Jewel of Istria

My eyes dance as I gaze upon the old town, its houses in pastel colours pressed together and fastened with surviving fortress walls. The terracotta roofs contrast the horizon blue sky. Tracing the contours of this ancient village is the broad Riviera, where tourists and locals promenade the café-lined shore. One feels the rhythmic pulse of this place strolling through its cobblestoned avenues. Every stone, every inscription, every doorway tells the history of this town. Rovigno is on the cusp of the real and the imaginary. I sought refuge here and the town’s open gates welcomed me.

I was born in Sarajevo, a bustling metropolis full of tolerance and cultural diversity, in the heart of former Yugoslavia. My vibrant community cracked while the world gaped at media reports of Balkan barbarism. I played hide-and-seek amidst the rubble and sniper shots. In the deafening silence between bombardments, my parents and I fled the siege of our city. With the help of old friends, we escaped westward to the Istrian peninsula in northern Croatia, to the seaside town of Rovigno.

The triangular peninsula has been at a crossroads between Central Europe, Italy, and the Balkans. It has passed through the hands of the Venetian Republic, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mussolini’s Italy, Yugoslavia, and now Croatia. But the glory of these recent occupiers is shadowed by centuries of Venetian rule over Istria’s coastal towns. In the thirteenth century, the Venetian Republic took over Istria’s western ports, establishing a link to the East, and ruled in this region until the end of the eighteenth century. As a result, Rovigno became more Italian in both culture and population.

Nowhere is Rovigno’s multiethnic soul more pronounced than in the multitude of dialects one hears on the Riviera. The locals communicate in the Istrian dialect, a concoction of Italian and Croatian, specific to the town’s geographical position. A sensitive ear even picks up traces of Venetian, the dialect of a fallen empire, passed through generations of fishermen, scholars, and merchants.

Rovigno’s strategic location was promising for the Venetian Republic and it became wealthy as a result of trade. Stone quarries around Rovigno were the most important source of stone for Venice. Many civic and religious buildings in Venice, such as the Palazzo Ducale, the buildings on Saint Mark’s square, and the church of Santa Maria Della Salute, were built from the white stone of Rovigno’s quarries. This cross-Adriatic exchange left an imprint of Venetian influence on Istrian coastal settlements. Renaissance palazzi and former Venetian seats of government loom over Rovigno’s main town square.

Their interiors are decorated with coats of arms of Venice’s prominent families. The exteriors proudly display marble plaques with carved reliefs showing the Lion of Saint Mark. This winged animal was emblazoned on the gates and in the courtyards of subject cities. Passing under Balbi’s Arch, an elaborately carved gate to the old town, the conspicuous Saint Mark’s Lion greets the visitor again. The lion holds an open book, which means that Rovigno accepted Venetian rule without war. Each haunting corner speaks of the glories of the Serenissima.

I rush up the stairs of Grisia Street, Rovigno’s major artery that is spotted with art galleries. I slip through tiny side streets and, breathless, reach the town’s pinnacle. Rovigno arose as a town beneath a small hill on whose highest point today stands the baroque church and accompanying seventeenth-century campanile of Sant’Eufemia, the town’s patron saint. The church’s front façade is a symphony of undulating pilasters owing its beauty to a Venetian architect.

The tower itself is modeled according to the famous Venetian Saint Mark’s campanile. The view from Sant’Eufemia’s campanile balcony encompasses the entire Adriatic Sea. Looking northward, rugged mountains act as a theatrical backdrop to the silent water. Though the earth’s curvature hides her presence, I know that Venice lies in serenity on the opposite shore. I stir from the warmth of my reminiscence as a chill wind sweeps the vastness of Lake Ontario. A burst of gold on the horizon catches my eye: a glimmer of Saint Mark’s dome or the trickery of nostalgia? 

Written by Anja Karisik