Croatia’s New Idyllic Escape: Stanzia Baracija In Istria

Centrally isolated. That’s the slogan of Suzanne James Penavić’s alma mater, Cornell University. It’s also the way she describes the passion project that she’s spent the past five years undertaking alongside her husband, Krešimir Penavić, a stunning new villa called Stanzia Baracija.

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

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

As is so often the case with these kinds 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 better as a private villa that they could also rent to other guests.

They’re right to want to show it off and share it. “Our soul is in this house,” he says, noting that his cousin, who works for the Croatian design studio Madres, did the interiors. It feels like a gracious old home—all reclaimed wood, local stone and antiques that you aren’t afraid to touch.

The main house is spread over four floors and connected with an elevator (always a serious undertaking in a historic home). The five bedrooms are spacious and air-conditioned, with parquet flooring, excellent lighting, pastel colors and paintings from the owners’ collection. The terraces on the ground floor and top floor have soothing views over the landscape. The guesthouse is a more intimate space with three bedrooms for six people, with a more contemporary ambience and furniture from big-name designers.

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

When I visited, her snack was pickled vegetables, Istrian cheese and charcuterie, delicious bitter greens in the local style, anchovies on toast, fluffy cheese breads, and carrots with wild asparagus, that she, again, foraged. To be fair, there were five of us, and we needed food to go with the wines we were tasting—from Krešimir’s nearby winery, Clai, considered one of the best in Istria.

“When we left our corporate lives, we decided to spend our time and money on the things we love, says Krešimir, a longtime wine collector and connoisseur. 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-intervention and generally interesting wines. They rescued an old grape variety that had all but gone extinct. Krešimir tried to get the government to recognize it with a DOC, something that wasn’t as possible as the New Yorker in him had expected. “I got a story instead,” he says.

His next chapter will unfold this fall, when he and Thuring open her new restaurant near the estate. Stara Škola (“old school,” after the building it occupies) will be her showplace, a farm-to-table restaurant serving “honest food” that reflects her fine-dining technique while being far more relaxed. She’s implementing a zero waste program—one reason 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 isn’t that isolated at all, and community is its own essential ingredient—and something else that makes Barajica special.

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