Poreč, Croatia, and the famous basilica
The small Croatian seaside town of Poreč was just what I needed – I just didn’t quite realise that until I arrived.
The thing with travelling constantly is that sometimes you don’t need to be anywhere in particular, you just have to be somewhere. I found myself in one of those situations in this case.
I needed to end up in Venice but I had a spare week between my previous commitment and then. So, I looked at a map to see what was close and, rather randomly, chose somewhere to spend the time. Poreč was the answer.
I had never heard of it before. I don’t think many people have – at least, nobody who didn’t live in the region. Most of the other visitors were from other parts of Croatia or neighbouring countries like Italy.
Tourists who come from further afield tend to head to the better-known coastal spots of Croatia – like nearby Pula, the charming island of Hvar, or the crowded Dubrovnik.
But Poreč’s lack of international fame is one of the reasons it’s so charming. It certainly has a big tourism industry – don’t imagine a sleepy fishing village – but it’s managed to avoid the overdevelopment and crowds of other places.
Along the coastline in either direction from the centre of town are large hotels. But, rather than being a blight on the natural environment, they mostly create a pleasant atmosphere. That’s because a public path goes along the shoreline between the hotels and the water, and the area around it has been landscaped to create a peaceful and uninterrupted track that I use for a run each morning.
From the coastal path at the northern end, you can look back and see Poreč Old Town sticking out into the water. The most striking of the buildings in this endearing skyline is the Euphrasian Basilica – and it turns out to be a godsend for me.
The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč
As I mentioned, I chose to come to Poreč randomly, with very little research or planning. It wasn’t until I arrived that I realised there was actually a World Heritage Site here and, as you probably know, I am on a mission to see every site on the World Heritage List.
The site in question is the Euphrasian Basilica – a rather small yet very impressive complex of buildings in the middle of the Old Town.
The basilica is one of Europe’s finest intact examples of Byzantine art. The first church was built here in the 4th century and the current one is from the 6th century.
So, not only is it an impressive site for the art and architecture, it’s also an incredible example of early Christianity in this part of the world.
Visiting Poreč’s Euphrasian Basilica
Although I keep referring to the site as the basilica, there’s actually more to it than that. There’s a whole complex of buildings that, although they’re all contained within the same walls, each have their own significant attributes.
When you arrive, the first thing you will see is the atrium. This beautiful open air courtyard has columns that were brought from Istanbul.
From here, there is a suggested route that signs will lead you through. You don’t have many options so it makes sense just to follow the arrows.
The next place you’ll be led to is the baptistery. It was built in the fifth century and these days is showing its age. At different times through history it may have been colourfully-decorated but it’s quite demure now.
The baptistery is octagonal in shape and has a baptismal pool in the middle that is the shape of a hexagon.
The Bell Tower
From within the baptistery, you’ll be able to access the bell tower, which was built in 1522 when that became the trend in Middle Ages architecture. It’s 35 metres high so there’s a bit of a climb to the top but it’s not too bad.
You get a magnificent view from the top of the tower across the Old Town of Poreč and along the coastline. It’s hard to imagine how imposing this tower would have been centuries ago when most of the land would have been undeveloped.
The Bishop’s Palace
Next, you will be directed to the Bishop’s Palace. This large building on the edge of the water has a vast hall where the bishop would once have accepted guests. The smaller rooms off to the side were for more private functions.
These days, the space is used as a museum and there are a few interesting items to see here. However, I think the much more interesting artefacts are on the bottom floor, which is known as the Lapidary.
Inside the lapidary on the ground floor of the Bishop’s Palace, you’ll see an incredible collection. It’s here that they keep some of the original mosaics from the floor that was here in the 4th and 5th centuries.
The room is quite dark and atmospheric and I found it quite amazing to be in here alone, looking at these beautifully-intricate pieces of art from more than 1500 years ago.
You’ll also be able to see an altar in which the relics of Saints Mavro and Eleutherius are stored, and there’s also a stone throne from the beginning of the 9th century.
As you continue along the suggested route, you’ll pass through an outside area. On the ground is a large floor mosaic from an old building that no longer exists.
It’s interesting to see but, as you’ll notice, it has no great protection. That’s because compared to the mosaics you’re about to see, this one is not nearly as precious.
Now, finally, you will come into the Euphrasian Basilica. This is, without a doubt, the highlight and the suggested tour has saved the best for last.
Take a moment to look around and soak in the grand design. For something that was built in the 6th century (and has had only minor upgrades over the years), it is incredible. It is thought to be the first church in the Western World to have three naves and three apses.
But then, look closely at the mosaic decorations here. It’s these features that make the basilica so significant and the best example in the world of the art and architecture of this period.
The mosaic images on the apses are full of symbolism and some of the scenes they depict are quite unusual. For instance, there’s the lamb representing Jesus, and you’ll see the Virgin Mary and her Assumption to Heaven.
But the most impressive of all is the depiction of Jesus with the Apostles, that just seems to still glitter and gleam all this centuries later.
In many ways, visiting the Euphrasian Basilica is a representation of my whole visit to Poreč. Both are small and relatively-unknown, and I went into both with no expectations.
But I discovered that Poreč and the basilica have so much more to offer than I realised. They are both so special in their own ways with real treasures to discover – treasures that are indefinably valuable but without any sense of pretentiousness.