The Complete Guide To: Istria

Sandwiched between sea and mountains on the west coast of Croatia, the Istrian peninsula is back on the tourist trail after years of civil war. Frank Partridge explores the rocky beaches, crystal-clear waters and hilltop towns of this beautiful region


ISTRIA? I CAN'T QUITE PLACE IT

ISTRIA? I CAN'T QUITE PLACE IT

That's because, as Bill Bryson might say, it's neither here nor there. When you look at a map of Croatia, the nation's outline bears an uncanny resemblance to a flying creature, with Istria its bowed head. This diminutive peninsula between the mountains and the sea, draped with forest and possessing a dramatic coastline, is the westernmost part of Croatia - but it shares a cartographically complex section of Adriatic coastline with Slovenia and Italy. Trieste is an hour's drive west, Venice two-and-a-half hours away by catamaran, and the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, is considerably closer than Croatia's capital, Zagreb.

Istria is historically ambiguous, too. Scarcely a century has gone by without invasion and occupation. Some street signs are in Italian; a few are still in Latin. But in the 21st century, Istria is pure Croatian. (Note that the Croatians usually drop the second "i'" and call it "Istra".)

Fifteen years ago, when it was still part of Yugoslavia, Istria was unashamedly cheap, cheerful and swarming with package holidaymakers. You could fly there from 15 British airports. The region was left untouched by the country's civil war; most of the fighting between the Croats and Serbs took place hundreds of miles to the east. But Istria was economically crippled when its tourist industry collapsed. The bucket-and-spade brigade moved elsewhere, and are only now coming back: tourism from the UK jumped 38 per cent last year.

Some relics of Istria's pre-war holiday boom remain in the shape of charmless concrete hotels along the coast, but the place is vigorously re-styling itself to promote quality rather than quantity, nature, culture, gastronomy - and tranquillity.

WHO WILL I MEET THERE?

Besides friendly locals, you are likely to share the peninsula with sun-seeking travellers from Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. They're attracted by the superb climate, clean waters and affordable prices, but another of Istria's draw cards is its lack of the high-season crowds that can make Dubrovnik and some of Croatia's more popular islands hard work.

Visitors are also venturing inland - the oft-made comparison to Tuscany should not be taken too literally, but several Istrian hill towns bear some likeness to San Gimignano and Montalcino. There are fewer medieval towers than Tuscany, but the countryside is greener and much emptier.

WHERE COULD I STAY?

How does a Tuscan-style villa with a pool sound? There is no shortage of such properties in Istria. Many locals have taken advantage of government grants to improve their properties for the holiday market, and increasingly Britons are snapping them up and renting them out privately. Two holiday operators specialising in villas and farmhouses are Cottages to Castles (01622 775217; www.cottagestocastles.com) and Vintage Travel (0845 344 0460; www.vintagetravel.co.uk) which is offering a modern, six-bed villa in the pretty town of Motovun for around £2,000 a week throughout August.

Motovun is encircled by fortified walls and a promenade overlooking terracotta roofs and vineyards. Croatia is a nation of film-makers, and one of Motovun's big attractions is its annual summer film festival ( www.motovunfilmfestival.com), which takes place from 25-29 July. Two other hill towns of note are Groznjan, a medieval enclave that's enjoying a new lease of life, and Buje, with its cobbled labyrinth of streets dating back to the Romans. Two fine Venetian towers further enhance the views from its spectacular perch.

I DO LIKE TO BE BESIDE THE SEASIDE

In Istria, nowhere is more than 30 minutes from the coast. Nobody would claim that the beaches are overburdened with sand - you tend to get more pebbles stuck between your toes - but many resorts have compensated by building access paths and bathing platforms among the rocks. There are a few excellent sandy beaches, though: notably in the Donji Kamenjak Nature Park in the far south, just before you enter Dalmatia.

One curiosity, hundreds of miles from Norway, is a real fjord: Limski Kanal near Rovinj, a deep indentation into the coastline with steep slopes on either side. Nearby resorts offer day-trips. The fjord was used as a location for the 1958 Kirk Douglas film The Vikings.

The fjord is renowned for its oysters and clams, served at two restaurants overlooking the point where the boats turn around.

Elsewhere in Istria, seafood features in many pasta dishes on offer - perhaps with mushrooms, in a local version of "surf and turf" called mare monti ("sea and mountains").

Venison stew (srnetina) is popular inland, which is where you will find the best choice of truffles. Every autumn, in the forests around Motovun, prodigious quantities are uncovered by specially bred dogs. In 1999, the world's largest white truffle, weighing 1.31kg, was found here. The man whose dog unearthed it now runs a chain of truffle shops.

There are echoes of imperial Vienna, too, in the resort of Opatija at the eastern end of Istria. You can indulge in creamy coffee and heavy cake at some of the better hotels and cafés.

TO WASH IT DOWN?

The shape of the Istrian peninsula has been likened to India in miniature, a horseshoe, a human heart - and a bunch of grapes. The last of these has come to the fore in recent years, as the region whose wines were greatly valued throughout the Roman Empire has once again gained international recognition after a gap of nearly 2,000 years. The Istrian tourism department has put together a series of wine routes for motorists, along with a list of producers who welcome casual tasters and buyers. An interactive map is available at www.istra.com/vino.

