Exploring Istria: Dvigrad, a medieval town frozen in time

The name Dvigrad means “two town”, or perhaps “twin towns”. It’s tucked away in the Drago valley, which leads from Pazin to the sea. The actual river has gone underground at this point, only emerging in the Lim channel. In prehistoric times, this was a major highway to inland Istria, and later it became the border between Pula and Poreč’s agricultural areas. So what appears to us today as a sleepy little valley, was actually an important location, and one to be fought over. Not a comfortable place to have your little town!

Fortifications and tower

Fortifications and tower

There were originally two towns, but Castel Parentin to the south was abandoned early on, leaving Moncastel to become collectively known as Dvigrad. In late Roman times, the town was expanded and fortified, and these would seem to have been the best years here as it was ruled by Aquileia. Although originally an agricultural settlement of Pula, by 929 Dvigrad came under the Poreč diocese.

Entrance gate

Entrance gate

The most significant building is the church of St Sofia, perched on the highest point of Dvigrad, off the main square. Researchers have identified  four main developmental phases of growth – late antiquity 5th / 6th centuries, pre-Romanesque 8th-7th centuries, Romanesque 12th century, and  Gothic 14th-15th century. The bell tower and the baptistry were built in 1249. At the same time, the town was being strongly fortified with several layers of surrounding walls and an impressive town gate.

The Genoese attacked Dvigrad in 1354 under Admiral Pagano Doria, then the Venetians burned the place in 1381, finally taking control in 1413. As part of the Serene Republic, life was reasonably quiet for a while, until war broke out between Venice in the west and the Austrian Empire to the east. At the beginning of the 16th century Dvigrad received refugees from the Dalmatian hinterland and Herzegovina, who were fleeing from the Ottomans. Meanwhile, there were serious outbreaks of plague and malaria, in addition to the continually warring armies.  By 1631, some 700 or so townsfolk left Dvigrad in search of better conditions in nearby Kanfanar. The last three families held out until 1714, when they too abandoned the town. The relics of St Sofia, and its 14th century pulpit were removed to the church of St Silvester in Kanfanar.

The abandoned town of around 220 houses was left to the elements. Over the years,much has decayed, but the basic structure of the medieval town remains, You can walk into town through the gates in the walls, along the paved streets and up into the main square. The walls of the buildings are mostly standing, even if the roofs have long fallen in. You can peer into the houses and see the typical little decorative shelves that would have held the owner’s possessions.

Dvigrad may have been on a major ancient highway, but access today is by a winding country road. A few other visitors had also found their way there on the afternoon we visited. Not too many, though, and it was still possible to take in the atmosphere, imagining the town 500 years ago. Dvigrad’s main square offered a nice set of stone benches to sit on and paint. Here’s my view of what remains of St Sofia’s church, and what I guess to be the bell tower on the right. The entrance to the church is up the flight of steps on the left, but the barred gate stops you exploring any further. Lovely peaceful afternoon!

My sketch of the church

My sketch of the church

Next, it’s off to a tiny church in Beram with the most beautiful frescoes.

Find out more…

Istria Culture

Visit Kanfanar


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