Our day got an early start in Zuntici, a village on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. The roosters, which might well outnumber nearby humans, began their most vigorous crowing at 5:00 a.m., and soon after that, light started creeping under the blackout shade. I put up a pot of espresso and opened my laptop on the centuries-old stone table on the porch.
Original to the limestone house that had been renovated around it, the table was roughly the size of the desk in my Brooklyn home office. Only here, the morning breeze rustled the canvas canopy and wisteria vine overhead, and released the scent of the curry plants in windowboxes that ran the width of the building. From my chair, beside a gray-blue shutter, I could see the deep-red roses climbing up the opposite end of the house, and a hitching post where occupants long ago might have secured their cow.
For breakfast I scrambled the farm-fresh eggs that a neighbor had delivered the previous evening. Not knowing any of the approximately 25 inhabitants of this village, my husband, Ken, and I were surprised when the doorbell rang. And though our city instincts were not to open it for strangers, we did this time for a man who introduced himself as Vladimir. “Marko asked me to give you these,” he said, holding out a plastic box of ten eggs, each a slightly different shade of beige and speckled with hay. They were from his free-range chickens.
After that we hardly minded the roosters. And though the eggs, sent by our Airbnb host, were a gracious gesture, we didn’t need them to appreciate these lodgings or this tiny town. During one month of travel in Croatia, we had passed through many like it – villages lost to time, with stone walls and abandoned houses. This home had stood empty for nearly 50 years, and others, nearby, still did.
Istria, which comprises 1,089 square miles in the western part of the country, is much more famous for its hilltop villages, fortified by Romans, Byzantines or Venetians in ancient times. Strategically important then, and major tourist attractions now, they are photogenic both from afar and up close. Heavy foot traffic to gelato stalls and souvenir shops, and a profusion of summer festivals, has turned their cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets slick and treacherous.
In Rovinj, for example, with its Baroque and Renaissance houses, it’s impossible to take the ten-minute walk from the marina up to the Church of St. Euphemia without being repeatedly hawked to book a boat tour, eat at an overpriced restaurant or patronize one of the many shops selling lavender, olive oil and mistletoe liqueur. Many residents have vacated, finding it more lucrative to offer their apartments in what has become a European summer playground.
By contrast, Zuntici (pronounced SHOON-ti-CHI), just eight miles east, is one of many uncelebrated, sparsely populated villages and hamlets undergoing a gradual revival, as old houses are being turned into holiday rentals. And it proved to be the perfect base for touring Istria, while giving us the experience of living in the countryside.
None of which we realized back in Brooklyn, when we spread out a map and chose Istria as a destination during our May trip to Croatia.
In fact, we arrived in Zuntici by a circuitous route that left me feeling a bit like Goldilocks, trying out three beds before she found one that was a perfect fit. Only in our case it involved moving between Airbnbs until we located one that felt like home.
That’s not counting the place in one of the renowned medieval villages where we didn’t even check in for our three-day reservation. That triplex, in Motovun, overlooking the verdant Mirna River Valley, turned out to be inaccessible with wheeled luggage from the designated parking area. Weary from a day of travel, we headed out of town and stopped at a truffle shop to inquire about the nearest hotel. (A dispute with our host, resolved through Airbnb 15 days later, resulted in a full refund.)
Holed up there for the night, we scanned available properties in what felt like a game of Airbnb roulette. The house we chose, with a swimming pool and hot tub, looked lovely and, more importantly, could be ready for us the following day. We programmed Google Maps with the address from the Airbnb listing to get us to the fortified village of Pican, about 20 miles southeast of where we had been. Due to the hilly terrain of Istria’s interior, the drive would take us an estimated 40 minutes.
But when we arrived in Pican, we couldn’t find the house. We phoned the host, told her we were standing in front of the old town gate, and asked if she could please tell us what to do next. “Oh no!” she replied. “The house isn’t in Pican. It’s in Krbune.”
