Michael told us to come visit them at their home in Momjan. We should take a train to Trieste, Italy; they’d pick us up there, and we’d spend a weekend riding in what he described as Tuscany…but better. This from a complete stranger mind you. I had never met the guy, nor heard of him in my life, and here he was offering us a place to stay, a ride, and to show us his region. We hopped on the train, and it was arguably one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Momjan is a tiny hilltop village.
The welcome we received from Michael and Marijana is typical of Istria. It’s the same response they got a few years ago when they moved to the tiny hilltop village of Momjan. Momjan is a town you’ll never hear about, read about, or most likely see, unless you know it’s there. The ancient stone houses cluster together with expansive views across the surrounding areas.
The view from the house across the Adriatic to the Dolomiti.
From Momjan, the Slovenian border is just a valley away and the Adriatic shimmers welcomingly in view morning and night 20km away and 300m below. The distant, snowy Alps watch quietly over the warm Istrian life on a clear day, and there are many of those to be had.
Michael and Marijana only did to us what they experienced themselves. After their first night in the town, following the purchase of their house, they woke up on Christmas Day and walked down to the local restaurant, Rino’s. At this point, the ink was still wet on deed to the house, but the whole town knew of the purchase, so when they walked into the crowded bar filled with most of the town and Christmas cheer, the proprietor’s wife looked over, raised a glass, smiled, and cried out in Italian: Due Momianesi! Two from Momjan. That was their welcome after their first day living in the town.
The mid-size mountains of Istria are perfect for bike riding…and enjoying.
You’re never far from the water on the peninsula Istria.
Momjan was only a weekend retreat for our two friends, but the call of Istria is much too great for them to hold out much longer. They are now preparing to move to Momjan full-time. They’re planning to open a small hotel, and they’re, fittingly, going to name it Due Momianesi. It’s a name that begs for a story, and it’s a story that begs to be told. In one small tale, the table can be set for the feast that will be a visitor’s sojourn to Istria.
The colorful walls of Oprtalj.
The story includes everything that is Istria: the people, the food, the land, the history. It’s a tale best told over a plate of pasta and wild boar topped with white truffles and washed down with mulled wine. It’s a tale best told in a warm restaurant with the smiling faces of people you’ve never met before, but take you in like they’ve known you for ages, a place like Rino’s.
The tall church tower at the bend in the road marks the town of Sterna.
That by itself seems to be reason enough to visit. How can you go wrong in a town that has houses still standing strong from the 15th century. There’s a building in Momjan that we pass everyday on our bikes and every night when we walk down to Rino’s for dinner – it has a small apple carved above a window. It looks kind of like the Apple logo sans the bite, except this apple, this building – it was made in 1492.
The Istrian architecture is not a fleeting thing. The homes, the buildings, and the walls that delineate properties, are all of stone. They’ve stood for centuries, and they’ll stand for centuries to come. There’s a certain feeling that comes with riding through ancient countryside. You can’t help but feel in some way the footsteps that have trod before your wheels. I have never ridden in a place where I felt the expanse of time in such a palpable manner.
The short loop around Momjan is one of my favorites.
There’s a particular ridge near Momjan that straddles the border with Slovenia. On either side, the road falls away into respective valleys, one in Croatia, the other in Slovenia, both Istria. A wall lines both sides of the road, and in the distance, a great tree guards a tiny church from the bura, jugo, and maestral winds. The description is simple, the reality is almost overwhelming. I’ve been on that road many times, but never once have I forgotten to shut my mouth and quietly behold this eerily special stretch of road. It’s a lonesome piece of single-lane perfection, and that’s not a bad thing.
A summer thunderstorm looms over Sovinjak.
For many years, the heart-shaped penisula known as Istria was a terra incognita for most English speakers. It lay just on the fringes of Europe, just a few kilometers and an Iron Curtain away from the port town of Trieste, Italy. The Istrian Peninsula is the largest in the Adriatic Sea. After the demise of Yugoslavia in 1991, the peninsula was divided up into three different countries: Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia.
Looking for something a bit old, a bit different? Try Glagolitic script.
Looking for a reminder of Yugoslavia? Tito’s name above a doorway should suffice.
Croatia occupies most of the peninsula save for the far northern reaches. My assumption had always been that tourism was scant during the Socialist regime, but I found that to be a little naive. The Germans, Italians, and Dutch have been lining up to visit the seaside resorts for years, yet still, it remained off the beaten path for many.
Cypress trees dot the landscape in beautiful clusters – a symbol of eternity.
The crumbling of what was once Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1991 opened the doors to the hidden Croatian jewel, Istria. Visitors trickled in at first, but as seems to always be the case with trickles, the trickle soon became a torrent. The torrent has grown to an irritation in certain locations, almost all of them on the coast. The brilliance of Istria, however, is the simplicity in avoiding the maddening droves of tourists.
