How you react to POREČ (Parenzo) may well depend on what time of year you arrive. From May to late September, Istria’s largest tourist resort can seem positively engulfed by mass-market tourism; outside this period it can be just as charming as any other well-kept former fishing port. Happily, Poreč’s gargantuan hotel complexes are mainly concentrated in vast tourist settlements like Plava Laguna and Zelena Laguna to the south, and the town’s labyrinthine core of stone houses – ice-cream parlours and tacky souvenir shops notwithstanding – remains relatively unspoiled. Main points in Poreč’s favour are the Romanesque Basilica of Euphrasius, Istria’s one must-see ecclesiastical attraction, and the town’s transport links, which make it a convenient base from which to visit the rest of the Istrian peninsula.
The Basilica of Euphrasius
The Basilica of Euphrasius
Poreč’s star turn is the Basilica of Euphrasius (Eufrazijeva basilika), situated in the centre of the town just off Eufrazijeva. Decorated with incandescent mosaics, this sixth-century Byzantine basilica created by Bishop Euphrasius around 535 is the central component of a complex that includes the bishop’s palace, atrium, baptistry and campanile. Entry is through the atrium, an arcaded courtyard whose walls incorporate ancient bits of masonry, although it was heavily restored in the last century.
The basilica was the last in a series of late Roman and early Byzantine churches built on this spot, the remains of which are still in evidence. Surviving stonework from the first, the Oratory of St Maur (named after the saint who is said to have lived in a house on the site), can be seen on the north side of the basilica. This was a secret place of worship when Christianity was still an underground religion, and fragments of mosaic show the sign of the fish, a clandestine Christian symbol of the time. Inside the basilica, the mosaic floor of a later, less secretive church has been carefully revealed through gaps in the existing floor. The present-day basilica is a rather bare structure: everything focuses on the apse, with its superb, late thirteenth-century ciborium and, behind this, the mosaics, with Byzantine solemnity quite different from the geometric late Roman designs. They’re studded with semiprecious gems, encrusted with mother-of-pearl and punctuated throughout by Euphrasius’s personal monogram – he was, it’s said, a notoriously vain man. The central part of the composition shows the Virgin enthroned with Child, flanked by St Maur, a worldly looking Euphrasius holding a model of his church and, next to him, his brother.
On the opposite side of the atrium, the octagonal baptistry (baptisterijum) is bare inside save for the entrance to the campanile, which you can ascend for views of Poreč’s red-brown roof tiles. On the north side of the atrium is the Bishop’s Palace, a seventeenth-century building harbouring a fascinating selection of mosaic fragments that once adorned the basilica floor, and an exquisite collection of Gothic altarpieces and Baroque statuary.