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Croatia: The watchman of the Adriatic

"When you're finished walking around, just call me, I'll pick you up," Muriz had said. I suspect, while clearly a kind man, Muriz was alert to the possibility this would enable him to 'test' the new delivery of Istrian white wine, known as Malvasia, just arrived at his friend's cafe in Buje. Muriz owns the pension at which I'm staying just outside this small town in the north of the Istrian peninsula.

Croatia: The watchman of the Adriatic
Buje, Croatia. Image: Stephen Colebourne / CC BY 2.0.

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Sail-shaped Istria dangles off the northwest coast of Croatia, just south of Trieste, and I’m on the eve of a three-day walk across its interior. Buje is a dozy, hilltop town that wouldn’t look out of place in Italy. At times I wonder if I am in Italy. Vespas are parked on the steps of porches; cobbled streets rise to the creaking church of St Servul and its 15th-century standalone campanile; there are the Tuscan brown facades; and green window shutters tilted upwards at a slight angle. Fetching buildings ringing the main square include the neoclassical palace; its facade the yellowing white of Miss Haversham’s wedding dress, typifying Buje’s crumpled air.

The main square is a playground for the children living in the flats overlooking it. Across the Adriatic, in Venice, this would be eye-wateringly expensive real estate. For a few minutes I indulge in the reverie that, although hardly on a par with Burton locating the source of the Nile, I have ‘discovered’ somewhere. Then, as I walk along Dante Alighieri and Maxim Gorky streets, signs point me towards a ‘photo point’.

I make my way, via a narrow alley overhung with freshly washed Croatian linen, to the belvedere. Buje, nearly 730ft above sea level, has the moniker ‘the watchman of the Adriatic’. This vantage point explains why, as it throws open the northeastern arc of the Adriatic — a view of olive groves, vineyards, pointy and chunky Alpine summits and distant church spires that pierce a blue sky. I dangle my legs over the lip of the viewing point and only after a while do I notice the carpets hanging next to me. I look behind me and realise that this official viewing point is actually someone’s patio. No one seems to mind.

The belvedere is a lane that contours along the northern edge of Buje; overgrown but charming and overlooked by houses lived in by real people. I can’t help wondering whether, if I were to return in 15 years, this diminutive corniche will have been sealed off: reinvented as a pay-at-the-gate attraction, like Golden Lane in Prague, bristling with outdoor restaurants and waiters in starched white shirts offering menus in eight languages.

Muriz meets me as scheduled. I’ll stay at fancier places along my journey across Istria, but my bed for the night is proof that a three-star family-run outfit can so often beat the pants off swankier joints: the food (homemade spindles of pasta, known as pljukanci) served among olive groves and vineyards, was delicious.

I glance around the restaurant, with its collection of skulls, antlers, goat horns, and brown bearskin spread-eagled on a stone wall. A local character tells me Muriz shot the bear. At breakfast, Muriz’s Dutch wife, Ellen, adds a clarification: Muriz’s prize kill was actually a wild boar, someone else nailed the bear. She adds, though, that her chef can knock up a bear-paw goulash. To bring out the flavour, says Ellen, you must broil the paws first.