One of my favorite towns: the vowel-less, Vrh.
Bothered by that terribly long line to get through the border? It’s ok, there’s another smaller border checkpoint a couple of kilometers down the road. No one knows about it. Does the overrunning of the beautiful coastal towns of Istria have you down? Just pedal about 2k inland from the coast and it’s just you, your bike, a one-lane road, ancient rock walls, and signs for truffles and rakija, or as you might more commonly know it, grappa.
Looks like it’s a good time to go right.
Istria is a land of plenty and seemingly everything. As a bike rider, there’s nothing that you can’t find on the country roads. There’s a veritable buffet on offer every time you throw a leg over your bike. Ocean, river, flat, hilly, really hilly, mountains, big mountains, gradual climbs, steep climbs, really steep climbs. Istria is appropriately shaped as a semi-heart/diamond. It’s the throbbing beat of the region, it’s not an exaggeration to liken it to a precious stone, at least I do.
Heading into the valley below Motovun en route to the climb to Kascerga.
In terms of riding bikes, this is definitely one of my favorites. It’s perfect. I’ve often heard Istria compared to another hilly hub of perfection: Tuscany. The hilltop towns, lush rolling hills, great wine, great food, and culture describe not only Toscana, but Istria. Istria is Tuscany if you take the great clock of time and turn it back a few decades, before it became a world center for tourism. Istria is Tuscany at its rawest, unrefined form.
Fast forward (or rather, slow forward) a few kilometers from the Mirna Valley – the upper reaches of the climb steep climb to Kascerga.
The famous hilltop town of Motovun…birthplace of Mario Andretti.
Tuscany resembles the face of a fine, softly featured woman. Istria likens itself more to the chiseled, weather-beaten features of the smiling farmer with the twinkle in his eye you see along its roads. It’s raw beauty is welcoming, it’s joyous, it says come for a long bike ride, stay for an evening of revelry, then wake up and figure out how to make this your home.
There are two ways to Oprtalj from the Mirna Valley – the steep way and the switchback-y way. This is the steep way.
My favorite ride through the northern part of Istria starts in our adopted home of Momjan. From there it’s mostly downhill to the Mirna River valley. The Mirna bisects the northern chunk of Istria, and it is courtesy of the river that the solid 300-400m vertical difference between the surrounding lands to the north and south exist – meaning, of course, lots of climbs. The climbs range from the perfectly engineered switchbacks leading to hilltop perfection at Oprtalj, to the l’Eroica-esque strade bianche winding its way up the northern valley wall to the town of Groznjan, to the wild, reeling steepness of a paved farm path to the cluster of houses known as Kascerga.
This is the much more pleasant path to Oprtalj – seven delightful switchbacks and a little over 300 meters of elevation gain.
These climbs form the heart of what I love in ‘my’ little corner of Istria. Every ride I do starts with which climbs I want to ride, a menu of sorts. Just as every ride I do includes the Mirna climbs, every ride concludes in my heaven – the hills in the immediate area around Momjan. This unique landscape reminds me of another of my favorite places to ride, West Virginia. Short climbs lead to ridgelines with views that extend as far as your vision will allow. The ridge riding never lasts for too long though, and down you go, only too happy to climb back up for another deep sip of the paradise atop the rolling spines of this perfect piece of topography.
Istria has had a bumpy history as a beacon in the Adriatic. It has been tossed back and forth amongst ruling regimes throughout history. It’s a place that absorbs shock really well though, for whatever reason. With all of the different languages that were spoken at some point and the different majorities that prevailed, people always melded together somehow and formed this entirely different beast, a kinder, gentler one.
No matter who comes, or where they come from, they become Istrian. In the past, the people have come mainly from Croatia, Italy, and Germany, but now more people like Michael and Marijana are entering the fray. They too will become Istrian: not separate, not different, just Istrian. It’s not like that everywhere.
It’s hard to get too lost in Istria – it’s a relatively small area, and signs pointing every which way are plentiful.
It’s magical. You don’t have to settle in Istria to feel that though. You can just ride through town and strike up a conversation in the local cafe. As for me, I treasure the quieter moments, and those too aren’t too difficult to find in the hills near Momjan; you just need your bike and a little bit of time.
The view down to Buje and the Adriatic Sea from just above Momjan. Home.
When I close my eyes at night and imagine myself riding in an amazing place, I almost always end up riding my bike down a forgotten ridge to a church that looks like it might be the last outpost between here and the hereafter. You’ll have to find it on your own for now, but if you ask me, I’ll tell you how to get there.
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