Of all the towns along the Istrian coast, Vrsar is probably my favourite. Set on a steep hillside, over-looking its harbour, it is a beautiful sight. With its old buildings and narrow streets, this small town is a wonderful place for an afternoon stroll, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the glorious views. I’ve been many times, but for this visit I went with my friend Natalija from the Vrsar Tourist Office, to discover more about this Adriatic gem.
Up we go …
Until the 19th century, Vrsar only covered the top of the hill and was safely tucked behind city walls. Today, it cascades down the hillside to the harbour below, which was where we started our walk. After a stroll by the sea, admiring the fishing boats (and the gin palaces), we headed to the old town, up one of Vrsar’s two impressive stone staircases. Running straight up the hillside, these were built to link the harbour with the town on the hill-top.
After a climb, which reminded me how unfit I am, I was delighted to pause and catch my breath. “It must keep you fit living here,” I gasped, as we admired the view below. “It’s why all Vrsar women have such good legs,” laughed Natalija, who climbs these stairs every day.
My heart rate settling back to normal, we prepared to enter the old town. Originally, there were three gates through the wall: only two remain and we went through the ‘small’ gate. But before we did, we stopped to admire the pretty church of St. Anthony, standing close-by. “There was a church next to each gate,” explained Natalija. “Every evening, after mass, the town gates would be closed and anyone arriving after this would have to spend the night in the church.”
Like its gate, St. Anthony’s is small and, with its stone porch, is an excellent example of the 17th century churches dotted all over Istria. “The porches, or loggias, were extremely important,” explained Natalija. “Not only were they where people stood who could not fit inside during services, they were also where you stood if you were carrying arms. At other times, they were meeting places for conducting town business, such as court trials and council meetings. And of course, it’s where all the business deals were done!”
… to the old town …
Having caught our breath, we went through the arched 13th century gateway into the town’s main square. Originally the stout gates were made of hard Istrian oak. Bound with iron, they were strong enough to withstand a pounding. Today, they’re a ragged remnant, incapable of closing, let-alone protecting the town!
Vrsar has been occupied since prehistoric times and traces of Palaeolithic and Neolithic settlements have been found near both gates. By Roman times it had become an important market and harbour town, with its port shipping produce all over the Roman world.
Over the centuries a maze of narrow streets and small squares developed, making it a lovely place to roam and explore today. Look closely and you’ll spot a wide range of architectural styles and interesting features.
Natalija grew up in one of the tall houses near the square and her two children were born here. “These houses are beautiful to look at,” she said, “but oh so impractical for modern life. We had no air-conditioning, so in summer we lived with the windows open – and Vrsar’s a classic Mediterranean town, with lots of comings and goings, so it was always noisy. I love visiting the old town, but I’m so glad I don’t live here anymore.”
We gradually wound our way up the hill and came out next to the main church and Bishop’s Palace, where we stopped for a drink and a dose of history.
… with its wealth of history …
For over six hundred years, Vrsar belonged to the Bishop of Porec and the bishops built a summer palace here: a place they could retreat to in the heat of the summer, or to escape outbreaks of plague and disease in Porec. It started as a simple building in the 12th century and over the years, each bishop added to it so that by the late 18th century, it was a large imposing structure.
The bishops liked Vrsar so much that several of them chose to live here, rather than in their official palace in Porec. As the Bishop of Porec was an extremely important person, second only to the Pope, Vrsar became an important and influential town.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, when Istria formed part of the Venetian Republic, Vrsar remained the Bishop’s property. It was exempt from Venetian taxes and laws, and developed such a reputation as a refuge for people on the run from Venetian law, it was known as the ‘Refugium Banditorum’ or outlaw’s refuge.
That didn’t mean Vrsar was a lawless place. As Natalija explained, it was quite the opposite. “We have a long document from 1609,” she said, “which shows it was a strictly regimented and policed society. For example, all the inns were regularly checked to ensure they served good quality wine, and people could only stay in the town if they were invited by a resident.” While Vrsar might not have been the refuge for brigands its nickname suggested, it certainly must have been an irritation to Venice!
Being part of the Bishopric wasn’t all good news, though: while the Vrsari might have been exempt from Venetian tax, they still paid it to the Bishop; also, as a document from 1577 shows, ‘The peasants of Vrsar are obliged to carry the Bishop’s luggage, without any charge, whenever the Bishop is coming to the castle or leaving it.’ It’s hard enough climbing up Vrsar’s steep hill: imagine doing it carrying all the Bishop’s paraphernalia and getting nothing for your toil!