At the first mention anywhere of what turned out to be a hamlet on the other side of the Valley of Cherbune, I asked her to spell the name. Then I inquired about longitude and latitude coordinates, because at this point Google Maps seemed to be as confused as we were. But unfortunately, our host was at the airport awaiting a flight to London and didn’t have them handy. So, in fluent English, she described the route, which involved going downhill, across the valley floor, and then up the other side. Twelve serpentine turns later, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably closer to 15 minutes, we reached our destination, opened the gate and retrieved the keys from the lockbox.
The view alone – of the plains of Arsa and the village of Pican perched on the opposite hilltop – was worth the journey. And as I watched the sunset from a chaise longue beside the pool, I thought I heard the grunt of a wild boar. From our bedroom we awoke the next morning to the same vista, there being no need to pull the drapes since there was absolutely no one around.
This was our introduction to the pleasures and practicalities of staying in a village – or in this case, a hamlet with a small 15th-century cemetery – lost to time. The house, renovated with old stone, offered privacy and tranquility, but access to the main roads that traverse Istria was challenging. Because to get anywhere from Krbune one needed to first traverse the hillside and then cross the valley.
By comparison, Hum, which professes to be the smallest town in the world (a claim that probably wouldn’t stand up to fact-checking), felt like a city. After poking around this popular tourist destination, and having a delicious, reasonably priced three-course lunch at Humska Konoba, we used the longitude and latitude coordinates, which we had by then recorded, to navigate back to Krbune.
The following day we resumed our schedule, with a one-week stay, arranged last February, in a house at the edge of a vineyard in Vidulini. When planning our 12 days in Istria, our initial strategy had been to make reservations in several locations, on various parts of the peninsula, that would also give us a variety of living experiences. Though it’s possible to get anywhere in Istria within an hour, the concept was to reduce the amount of time spent each day in the car and tour the places closest to each accommodation.
That idea fell apart when we canceled our reservation in Motovun, which is in the northern part of the peninsula. Soon after, and enough in advance to avoid penalties, we also canceled a two-night reservation in the old city of Pula, near the southern tip of Istria. The apartment photos and description reminded us of the one in Motovun and, with our Airbnb dispute still pending, we wanted to avoid similar problems.
Instead, we visited Pula on a day trip from Zuntici and had plenty of time to linger at the striking Roman arena there. Afterward we located the apartment that we had initially reserved; our instincts to cancel had been spot-on.
Central Istria, where Vidulini is situated, was a convenient base for some other spectacular day trips. In Groznjan – a hilltop village revived during the 1960s as an artists’ community – we lingered at a table overlooking the Mirna River Valley and ate a perfectly grilled steak at Mama Maria Restaurant. In the historic center of Porec, a seaside village, we ogled mosaics in the Euphrasian Basilica, which date to the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries.
Another highlight was seeing some of Croatia’s most famous frescoes – the Dance the Dead, at the church of St. Mary on Skriline. Painted during the 15th century, their message, that no one escapes death, seems especially poignant in light of the 21st-century pandemic. And our visit was fortuitous since we stumbled upon a restoration crew researching what’s needed to save this national treasure from the elements. They graciously let us wander around and photograph the murals illuminated with their spotlights.
Under other circumstances, one must make an appointment for the gatekeeper to open the church. Contact information is on a sign in the village of Beram, opposite the Konoba Vela Vrata. It’s worth a trip to this reasonably priced local tavern for their heavenly homemade egg pasta called fuzi, topped with truffles, which are dramatically shaved over each plate at the table.
Though the house in Vidulini was spacious, airy and well maintained, on days when we wanted some downtime, we didn’t have much peace. One side of the house faced an abandoned property, but on two others there were major renovations in progress. Throughout our stay, a backhoe and dump truck were in heavy use. This village, once lost to time, was clearly in transition.
Craving more time to explore Istria, toward the end of our stay in Vidulini we made some additional refinements in our itinerary. Cutting short an upcoming hotel reservation in the city of Zagreb, on the mainland, we combined those days with the two previously allocated to Pula, and booked six days at yet another Airbnb in the countryside. This time we achieved perfection, with the house in Zuntici.
