Visit Vodnjan: From Ancient Mummies to Baby Unicorns

Paul Bradbury

Photos (the good ones) by Steve Tsentserensky

October 6, 2023 – A delightful blend of young and old, culture and gastronomy – it is time to visit Vodnjan.

As a late arrival to the Istria Appreciation Society, I often wonder if I am the only person who struggled with identifying the individual towns and villages of inland Istria. Can you tell your Buje from Buzet, for example, Labin or Pazin, or differentiate between Visnjan, Groznjan or Vodnjan?

A cursory trip will reveal that while they all have the similarity of being superbly preserved authentic historic towns, there is plenty of individual magic to set each apart from the rest, as I discovered when I when to visit Vodnjan earlier this year.

The occasion was the Nikola Tesla EV Rally, which took participants on an exquisite luxury tour of Istria and the Croatian coast. Watching the rally drivers heading to the main square through the historic ancient streets in their modern Teslas was a perfect mirror of Vodnjan itself. For this is a town where the ancient and the modern are in total harmony and helping the town to grow nicely.

What Tesla has done for the electric car industry globally, three chaps from Vodnjan have done for Croatia and its IT sector. But unlike many successful businesses which head to Zagreb or foreign climes, the boys from Infobip decided that they wanted to focus their business in their home town, despite becoming the first billion dollar company in Croatia – the first Croatian unicorn.

As the company expands, so does the residential area around Infobip, which lies on the outskirts of town. Tastefully done, all low-level in keeping with the rest of the town, and so neat and tidy. As was Vodnjan and its surroundings. A strong first impression.

The first unicorn may set Vodnjan apart, but so too does its most famous attraction – ancient mummies. According to the Vodnjan Tourist Board:

One of the peculiarities of St. Blaise are the mummified bodies of saints. Behind the main altar lie the preserved bodies of three saints – St. Leon Bembo (+1188), St. John Olini (+1300) and St. Nicoloza Bursa(+1512). Smaller undecomposed parts of saints’ bodies are also kept here: torso of St. Sebastian (+282), foot of St. Barbara (+288.), tongue of St. Mary of Egypt (+522) and the right index finger of the Patriarch of Constantinople St. Eutychius (+582).

​​​​​​​The Vodnjan parish church keeps altogether 370 registered relics or earthly remains of 250 saints. An undisputable scientific explanation of their preservation has not yet been found; it is supposed that the body can remain preserved for so long under certain circumstances: in low temperature, if death occurred due to arsenic poisoning or if the body was buried in soil rich with iron and tannin. St. Leon Bembo, St. John Olini and St. Nicoloza Bursa were proclaimed saints via facti, therefore after it was proven that they were meritorious for numerous healings.

Vodnjan was blissfully quiet in late May when we visited. It had a wonderful calming effect, where nothing seemed to happen in a hurry. I liked that and – apart from the beauty of its wonderful streets and buildings – my favourite moment was watching this older couple take in the tranquillity of the moment. Croatia, Full of Lifestyle.

There were plenty of other joys to take in, as well as what I think is a totally unique (and TOTALLY delicious) addition to the Croatian gastro scene.

While I am a big fan of prsut, I have tasted so much over the years in so many different places, that it is hard to get overly excited at the prospect of another prsut tasting. Prsutana Bursic in Vodnjan was different, with a lot more on offer than just the outstanding domestic prsut.

A great addition to the restaurant and tasting area to ensure fun for all the family – a very well-equipped childen’s play area, which allowed for a relaxed experience for all the family. A nice touch, which was typical of the higher levels of service I encountered in inland Istria.

But the real discovery at this delightful family-run slice of prsut heaven was about to be revealed…

Pancetta chips, as fabulous a bar snack as I have come across anywhere, and the brainchild of the owner’s wife and a little extra time during the pandemic. Don’t miss them when you visit Vodnjan.

This was not my first visit to Vodnjan. That was a few years ago on the occasion of the olive harvest and another reason to visit Vodnjan – the world-class (and multiple award-winning) olive oil of Chiavalon.

It is also one of my favourite stories in Croatia. Back in 1997, when his grandfather got sick, there was nobody to look after the 50 family olive trees. And so a teenage grandson took on the task, and discovered a love and a passion – ably helped with his more business-minded elder brother.

When I checked a few years ago, they had grown the business from those initial 50 trees to more than 17,000 litres of oil a year, and just like the pressed olives at harvest time, the global awards and accolades have not stopped flowing.

A teenage boy’s dream to a new facility and some of the most modern facilities in the region’s olive oil production.

But still faithful to the important things in life – nature, family, and lifestyle.

Visit Vodnjan, where ancient and modern, world-class and so very local, merge in perfect harmony.


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