Imagine, for a moment, an ideal seaside-holiday town. First, it needs to be the right size: big enough to have things to see and do; yet small enough to be easily explored on foot. Obviously, it should be centred around a picturesque harbour, with fishermen working from small boats. Attractive old streets with colourful houses, but with modern amenities, are a must: as are clean beaches and a sparkling blue sea. With little traffic and just the right number of other tourists to provide atmosphere, you should be able to wander in a relaxed fashion. Yet the place shouldn’t feel like a museum: it needs a heart and soul. Sounds good? Let’s push things a little further, by adding impressive town walls and a smattering of attractive green spaces. How about some great cafes and restaurants, with excellent seafood? Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Welcome to Novigrad, one of my favourite Istrian seaside towns. I took a stroll with my friend Duška, who grew up here, to find out more.
New name for an ancient town
The first surprise from Duška was about Novigrad’s name. Novigrad is Croatian for ‘new town’ (in Italian it’s called Cittanova), so I assumed Novigrad was relatively modern. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Romans founded a town here called Emona and before that, there was a Greek settlement. In the 6th century it was called Neapolis and then Civitas Nova. The first written record of the town being called Novigrad-Cittanova dates from 599.
The ‘new town’ theme runs through most of these names and, as Duška explained, arose because the old town totally disappeared. “Legend has that it sank into the sea,” she said, “and a ‘new town’ was built in its place.” Historians think it actually was an old unloading port known as Villa Rustica whch sank.
Looking at Novigrad’s location, you can see this is highly likely. Like many ancient Istrian settlements, Novigrad was founded on a coastal island. In this case, an island among marshes where the River Mirna flowed into the sea. In such a boggy place, subsidence must have been a major problem (as it is today in Venice), so it wouldn’t be surprising if, at some time, the settlement simply sank beneath the waves.
“When I was a child, there were old people who said they had seen the roofs of the sunken town,” said Duška. “It was in an unusual bay with a muddy bottom, just outside town.” (The rest of Novigrad’s coastline is rocky.) “But we’ll never know,” she added sadly, “as it’s now where the new marina lies. When they built it, they blasted the sea bottom to create the depth needed and, if there were any ruins down there, they were blown away.”
As we set off towards the ‘old town’, Duška explained that the island was only connected to the mainland in the 18th century, by a raised causeway. Over time, the marshes were drained, the land reclaimed and the town spread inland. The marshes finally disappeared in the 1980s and, today, Novigrad sits on a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic.
Ancient walls …
Architecturally, Novigrad’s most striking feature is its town walls, which still encircle the original island settlement (now Novigrad’s ‘old town’). With their crenulations, they look like something from a film set, so I cynically thought they were a rather overdone modern restoration. But no: Duška was adamant, they are the real deal. “Built on the ruins of far older walls, they were built in the 13th century,” she explained. While I stood trying to accept this amazing age, she then admitted, with a grin, that she had perhaps stretched things a little. “Obviously they’ve been renewed several times,” she said. “This set of walls are much newer: they only date from the 16th century!”
We walked down Gradska Vrata (Town Gate street), passing the once impressive square stone tower – the original town gate. Duška is very proud of it, but it took me a moment to spot what she was showing me, as little of it remains (another victim to subsidence, I suspect).
… attractive old town …
The walk through the old town was very pretty. Many of the old houses are painted bright colours, and dotted here and there are some lovely buildings. The town’s various rulers (the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, French, Austrians and Italians) have all left their mark on the town, creating a wonderful architectural mish-mash.
Passing through the small main square, with its flag-bedecked town hall, we came to Novigrad’s main church – the church of St. Pelagius and St. Maxmilian – and its tall bell tower, both built at the end of the 19th century. Modelled on the bell tower of St. Mark’s in Venice, the tower is crowned with a statue of St. Pelagius, the town’s patron saint. “In summer, you can climb to the top,” said Duška, “The view’s wonderful.”
From the outside, the church is a fairly unimpressive late 19th century construction. But this relatively modern building hides extremely ancient roots. A basilica was built here very early and, from the 5th to the 19th century, Novigrad was a bishopric.
“According to local legend,” said Duška, “When the bishops were finally expelled from Novigrad, they cursed the town. But don’t worry, the curse is due to end this year.” It wasn’t the curse which worried me – it doesn’t seem to have done the town any harm – but the level of bad feeling that must have been directed against the bishops!
Over the centuries, the church has been built and rebuilt on the same site. (Another victim of subsidence? Or just changing fashion?) and it still has an impressive early Romanesque crypt. One of only a few in Croatia and unique in Istria, it is apparently worth seeing (unfortunately, it was locked when we visited).
… world-class carvings …
At the end of the 19th century, archaeologists excavated the crypt, hoping to find Roman mosaics. Instead, they found a range of broken stone carvings, which had been used as foundation material in one of the rebuilding phases. Some came from 1st century Christian burials, but most exciting were carvings from the 8th century basilica. These date from Novigrad’s most influential period, when Dux Iohannes (Duke Ivan) was the commander of Istria and ruled the whole peninsula from here. Money was no object and these are some of the highest quality Carolingian carvings ever found in Europe.
