Isolated in the center. This is the slogan of Suzanne James Penavić’s alma mater, Cornell University. This is also how she describes the passion project she has 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 is a bucolic and rural landscape of organic vineyards, olive groves, Mediterranean vegetation and picturesque villages. He feels wonderfully distant. And yet it is surrounded by places that we know and are easy to get to. Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana and Pula airports are all less than three hours away.
The Penavićs acquired the five-acre property in 2010, after it had been abandoned for around 50 years. It was two dilapidated houses; 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 dropping by to see what his childhood home had become. It’s all part of the story 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 divide 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 plans as “very pragmatic” and saw that it worked best as a private villa which they could also rent out to other guests.
They are right to want to show it and share it. “Our soul is in this house,” he says, noting that his cousin, who works for Croatian design studio Madres, did the interiors. It feels like a gracious old house – all reclaimed wood, local stone and antiques you’re not afraid to touch.
The main house is spread over four floors and connected to an elevator (always serious business in a historic house). The five bedrooms are spacious and air-conditioned, with wooden floors, excellent lighting, pastel colors and paintings from the owners’ collection. The terraces on the ground floor and the top floor offer a soothing view of the landscape. The guest house is a more intimate space with three bedrooms for six people, with a more contemporary atmosphere and furniture from top designers.
There’s also a cinema, 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, this table is best when loaded with meals or “light snacks” prepared by Barajica’s private chef, Priska Thuring, a celebrity chef who has cooked in some of the most prestigious kitchens. from Croatia (including Dubravkin Put, voted the best restaurant in Zagreb during each year of his tenure there) but seems to be happiest when foraging for food or trying out new ideas in her fermentation lab. (More on this later.)
When I visited, his snack consisted of pickled vegetables, Istrian cheese and cold cuts, delicious local-style bitter greens, anchovies on toast, soft cheese buns and carrots with asparagus wild, which she once again stuffed. To be honest, there were five of us and we needed food to go with the wines we were tasting – from nearby Krešimir winery, Clai, considered one of the best in Istria.
“When we left our professional life, we decided to devote our time and money to the things we love,” says Krešimir, a long-time 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 saved an old grape variety that had practically disappeared. Krešimir tried to get the government to recognize him with a DOC, which wasn’t as possible as the New Yorker in him had anticipated. “I got a story instead,” he says.
His next chapter will unfold this fall, when he and Thuring open his new restaurant near the estate. Stara Škola (“old school”, after the building it occupies) will be its showcase, a farm-to-table restaurant serving “honest food” that reflects its gastronomic technique while being much more relaxed. She implements a zero-waste program — one of the reasons for this fermentation lab — to make the place as sustainable and ethical as possible, and is committed to providing a simple lunch option for locals.
Because at the end of the day, it’s not that isolated at all, and community is its own essential ingredient – and something else that makes Barajica special.