Unlike other modern homes in this area, which are built on razed property, this one made use of the original stone and preserved details like the old well that still stands, next to the swimming pool, in the back of the house. For more than a generation it had been unoccupied. And in the course of our six days there, we pieced together snippets of the story behind it.
Maria Surkalovic, 75, the mother of our Airbnb host, inherited the house from her parents, who had been what we might call homesteaders. Originally from Dalmatia, they had moved to the peninsula before World War II. At the time, Istria was part of Italy, and the government was offering newcomers land, a house and a two-year reprieve from taxes. The family doesn’t know when the house was built. It is attached to four, now independently owned, buildings, that at one time were constructed by a previous owner for each of his children. And when Maria was four the family moved to Rovinj, then an industrial center, because, she told me, “We couldn’t support ourselves from the land.”
For 90 years, a train, opened in 1876 when Istria was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ran through Zuntici, connecting it with Rovinj to the west, and Kanfanar, to the east. Last year, the 13-mile stretch of railway, abandoned since 1966, opened as a bike path and pedestrian walkway. Living in close proximity to what is now a greenway was an unanticipated benefit of staying in Zuntici.
Hiking two miles in the direction of Rovinj, we passed fields of poppies and daisies; trees with wild cherries dangling from their branches; and Maria Surkalovic’s olive groves. The fall harvest yields enough fruit to supply the family with oil for the year.Along our route we noticed twisted remnants of tracks, with markings that indicate they were manufactured in Austria in the early 20th century. Newer ones, covered with gravel, became visible after a heavy rain. If only these tracks could speak: This region had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II. It’s not clear whether locals or invaders tore up the old tracks, but they bear the marks of sabotage. During this time, Maria Surkalovic told us, her mother had hidden in various train stations.
Today the station in Zuntici has been converted to a sterile-looking modern home. In the absence of zoning rules, renovations in these towns have resulted in a hodgepodge of styles.
For their part, the Surkalovic family are preservationists. As Croatia became a popular tourist destination, Maria and her husband, who died last year, began to renovate the old house, doing all the stonework themselves. With the help of her son Marko, who with his wife, Dunja, owns a real estate company in Rovinj, since 2013 she has rented it as a holiday home. When full, the three-story structure, with four bedrooms (each with an en suite bath) can hold ten people, which would significantly increase the population of the village, Marko notes.
Future plans include renovation of the attached barn, with its stone troughs, to create a large family room adjacent to the kitchen. It would open onto the backyard, where there is already a large wooden table and gas grill. In a nod to 21st-century technology, this is a “smart house,” with various internet-enabled controls.
These features resulted in our having more contact with our hosts than we do in a typical Airbnb rental. First there was the matter of the faulty battery backup in the burglar alarm that we were not using because it seemed superfluous given where we were. When it began to loudly chirp every 57 seconds, starting at 5 a.m. on our first morning in the house, we decided it was a lot less charming than the already crowing roosters. Several hours later, Marko arrived to fix it.
Another morning it occurred to us, during a cold shower, that the hot-water system defaulted to solar energy, and correctly deduced that monsoon-like rain and a 30-degree temperature drop made it necessary to activate an electric backup. With the mechanicals behind a locked door, it was again Marko to the rescue. He apologized profusely for the inconvenience, not realizing how much I appreciated each opportunity to pepper him with questions about the house.
On other days, which were without incident, we ran into him and his family across the street, tending a small garden with grapevines and cherry trees on another piece of land they own. When Maria accompanied them, she brought us a bottle of the family’s home-pressed olive oil. We were starting to feel like villagers.
Like them, we shopped at the Valalta (a local supermarket chain) in Rovinjsko Selo, which sells everything from water shoes and Italian espresso makers to freshly dug potatoes, and also has an excellent butcher. It’s less than two miles away, along what locals call the “white,” meaning unpaved, road that leads out of Zuntici. Since our rental car contract specifically prohibited us from going off surface roads, we took the longer way – on Route 303, which is the east-west road that runs into Rovinj.
It was an apt metaphor for our meandering route through Istria. What began as a destination had become a journey.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.