Istria and its People

Playing: "Canon in D Major" by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
"Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization."
Mahatma Gandhi  

The land called Istria is a region of Europe that lies across the bay from Venice at the head of the Adriatic Sea and tucked between the Gulf of Trieste and Kvarner (Quarnero) Bay. It consists of both the largest peninsula and the largest islands in the Adriatic Sea.

Istria is an unique and enchanted place that has welcomed visitors and settlers from other parts of the world for as long as we have recorded history. Recent archeological excavations, however, reveal that it is an ancient land with traces of human existence during the Bronze Age and vital signs of animal life going even further back to the age of the dinosaurs.

When did modern civilization begin in this misty and mysterious land that is nestled at the foothills of the Julian Alps and cradled by the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea? In Šandalja (Sandalia), near Pula (Pola), osteological remains were discovered of a fossil man possibly dating as far back as the 20th century B.C. Some writers claim that Pula, deemed to be Istria's most ancient city, was founded by the Colchians, early Georgian tribes that populated the eastern coast of the Black Sea, while other historians, both ancient and modern, more specifically believe that it was founded by Greek colonists who came from Istrus or Istropolis, a colony of Miletus at the southern mouth of the Ister (Danube River), who conferred on this peninsula the name of their native land. Indeed, on the shores of the Black Sea, not far from the mouth of the Danube and a short distance from the coast of what is now modern Romania, exist the remains of a Greek colony or polis (πολις, city) called Histria or Istria (also Istrus, Istros and Istropolis), which became a Roman town around 30 A.D. An invasion of the Avars and the Slavs in the 7th century A.D. almost entirely destroyed the fortress of Istria on the Black Sea, and its inhabitants were dispersed to parts unknown.

It may only be a coincidence that in our Adriatic Istria human traces still remain of a unique people broadly referred to as Istro-Romanians (a.k.a. "cici") who once inhabited a large region of Istria both surrounding and beyond the Ciceria Mountains (now called Ćićarjia) that were named after them. These people still speak an ancient Italic tongue, although much-corrupted by surrounding languages, that remains closely related to Daco-Romanian, the most-broadly spoken dialect that became the official language of modern-day Romania. Moreover, the Romanian language is one of the closest languages to the Latin tongue that was carried throughout the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, in the total absence of written records to prove the origins of the Istro-Romanians, old and new theories continue emerging, as well as myths, unsubstantiated simplifications and outright fabrications of recent invention that are being spun around them to this day.

What little is known for certain of Istria's early history is that around the 11th century B.C. a colony was founded there by the Histri, an Indo-European people who were kindred to the Veneti and Liburni. Istria, the peninsula, was mentioned for the first time by Hecataeus of Miletus (Ἑκαταῖος Μιλήσιος in Ancient Greek), a Greek historian and geographer of the 6th century B.C., in his Περιήγησις (Periēgēsis; Travels Round the Earth) where he described the peninsula's inhabitants as "a people in the Ionic Bay" (i.e. the Adriatic). Prior to the Second Punic War in 221 B.C., the conquering Romans labeled them as pirates to reduce them to submission. The Roman consul Claudius Marcellus diminished their numbers for a second time in 183 B.C., and after a two-year seige, in 177 B.C. the Roman consul Gaius (Caius) Claudius (Clodius) Pulcher (d. 167 B.C.) completely subjugated the Histri. Around 45 B.C., a Roman colony was then established on the ancient castellieri (hillforts) and ruins of the Histri which then evolved into the Tenth Region of the Roman Empire officially known as Venetia et Histriæ. With Aquileia as its capital, the pendulum of the region again swung in another direction in 455 A.D. when that city, whose complex network of Roman roads were second only to those on the Italian peninsula, was sacked and burned by Attila and the Huns during their path of destruction of the Roman Empire.

Down through the ages, the Romans in Istria were followed by a revolving door of other rulers, among which were the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Avars, Langobards, Slavs, Franks (Charlemagne), Venetians, Genoese, Romanians, Magyars and Austrians. While the marauding Huns seemed to have only skirted around the Istrian peninsula, the Christian Templars built hospitals and stations within her during the time of the Roman Crusades. Even the French monarchy of Napoleon Bonaparte ruled briefly there, setting the stage for the destruction of the Venetian Empire and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian one throughout Europe and which continued the turning of tides in Istria. In the 20th century alone, five nations ruled over Istria in succession, most notably Austra-Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia and most recently, Croatia and Slovenia.

