In Croatia's northernmost state of Istria, folklore, and myths run rampant with the rich history of witches, vampires, giants, and energy lines.
Ask any Croatian what their favorite place in their country is and it’s likely they’ll launch into cascading praise for the northernmost state of the nation, Istria. Lesser trodden by international tourists but big in the hearts and imaginations of the locals, inland Istria is flush with medieval hillside hamlets with cobbled streets, like Motovun, Grožnjan, Opatalj, Pazin, Pičan, and Kringa.
Though overarchingly pretty, these villages have more going on than meets the eye. First off, Istria has a wildly layered history, as the region has changed hands between rulers, countries, and cultures myriad times. Celts, Ancient Illyrians, Romans, Slavs, Venetians, and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs all called this place home at one time or another, each leaving their mark. But more than that, Croatians know Istria for its rich folklore, myths, and spirituality.
Ancient Slavic gods, prehistoric monuments, energy lines, giants, witches, and vampires are just some of the stories you’re likely to come across while taking your time to explore the Istrian highlands. While on the surface these villages look as though they were established in the medieval Venetian era, many have a history that extends back at least 2,000 years, as one civilization after another took over the ancient hill fort settlements.
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Psychic Energy Lines and Giants
The most famous and beloved spot in upper Istria is undoubtedly Motovun, a large fortified village with a population of roughly 500, and which is home to an annual film festival that pulls in movie lovers from across the world. The Acropolis-esque setting was first built by the Celts, who named it Montona, meaning “town in the hills.” Nowadays, this perfectly preserved Venetian outpost attracts architecture lovers, cyclists, foodies (both black and white truffles are dug from the forests in the foothills), and those interested in the esoteric. It is widely understood that Croatia’s northernmost ley lines run through the center of the town square underneath St. Stephen’s church tower.
“They dug him up and found his body in its coffin perfectly preserved and smiling, so cut off his head and reburied him.”
What are ley lines, you ask? Before we go any further, ley lines are (invented) lines of energy that were created by ancient people such as the Celts. These theoretical straight axes cut through the land, connecting culturally important, religious, and social places. Also known as “dragon lines” in Istria, these lines were first mapped out in the 1980s by Slovenian sculptor and land artist Marko Pogačnik, who noted these ancient lines passing through Motovun, Grožnjan, and Opatalj, as well as the ancient stone circles in Picuge and Modele. Pogačnik, an artist with feng-shui training, believed (like many) that a number of ley lines cross paths in Motovun, making it a strong source of positive energy.
There are three ancient stone circles in Istria that are clustered close together, southwest of Motovun. They’re unexcavated and overgrown, considered to be the only known megalithic circles in Croatia, as the oldest dates back to the Mid-Bronze Age (1000-2000 years BC). They’re tricky to visit in the summer when shrubs are high and snakes are rife, but pass through Istria in the winter and pack a drone to get some excellent views.
Another great local legend is of the giants who lived in the Mirna River Valley, which dissects Motovun, Grožnjan, and Opatalj. The story goes that these giant men were so tall they could pass tools and boulders to one another over the tops of buildings. One of the towns built in this mythological era was Motovun. As years went by, Istria became populated by regular-sized people and the giants disappeared, but one remained in Motovun. The star of a 1908 fairytale written by Vladimir Nazor, Veli Jože was a friendly and kind-hearted giant, but so strong that he could shake the bell tower of St. Stephen’s with his bare hands. Jože is a much-loved local figure, whose mural adorns a wall in Motovun and whose story children still read today.
The God of Lightning
If you’re piqued by paganism, look no further than the village of Pičan, southeast of Motovun. Pičan, according to locals, was the fifth church-governed town in the Christian world. A bishop was appointed and a diocese established in the 5th century AD, which would lead you to the assumption that Istria was an early adopter of Christianity. Local journalist and researcher Davor Šišović believes that this was not strictly the case and that Istrians continued to worship pagan Slavic gods on the side.
“History teaches us that somewhere in the 8th-century the old Slavic world turned to Christianity. But we have a hill near Pičan named after Perun, the Slavic god of lightning,” says Šišović. “There are other monuments and stories that indicate that the old religion was still here, 500 years later with this trinity; the Slavic mother nature goddess Mokosh represented the Holy Mary, Perun as St. George and Svetovit became St. Vitus. It’s my theory that old Slavic religions here in Istria existed until the 15th-century.”
Vampires and Stringun
To add to the heady mix of ancient gods, stone circles, ley lines, and giants, the most notorious and influential character in Istrian folklore is the vampire Jure Grando, who originated in the village of Kringa and almost certainly inspired Bram Stoker. Grando died in 1656, but terrorized Kringa for 16 years after his death, knocking on people’s doors at night and causing the death of many residents. In 1672, a party of nine locals from Kringa formed a hunt to end his habits. They dug him up and found his body in its coffin perfectly preserved and smiling, so cut off his head and reburied him. Et voila—no more strange deaths in Kringa.
Slovenian writer Johann Weikhard von Valvasor wrote about Grando’s life and the afterlife in his historical epic The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola after visiting Kringa during his travels. His book, originally published in German in 1689, is full of eyewitness accounts. You can visit the commemorative stone plate in the village of Kringa, with the names of all nine participants of the vampire’s elimination.
Grando is the first character in history to be identified as a vampire and not, as you might hear in these parts, a “stringun.” A stringun—or stringa, if female—is another Istrian creature, distinct from vampires as they are always tied to a living person (and also distinct from witches despite their tendency to congregate on hills and mountaintops). The stringun possesses its host by night, and by day, the chosen host body is unaware of its acts. When the person sleeps, the stringun possesses the person’s body to kill animals and children, depending on their strength. Researchers from the University of Zagreb are currently collecting stringun stories and documenting this oral history in depth.
Like any land rich in oral history, your best bet is to go to Istria’s villages and talk to local guides, experts, or long-time residents. There are undoubtedly more stories still to uncover.