Kovaci – an Istrian history lesson

Istrian stone villages often look timeless – a slice of history, frozen in time. Any modern buildings appear intrusive, at odds with an otherwise historic atmosphere. When we bought our property in Kovaci, we soon discovered this is an overly romantic view. As Valter, the property’s previous owner, explained, these villages have rarely been ‘frozen’ in time: they’ve been constantly changing, evolving to meet their population’s needs.


Kovaci is part of Kaštelir, a large village about 10 km north of Porec and 10 km inland from the sea, and it’s not an ancient settlement. The people originally came from the Mirna valley: when their village was decimated by the plague in the seventeenth century, the villagers moved to Kaštelir, hoping to escape infection. This type of relocation happened all over Istria, the most famous case being the abandonment of Dvigrad (near Rovinj), a major settlement since Roman times, and the establishment of Kanfanar.

Kovaci viewIn Kaštelir, the Kovac family – the village’s blacksmiths – settled in the west of the village and the area became known as Kovaci or ‘the blacksmiths’ district’ (Kovac is Croatian for blacksmith and ‘i’ is the plural). Most of the forges have long since gone (one metal worker still remains, making traditional railings for balconies, pergolas and fences), but the population hasn’t greatly changed. Today, many of the people living here are still related, having a Kovac somewhere in their family tree: for example, Valter’s mother was a Kovac and his grandfather, Mate Kovac, owned a large farmstead in Kovaci, which included our house.


An evolving site

Semi-detached house built in 1860sOwned by the Kovac family since the village was founded, the farmstead sprawled across the hillside. As the family increased, more and more buildings appeared – sons and daughters grew up, married and needed homes to start families. Often these started as animal barns: the young couple moved in above and, when the family grew, the animals moved out; the building became a home and the cycle started again.

Our house was a classic example. Now one in a terrace, the house initially formed part of a multi-purpose dwelling built in the 1860s to house both livestock and people. There were two houses and, looking at the lower stonework, it’s likely it incorporated an older animal stall. As was usual at the time, the animals lived on the ground-floor and the people above. Before long, there wasn’t room for everyone so a new barn was built on the hill above and the animals re-homed.

Back-fill house in Kovaci terrace with lower roof-line & red-brick extension

Horrendous red-brick extension is a modern addition

To the left of our semi-detached house was another semi – just 4 m away. At some stage a small ‘fill-in’ was constructed, linking the two buildings. Probably built for livestock with a hay barn above, it soon became a home too, creating what you see today – a terrace of five houses. In front of the terrace, another free-standing barn was built, probably in the 1930s. Soon after that, another small house was built against it, where Valter’s mother was born.

At this point (the 1930s), the Kovac family was large and relatively prosperous, with four brothers and three sisters – all needing homes for their families. According to Valter, they were hard working farmers and good builders, who invested their earnings in bricks and mortar, with each brother building a large home for his family. Development expanded up the hill and much of the building in upper Kovaci dates from the 1930s and 40s. In my opinion, the most attractive of these is the home built by Mate, Valter’s grandfather. As well as being a farmer, he was also a renowned stone mason, who built many of the stone houses in Kaštelir, and I suspect had a hand in the excellent stonework of our barn.


Dividing walls

Mate Kovac's house in Kovaci, IstriaAs the buildings became family homes, walls appeared dividing the farmstead into individual plots. At some stage, a farm track ran through the middle of the farm, down the hill, in front of our house and joined the lower road next to the barn. All signs of this are long gone, and a wall and water cistern now lie across its path.

A wall went up when our building was divided between two siblings: one getting the plot above the house (now Fiore’s land) and another the lower. A second wall with lean-tos built either side appeared when the lower plot was again split, into the two properties you see today.


Across Istria

What happened in our small part of Kovaci is typical of village development across Istria. As families grew and generations passed, farms turned into villages and this is often reflected in village names, with many smaller villages having the prefix St. This isn’t short for ‘Saint’, as you would think (that’s Sv. – Sveti), but ‘Stancija’ – Istrian for farmstead.

Traditional stone sink set into window sill in Kovaci, IstriaBy the 1960s, the building boom was long past. All across Istria (like much of the Mediterranean), rural populations had plummeted: people had moved away to the city or emigrated to the New World. In some areas whole villages now stood empty and, while Kaštelir remained occupied, its population had dropped dramatically. Many houses were now abandoned or gradually fell empty as their ageing occupants died.

A classic example was our house: by the 70s it was home to an elderly, childless widow. When she died in 1974, her property was left to her great-nephew, Valter. He already had a home close by, so after he removed the nicer fittings for re-use in his home, the house and barn stood empty for the next thirty-five years, used only for storage.

Until, one day in 2012, it was bought by an English couple…



Kaštelir lies on a sun-kissed, south-facing slope, looking out to the coast. It is probably one of the sunniest and warmest spots in the whole of Istria, so, unlike many other Istrian villages, its decline was short-lived. With the rise of tourism, it soon became an attractive place for holiday homes – many derelict properties have now been restored and sold. Other properties stay in the family, converted into holiday lets or restaurants.

Kovaci house, Istria, in the middle of restorationGradually morphing over the years, our ‘timeless’ village of Kovaci has shifted from a thriving agricultural community to a village resort (although there is still plenty of farming around). Buildings have gone up, changed usage, fallen derelict and been reinvented. And like their buildings, the people of Kovaci have also changed. Many are new, incomers from foreign lands, but there remain a number who are Kovaci-born and bred. Like their forebears, they’re still farmers growing vines and olive trees, only now they drive tractors rather than oxen and their barns house tourists rather than animals!


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