Traveller's Guide: Istria

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The hilltop villages and ancient ports of Croatia's northern peninsula buzz with the sound of summer festivals and the flavours of gastronomic delights, says Mick Webb

The Istrian peninsula dangles like a heart-shaped pendant from the northern end of Croatia's Adriatic coastline. Small (you can drive from one end to another in just over an hour) and self-contained, it can claim three of Croatia's most attractive coastal towns in Pula, Rovinj and Porec. Behind the beaches, though, the hilly, wooded interior produces high-quality wine, olive oil, ham and the diamond of gastronomy, the truffle, all of which have contributed to Istria's growing reputation as a gourmet destination.

High summer in Istria is synonymous with festivals of all kinds. Next week (starting on 27 July) Motovun hosts its annual five-day independent film festival, attracting thousands of campers to the fields below the tiny hilltop village (motovunfilmfestival.com). However, late summer or autumn are the ideal times to walk, cycle as well as enjoy the culture and the cuisine, without peak-season prices and crowds – Istria attracts one-third of Croatia's tourists.

The region's recent history is complicated and fractured, even by Balkan standards. You will meet long-term residents in middle age who were born when this area was part of Yugoslavia; their parents were born when it was under Italian rule; and their grandparents lived under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Going further back, Napoleon and the Venetians also left their mark on Istria.

The main historical attraction, though, is the legacy left by the Romans. Pula is the greatest beneficiary, with the splendidly preserved Triumphal Arch of the Sergii and its renowned arena, which is one of the world's best surviving Roman amphitheatres (00 385 52 219 028; pulainfo.hr; 8am-8pm; 40 kuna/£4.50). Nearly 2,000 years since it was built in white Istrian stone, it is regularly used for concerts, Pula's film festival and even an ice-hockey match.

Pula is the most southern and the largest of Istria's coastal towns with about a quarter of the region's 220,000 population. It is the first port of call for visitors arriving at the nearby airport. Rovinj, half an hour's drive up the coast, is beautifully located on a wide bay. Its old centre, originally an island, is a maze of narrow streets, bordered by high medieval buildings, which clamber up to the dominating cathedral of St Euphemia (00 385 52 815 615; 10am to 6.30pm). A further half hour's drive north, and quite different once again, is Porec, whose street grid recalls its Roman origin, while elegant Venetian palaces line an equally photogenic bay.

As you travel inland, the scrubby vegetation and olive groves gradually give way to wooded hills and fertile valleys with occasional hilltop villages, each with its own character. The most attractive and most visited is Motovun, in the middle of truffle territory, which has arguably the best views of the Istrian interior from its ramparts, although equally worth seeing are the art-filled town of Groznjan and the wine village of Visnjan.

Festivals dot the calendar and Istria is an integral part of Croatia's move into the music festival market. The 19th-century fort of Punta Christo, outside Pula, will echo to the throb of sound systems during Outlook (29 August to 2 September; outlookfestival.com), while Rovinj is hosting Unknown, a new eclectic electronic festival (10 to 14 September; unknowncroatia .com). By way of contrast, Buzet's Subotina, over the second weekend in September, involves much historical pageantry and marks the start of the white truffle season with a huge omelette containing 10kg of the prized tuber.

Among the holiday providers, Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) has an all-inclusive week for two from 27 August at the Park Plaza Medulin Hotel near Pula for £761 per person, including flights from Gatwick and transfers. Completely Croatia (0800 970 9149; completelycroatia.co.uk) offers a week's B&B in a boutique hotel near Novigrad from £729 per person, including car hire and flights from Gatwick. Other options for Istrian packages include Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114; balkanholidays.co.uk) and Essentially Prestige (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk).

The coast

The best beaches are mainly along the west coast. As in the rest of Croatia, they are mostly pebble and rock. The most child-friendly sandy strand, Bijeca, is on the short southern coast at Medulin, 10km south of Pula. Nearby, the wild and undeveloped Kamenjac peninsula has 30km of attractive coastline, with secluded coves. It's a spring haven for wild flowers and access is via Premantura village.

An excursion to the Brijuni Islands caters for all. A half-hour ferry journey from the fishing port of Fazana (renowned for its sardines) brings you to the offshore retreat where Tito used to entertain film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor as well as politicians from both East and West. You'll find a safari park (the original animals were official gifts to Tito), a Tito museum, remnants of a Roman villa, dinosaur footprints and an ancient olive tree. There also several places to swim. An adult ticket, including a guided tour, costs from 125 to 210 kuna (£14-£27) varying seasonally; booking is advisable (00 385 52 525 888; brijuni.hr).

