Istria is the ideal destination for painting holidays, with stunning landscapes, strong colours and perfect light. At least that's the case for the Irish artist and BBC TV presenter Dermot Cavanagh.
We caught up with Dermot on his recent return from Istria. He said he couldn't wait for the next one. The UK 's No.1 TV art tutor who has taught the stars to paint and inspired millions with 74 half hour episodes of his hit TV series "Awash With Colour" here explains his connection with Croatian Istria.
Istria is a painter's paradise and I hope to have the pleasure of bringing five painting groups there again this year. As both guide and tutor I help my guests paint the days away at locations that simply ooze inspiration. During my first visit to Istria, on a holiday in 1987 I got a strange feeling that I'd come home. Eighteen years on and even though I am still nothing more than a frequent visitor, I feel more of a native in Istria than I do here in Ireland . For many years now I've brought painting groups to Istria and I have never failed to be inspired by its landscape and people. Istria is the largest peninsula on the Adriatic coast and the westernmost county of Croatia . It lies at the geographic crossroads of central Europe, the Alps and the dinaric Mediterranean region and is a very worthy neighbour to the magnificent city of Venice on the opposite coast. Istria is simply my favourite place in Europe. For me its picturesque landscape can rival any in Tuscany or Provence. It is modern and sophisticated and has immense appeal to the most discerning of foreign visitors. I know and love the place and I want to help my guests experience the best of it.
It is modern and sophisticated and has immense appeal to the most discerning of foreign visitors. I know and love the place and I want to help my guests experience the best of it.
Istria was once part of Italy, therefore Italian culture and influence is everywhere, in architecture, fashion and cuisine, in fact lots of Istrians speak Italian, as well as English and German. Over the years I've made the effort to pick up a bit of the language and now I have just about enough Croatian to get by in most situations. I actually found it to be an easy language to grasp.
Artists who join in my painting holidays will find that everything has been organised for them - flights, transfers, accommodation, meals, entertainment and painting locations. All I ask is that they bring a desire to paint and a taste for great food and wine. Istria quite simply offers some of the most breathtaking painting locations you
could ever imagine. Guests who have previously experienced this painting idle have said, "not only was it the best painting holiday they had ever been on but also the best holiday in general". On the way back from a painting day in the hilltop village of Groznjan one lady remarked, "I have just spent a day in paradise".
Paradise is situated just off the ancient Via Flavia Roman road. Groznjan is a medieval town on a terraced hill, covered with old vineyards and olive gardens overlooking the beautiful Mirna valley. In 1358 the town is said to have been the administrative centre for Venetian Istria. Since the 1960's the town has become home to a colony of young artists who have restored many of the old buildings and opened studios and galleries. Today Groznjan nurtures a rich art tradition and during the summer the town hosts an international music school. Painting opportunities appear around every corner.
One couldn't help but want to paint here and the live music that wafts on the warm air along the narrow streets only adds to the inspiration. My wife Maria who helps organise all my painting activities has described the town as both hypnotic and intoxicating and that's before lunch and a glass of the famous Malvazija wine at Bastia restaurant, where by the way Bruno makes the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.
Even though I spend the painting days giving tuition and help to the painters in the group, that does not mean that the plight of the nonpainters who choose to come along is neglected in any way. All of my painting locations have as much to offer the non-painter as they do the painter and there is a plethora of other activities and excursions available during the holiday.
Another of my favourite painting haunts is the Istrian town of Rovinj. When I walk through its steep meandering lanes and hidden cobbled squares I feel the centuries pass me by. This is a place of exuberant beauty, which made a Roman chronicler almost two thousand years ago write - "In Istria Roman patricians feel like Gods". All the great powers have ruled Rovinj at one time or another: Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Turks and Austro-Hungarians. The town is squeezed onto an oval shaped limestone rock and surrounded by the brilliant blue of the Adriatic Sea. At its centre is the impressive church of St. Euphemia, which dates back to the 5th century. The bell tower is a copy of the one at St. Mark's Square in Venice. When it comes to eating I have often had great difficulty in making recommendations since Rovinj offers so many high quality establishments - specialist fish restaurants, wine cellars, taverns, patisseries, bars and rotisseries for all tastes and palates.
I feel I must say that Istra is one of the easiest places I have ever been, by that I mean if I want something I get it, and I get it when I want it. It's a pleasure to organise painting holidays there. Maybe that's all down to a chance encounter 19 years ago with Guido Schwengersbauer, 'our man in Istria'. Guido works for the Istria County Tourism Association. Born and brought up in Austria, Guido moved to Istria 36 years ago. Maria and I first met him in May of 1987. I wanted to learn more about Istria and Guido seamed to know just about everyone there. In my opinion he was then and still is now "Mr. Istria". Guido invited us to come back in September of that year but as visitors not tourists, and he would show us the real Istra. We did, he did and I was hooked.
