Deserted Dvigrad

Lying above the Draga valley, at the head of the Lim Fjord, is Dvigrad. An important settlement since pre-Roman times, it was abandoned in the 17th century and today is an atmospheric ruin – a wonderful place to while away a few hours and a great setting for a picnic. Although easily accessible, it’s little known, so you often have the place almost to yourselves. Quiet and atmospheric, it’s one of my favourite places in Istria.

 

Strategic location

Limski Draga with pleasure boats, IstriaGashed into the Istrian coastline is the Limski Draga (Lim Fjord), a flooded limestone gorge. Today an inlet of pleasure boats and oyster beds, once it was an extremely important waterway, allowing ships to navigate well inland. Just above its furthest reaches, two hillocks rise from the valley floor, commanding the head of the gorge and the start of the Draga River valley. They were easily defended strategic positions, so it’s not surprising prehistoric hill-forts were built on both. These grew into settlements: the Romans knew them as Dio Castra – The Two Towns – and later they became Parentin and Montecastello.

Parentin was destroyed towards the end of the 14th century, in a war between Venice and Genoa. Well fortified Montecastello, on the other hillock, survived: it was later called Duecastelli and finally became Dvigrad.

Empty - Dvigrad, IstriaConstantly fought over, Dvigrad survived the perpetual warfare of the 14th and 15th centuries, was absorbed into the Venetian empire in 1413, and then suffered through further wars, a siege and a succession of plagues. Despite this, Dvigrad grew into a sizeable town, with at least two hundred homes (within two much-needed rings of city walls!), a castle and a large, three-naved Romanesque church, St. Sophia’s. But eventually, exhausted by continuous war and malaria, and with the population decimated by plague, in 1631 the remaining inhabitants moved up the hill to Kanfanar, then a small farming village. Only three of the poorest families remained and they finally quit in 1714, when Dvigrad was completely abandoned.

 

Atmospheric ruins

The ruined tower of Dvigrad, IstriaBeing deserted for nearly 300 years, the north-east winds and ravages of time have taken their toll. Today, only a skeleton of the medieval town remains. Nature has reclaimed much of it: walls have collapsed and roofs are long gone, but you can still make out the streets and homes – apparently there are 220 of them – among the undergrowth!

Despite its ruined state, as it was unspoilt by later developments, Dvigrad gives an excellent impression of a medieval town. Walking its cobbled streets, looking into the shells of homes long abandoned, you can almost sense the presence of people long gone.

Protected walkway in Dvigrad, IstriaComparing the size of the small houses with the grandeur of the castle and church at the top of the hill, brings home the power and wealth of the medieval world’s ruling elite. Climbing the grand stairs to the castle gate you get a feeling of anticipation, just as visitors must have in the past. But I’m afraid you’re almost certainly in for a letdown: unfortunately, it’s the one area you can’t explore. Like us, you’ll probably end up peering through the locked metal gate, wishing you could explore further inside (or hope that the gate round the back has been left unlocked … as we found once).

You might not be able to get into the castle, but you can explore much of the church – it must have been huge: even as a ruin it’s impressive. With such a grand church and a large castle, Dvigrad must have really been somewhere special – yet its inhabitants just upped sticks and walked away – it makes you think! 

Dvigrad in autumn, IstriaAfter the streets, castle and church, you can walk round the walls and tower. It’s mainly an easy walk along the small part of remaining town wall to the tall tower where, if you’re more sure-footed and braver than I, you can climb along the top of a tall narrow wall (gulping at the sheer fall either side), to the remains of a second tower. It’s actually quite refreshing to realise that Croatia hasn’t really heard of Health & Safety regulations – although the potential danger is obvious. 

As a Croatian historic monument, Dvigrad is carefully managed. It might look abandoned, but dangerous walls are shored up, and paths and buildings kept clear of larger plants. Just enough is done to make the site easily accessible, without destroying its wonderful atmosphere, which is quite an enlightened approach.

 

Out-lying chapels

Chapel with Dvigrad, Istria behindJust visible on the other side on the road, on the rocky outcrop, is the chapel of St. Anthony, dating from the 16th century. It’s a scramble up there, but it offers great views of Dvigrad. If you can get inside, the chapel has some important fresco remnants. Although the artist is unknown, it’s thought to be the ‘Šareni majstor’ (translated rather colourfully as ‘the Gaudy Master’!) who was famous for his warm, lively colours and decorated churches across Istria.

A little further along the road and just below the town, is another 16th century chapel and graveyard, dedicated to Sveta Marija od Lakuca (The Blessed Virgin Mary). It too has frescos by the Gaudy Master. In this little church, he apparently left one of the most beautiful cycles of medieval painting in Istria. I say apparently because, like most small, Istrian chapels, both were locked when we visited and we could see very little, peering in through the windows. Maybe you’ll have more luck when you visit.

 

Also see:

3 km on from Dvigrad is Mrgani, another attractive Istrian village. According to legend, the village was founded in the 17th century by the pirate Henry Morgan, a British sea captain who turned renegade after the Anglo-Spanish war. The legend says that one day Morgan’s ship dropped anchor in the Lim fjord, and the rich captain and his crew founded the village which was named after him. He left no clues when he died to where his treasure was hidden and while many have looked for it on the Caribbean islands, some have also hunted in the region around Dvigrad. Today, Mrgani is a pretty village, pleasant for a little mooch around and has a gorgeous town šterna (well) with a coat of arms featuring two doves. 

Kanfanar is where the inhabitants of Dvigrad made their new home. Today it is a flourishing village with a population of around 500. You drive through it on the way to Dvigrad, but I recommend stopping there on the way back, to close the Dvigrad tale. It’s nothing special, but has a nice church dating from 1696 with an impressive gothic pulpit. Apparently, the fleeing populace brought it with them from St. Sophia’s in Dvigrad.

From 1876 to 1966 Kanfanar was an important railway junction and today, the station is a cafe. If you’re lucky, while having coffee, a train may even arrive. Apparently it’s a surreal experience – we weren’t so lucky, but the coffee was excellent.

 

Photos:

 

Location:

To reach Dvigrad from the motorway, take the exit for Kanfanar. Turn left as you come into Kanfanar, out over the railway line and follow the small road down the hill. (On the way down you’ll pass the ruins of a Benedictine Abbey – there’s little here today but a pile of stones and it takes some finding.) Parking is in a small car park on the right of the road in front of the town gates. If you wish to continue your explorations, this road continues on to Mrgani.


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