You don't need to travel away from the sea for long before the hotels and flash apartments give way to rustic villages of heavy grey-brown stone, many of them perched high on hillsides, a legacy of the times when a settlement's defensive position was more important than its access to cultivable land. The landscape is varied, with fields and vineyards squeezed between pine forests and orchards of oranges and olives. It's especially attractive in autumn, when the hillsides turn a dappled green and auburn, and the hill villages appear to hover eerily above the early morning mists.

Istria's hilltop settlements owe their appearance to the region's borderland status. Occupied since Neolithic times, they were fortified and refortified by successive generations, serving as strongholds on the shifting frontier between Venice and Hungary, or Christendom and the Ottoman Turks. They suffered serious depopulation in the last century, first as local Italians emigrated in the 1940s and 1950s, then as the rush for jobs on the coast began in the 1960s. Empty houses in these half-abandoned towns have been offered to painters, sculptors and musicians in an attempt to keep life going on the hilltops and stimulate tourism at the same time — hence the reinvention of Motovun and Grožnjan in particular as cultural centres.

Istria's administrative capital, Pazin, is the hub of the bus network and, although it's the least attractive of the inland towns, it's the nearest base for visiting the fifteenth-century frescoes in the nearby village of Beram. Of the hill settlements, Motovun and Buzet are accessible by bus from Pazin or Pula, but you'll need your own transport to make side-trips to the likes of Grolujan, Oprtalj and Hum. The train line from Pula to Divaca in Slovenia (where you change for Ljubljana or Zagreb) can be useful, visiting Pazin before passing close to Hum, Roc and Buzet, although a certain amount of walking is required to get to the last three.

The mass-tourist industry is much less evident here than on the coast: there are hotels in Motovun, Istarske Toplice and Buzet, and an increasing amount of the cosy farmhouse accommodation that the area seems to be made for. However, the relatively unspoiled nature of inland Istria has made it a magnet for aspirant second-home owners — cries of "Istria: the new Tuscany" are beginning to reverberate around central Europe, and real-estate prices are going through the roof as a result.

 

Pazin and Beram

Lying in a fertile bowl bang in the middle of the Istrian peninsula, unassuming PAZIN is an unlikely regional capital. A relatively unindustrialized provincial town, it was chosen following World War II by Yugoslavia's new rulers, who were eager to establish an Istrian administration far away from the Italianate coastal towns — the choice of Pazin was a deliberate slap in the face for cosmopolitan Pula. Although fairly bland compared to Istria's other inland towns, Pazin does boast a couple of attractions, most notably its medieval castle and the limestone gorge below, and it's also a useful base from which to visit the renowned frescoes in the nearby church at Beram.

Arriving at Pazin's train and bus stations, it's a straightforward downhill walk along the tree-lined Setaligte Pazinske Gimnazije towards the inoffensive, largely low-rise centre, beyond which rises the castle, a stern ninth-century structure, remodelled many times since, and one of the main reasons why Pazin never fell to the Venetians. Inside there's the Istrian Ethnographic Museum, with a fine collection of traditional Istrian costumes housed in atmospheric medieval galleries, along with a wide-ranging display of rural handicrafts and a mock-up of a kitchen featur, ing the traditional Istrian kamin (hearth), a fire laid on an open brick platform around which the cooking pots were arranged.

The castle overhangs the gorge of the River Fojba below, where a huge abyss sucks water into an underground waterway which resurfaces towards the coast This chasm was supposed to have prompted Dante's description of the gateway to Hell in his Inferno, and inspired Jules Verne to propel one of his characters —Matthias Sandorf from the eponymous book, published in 1885 — over the side of the castle and into the pit. In the book, Sandorf manages to swim along the subterranean river until he reaches the coast — a feat probably destined to remain forever in the realms of fiction.Verne himself never came to Pazin, contenting himself with the pictures of the castle posted to him by the mayor. Back in the town centre, the plain exterior of St Nicholas's Church (Crkva svetog Nikole) conceals a thirteenth-century core; the sanctuary vaulting is filled with late fifteenth-century frescoes, mostly showing Old Testament scenes, although there's a fine depiction of a sword-wielding St Michael in the central panel.

 

Beram

Six kilometres west of Pazin, just off the road to Porec and Motovun, BERAM is an unspoilt hilltop village with moss-covered stone walls and some of the finest sacred art in the region. One kilometre northeast of the village is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rocks (Crkvica svete Marije na skriljinah), a diminutive Gothic church with a set of frescoes dating from 1475, signed by local artist Vincent of Kastay. The key (k1juc) to the chapel is kept by a villager, usually at house no. 22 or no. 33 in the centre (there are no street names). If you ask in Pazin, the tourist office may ring ahead to ensure that there's someone waiting in Beram for you. It's polite to give a small sum of money to the keyholder in lieu of an entrance fee.

Of the many well-executed New Testament scenes which cover the chapel interior, two large frescoes stand out. The marvellous, eight-metre-long equestrian pageant of the Adoration of the Kings reveals a wealth of fine detail - dis-ships, mountains, churches and wildlife - strongly reminiscent of early Flamish painting, while on the west walla Dance of Death is illustrated with macabre clarity against a blood-red background: skeletons clasp scythes and

Blow trumpets, weaving in and out of a Chaucerian procession of citizens led the pope. A rich merchant brings up the rear, greedily clinging to his posins while indicating the money with which he hopes to buy his freedom.


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