Today the Bishop’s Palace has come down in the world. “By the turn of this century, it was in a terrible state and nearly fell down,” said Natalija. “There were hopes to restore it and use part of it as an art gallery, but unfortunately this never happened. Instead, it has become expensive apartments … but at least it’s still standing.”
… and stunning views
Lying next to the Bishop’s Palace, you’d expect the town’s main church to be equally ancient: but St. Martin’s is a relatively modern building, which runs across the site of the old town walls and a Romanesque gate. It’s a rather bland, uninteresting building, which I feel the people of Vrsar weren’t totally committed to – it certainly took them long enough to finish. While the foundations were laid in 1804, it wasn’t consecrated until 1935. And the bell tower next door (which was in the original plans), wasn’t actually built until 1991!
Having walked all the way up to the church, you may be tempted to call it a day – especially if it’s hot (which is what I’d done on my first few visits) – but please, please go on. For me, the area beyond the church, past the Bishop’s Palace, is Vrsar’s crowning glory – going left takes you along the rim of the hill and then back round into the town through some characterful narrow streets; right takes you through a beautiful mish-mash of stone cottages and little gardens. And while it might have been quite a hike up the hill, it’s worth it for the stupendous views over the sea from the top, behind the church. The crystal blue sea is dotted with green islets: to the left, you can see the marina, full of sails; while below and to the right, on the edge of town, is the lovely wooded Montraker headland.
Today this high part of Vrsar is a very desirable place to live, but it wasn’t always so, as Natalija explained. “Originally this area, outside the town walls, was where the animals were kept in barns and stalls. In the mid-1950s attitudes started changing and the area was discovered by the educated, professional classes from the cities – doctors, lawyers, etc., who converted the barns into holiday homes. Artists and wealthy foreigners followed, and today it is one of the most expensive areas of real estate in the whole of Istria.” It just shows how values change!
An award-winning marina …
“The marina’s an important part of Vrsar,” said Natalija, “and we’re all very proud of it.” Built in 2001, it has 200 moorings and regularly wins the award for the best marina in the the Adriatic. Not surprisingly, all the moorings have long since been sold and there is a long, long waiting list.
… and highly-prized stone
Vrsar’s other big claim to fame is that Montraker supplied much of Venice’s decorative stone. “Because of its whiteness and exceptional quality, it was highly prized for carving,” Natalija explained.
Today, the quarry is totally overgrown and the attractive, rocky promontory is Vrsar’s main beach area, but its past isn’t forgotten. “Every year, in the first two weeks of September, we celebrate it with a sculpture school in the old quarry,” she said. “Art students come to learn and, while you can’t take part, you can watch. I love going: it’s fascinating watching the sculptures emerge from the stone.”
The finished works are displayed all over the town, with new ones added each year. The first place you’ll probably notice them is on the harbour-front, where they’re used as bollards, but start looking and you’ll find them scattered all over the town: there’s now nearly 100 in total.
So many reasons to visit
As well as the sculpture school in September, there’s always something happening in Vrsar. Here’s just a sample:
- Casanova Fest: Casanova visited Vrsar twice and is the inspiration for this three-day festival, at the end of June.
- Montraker Live: three-day rock concert in late July. I attended last year – see what I thought (it was fantastic!)
- Summer music: there’s ‘Sea and Guitars’ in the old church near the sea, every Thursday; concerts in the main church on Wednesdays, and various other small out-door events in beauty spots around the town.
If all this walking has given you an appetite, Vrsar has plenty of restaurants to choose from, mainly gathered near the harbour. Vrsar has great fresh seafood and I’d recommend seafood specialists Srdela. Alternatively, why not try either Fancita, with dynamic chef Paolo, or up and coming Monte Carlo, both with top-class cuisine. As you’ll see from our reviews, we’ve eaten in all three of these restaurants and had fantastic meals.
… and more
Natalija’s also keen to stress Vrsar is a great place to stay. “The town’s so compact, everything is easily accessible on foot, so you don’t need a car,” she said. While I don’t have specific recommendations, there’s a good selection of campsites, hotels and self-catering accomodation. For details, look on the Vrsar Tourist Office website, which also a great place for more information on the town and things to do in the area.
“And when you arrive, do pop in and see us,” concluded Natalija, with a smile. “Our office is next to the small gate, on the edge of the old town. We’re here to help you make the most of your stay and ensure you have a wonderful time in Vrsar!”