Discover the past with Istriana Jones

Istria is a land full of history. Perhaps surprisingly, it was far more densely populated in the past than it is today, and the remains of vanished villages, Neolithic settlements, Stone Age caves and Roman ruins are dotted all over the landscape. You just need to know where – and how – to look. We went out with local historian and amateur archaeologist, Mladen (Istriana Jones), to discover more, spending a fascinating afternoon exploring and learning about the past.


Walk back in time

Mladen, who is passionate about Istrian history and especially prehistory, has just set up ‘Istriana Jones Adventure Tours’, taking small groups to explore the countryside near his home. There’s a surprising diversity of things to see here, in a relatively small area: our trip took us back through time to a Stone Age cave with wall carvings, forwards to a I follow Mladen into the Istrian wildernessBronze Age settlement and on finally to a medieval village. We also walked along roads started by the ancients and paved by the Romans. These were busy routes in the Middle Ages, and still in regular use until the 1950s, but are all but forgotten today. 

Getting there was an adventure in itself. Mladen met us outside a café-bar in Vizinada. “It’s this way,” he said climbing into his old Renault van. We followed him down narrow, winding roads, deep into the Istrian countryside and arrived in Cuki, a tiny hamlet on a ridge overlooking the Mirna valley.

Our walk started out through vineyards and fields, and then into woods, along the side of a beautiful valley down towards the Mirna. Today this is a relatively dry landscape – the Mirna is a small, well-controlled river running through a wide valley – but as Mladen explains, it all looked very different in the past. Until Roman times, the Mirna valley was a coastal inlet with a busy port just below us. The steep-sided valley we walked along was carved by a stream flowing to the sea: it’s gradually dried up over time, but was still flowing in living memory.


Decide for yourself

Mladen introduces me to Istrian Bronze AgeToday, we’re used to seeing archaeology uncovered on TV programmes like Time Team, or naked and exposed at historic sites. Seeing it in the raw was a revelation! Istriana Jones, it seems, needs to be as much detective as historian, able to see through what he sees in front of him, read the clues and piece together the possibilities of the past. While nothing is certain without excavation, engage yourself with the landscape and follow Mladen’s logic – and suddenly, a small, flat-topped hill, covered in bushes and surrounded with large boulders, becomes a Bronze Age settlement, protected by a diverted watercourse. “Here, you can see the stepping stones to cross the stream,” he explained: I looked down and, sure enough, there were large flat stones beneath my feet. I felt the millennia melt away and half expected a group of ancients to appear round the corner.

We continued on a narrow path running along the valley side, the way paved intermittently with large limestone slabs – man-made or natural? It’s hard to say, but Mladen’s sure it’s at least partially shaped by man, as some of the joints between the slabs are so well fitting.

Istriana Jones in his element!Our next stop was a step further back in history, to the Stone Age. A scramble up the hillside brought us to two small, non-descript caves. Without Mladen I’d have walked right past, probably not even noticing them and, in doing so, would have missed the opportunity of touching a prehistoric rock carving of a deer – something I never dreamed I’d do!

Crawling deeper into the cave, Mladen’s flashlight picked out other carvings. Any other wonders the cave holds are still a mystery, hidden beneath the cave floor. It seems Stone Age man wasn’t good about putting out the rubbish, and the cave is over half full of ash and bone remains – the detritus of his everyday life. As much as I’d love to see what lies beneath, it’s clear this site needs expert work … and protection. (The deer I touched was clearly once part of a larger scene We scramble into the cave to see more carvingswhich has been chipped away by past treasure hunters.) If what Mladen suspects is down there really is, it could be a significant archaeological find: so perhaps, for now, it’s best it all remains safely protected beneath the accumulated debris on the cave floor.

Of course … it could also be just an empty cave! That’s the wonder of the place at the moment, there’s so must potential and possibility, it really fires the imagination.

