Via Istria: Historical Reality Or Contemporary Invention?

The Via Istria, in my conception, would be a pilgrimage route based on the fraught but rational idea of an Italian Istria

In a previous piece, I mentioned how interesting it might be to consider the theme of Italians abroad in the world. The history of Italian travelers, explorers and migrants runs long and deep, and recounting who they were, where they went, and what they did has been and will continue to be a project for countless writers, artists and filmmakers. And of course, I want to try my hand at carrying out such a project myself.

My focus in this piece, and I hope future pieces, is the Via Istria, a percorso (sometimes only the Italian word is right) that has a historical reality, yet is at the same time something of a contemporary invention of mine. I take as my model El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that runs across northwestern Spain, a trek that has primarily religious origins and meaning but which is now undertaken every year by thousands of people for a variety of motives, ranging from more vaguely spiritual reasons to desires for physical exercise and stress relief, or as a new kind of vacation that is not the same trinity of beach, restaurant and museum.

The Via Istria, in my conception, would or could be all of those things, but would have at its core the historical influence that Italy and Italians have had on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula as well as upon a part of its interior. Imagine then a course that begins in Pola/Pula and proceeds northward through Rovigno/Rovinj, to Umago/Umag, over to Bizet/Pinguente, down to Pisino/Pazin, before heading back to Pola/Pula to complete the loop. The entire course would run about 200-250 kilometers, about half as long as the Camino de Santiago, but filled with things to see and do along the way. As with the Camino, one could walk or ride all or a part of the course for numerous reasons: religious, spiritual, historical, architectural, artistic, environmental, physical, or any combination of these. In fact, it would be difficult or impossible to tease these various features of Via Istria apart.

What holds the whole route together is an idea of an Italian Istria. It is a fraught and contested idea but one with a crystal clear validity and rationale, one which is in fact written in the landscape itself. Traveling along the Via Istria, one will pass through Roma, Venezia, Trieste, Vienna and other cultural places and their corresponding historical periods. Most importantly, perhaps, as noticeable by my use of double place names, a traveler on the route will of course be passing through Croatia, whose national imprint and influence dominates the contemporary life and landscape of the peninsula. The relationship between a historical Italian majority and a contemporary Croatian one can be a source of tension but also one of enlightenment, and it would be absolutely incumbent and inevitable for a traveler on the route to struggle with the difference. In fact, maybe a better name for the route would be Via Istra, the slight change in the second word respecting the peninsula’s Croatian spelling.

An almost surreal pilgrimage

Here, are you in Ancient Rome or the Dublin of James Joyce? Here, are we in the Republic of Venice or Rijeka? Is this Trieste or Vienna? This hill town, is it Italian or Croatian? Or both? Or neither? Is it in fact, Istrian, which is very much its own wonderful thing?

In between the cities you will find vineyards, olive groves, and wooded tracts filled with mushrooms and truffles. Other fields are given to more commercial crops, tomatoes for example, as well as to the raising of cattle, sheep and, most importantly, goats, which are Istria’s mascots. For such a small place, Istria presents a mixture of activities that is strongly indicative of Italy, but at the same time wholly apart from it. It is hybridity at its best.

Each step on the Via Istria will exercise your mind as well as your body, and I am not sure which, at the end of the day, the week, the month, will be more exhausted, more developed, more invigorated. This native or resident that you meet, are they Croatian, Bosnian or Montenegrin? This tourist or fellow traveler, are they German, French, Italian or from somewhere else? Slovenia? South Africa?

Of course, the backbone of a pilgrimage, for this is what the Via Istria is, is its churches, those instantiations of culture that speak so much to the historical roots of a place while at the same time providing its modern functional identity, buildings that can be engaged in numerous ways: as spiritual centers, as repositories of art, and of course as models of architecture, each edifice bearing a date of construction, but also the highly visible scars of war, weather, nature and time, a building whose doors are affixed with a modern security system but whose foundation still rests on a site that was once devoted to the worship of Jupiter.

These stones, and there are a lot of them, in the walls as well as on the streets, will shout, as they do in Italy, but unlike Italy, at least certain parts of it, Istria is not plagued by flood or earthquake. The landscape is in fact remarkably mild, all dolci colline (rolling hills) and seaside, so no soaring Alps or parched fields, no defunct fattorie (ranches) or masserie (farms of a very particular kind), but agricultural enterprises that are less industrialized though still very much alive although, as in Italy, struggling. Like many places, but perhaps more so than most, Istria is undergoing great transition, moving from agriculture to tourism (nothing new there) and wrestling with the stresses of development and migration, pushed and pulled from both endogenous and exogenous forces.

Like many places, like all places, it is a mix: excellent wine and okay cheese, fantastic bread and acceptable produce, landscape that will enchant you without taking your breath away, and old stone houses that will put you first in Italy, then in Austria, and then a sleepy, sun-baked, hilltop plaza that will put you suddenly in Mexico, until you turn your head and see the sign advertising olive oil for sale, new and local, from the grove stretching out beneath you, before the woods, and before the sea.