty much as Završje.

    Buje and Buzet are different type of towns. They are big enough to remain alive, Buje is center of northern part of Istria and have some government institutions, schools and some industry. Buzet is long time known as one of the the richest towns in Croatia, there are some important factories and it literally doesn’t have unemployment.

    I’m not sure about Hum, there is common knowledge that it is “The smallest town in the world” according to the Guiness Book of World Records but it could be just one of our miths. Anyway Hum is very small, it has only 30 inhabitants but still preserved all the city’s institutions. The Hum has keep to this day the custom of choosing mayor for a year, all the inhabitants in the City Lodge engraving votes on the wooden stick, one with most votes is new mayor.

    You have visited some of the most interesting towns but there are more of them, I’m sure you will find something nice for next time. I have suggested one more route for next time, sou could follow it on find your own. If you are active people i suggest you take a bike and hit some of great istrian biking routes. Istria is full of good biking tracks and I’m sure you will love it. Yesterday I take a bike and ride one of them, here is some images from less known towns of Istria.

    1. Antenal
    2. Mirna valley
    3. Nova Vas
    4. Brtonigla in front
    5. Brtonigla
    Tripologia recently posted…Maroko, kružno putovanje s polaskom iz Zadra u Fez + Rabat + Casablanca + Marakeš, kompletan paket 7 dana, uključeni svi avioni, vlakovi i smještaji za samo 157€ ukupnoMy Profile

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback and information Gile. I always find it strange that tourism is so seasonal here in Croatia – we are in Split right now (a town we usually love) but are not loving it so much right now because of all the tourists. Last year we were here in April and May and loved it. This year (June and July) just too busy, prices high, and its just TOO hot. Shoulder seasons so nice in Croatia and I’m not sure why people don’t also come during that time of year.
      Frank (bbqboy) recently posted…June 30 Newsletter – Travel Plans, Brexit, and weird things people do on planes.My Profile

  14. I LOVE Croatia – I would love to do a similar trip next year.

    Quick question – Did you have a hard time finding parking? Was parking costly in these towns?

    Thank you

    • Frank (bbqboy) says:

      Actually that’s an excellent question!
      Hum and Motovun are the only ones where we had to pay (popular). Not expensive though. I had a story in Groznan where I found parking fine and when I went to drive back down I went up a dead end, right by one of the city gates. Had a heck of a time maneuvering out of there and I swear I had half the town staring at me as I backed the car up, thankfully not hitting anything. But I sweated – some of those towns not meant for car traffic. All the other towns had no major problem though.
      I’m not a super experienced driver so if I can do it you can too.
      Frank (bbqboy) recently posted…The place to stay in San Miguel de AllendeMy Profile

  15. Beautiful photographs.
    Next autumn, we plan to hunt for truffles in this region. The season of truffles here: from the middle of September to the middle of October.
    Victor recently posted…Magical Estonian Maritime Museum, Seaplane HarbourMy Profile

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