On a previous visit to the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia, we had, by total coincidence, discovered the small town of Groznjan. When driving through the wine region of Istria, we stayed in Motovun, which lately has become a popular venue for presenting an annual International Film Festival. The two hilltop towns are some twenty kilometres apart.
It is a clear late August morning when we arrive in Groznjan. A deep blue sky with isolated white marshmallow clouds forms the backdrop to this stage in stone. The town has survived two near wipe-outs: the first during the bubonic plague in the seventeenth century and the second chance was in the 1960’s when Italy gave up Istria and the town was abandoned by Italian residents who left Istria permanently.
Today it has become an artists’ colony. This is the result of the Croatian government’s effort to save abandoned hill towns since their independence struggle. In paying a low subsidised rent since 2004, the artists moved in and soon a vibrant community came about. This specific concept of establishing an original artist community has already been successfully executed in San Gimignano in Chianti Tuscany, Rocamadour in the Bordeaux-wine country, Szentendre near Budapest and Monschau in western Germany.
Wandering through this unique picture-perfect pedestrianised little hill town, the artistic flair of everything strikes us: flower pots with red geraniums, individually created art signage in front of each little gallery and music that escorts you as you walk through the narrow cobble-stoned uneven and winding alley-ways, lined with cute shops selling high quality original art, jewellery, food and wine.
We taste some local Malvasia white and Plavac Mali red cultivars. We meet some winemakers and give them some background on the South African wine industry. Next door an old lady is selling her homemade breads, deeply coloured honey and cheeses: sheep’s feta, mozzarella and brie. At this moment a man in his late-forties is standing in the doorway, replying in a heavy Italian accent. “You stay at family hotel? I grow up there … “And then we start talking as if old mates at a school reunion. The Chianti wine shop in Via San Giovanni, the Concreta shop selling the black and white cats, the hidden gem, Cum Quibus Trattoria, the il Duomo’s bell tower with the magnificent view over this little Manhattan .
Walking down a cobbled street, we arrive at a junction. About to turn left, we suddenly hear a classical piano playing from a top storey. We follow the music until the end of the narrow alley. A young girl, aged about ten years, is busy forming ceramic objects in front of a studio. “Who is playing the piano?” I ask. Realising that she will obviously not understand English, I immediately resort to mimic actions playing the piano and pointing my hand to the open window upstairs with the blue louvres. “It’s my father, Giuseppe”, she answers fluently. Explaining that her mother is from Bath and her father from San Gimignano, we immediately have mutual interests. For many years, this Tuscan village with the thirteen stone towers has been one of our favourite Italian destinations, and at least we can communicate with one another! We talk about our last visit staying in the Pensione La Cisterna, facing the fountain-well on the tiny square. Next we are invited to join him at his lunch performance at his brother’s restaurant Bastai, behind the blue wooden doors . We are offered a complimentary table for two. Blue and white chequered table cloths on some tables, the rest in cheery shades of predominantly blue hues. The blues of Gershwin’s jazz, performed with great sensitivity by Giuseppe, compliments the décor . and needless to say, his interpretations of various jazz compilations come off with flying colours. His fingers dance on the black keys. The upright, with a distinct later addition of an artistically painted panel is positioned in the covered corner of the courtyard. The theme of the artwork is an improvisation of a Picasso musician.
Forever, this sleepy Croatian hill town will live in our minds as Giuseppe’s Groznjan!
Johann Beukes is CEO of SURE Etnique Travel & TRAVELwithus in South Africa