Today, they are housed in a purpose-built museum: the Lapidarium, next to the church. Beautifully presented and lit, they are quite simply awesome. If you see nothing else in Novigrad, go see these carvings and wonder at the lost building which was once full of them!
… lovely sea views …
Leaving the Lapidarium, we walked round to the front of the church and found ourselves in a park, above the sea. “This is a very popular place to get married,” said Duška. And I could see why: with its pines, greenery and the sea beyond, it is simply a lovely location.
We walked down, through one of the town gates to the sea shore, passed a row of cafes and restaurants overlooking the bay, and stopped at the cafe ‘Vitriol’. “This is the place to come and watch the sunset,” said Duška, as we were warmly welcomed by owner, Orieta.
As we sat over our drinks and admired the view, I asked Duška how Novigrad has managed to remain so unspoilt. “Novigrad has a very strong community spirit and town council,” she said. “The town’s always investing, seeking to improve. It probably helps that it is such a small place where everyone knows everyone else. It makes us all pull together.”
One thing she’s extremely proud of is that Novigrad came top of the list of Croatia’s most desirable town’s in 2013 and, for a town of its size, was judged to have the best quality of life. “We’re always in the top five,” she said. “But, it’s great to win and it just confirms what I’ve always said: Istria’s the best place to live in the world, and Novigrad’s the best place in Istria!”
… picturesque harbour …
A short stroll and we were walking beside the attractive old fishing harbour, an area known as Mandra?, with the new marina behind it. “This is the heart of the town,” said Duška, “and during the summer a lot of events are held here. While I’m sad that the construction of the marina may have destroyed some significant underwater archaeology, I’m glad Mandra? has gone back to its original role, as a fishing harbour.”
We cut back into the old town, going passed Novigrad’s unusual naval museum, Gallerion. Unfortunately it wasn’t open: Duška had wanted to introduce me to its director, Sergio. “He’s an amazing guy,” she said “and passionate about our Austro-Hungarian naval history. Did you know Napoleon lost a naval battle outside Novigrad? Sergio knows all the details. It’s fascinating to hear him talk: he’s so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and he speaks great English.” It sounded intriguing and well worth a visit – maybe next time.
After crossing a pretty park, we ended up at the Venetian loggia, right on the sea shore. A lovely place to rest in the shade in the summer and, according to Duška, highly unusual, as it’s the only loggia in Istria built so close to the sea. It was nice to sit, rest and gaze at the sea awhile.
… and a beautiful coastline
Our tour ended with two short walks, which could have been far, far longer. First, we left the loggia, went through yet another stone gate to the seashore and walked along Riverela, Novigrad’s main tourist residential and beach area. Right next to the sea, this part of Novigrad books up very early, with people coming back year after year. We walked only to the edge of town, but it’s possible to walk far further, through parkland, along the coast, towards Porec.
“It’s lovely here,” said Duška, “but my favourite place to walk and swim is on the other side of town.” To get there quickly, we hopped in her car, but it’s actually an easy walk round the harbour and past the marina to a long stretch of beach, backed by pine trees and grass. “I walk or swim here every morning before work,” she said. “It’s a great way to start the day. You can walk almost to Umag: it gets less developed as you move away from town, and there are great places to swim all along the coast.”
As we drove back, Duška was keen to stress that Novigrad’s attractions aren’t just the town and beaches. “Many people come to Novigrad simply to eat,” she said. “It’s famous for its seafood.” There certainly seem to be enough restaurants. As we’d walked around town, she’d kept pointing them out. She’s promised to introduce me to a few and I’ll let you know if they are as good as Duška says.
Reflecting the town’s love of good food, Novigrad holds a series of food festivals, known as Gnam Gnam Fest (pronounced nyum nyum) which celebrate local specialities. Stalls are set up, all the restaurants contribute and, as Duška describes it, “Mandrac (the old harbour) turns into a giant, outdoor dining room.” Visitors stroll, browsing the seasonal offerings and listening to music. In April, there’s asparagus; in May, it’s sardines. June brings scallops fresh from the local waters; and July and August offer a general seafood celebration, with a wide range of fish and shellfish.
Aside from food, during the summer Novigrad holds many small musical and folklore events, scattered throughout the town, including the ‘Street Wizards,’ a wandering circus, fun for children of all ages. These are usually open-air and free of charge.
Staying in Novigrad
I just visited Novigrad for the day, but it’s clearly also a great place to come and stay, with a wide range of accommodation, from simple rooms to smart hotels, from old to new. For more information, have a look at the Novigrad tourist site, or pop in and see Duška. As well as owning the Narval estate agency, she also runs the Epoca tourist agency, at Murvi 2, next to the roundabout with the anchor.
Many thanks to Duška for showing me around, and Ketrin at the Lapidarium. I’ve always loved Novigrad anyway and knowing more about it has just made it more special. For such a small place, there is an amazing amount to see and do – and best of all, it is just so cute, a postcard perfect little seaside town!