During my visit to Croatia, I had the lovely experience of visiting Grožnjan, known as the “Town of Artists”. Grožnjan (pronounced roughly “Grosh-nyan”) is situated in an area called Istra.
Driving through Istra reminded me of road trips through New Hampshire or Vermont. Huge areas of land are completely covered by forest; other areas contain small family-owned farms where sheep are found sleeping in the shade under olive trees. Road side produce stands are sprinkled here and there, selling vegetables, cheese, honey and olive oil. And way up on a hill is an ancient stronghold town made of stone and clay buildings, overlooking this pristine landscape.
My father in law, born in Croatia during World War II, told me the story of Istra and how the town of Grožnjan owes its vitality to artists.
Grožnjan was once part of Italy, owned by the Venetian republic for most of its 800 year history. Its inhabitants were almost wiped out by plague in 1630, but was revitalized when Venetian tradesman and artisans settled there and began to maintain and improve the town.
After World War II, Italy’s borders were redrawn making Istra part of Yugoslavia (now Croatia). For the second time, the town of Grožnjan was nearly wiped out. As the Italian residents moved out, the town was nearly desserted.
With so many homes left abandoned, local Croatian artists began using the empty buildings for studio space. Istra was relatively secluded at the time; the few remaining residents were primarily farmers. Grožnjan was particularly attractive to artists because of its location overlooking the inspiring and beautiful landscape and because of the availability of nice, quiet, and most importantly free living/working space. The area of Istra became a magnet for painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers.
Soon Grožnjan was “taken over” by artists who became very protective of the town’s integrity, its aesthetic appearance and its environment. Istra’s economy is still primarily agricultural, so the landscape has remained pretty much unchanged. Residents of Grožnjan have also made sure to preserve the town’s historical identity and appearance. Other than electrical wires which cannot be hidden, there are really no outward signs of modern technology visible in the town. You will not see air conditioners hanging out of windows, satellite dishes on rooftops, neon signs or traffic lights anywhere in Grožnjan. This is because the residents have passed ordinances banning these things.
Once again this is a prosperous town, drawing tourists and visitors as well as being the permanent home of many artists and musicians. The International Cultural Center for Young Musicians has a base here and the Academy of Dramatic Arts, University of Zagreb has established summer programs in Grožnjan.
I love the fact that this town is occupied and governed almost entirely by artists. I love that they make laws to protect the town’s aesthetic… who else would do that? Mostly I love the community that embraces all forms of art – from fine art/visual arts to music to performance art. Street signs are hand painted ceramic instead of the usual printed metal. Carved stone benches are everywhere, just so you can sit and take in the view. Film festivals, ballet recitals and concerts provide a constant rythm like the town’s heartbeat.
Walking through the streets, you may pass a ceramics studio, a printshop, a music school and a theater; then stop for coffee and chat with local artists or tourists. When you’ve finished your espresso and possibly a little ice cream (Don’t worry, the climb up and down the main road will burn off most of those calories!), you may want to see a bead-making demonstration, check the schedules for the next jazz festival or yoga class, and maybe even purchase a unique piece of art before heading back home.
Our family travels to Croatia every other summer, and each time I try to visit at least one or two places I haven’t seen before. But sometimes I find a place that I want to visit again and again. Guess where I’ll be headed next time?