Istria, the Land of Legends
Locals will direct you towards the nails hammered into the door of the parish church. It is said these have been placed there by local women as part of a fertility rite. Banging in a piece of metal would increase one’s chances of bearing children. But there was a catch. It was only when the nails were hammered in with bare hands that the spell actually worked. Gritty though it may be, the Gračišće story just about qualifies as a life-affirming tale of pain and gain. Many of Istria’s traditional narratives are much darker in nature.
Jure Grando, Europe’s first vampire
Providing something of a historical gateway to the world of the Istrian imagination is the story of Jure Grando, the real-life farmer who hailed from the village of Kringa, a grey-stone settlement that straggles along a green ridge just west of Pazin. Grando has the distinction of being Europe’s first historically identified vampire. He died in 1656, but that didn’t prevent him from strolling around the village, knocking on neighbours’ doors, and, most scandalously of all, visiting his widow in her bedchamber. Kringa folk started complaining that they were falling ill in response to the spells cast by the undead nocturnal wanderer, and demanded that Grando’s body be dug up and investigated. Priests and local wisemen were summoned to Kringa to deal with the situation; ultimately Grando’s corpse was decapitated, and he didn’t venture forth to bother the village again. No longer able to rise from the grave, Grando was at least immortalised in print thanks to Slovene antiquarian Janez Vajkard Valvasor, who visited Kringa several years afterwards and questioned locals about the case. Valvasor published his findings in his multi-volume magnum opus Glory of the Duchy of Carniola in 1689. The Grando story spread, entering the body of vampire tales then circulating among educated European readers.
It’s a great shame that we tend to think of Europe’s vampire heritage as something that belongs to the castles of Transylvania rather than the picturesque hill towns of the Istrian peninsula, where it really belongs. This is all the fault of Bram Stoker, who sited his bestselling Dracula novel of 1897 in the mist-shrouded mountains of distant Romania rather than in a place in which belief in vampires was deeply rooted in local lore. Jure Grando was a prime example of a štrigun, an Istrian warlock capable of passing malevolent spells on locals and their communities. The popular image of the štrigun frequently overlapped with that of a vampire: štriguni were active at night, and sometimes rose from the grave after death. The presence of a štrigun helped to explain the set-backs common to rural societies. The blame for bad harvests, livestock diseases and domestic misfortune could all be laid at the štrigun’s door. Sleeplessness, listlessness or long-term illness could also be attributed to a mora, a female spirit that made nocturnal visits to the victim’s bed. Something of a prototype for the modern superhero was the krstnik, a local blessed with knowledge of the supernatural who could put a štrigun or mora to flight.
Veli Jože, Istria’s gentle giant
While Jure Grando never really made it into the world of popular literature, one Istrian folk archetype most definitely did. Published in 1908 and still a regular feature of the Croatian school curriculum, Vladimir Nazor’s fictional creation Veli Jože or “Big Joe” used traditional epic storytelling techniques to construct a modern Istrian fable. Nazor’s Veli Jože is a tall, muscular but good-hearted fellow who, after years of being humiliated by local lords, finally turns the tables on his tormentors. Nazor conceived of the story when travelling around Istria as a young schoolteacher. He saw local farmers, groaning under the weight of their obligations to tax collectors and state officials. Veli Jože, the gentle giant, was Nazor’s metaphor for the dignity of the Istrian peasantry and their fight for social justice.
Henry Morgan, the famed pirate of Istria
One of Istria’s most dramatic stories didn’t take shape in Istria at all but in the waters of the Caribbean, where the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan plundered his way around Central America with the connivance of the English crown. Forced to retire and return to London (and this is where we enter the realm of Istrian legend), Morgan loaded up what was left of his treasure and sailed off towards the Adriatic. The ageing swashbuckler buried his riches at Dvigrad, high above the shores of Istria’s Limski Kanal, and settled down there with his crew to live out the rest of his days. And there is indeed a village called Mrgani, southeast of Poreč, where their descendants are said to live. With a place-name as authentic as that, the rest of the story must be true.