Cultural highlights

As well as the Roman amphitheatre in Pula, pictured, other stunning remains can be seen on the Brijuni Islands and in Porec, which retains the grid layout of the original Roman garrison town. The main street is still called the Dodecanus and on the site of what was once the Forum (now the Marafor Square) there are three temples.

Porec is also home to Istria's most striking church building, the sixth-century Euphrasian Basilica, a fine example of Byzantine architecture (00 385 52 431 635; whc.unesco.org; 7.30am to 8pm; entry free).

Bale, between Rovinj and Pula, has an almost perfect medieval centre with Venetian palaces, arches and cobbled alleyway. The gems of the interior are the hilltop villages, particularly Hum, said to be the world's smallest town, with 20 inhabitants. It is reached by an avenue, lined with stone monuments.

Get active

Windsurfing is a big favourite in Medulin (00 385 91512 3646; wind surfing.hr). Yachts can be chartered from several ports; Istria yachting (00 385 1 23 25 877; istria-yachting.com) has a six-berth boat in Pula for €1,100 to €1,790 per week. (A skipper is €1,025 extra.) Cyclists have some 500km of mountain and road trails to enjoy (istria-bike.com) including the picturesque Parenzana route over an old railway line from Viznada to the Slovenian border. Head- water Holidays (0845 5649070; headwater.com) has eight-day self-guided tours of the west coast, suitable for "occasional" cyclists, from £1,189pp with B&B, one lunch, transfers, bag transport and flights with regular departures in August/September.

For climbing, hang-gliding or walking, head for Buzet (00 385 52 662 343; tz-buzet.hr) and don't miss the 15km "seven waterfalls" walk.

Food and drink

Istria deserves its reputation as a gourmet destination. Good-quality meals can be head in the most modest konoba (tavern). On the coast, the accent is on seafood and the leading eatery is Batalina (00 385 52 573767) in Banjole, with creative starters such as conger-eel pâté. Only evening meals are served, from €35 including wine (booking essential).

Inland, the focus turns to meat, particularly the richly flavoured beef of the traditional Boskarin cattle. Among the seasonal vegetables are wild asparagus (in late spring) and black truffles (spring and summer), and the highly prized white variety is a highlight on autumn and winter menus. Zigante, in the village of Livade (00 385 52 664 302; livadetartufi.com), offers a meal in which truffles flavour the pasta, the sauces and even the ice cream. Prices from 355 kuna (£40).

Of the wide variety of Istrian wines, try those based on the local grapes malvazija (white) and reran (red). Rakijas (brandies) are ubiquitous and can be flavoured with honey or even mistletoe. Meanwhile, the local olive oil is taken almost as seriously as the wine.

Where to stay

Additions and refurbs to the 1970s Tito-era hotel stock are constant, and the newest and most design conscious is the Hotel Lone, above (00 385 52 800 250; lonehotel.com) outside Rovinj, where a late-summer double with breakfast starts at €280. Inland, a double with breakfast at Motovun's stunning Kastel (00 385 52 681607; hotel-kastel-motovun.hr) starts at €96.50.

The country house with pool in the middle of the Meneghetti wine estate, near Bale, is typical of this new wave (00 385 91 2431 600; meneghetti.info). Doubles start at €100, B&B. Istria is most popular for holiday apartments. The website istra.hr has a wide selection. Expect to pay from €60 a night for an apartment.

Camping is often in huge, well-equipped sites, so the tiny 10‑pitch Tina in Vrsar near the attractive fjord-like Limski Canal is unusual (00 385 52 44 2376; istra.hr).

Travel Essentials

Mick Webb visited Istria courtesy of the Croatian Tourist Board (020-8563 7979; croatia.hr).

Direct flights to Pula are offered by Thomson Airways (0871 231 4691; flights.thomson.co.uk) from Gatwick or Manchester; from Glasgow, Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford by Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com); and from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).

Two interlinked toll motorways in the shape of a Y make it easy to drive from Pula to the coastal resorts up the west coast or inland as far as Pazin. Many other roads have been upgraded over the past few years but, if you're going to get off the beaten track, expect to have to deal with dirt roads.

The only railway line links Pula with Pazin and continues north into Slovenia (hznet.hr). Bus services along the coast are regular, though the inland towns such as Motovun are less well served (autobusni-kolodvor.com). Cameo taxis offer competitive fares (00 385 52 885 885; cammeo.net).

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