Despite the ravages of many wars, all those who touched upon Istrian soil have left behind a diversity of their peoples and heritages that blended into the ancient and colorful tapestry of this uniquely historic and beautiful place. Perhaps it is ironic as well as symbolic that a large portion of Istria's actual soil is a rich red that evokes the color of the human blood that soaked into it through countless wars throughout the millenia; another is a stark gray-white that is as arid as the ashes of its countless dead; while the balance is allegorically black like the souls of the many plunderers and conquerors who have stripped this land of its most precious resource, its mosaic of steadfast people. A land mass takes millions of years to evolve while a cultural heritage requires only centuries. Tragically, either or both can be instantaneously destroyed by a flash of lightning, an earthquake, a volcano, cyclical epidemics of diseases caused by the smallest of creatures, or by repeated invasions by the most destructive force of all: mankind.

Indeed, some people went to Istria to plunder and rule, some to hide or flee from oppressors, and still others came simply to enjoy the pastoral settings. In his memoirs, the notorious Venetian Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-1798) describes two visits that he made to Istria and his amorous encounter in Vrsar (Orsera). In contrast, philosophers, saints, and hermits spawned a sanctuary from the mundane in Istria, including a false messiah, while Roman poets and Renaissance troubadours praised Istria in their verses. One of them, Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 43-117 B.C.), was a Spaniard who later gained fame as a Roman poet, satirist, and master of the epigram. Better known as Martial (Italian: Marziale), he wrote: "Uncto Corduba laetior Venafro / Histra nec minus absolute testa." (English: Oh, city of Còrdoba, you who are more fertile than the city of Venafro famous for its oil, and as perfect as an Istrian amphora; Italiano: O città di Cordova, tu che sei più ricca della città di Venefro famosa per il suo olio, e non sie meno perfetta di un'anfora istriana; and Hrvatski: Kordobo, koja si plodnija od Vinafre poznatoj po ulju, a nisi ni manje savrsena od istrarske amfore".)

The legendary poet and Tuscan political figure, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), visited Istria and touched upon Pula (Pola), the symbolic capital of Istria, in his guided tour through allegorical Hell in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy [MP3 introduction]. Almost six centuries later, Jules Verne (1828-1905), a popular French author, led his own lyrical hero, Mathias Sandorf, through the caves and subterranean streams of Istria in a more realistic rendition of the underworld even though it is believed that he personally never set foot there. Not to be defeated by unbridled power, Istrian-born violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) composed the famous Devil's Sonata that he had heard in a dream. Perhaps what he actually transcribed was the haunting refrain and echos of the legendary Adriatic winds that vibrate through the unspoiled peaks and valleys of his childhood homeland. Almost two centuries later, James Joyce (1882-1941), a tempestuous Irish writer and Nobel prize winner, purportedly conceived the turbulent protagonist of his novel Ulysses during his short stay in Pula (Pola) in 1904-5 before transferring to Trieste, the second of the three seaport cities that form the "Istrian triangle", where he then wrote Finnigans' Wake. Sir Richard Burton (1821-90), a British adventurer, writer and diplomat, likewise spent many years stationed in Trieste, and while there he also visited and wrote about Istria. And who can forget New York City's most famous mayor, Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), nicknamed the "little flower", who had multiple personal and professional ties to Istria? Famous in his own right, Achille LaGuardia (1849-1904), Fiorello's father, is buried in Trieste while buried in Pula (Pola) is part of the Georg von Trapp family that has been immortalized by Hollywood in the fictionalized musical "Sound of Music".

The Istria of today is undemocratically subdivided and has been absorbed by three separate nations: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. Despite this fragmentation, abundant traces of her past civilizations remain, including the fabric left behind by peoples who lived in Istria for centuries but who were forced to take part in a major exodus from their ancestral homeland in the 20th century, scattered all over the world by a series of conflicts and tragic events consequential to two world wars and the breakup of a nation that was founded in the same century, Yugoslavia. Multi-lingual and multi-cultural, the Istrian people are part of a rich and colorful tapestry that some would further tear apart by pulling out and segregating its individual silken threads - that is, analyze Istrians in two-dimensional and mono-ethnic "scientific" or "clinical" ways that are neither an accurate nor comprehensive representation of the Istrian people who are living in Istria today, nor even sanctioned by those who were dispersed around the world. Our internet domain does not subscribe to the polarization of our Istrian family in such ways and we treat all Istrians as equals, irrespective of their real or proclaimed ethnicity founded on nationalist claims, the languages they speak, where they live, their socio-economic background, or their spiritual and political philosophies.

Today, kings, popes, statesmen, scientists, artists, writers, celebrities of the stage, screen, and sports arenas and a cornocopia of other casual visitors from around the world continue flocking to this enigmatic place, along with an ever flowing outflux and influx of immigrants, not to mention an overabundance of political and commercial opportunists. Why have there been so many rulers and high-profile public visitors in Istria? Perhaps it is because Istria is strategically placed at the heart and soul of the civilized world and is sometimes called the "navel of Europe". To those who genuinely love this land, however, the peninsula has the shape of a broken heart.

