Heading up the west coast from Pula, the main road runs inland through the historic town of VODNJAN (Dignano), 11km north of Pula, with its warren of weatherbeaten

alleys gathered tightly around a time-worn main square. Vodnjan is famous for two things: the enduring presence of a large Italian-speaking community, and the well-preserved Vodnjan mummies -the desiccated bodies of various saints stored in the local St Blaise's Church (Crkva svetog Blaia; summer Mon-Sat 9am-7pm; winter, open when the priest is around), an eighteenth-century structure, built in imitation of Palladio's San Pietro in Castello, Venice, whose soaring campanile is the highest in Istria. Inside, the "mummies" are kept behind a burgundy-coloured curtain to the rear of the main altar. Originally stored in the church of San Lorenzo in Venice, they were brought to Vodnjan in 1818 for safekeeping after the monastic order that originally looked after them had been dissolved. Three complete and well-preserved bodies are laid out in glass cases, above which are stacked a range of smaller relics in a series of containers - one of which holds a twisted brown form reputed to be the torso and arm of St Sebastian. The most revered of the bodies is that of Leon Bembo the Blessed, a twelfth-century Venetian cleric and diplomat who gave up worldly pleasures for the monastic life, developing a reputation as a faith healer and sage. Beside him lie St Nikoloza of Koper (with a still-freshlooking garland of flowers round her head) and St Ivan Olini of Venice, both renowned medieval healers - popular belief maintains that there's a link between the saints' healing powers and the subsequent failure of their bodies to decompose.

The Collection of Sacral Art (Zbirka sakralne umjetnosti; same times as the church) in the sacristy has innumerable smaller relics, including one glass jar which, it's claimed, contains the lower jaw and tongue of St Mary of Egypt, a sixth-century Alexandrian courtesan who converted to Christianity and thereafter opted for a life of asceticism in the desert. The star exhibit, however, is Paolo Veneziano's early fourteenth-century polyptych of St Bembo the Blessed, a wooden board which originally served as the lid of Bembo's coffin. A series of scenes show Bembo exercising his healing powers; mighty bishops and nobles visiting Bembo's deathbed; and pilgrims paying homage to Bembo's miraculously preserved body. Buses from Pula to Pazin, Rovinj and Pore6 all pick up and drop off on the western edge of town, a short walk from the main square, where you'll find Vodnjan's tourist office at Narodni trg 3 (www.vodnjan.hr).The cosiest place to stay in town is the Pansion San Rocco, Sveti Roko 41, which has small, crisply furnished rooms with TV, the Wart agency on the opposite side of the road. For those with their own transport, Stancya Negri6ani, 8km north of Vodnjan and well signed from the northern end of town is one of the best rural hotels in the whole of Croatia. Set in a large stone farmhouse surrounded by forest, the en-suite rooms are all decorated in nineteenth-century style, with old wooden bedsteads and rustic furniture – but pristine modern bathrooms and TV The Stancija Negrizani's restaurant is open to non-residents, though advanced reservations are required. Back in town, you can tuck into hearty Croatian food at Pansion San Rocco, or at the superior Vodnjanka, on the main Pula–Pazin road at Istarska bb. The latter, whose interior is like a cross between a nineteenth-century barn and a kooky art gallery, serves up the best in local cuisine, including some filling fuzi-and njoki-based staples, and spicy Istrian sausages.


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