Delicately poised between medieval port and upmarket tourist resort, ROVINJ (Rovigno) has managed to preserve its character better than anywhere else along the Istrian coast. Spacious Venetian-style houses and elegant piazzas lend an overridingly Italian air to the town, and the harbour is a likeable mix of fishing boats and swanky yachts. Rovinj is also the most Italian town on this coast: there’s an Italian high school, the language is widely spoken, and street signs are bilingual.
Rovinj’s urban core is situated on what was formerly an island. The strait separating it from the coast was filled in during the mid-eighteenth century, after which the town expanded onto the mainland, until then the site of a separate settlement of Croat farmers. Initially, the urban Italian culture of Rovigno assimilated that of the mainland Slavs, until industrial development in the late nineteenth century encouraged a wave of economic migrants, tipping the demographic scales in the Croats’ favour. Playing a leading role in this was the Rovinj tobacco factory, founded in 1872 – the firm still produces the bulk of Croatia’s cigarettes, although production was moved inland to Kanfanar in 2007. The demon weed remains a driving force in the local economy, with the tobacco factory investing heavily in Rovinj’s tourist industry.
Rovinj’s other claim to fame is the artists who have gravitated here since the 1950s and whose studios fill the streets of the Old Town. On the second Sunday of August the main street, Grisia, is taken over by an open-air display in which anyone can take part, providing they register their works at the town museum on the morning of the show.