Nowadays Guido and his wife Maruska who comes from Dubrovnik have their own travel agency 'Alternativna Istra' which they run from an office at their home in the village of Brtonigla set amongst the famous vineyards of the Buje region. Well, to be honest Maruska runs the show as Guido still works for the tourist association
Porec is the main coastal town in Istria and possesses by far the most developed tourist infrastructure in Croatia, in high summer it's as busy as a beehive. A port was first built here in about 800 BC by the Illyrian-Histri. The town that grew up around the port soon became a thriving trade centre and cultural melting pot. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire gradually took over and developed Porec into one of its most important strongholds.
The wonderful Euphrasian Basilica that stands to this day in the centre of the old town was built at this time. The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its famous treasures of gold mosaic frescoes are one of the finest examples of Byzantine art. Most of Guido and Maruska's guests come from Austria, Germany and increasingly from Russia and Czech Republic but they are longing for the days when the Brits return!
The loss of the British market was huge and is proving very difficult to retrieve. A full ten years after the end of the Balkan war, in which by the way Istria was not effected except from suffering financially, many people here still perceive Istria to be in the middle of a war zone. In reality it is one of the most peaceful, friendly and respectful places one could ever be. Throughout the world we Irish are often renowned for our hospitality, quite honestly in my experience we don't have a patch on these people, but then Istria was already civilised two thousand years ago.
Motovun - a painter's paradise
Almost all of the painting locations, restaurants, and people I now introduce my painting guests to, were originally introduced to me by Guido; one such place is the hill village of Motovun. Motovun is one of the most beautiful small towns I have ever seen, on rounding a bend in the road it appears like a dream and is perched on a hilltop 277m above sea level. As a settlement it dates back to pre history and in the early part of the first century became a Roman stronghold. Its solid defensive walls are still intact today and are now used as a walkway providing unique views over Istria. The buildings that corkscrew up along the narrow streets are of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles and lead you to the main town square and the church of St. Stephen.
Surrounding the town is Motovun forest which extends for miles along the Mirna valley, this is the dwelling place of that famed underground mushrooms, the truffle. Summer and early autumn is the period for hunting the black truffle, with the help of specially trained dogs, whereas the Istrian white truffle is hunted in late autumn and winter.
Umag - a painting holiday base
The host town and the base for my painting holiday is the costal town of Umag. Today the old city core is full of reminders from a historic past: the town wall remains, Venetian villas and picturesque narrow streets ooze charm. The landscape around the town is generally rolling hills with vineyards, olive groves, fertile fields and a few oak and pinewoods. It is said that Umag was founded by the Celts; the word Umag meant "plain" or "flat ground" in the Celtic language. Under Roman rule Umag and the entire region of Istria prospered greatly. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Umag was ruled in turn by the Byzantines, Franks, Venice, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia and now Croatia. A friend of Maria and I, a local lady from the art club in Novigrad (Citanova in Italian) who sometimes comes painting with us was once asked by a member of my group "Why do you mostly speak in Italian and refer to everything using Italian terminology"? She replied, "It is probably because my mother was Italian, you see" she went on, "the Istrian language is complicated - my grandmother was born in Austria, my mother was born in Italy, I was born in Yugoslavia and I now live in Croatia but we have never moved house".
The hotels we base ourselves are always officially rated 4 stars and the best in Istria, like the Sol Umag, a superb hotel located in beautiful grounds, and only 1km from the town centre. It is, like everywhere in Istra, spotlessly clean and one can always be sure of the Istrian charm and personalised service. Superbly positioned on the beachfront, Hotel Sol Umag offers breathtaking views of the sea with wonderful sunsets and is also the premier hotel of the area in terms of its extensive facilities, comfort, quality of service and food. Rooms are single, twin or double with shower, bath, WC, hairdryer, telephone, safe, minibar, satellite TV and balcony or terrace. Meals are buffet style breakfast & 4 course evening meal. Facilities include restaurants with a terrace, pizzeria, snack bar on the beach, pool bar, indoor and outdoor pools, fully fitted gym and sports centre, tennis centre and a very special wellness/beauty centre.
Maybe I have succeeded in wetting your appetite for a trip to Croatia. If so, I hope that if you have even a fleeting interest in art you will perhaps consider joining me, Maria and indeed our friends in Istria for a painting holiday of a lifetime.