Istria is indeed a heartland and a lifeline set down between the wealthy sophisticated West and the distant disquieting East on the road to the Orient. It lies at the crossroad of the cold northern lands pounded by frigid winds that bear down their winter frost and the southern Mediterranean lands whose intense sun casts a sultry summer shadow. Its rocky coast and placid hills embrace Nature's forces to create unspoiled pine forests, clear waters and sparkling beaches, an abundance of autochthonous animals, exotic native flowers, the magical white truffle and other wild edibles, aromatic herbs, olives and a cornocopia of fruit (figs, plums, peaches, berries, etc.), and nurture the grapes that produce strong wines and even stronger tastes. Likewise, the land and sea have hardened the human hands that have cast the fisherman's woven nets and tilled the peasant's toughened soil. Hand in hand, the people and land of Istria have survived a long history in which many foreign rulers have tried to dominate them but none has ever fully succeeded.

The term "Istrian" is not just a label for a beautiful land and the people living in it at any frozen moment in time. Rather, it embraces both the people who were born and/or live in Istria today and its native inhabitants of many centuries who were forceably dispersed to countries around the world in what is now known as the Istrian Diaspora. The land called Istria has somehow endured all the hardships and remains a steadfast siren, an enchanting echo of ancient Greece that beckons the Istrian people who are living far away to return home, despite the present rulers who would deny them the free and democratic right to do so without penalty or prejudice or who have otherwise stripped them of their rightful and uniquely Istrian inheritance.

Even casual visitors and seasoned travelers who are harkened to this magical place or who make friends with its peoples become spellbound by Istria's intrinsic beauty - a charming blend of East and West - which has conjoined man to the land and thereby created both an unique physical setting and a colorful tapestry of peoples and cultures. Such a combined and ever-evolving presence is an essence that is mirrored nowhere else in the world!

Our goal in these internet pages is to explore Istria and its people and to celebrate the many colors of the rainbow that blend and continue to radiate on a land that is slowly regaining its mythological and legendary vitality. We do so through the richness of a common heritage that bonds the Istrian people all over the world to one another via a collective memory known as the "homing instinct." More importantly, our aim is to reveal the truths of the past and the realities of the present of our haunting homeland so that we may find a way to reconnect the broken links in our family tree and preserve the rich legacy of Istria for the next and later generations to come - who are, after all, our great hope for the future!

We do not forget, however, that this internet domain is only a place where we assemble virtually in an echo of love and respect for our elders and ancestors who congregated physically in the old town squares that we so heartily miss today. We meet here only in a spirit of good will and friendship and shall allow no violence or aggression, not even verbal. As such, we invite you into our home and bid you to sit with us in front of our Istrian hearth where we shall not only share with you our gastronomic delights, but also open up our hearts and minds to tell you what we recall of the natural riches and mixed blessings of our multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Istrian heritage.

[Dedicated to the memory of Guido Villa (1933-2013). See also Desiderata.]

Marisa Ciceran

by Franco G. Aitala (1932-2005), © 1997

No!  Istria is not a virtual space!

Istria is the shriek of the seagull in the sunset,
the whisper of the wind thru the fragrance of the towering pines,

the ironic splashing of the Adriatic
on the roughness of the hidden coves.

Istria is the greenish sunlight filtering
through the grapevine leaves,

the harsh blow of the nordic bora shaking the batane in the harbour,

the sleepy heaviness of the hot summer afternoon  relieved by the coolness of the evening sea breeze.

Istria is the carminion of the red soil bleeding its eternal cry for PEACE.

Istria was my HOME... May those who still live there enjoy her beauty and her intrinsic reality.

No!  Istria non è uno spazio virtuale!

Istria è lo strillo del gabbiano nel tramonto,
il sussurro del vento tra la fragranza  dei pini torreggianti,

lo sciacquio ironico dell’Adriatico sugli
scogli ruvidi delle insenature nascoste.

Istria è la luce verdognola che filtra
attraverso le foglie dei vigneti,

la spinta crudele della bora del nord che scompiglia le batane nel porto,

la pesantezza dormigliosa di un bruciante pomeriggio estivo riscossa dalla freschezza della brezza marina di ogni sera.

Istria è il carminio della terra rossigna che sanguina la sua eterna richiesta di PACE.

Istria era la mia CASA... Possano coloro che ancora vivono lì godere la sua bellezza e la sua intrinseca realtà.

Created: Wednesday, August 11, 1999; Last updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Copyright © 1998, USA