Istria's world-class red is teran, deep ruby in colour and reputed to have healing properties. Malvasia, by contrast, is a crisp white, ideally drunk at lunch with pasta with white or black truffles. A typical three-course meal with wine in an Istrian konoba (trattoria) comes to about £7 a head. You wouldn't be so lucky in Tuscany.

OFFSHORE IDYLLS?

Croatia as a whole has nearly 1,200 islands, but Istria has relatively few. The only significant groups are the archipelagos off Rovinj and the Brijuni National Park. Three of the 15 Brijuni islands were used by President Tito as a hideaway and a place to entertain the good, the bad and the glamorous. Past visitors included Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The archipelago and the waters between the islands were designated a national park in 1983. Today you can visit only two of them: Mali Brijun and its larger sibling, Veli Brijun. Tours to the islands are available from the lovely mainland port of Fazana and cost from 140Kn (£13). Buy tickets at the office between 8am-7pm; book ahead in summer (00 385 52 525 882; www.np-brijuni.hr).

For flora, fauna and solitude, head for Mali Brijun. On the larger island, Veli Brijun, the main attractions are a safari park featuring the exotic animals that Tito received as gifts. The island also contains four hotels, sub-tropical gardens, a museum dedicated to Tito, a 15th-century church and the ruins of a Roman palace.

WHAT DID THE ROMANS DO FOR ISTRIA?

Their main legacy can be seen in Pula, the peninsula's transport, economic and administrative hub, where the Romans established the colony of Polensium in the first century BC. In time they would build a temple, forum, triumphal arch and amphitheatre, all of which can still be seen today. The ancient showpiece is the giant arena, completed between AD 70 and 96 for gladiatorial contests, which at the time was one of the largest man-made structures on earth. It had a capacity of 22,000, which was more than Pula's entire population. Today it can safely hold less than a quarter of that number. A useful underground museum explains how everything worked, and visitors are free to wander above and below ground; the opening hours are 8am-8pm June-August; 9am-4pm September-May, admission 20Kn (£1.85). In summer the arena is used for concerts and film shows.

Down the centuries Pula has fallen on hard times. The modern port is unattractive, and James Joyce (who lived there in 1904 while working as a language teacher) called it "a seaside Siberia", but anyone with a sense of history should ignore the crotchety Irishman and linger for a few hours. The tourist office is at the heart of town at Forum 3 ( www.istra.com/pula).

ANYWHERE WORTH STAYING LONGER?

On the Adriatic (south-west facing) coast, the leading urban candidate is the medieval port of Rovinj (pronounced Rov-een) - where you can see what the Venetians could do. It is picture-perfect, with a tall, pink clock tower and Baroque cathedral at the top of the hill, plus honey-coloured tenements tumbling down to the water's edge. From the tower there are fine views of the inland hills, and the archipelago of 14 wooded islands just offshore. The tourist office is at Obala Pina Budicina 12 (00 385 52 811 566; www.tzgrovinj.hr).

Red Island, 10 minutes away by boat, has a hotel, and is linked by a man-made causeway to Maschina - a haven for naturists. Passenger ferries of all shapes and sizes chug back and forth all day. Rovinj itself has a good open-air market, the oldest aquarium in Croatia, and one of the country's finest small hotels, the four-star Villa Angelo d'Oro (00 38 552 840502; www.rovinj.at). It is tucked away in a narrow thoroughfare where no cars are permitted. This 23-room terracotta building, built in 1702 and originally a bishop's palace, has stone-flagged floors, a gorgeous secluded garden among palm and fig trees, a sauna and even a tiny library and reading room under the eaves.

The town of Porec is only 15 miles north of Rovinj as the stork (which breeds prolifically in Istria) flies, but twice as far by road around the Limski Kanal. Porec boasts one of the finest examples of Byzantine art: the gold and mother-of-pearl mosaics in the sixth-century Basilica of Euphrasius. The complex includes a baptistry and bishop's palace; open 7am-7pm daily, free.

Porec is the most visited resort in Istria, thanks to the strip of hotels to the south. The old town, squeezed into a small peninsula, has a fine harbour and a street layout that follows the original Roman plan for their colony of Parentium, right down to signs written in Latin.

Opposite the harbour is the tiny island of Sveti Nikola, with a beach, a bar, and a sunken amphitheatre that's ideal for snorkelling.

HOW DO I GET TO ISTRIA?

Fly to Pula from Gatwick and Manchester and London on Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0022; www.croatiaairlines.hr). Return fares are typically £284, but there are cheaper flight-only deals available from the UK's biggest tour operator to Croatia, Holiday Options (0870 420 8372; www.holidayoptions.co.uk). The company's main business, though, is package holidays. A week at the aforementioned Villa Angelo d'Oro in Rovinj costs £485 with return flights to Pula from Gatwick (£500 from Manchester), transfers, bed and breakfast.

This summer, clients are being offered an optional catamaran excursion to Venice, which includes a sightseeing tour, dinner and an overnight stay (with breakfast) in a three-star hotel, for £199 a head.

Istria's proximity to both Italy and Slovenia provides other options. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Trieste airport, an hour by road from Istria. Or fly to Ljubljana on easyJet (0905 821 0905, www.easyjet.com) from Stansted or Adria (020-7437 0143; www.adria-airways.com) from Gatwick.

Find out more on getting there and around from the Croatian National Tourist Office in London (020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr).

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