Rovigno – Like a Piece of Jewelry
December 10, 2014
When I saw Rovigno from across the bay it made me think of an antique piece of jewelry – a round brooch encrusted with colored gemstones, held together with filigree and rimmed with sapphires. It was a perfect December day with a clear blue sky. Rovigno is all brightly colored houses, all shapes and sizes, lining narrow winding streets, reaching up to a high bell tower, running right down to and surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Adriatic.
For more than five hundred years, Rovigno was governed by the Republic of Venice. Between the 13th to the 18th century it was an important seaport for merchant ships on their way from the Middle East to Venice. Rovigno feels and looks very Venetian but not the grand, gold leafed Venice. It is what the working class Venice would have been. We walk up and down narrow stone paved streets. Staircases connect the terraced streets that descend to the sea. Most of the time we are alone. Without the crush of summer tourists it really feels like we are in century long ago. The houses are packed tightly together and what stands out are the rows and rows of wooden window shutters some painted bright colors and others with layers and layers of paint peeling away. How many families have lived their lives over these many centuries behind each and every one of those shutters?
People fleeing from the Turkish invasions settled these coastal parts of Istria. Emigrants came from northern Italy as well as central Istria, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Greece and Albania. Between 1650 and 1775 the population of Rovigno went from 5000 people to almost 14000. This helps explain the typical architecture of the historic town centre. Houses were built tightly next to each other and most had four floors. It is interesting that each floor had one room with its own fireplace. So when you look at the townscape you see chimneys everywhere on the rooftops. Rovigno was originally built on an island. As the risk of invasions decreased and the population increased the town expanded outside the town walls on the island and the channel to the mainland was filled in. An early example of urban sprawl!
On this sunny day there is laundry hanging out everywhere to dry as it would have been one, two, three centuries ago and more. A metallic blue Vespa is parked on in a tight angle beside a planter that even in December has green ivy cascading down the sides. An elderly lady with her white plastic grocery bag slowly makes her way up the hill.
Some of the buildings are “picture perfect” – with bright orange, green, yellow stuccoed fronts. Others are bare grey and in the exposed stones you can truly appreciate the workmanship of the stone masons. But this does not mean that one has to live without the modern convenience of air conditioning!
A teenager has a messenger bag slung across his back with AC/DC emblazoned on it. He passes under a wooden portico – the large timbers dark with age, the stone pavers under foot shiny and worn from centuries of foot traffic. He seems oblivious to his surroundings. His posture, the black hoodie, the jeans, the AC/DC bag – he could be anywhere in the “western” world. The globalization of life today blends seamlessly with this architecture that lives on not only with an ageless beauty but is still functional centuries later.
Some of the streets are curved, actually circular and as you look between the houses you can see right down to the sea. The symbols of Venice are strikingly evident. The old port has a late-Renaissance clock tower. Nearby you can still see one of the old town gates – Balbi’s Arch (from 1680) which was once the entrance to Rovigno. The arch contains the coat of arms of the noble Balbi family and of course the Lion of Saint Mark. We see the Venetian lion on the front of houses. The St. Euphemia Church first built in the 1300’s and (re)built in the mid-1600’s has a bell tower modeled on St. Mark’s bell tower in Venice. The church was remodeled again in the early 1700’s in a Baroque style according to the plans of a Venetian architect.
We decide to go up to the top of the bell tower. To get up to the top you have to climb a circular wooden staircase and to do so requires some intestinal fortitude! First the stair railings are encrusted with layers and layers of pigeon poop. Second the treads are not all the same height and many of the treads are worn down at about a 45 degree angle so that your foot is never flat on the stair. Then you cannot let yourself look down because there are no risers so you look down into a deep empty space. This climb is not for you if you have a fear of heights or if you have a weak stomach! But for me the view from the top of the bell tower makes the climb worthwhile. The first thing you see as you emerge from the darkness of the stair case is the azure blue waters of the Adriatic. Then as you move towards the thick balustrades and you look out onto the waters you see that there are a number of small leafy-green islands scattered about. You also see this geometric pattern of the red-tiled roofs winding down to the water. All this re-enforces my image of a big colorful gem filled brooch – dark coppers, and orangey-reds and emerald greens and sapphire blues.
The lungomare is relatively new and is the “beach” of Rovigno. The walkway is paved with large polished concrete stones and is terraced so that swimmers can “walk” into the water. Today Rovigno is largely a summer holiday destination. The lungomare leads to the usual hotels, resorts, pensione, eating places, stores that are needed to sustain the tourist industry. A bit of a mishmash and not very attractive like a lot of the touristy Croatian hinterland in Istria.
But there are no tourists on this perfect sunny day. From the lungomare there is a stunning view of Rovigno with the bell tower and the colorful houses rising above that clear blue water and it is hard to tear your eyes from that view!