Mladen shows the Roman roadFollowing paths trodden by the cave and hilltop’s inhabitants, our tour moves forward in time, as we wind our way round the valley-head to the Roman Via Flavia. Today it’s a wide, attractive footpath, running along the valley side, but rub away the groundcover on some of the paving slabs, and you’ll uncover grooves in the rock. Were these gouged by centuries of carts running up and down the hill to the busy port below? No-one knows for sure – but it’s clearly a real possibility.

Another short journey and we race forward in time, ending our afternoon in the Middle Ages, perched on an escarpment directly above the Mirna valley. First settled in the Bronze Age, this site was a thriving settlement for thousands of years, right up to the late 18th Century. Yet today, no trace of this long history remains; it’s just a rocky outcrop with a magnificent view over the valley. Istriana Jones’ expertise here comes not from the landscape, but ancient maps and records. There’s almost nothing left on the ground – all the stone was collected and reused when the village was View over Mirna valley at sunsetabandoned – and only a few overgrown terraces indicate this place was ever inhabited. It’s an ironic finish to our time trip: there were more signs of habitation in the Stone Age cave and on the Bronze Age hill, than in this relatively ‘modern’ village!

We visited just a few of the archaeological sites on Istriana Jones’ route. With more time and fitter legs, we could also have explored various other Bronze Age settlements, Stone Age caves and the Roman port.


The future

For now, Mladen’s just doing ‘discovery’ walks, but in the future he hopes to bring the past to life even more by constructing a ‘history park’. He’s planning to build examples of Bronze Age houses using local materials and is creating Mladen explains his great plans for the parka botanic garden of plants used in that period. He’ll also have visiting specialists such as a potter, producing examples of ancient-style pottery, or a visiting archaeologist to explore prehistory. The park’s just a large empty field at the moment, but with its panoramic views across the Mirna valley, it will be an impressive site.


Worth doing?

Absolutely! It’s a fascinating eye-opener on the challenges faced by explorers and archaeologists – past and present. It’s also great fun: a journey into the unknown. Instead of history being presented as dry fact, with Mladen’s expert guidance you get to discover it yourself. It made me feel a true explorer and brought the past to life in a way that pristine, excavated sites never have. And on top of that, it was also a lovely walk in a beautiful part of Istria. We did our walk in April when most of the trees were still bare – in a few weeks it will be gorgeous!


Practical stuff

Depending on your interests and fitness level, Mladen can offer a range of walks covering a mixture of archaeology, history and edible nature (he’s also Istria’s Ray Mears, a man who can and has lived in the woods, off the land – a tale for another day). At the moment, his basic tours are:

  Walk Duration Charge
A Bronze Age settlement, Stone Age cave, Roman road c. 2 hours 100 kn per person (minimum charge 250 kn)
B Above, plus trip to medieval village by car(trip we did) c. 2.5 hours 120 kn per person (minimum charge 270 kn)
C Several Bronze Age settlements & Stone Age caves, Roman road, Roman port & medieval village c. 4-5 hours 200 kn per person (minimum charge 500 kn)

If you’re interested, give Mladen a call and arrange your trip back in time with Istriana Jones (+385-95-9981095 … website still in development!) He’s currently doing walks on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting at either 10:00 in the morning or 14:00 in the afternoon, but as this is his first season, he’s fairly relaxed about start times and durations, and you can discuss what you’d like to see and do on the way.

While you don’t really need the sturdy walking boots mentioned on the leaflet, you do need good shoes – trainers are ideal. If you want to explore the deeper parts of the cave with Mladen – which really is worth doing – be prepared for some crawling and wriggling on your hands and knees, so I’d also suggest trousers to protect your legs (ones you wouldn’t mind getting a bit muddy!).

So long as you are fit and reasonably agile, the walks are suitable for all ages and Mladen’s done them regularly with his two small daughters, who particularly love crawling about in the cave! The only tricky part is the scramble up the slope to and from the cave.

If you fancy lunch or dinner at the end of your visit, he can recommend an excellent, near-by konoba. 


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