Snapshots of history

Opening of Mare the Witch, IstriaFar more than just an attractive seaside destination, Istria is full of gorgeous old towns and villages. These atmospheric places come with local tales and legends, brought to life each summer through a series of outdoor performances. Held in nine different locations across the whole of Istria, the stories are all different and specific to that particular place. There are tales from Roman palaces, Venetian cites, and Medieval and Austro-Hungarian castles; from lighthouses, seaside towns and the depths of the sea; from hill-top towns down to bowels of the earth (if I can wax lyrical for a moment!) Last year, I went to ‘Iustiticia’ in Porec. This year, I saw ‘Mare the Witch’ in Svetvincenat. Both were huge fun and a great evening out.

 

Why Istra Inspirit?

I’ll come to Mare the Witch itself in a moment, but first a little background. I wanted to understand about Istra Inspirit – which organises these events – and who better to explain than Morena Milevoj, their marketing coordinator. Why, I asked, had the Istrian tourist and development authorities decided to sponsor these performances.

Musicians on stilts at Mare the Witch, Istria“Because it is a great way to introduce tourists to some of the lesser known, but very attractive areas of Istria, especially inland,” she explained.

And why these specific plays? “Istria has a long and varied history with a wealth of culture, myth and legend. It’s been part of numerous empires across time and played a role in all of them. Today its historic towns, villages and sites still give you a sense of the past, but it’s a limited experience. It’s like exploring a stage set when the play is over and the actors gone!”

Luckily, in Istria, many of the stages are still set – the buildings and towns still stand, much as they did in the past. “The only things lacking are the players,” she said, “the people from the past to bring history back to life. The aim of Istra Inspirit is to do exactly that, by recreating snapshots of history. The stories we’ve chosen to tell are often small ones, but they’re about real people, in real places, and they sum up the spirit of each age.”

 

Mare the Witch

Actress in Mae the Witch, IstriaThis certainly proved the case with Mare the Witch, a tale from the Middle Ages set in the Grimani-Morosini Castle in Svetvincenat. The burning of a witch sounds as if it could be a heavy and depressing play – it’s about treachery and death, after all, but amazingly the evening was the complete opposite. It started full of amusement and laughs, only turning dark and sinister towards the end.

Mare was the local herbalist and healer. To understand how a village could turn on such a valuable member of its community, you first need to understand the world these people inhabited, and appreciate just how superstitious and uneducated they were. So when we entered the castle courtyard, this was the world we were introduced to, with music, dance and song. Having set the background, later scenes looked at how their superstitions could end up working Chicken dance at Mare the Witch, Istriaagainst their own interests, with the dramatic finale dealing with the accusation and trial of Mare.

With only a small audience (around 200), this wasn’t a play you watched, it was one you were part of. The action happened all around – and with – the audience: we were part of the show too. We got to know the local people and laugh with them at each other’s stupid ideas. At some points we also found ourselves coaxed and tricked into acting stupidly too – just proving how little human nature changes and how easily one can be influenced!

It was an evening firmly aimed at tourists, beautifully scripted and delivered in a mixture of Croatian and English. I was particularly impressed by how effectively they wove the two languages together – sometimes the dialogue would be in English, with a short Croatian translation; other times in Croatian, with an English translation. This seamless use of both languages helped draw you into the world of the past.

Svetvincenat castle during Mare the Witch, IstriaThen there was the castle itself. For me, one of the most special things about the event was its setting. Held in the courtyard, where the actual events took place, the castle’s atmospheric stone walls provided the perfect backdrop to the tale.

Even when the play broke for us to dine (which it did twice), we did not step out of period. Eating hearty, traditional Istrian peasant food, on a warm summer’s evening, with children playing on medieval fairground amusements, simply added to the magic of the experience.

 

Putting on the show

Mare the witch, IstriaAll-in-all, it was a marvellous evening, which we thoroughly enjoyed – as I told Morena when we met. “I’m so pleased,” she said, “a happy audience is the best PR, which we really need. This is only our second season and it’s hard breaking into the established holiday scene, competing against long-established offerings like boat trips and dinners out.”

I commented on the quality of the performance – the actors were excellent and seemed to enjoy the evening as much as the audience. “They’re all professionals from Istria,” she said. “It’s great to have the opportunity to showcase local talent and give them a chance to work in their home area. As well as Mare the Witch, they perform Crispo, Jules Verne, Mythical Creatures and the Lighthouse of Love. Sword fight at Mare the Witch, IstriaThese are written and directed by Petra Blaškovic, from National Theatre of Osijek.” While professionally written and directed, the other plays (Spacio, the Miner’s Republic, Old Buzet and Iusticia) are mainly performed by local theatre groups.

The food and drink are also an integral part of the shows. “A lot of effort has gone into making it as authentic to the period as possible,” Morena explained. “For example, the team spent ages researching Roman recipes for Crispo in Medulin. I’m just glad we didn’t end up eating stuffed dormice!”

And the shows are constantly changing. “We’re trying to create the best possible experience,” she said, “fine-tuning the performances, based on audience feedback. We’ve also deliberately limited audience numbers, to make each performance as intimate as possible.”

Finally, when pressed, Morena admitted that her favourite is Old Buzet – one of the performances put on by the local trial at Mare the Witch, Istriacommunity. “It’s very simple, but so traditional and authentic,” she said. “It really takes you back in time … and the homemade bread’s fantastic!” I guess I know where I’m off to next year.

If all this has piqued your interest, have a look at History brought to life – Istrian style for more information on the Istra Inspirit programme, and at the Istra Inspirit website for dates, prices and tickets.

 

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