Pazin: a castle, gorge and giant’s cave

Pazin doesn’t feature highly in Croatian guidebooks, but hidden behind this apparently non-descript administrative town is a magnificent castle, perched on the edge of a dramatic gorge, with an enormous cave beneath. How this came to be depends on the tale you’re told. My favourite is that of the giant, Ban Dragonja.


The legend of Ban Dragonja

Houses on edge of Pazin gorge, IstriaOnce upon a time, when giants and men lived together in Istria, there were vast lakes and swamps in the north, but no water in the south. This made farming extremely hard, so the men asked the giant, Ban Dragonja, to help them by creating three great rivers. Dragonja agreed and yoked his enormous oxen to his plough.

First he ploughed south from one of the lakes. When the furrow touched the sea, water gushed through and a river formed. Ban Dragonja was delighted with his creation and named the river Dragonja, after himself (giants are known for their modesty!)

The next day he yoked his oxen up again and ploughed a second furrow, running eastward. It too flooded at the coast, creating a second large river which he named after his beloved wife, Mirna.

Pazin Castle, seen from cafe across gorge, IstriaOn the third day, while ploughing the third furrow, the giant mused about what name to give this river. As well as his beloved Mirna, Ban Dragonja had three strong sons and four lovely daughters: which of these should be the name of this mighty third river? It was a difficult choice. The river would be big and powerful, so perhaps it should be named after one of his sons? On the other hand, it would also be beautiful and fertile, so maybe it should be one of his daughters? With all this thinking, Ban Dragonja’s attention sometimes wandered from his ploughing and he was brought up short by a shout from Pazin Castle’s walls. “Yo, Giant, call that a furrow…” called down the wife of the Captain of the castle guard, taunting him about how shallow and crooked his ploughing had become.

Looking down into Pazin gorge, IstriaBan Dragonja was furious and very offended. He drove his oxen away, vowing he would never help mankind again. Water gushed down the unfinished furrow and, having nowhere to go, started flooding the town. The inhabitants of Pazin started crying for help and begged Ban Dragonja to save them.

“He couldn’t help you, even if he wanted to,” taunted the Captain’s wife, from up high in her dry, safe castle room. “He can’t even plough a straight furrow.”

Red in the face and brimming with anger, Ban Dragonja marched up to the castle. Hands on hips, he glared at the Captain’s wife and stamped his foot hard on the ground. “Don’t mock me, woman!” he roared. The earth shook and echoed back his roar ten times over. Beneath the castle a huge cave opened up deep into the ground and the waters flooded down. When all the water had drained, a short river remained, which flowed towards the town, along the gorge and disappeared into the earth through the cave mouth.

Ban Dragonja was so angry with himself for being tricked into saving the people of Pazin, he never bothered to name this little river. Instead, the people of Pazin christened it – the Pazincica – and its waters flow into the cave beneath the castle and disappear without a trace to this very day.*


The geological theory

There is another theory for the creation of the gorge, the geological one, which is far less entertaining and is based on the properties of limestone. Istria is made of three different types of limestone, known locally as the black (in the north), Limestone cliff in Pazin gorge, Istriathe red (in the west) and the grey (in the east) for the different coloured soils they produce. These three limestones meet at Pazin, where the Pazincica river has worn away the boundary between the red and grey limestones to form Pazin Gorge.

Which version you prefer for the creation of the cave – geology or giant – is up to you (personally, I favour the giant), but I strongly urge you to come and see, and decide for yourself. You’ll be in good company: Jules Verne was so impressed that he set the opening of his novel, Mathias Sandorf, here. In the novel, a Hungarian count – Mathias Sandorf – is sentenced to death in Pazin Castle for conspiring against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Sandorf escapes the castle and descends the cliff into the cave beneath. Floating on the Pazincica river through the Istrian underground, he reaches the Lim Canal and Rovinj, and escapes to further adventures in the Mediterranean.


See for yourself

Pazin Castle entrance, IstriaThere has been a castle beside the gorge since the tenth century: today’s version was built in the mid-sixteenth century and is the best preserved fortification in Istria. Once a stronghold of the Austro-Hungarian empire, today Pazin Castle is Istria’s Ethnographic Museum – which means it’s got lots of historic and cultural items. Even if peasants’ outfits, agricultural equipment and assorted church bells are not your thing, the castle is worth a visit in its own right – just don’t go on Monday, when it is shut.

If you don’t fancy paying to visit the museum, there are some earlier ruined buildings clinging to the edge of the gorge, just beyond the castle, which are worth an explore – just don’t fall over the edge (no railings here)!

Crossing the Pazincica, Pazin, IstriaPazin Gorge runs next to the castle. If you’re feeling indolent, you can stroll (or even drive) down from the castle to the bridge which spans it and simply admire it from there. Or, if you’re feeling more energetic, follow the path down to the bottom and up the other side – the entrance is on the left, just before the bridge, and there is a small entrance fee. It’s a lovely walk, through the woods, to the stream at the bottom and then up again. Best of all there’s a café waiting for you, where you can refuel before walking back again. (If you don’t fancy the effort of repeating the walk down and back up, you can also walk back via the road – but while it’s all at the same level, its much longer and, of course, you’ll have the cars all around you.)

Wild flowers carpeting the side of Pazin gorge, IstriaPazin Cave lies below the castle and there is a small footpath to it at the bottom of the gorge. Walking down from the ticket booth, the path is on your left near the information board and runs parallel with the stream. When we were there, the path was hard to spot as it is rather overgrown. It’s a few minutes’ walk along to the cave mouth, but don’t try going in, it’s not safe without specialist equipment. No matter what you may read on websites, it is only possible to visit the cave with professionals who have the necessary equipment. I am hoping to do this soon and will let you know if it’s worth the effort.

In the summer, there is a zip-line running across the gorge from the castle to the café on the other side. It’s quite long and looks a thrilling ride, while the less adventurous (like me) can watch from the bridge. The zip-line wasn’t running when we were there in May – we had wild flowers to look at instead!

It might not cover a large area, but the remains of Pazin old town around the castle are also worth a look. The rest of Pazin is fairly non-descript and only worth visiting on Tuesdays, when it’s market day.



Directions: The administrative capital of Istria, Pazin lies in the very centre of the peninsula, where the Porec-Labin road crosses the toll road from Pula to Rijeka. To get to the castle, drive towards the town centre and follow the brown signs ‘Jama’ (Cave) and ‘Kaštel’ (Castle). The gorge, with the cave, is just beyond the castle.

View Larger Map

Parking: There is some parking near the castle and by the gorge, but it is limited. We had no problems, when we visited in late May: later in the season it might be busier. If you are also going to walk the gorge, an alternative is to park at the café on the other side of the gorge (café Lovac), which you pass as you come into Pazin (see Google map), and walk through the gorge in the opposite direction to my description above. If you do this, as you come out of the gorge, past the toll booth, turn right and the castle’s a short stroll up the hill. If you want to fortify yourself with a drink before you return, you’ll have to wander further into Pazin town to find a café.

* My apologies to the good people of Pazin for reworking the end of their legend. In the version I read on my stroll through Pazin Gorge, Ban Dragonja takes pity on the drowning folk of Pazin and deliberately creates Pazin Cave to save them. This I simply cannot believe: I very much doubt any self-respecting, red-blooded male giant would swallow his pride and go to the assistance of a mocking woman, who cast aspersions on his capabilities. I suspect my version would be nearer the truth – either that or giants were far less touchy than their human counterparts!


For more on Pazin:

 First posted April 2013

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