Motovun is a medieval hilltop village in central Istria, about an hour’s drive from Rovinj. It sits 270 m / 886 ft above sea level, and as soon as we turned the corner and it came into view, I wondered how treacherous the journey from the parking lot to the walled city at the top would be.
As of 20 years ago, the population of the village was ~500, with a total of ~1,000 in the municipality. Being so close to Italy (and previously being part of Italy), approximately 20 percent of the residents speak Italian as their mother language.
The forest surrounding Motovun is known for black and white truffles. And it is these truffles that got the attention of Anthony Bourdain, who went on to film an episode of No Reservations at Konoba Mondo in Motovun.
Bourdain once said, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts; it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
And that’s how I feel about our trip to Rovinj and Istria. It sorta broke my heart. My expectations were one thing, and reality was another, and that’s ok.
Back to truffles.
Truffles grow 35 cm / 14 in below the surface and can only be found by specially trained dogs.
The going rate for white truffles gathered from this region is 6,000€ per kilo ($7,000 / 2.2 lb). This price is 45x the price of black truffles. It’s estimated that truffles contribute ~1 million Euros to Croatia’s economy annually.
Truth be told, we were in Motovun for the scenery, medieval architecture, and a glass of wine overlooking the valley, not the truffles.
Fun fact: Racing driver Mario Andretti was born in Motovun.
Parking and payment in Motovun can be a bit confusing at first glance.
There are three parking lots in the valley. Two large gravel lots and a small paved lot that has a bus stop, toilets, and a few dedicated parking spaces for nearby shops. There is a fourth parking area up the hill and outside the city walls, but it was closed on our visit.
We got lucky and parked in the last available space in the paved parking lot. Next, we needed to figure out how to pay.
There were two large groups of people standing around, and it was unclear who was waiting for what and what they were waiting for.
One group was sitting in a “courtyard” across from two buses. I assumed that they had arrived at Motovun via the buses and were waiting to board the bus to leave.
We learned later that the buses take people up the hill to the old city walls, and the group in the courtyard was waiting for the next shuttle bus departure.
The second group of people was huddled around a parking payment machine and wooden hut.
The wooden hut is where you buy shuttle tickets. The nice lady in the hut informed me that the shuttle departed every 30 minutes or we could walk to the top (~20 minutes).
The parking payment machine is where you pay for parking. It seems obvious now that I write this post, but it was not obvious at the time.
The parking machine can be set to various languages and accepts cash and credit card payments. You’ll need to input your car’s number/license plate and then place the ticket on your car’s dash, and you’re all set!
We did not want to wait 30 minutes for the next shuttle (one departed as we were dealing with the parking payment), so we decided to hike to the top of the hill.
Our visit was in the middle of September, and it was hot but not too hot, so take care if you decide to take on this challenge in the middle of the summer. There is very little shade, and it’s a literal uphill battle to the top.
You’ll need proper footwear like trainers or running shoes to endure the hike. We did see a few folks wearing sandals and looking like they were hating life, so don’t be those people.
The hike begins directly behind the wooden hut with a short incline up a paved road. From there, you’ll take a hard left and tackle 100-150 “stairs”.
The landing at the top of the stairs is one of the only areas of shade on the hike. It’s a nice place to catch your breath and take a sip of water.
From the landing, it’s a long, long, long walk along a paved road to the “outer ring” of the village, and then it’s a steep walk on uneven cobblestone for the last five minutes or so until you reach the Old City Gate.
Based on the placement of buildings, you can see the switchback pattern of the road leading to the top.
Since the parking area outside of the city walls was closed on the day of our visit, we didn’t have to battle any road traffic on our hike, but I can imagine it would be pretty unpleasant walking on the road next to moving cars.
The arrow in the photo below points to the gravel and paved parking lots, so yeah, it’s a long way up.
Inside the walls
When we arrived at the Old City Gate, a wedding dress photoshoot was taking place. We waited for the “brides” to pass through the gate, and then we made the final 20-step push up the steep cobblestone through the gate, and we were finally inside the walls.
We walked around for a bit and discovered that you can walk on top of the walls, but we couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets, so we wandered around the area inside the walls (it’s small and 20 minutes is sufficient) and eventually decided that we should be rewarded for our valiant hike.
I love narrow alleyways.
Love them so much!
Outside the walls
There are a few restaurants and cafes inside the walls and at the top of the hill, near the Old City Gate. The latter is where everyone wants to be. Nothing beats the alfresco dining with a view of the valley.
We decided to drink a glass of wine and dine on charcuterie and cheese at Fakin Winery, located steps from the Old City Gate. The weather was great. The view was great. The food was great. The wine was meh. The people-watching had a twist.
Our time at Fakin was pretty chill until a few runners jogged through the alfresco dining area. And then a few more. And then they just kept coming. Hundreds of them, all in varying states of pain and fatigue.
A few runners stopped and drank a beer. One runner met his parents at the table next to us and drank half of a beer and then poured the rest of it into his water bottle and took off running again.
What the hell was this race?
The runners were only about 10 ft away from us, but the text on their bibs was too small to read, and they were in motion, so it was a lost cause trying to figure out what the race was called by the naked eye.
Peter suggested that I take photos of their bibs like the paparazzi.
I said, “No. Peter. No.”
I explained that the camera was not silent, and I couldn’t be aiming it at runners’ midsections. That’s just weird.
And then, two minutes later, the lens cap was off of the camera, and I was snapping away.
I snapped more photos than I probably should have, then zoomed into the photos on the camera’s LCD screen and eventually found a photo where the bib was not folded, and I could read the text.
They were running 100 Miles of Istria, specifically the red and green courses, which explains why we saw red and green bibs.
100 Miles of Istria is a trail race, the biggest in Croatia. It started in 2013 with a couple hundred participants and now has over 2,000 crazy people who run it.
After we had our fill of charcuterie, wine, and runner watching, we paid the bill and started our descent to the parking lot. The descent felt as long as the ascent, but that’s often how I feel hiking.
An hour later, we were back at our hotel and ready to tackle happy hour whilst watching the sunset.
Motovun is worth a visit.
If we could have a Motovun redo, we’d visit one or two wineries in the valley, such as Roxanich Winery.
The reason why we did not visit wineries during our day trip was that we did not plan appropriately, which is out of character for me – I’m a “planner”.
This was partly because we did not do any research on wineries before we departed for Croatia. If we had, we would have learned that wineries operate by appointment only.
Secondly, we underestimated the number of tourists that would be in the region, and after we learned that wineries operate by appointment only, we were not able to get an appointment.
This is why I’m a planner and not a winger. When I try to wing it, things never seem to work out for me.