Croatia’s New Idyllic Escape: Baracija Settlement in Istria

Centrally isolated. That’s the motto of Suzanne James Penavić’s alma mater, Cornell University. It is also the way she describes the exciting project that she has undertaken for the last five years together with her husband, Krešimir Penavić, an impressive new villa called Stanzia Baracija.

It’s in Krasica, Istria, a corner of Croatia that most people (at least most North Americans) have never heard of. Twelve miles from the Adriatic Sea, it is a bucolic, rural landscape of organic vineyards, olive groves, Mediterranean vegetation and picturesque villages. It feels blissfully remote. And yet it is surrounded by places we know and are easily accessible. The airports of Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana and Pula are less than three hours away.

The Penavićs acquired the five-acre property in 2010, after it had been abandoned for some 50 years. They were two houses in ruins; what is now the summer kitchen was literally a pigsty. Previously, the property was home to the Zlatić family, who built their residence and farm here in 1885. After the restoration, an elderly Zlatić began passing by to see what had become of his childhood home. It’s all part of the history and part of the charm.

As is often the case with these types of properties, the idea was to use it as a family vacation home for the Penavićs, who split their time between Croatia, New York and Pennsylvania, and their adult children, who live in New York and Japan. But Krešimir, who previously worked for hedge funds, describes himself and his projects as “very pragmatic” and saw that it worked best as a private villa that he could also rent out to other guests.

They are right to want to show it off and share it. “Our soul is in this house,” she says, noting that his cousin, who works for the Croatian design studio Madres, did the interiors. It feels like an elegant vintage home, all reclaimed wood, local stone, and antiques you’re not afraid to touch.

The main house is spread over four floors and is connected with an elevator (always a serious undertaking in a historic house). The five rooms are spacious and air-conditioned, with parquet flooring, excellent lighting, pastel colors and paintings from the owners’ collection. The ground floor and upper floor terraces have relaxing views over the landscape. The pension is a more intimate space with three bedrooms for six people, with a more contemporary atmosphere and furniture by great designers.

There’s also a movie theater, game room, and wine cellar, though most guests gather around the pool (there’s plenty of seating) or the dining table on the terrace. And as is often the case, that table is best when it’s laden with meals or “light bites” prepared by Barajica’s private chef, Priska Thuring, a celebrity chef who has cooked in some of Croatia’s most prestigious kitchens (including Dubravkin Put , voted the best restaurant in Zagreb during each year of his tenure there) but he seems to be happiest when he’s out looking for food or trying out new ideas in his fermentation lab. (More on this later).

When I visited her, her snack consisted of Istrian pickled vegetables, cheese and cold cuts, delicious local-style sour vegetables, anchovies on toast, spongy cheese breads and carrots with wild asparagus, which she, again, picked. To be fair, there were five of us and we needed food to accompany the wines we were tasting, from the nearby Krešimir winery, Clai, considered one of the best in Istria.

“When we left our corporate life, we decided to spend our time and money on the things we love,” says Krešimir, a longtime wine connoisseur and collector. When he took over Clai, he kept winemaker Giorgio Clai on board, brought in Dmitri Brecevic, and encouraged experimentation: orange, natural (if not marketed as such), low-touch, and generally interesting wines They rescued an old grape variety that had almost become extinct. Krešimir tried to get the government to recognize him with a DOC, something that was not as possible as the New Yorker in him hoped. “I have a story in place,” he says.

His next chapter will unfold this fall, when he and Thuring open their new restaurant near the estate. Stara Škola (“old school,” after the building it occupies) will be the showcase for him, a farm-to-table restaurant serving “honest food” that reflects his haute cuisine technique while being much more relaxed. He is implementing a zero waste program, one of the reasons for that fermentation lab, to make the place as sustainable and ethical as possible, and is committed to having a simple lunch option for locals.

Because, in the end, it’s not that isolated at all, and the community is its own essential ingredient, and something else that makes Barajica special.

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