TRAVEL

Discovering the magic and wonder of Istria

October 26, 2019

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

At 3600 sq. km, the heart-shaped peninsula of Istria is the largest in the Adriatic Sea and shared by Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, although by far the largest portion (89%) lies in Croatia. Its name is derived from the Histri tribes, who settled in the area around the 11th century BC and built its hillfort settlements. However, they weren’t the first inhabitants: artefacts found in Šandalja Cave near Pula have been dated to 800,000 BC, so people have lived in the area for a long time.

 

And who can blame them? Rolling hills, clear blue waters, fertile soil… it’s no wonder that the area has been coveted by many rulers over the centuries. Its’s been part of the Lombard Kingdom, the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as a Venetian republic. In 1920 Istria was annexed to Italy, and after World War 2, the majority of Istria was returned to Croatia.

 

Today, all those influences make Istria a fascinating and diverse place to visit, with a rich and multicultural heritage. As Tom Hall, chief editor of popular website and publisher Lonely Planet says:

 

“Istria has a famous gourmet offer (including white truffles and wild asparagus) as well as historical charm. While its famous riviera is full of tourists during summer months, you can always visit the hinterland and discover the middle age hilltop towns as well as enjoy the vineyards and picturesque olive groves.”

 

Lonely Planet has awarded Istria the Best in Europe 2019 award, recommending it as a priority destination for world travellers. Luckily, Istria is not just beautiful but easy to visit, too. Pula Airport has direct flights from a host of European cities, and there are bus connections with all major Croatian cities as well as other European cities like Venice, Padova, Trieste and Frankfurt. There are direct trains connecting Slovenia, Hungary, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, France, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro to major stations in Croatia, and from there you can travel on to Istria’s Pula station.

 

You’ve arrived! What next?

 

 

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Immerse yourself in the history

 

Visit the city Of Pula and see some of the beautiful monuments to its 3000-year old history, such as the Twin Gates (part of the old city walls), the Temple of Augustus, the well-preserved Roman Forum or the Communal Palace. You should also see the Arena, the sixth largest amphitheatre in the world, which became the venue for a tournament between the FC Bayern München legends and Vatreni legends this summer as part of the partnership between the football club FC Bayern München and the Istrian Tourist Board. The program was complemented with gladiator battles in honour of the ‘Spectacula Gladiatoria’ that the ancient Romans once held there. This historic venue, dating from the 1st century, often hosts festivals and concerts--so you can enjoy two experiences in one!

 

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pula was architecturally shaped as a fortified town between 1820 to 1916 and was once the empire’s major naval port. In and around Pula, you can still find 26 magnificent forts or fortifications, as well as artillery batteries, trenches and tunnels. Legend has it that these forts were all once interconnected by a network of underground tunnels, including an underwater tunnel connecting Fort Marie Louise at Muzil with the fort on the Brijuni islands. Today, many of these forts, mostly built at high lookout points, offer fantastic views as well as historical interest.

 

 

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IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

From a city to the smallest town in the world: for contrast, the next place on your itinerary could be Hum to the south east of Buzet, first mentioned in documents from 1102, when it was called Cholm. On its western side, the town is enclosed by walls and on the remaining sides, houses are built into the defensive walls. See its bell and watch tower, built in 1552 as part of the town's defences, and visit the parish church or museum where the town’s Glagolitic wall writings are preserved. Glagolitic writing is an ancient Slavic script created by Christian missionaries and brothers Cyril and Methodius, and used in church books, town statutes, wall carvings, crucifixes, and even on church bells. Written in the formative period of Glagolitic (the second half of the 12th century), Hum’s preserved writings are one of the oldest examples of Croatian Glagolitic literary culture in the Middle Ages. There’s also a 7km Glagolitic walk—a journey through the script’s history—which begins at Roč with the Column of the Čakav Assembly and ends at Hum’s copper town gates.

 

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

For some natural history, take a trip to Brijuni and see Istria’s oldest olive tree. This big, beautiful, 1,600 year old tree is one of the oldest olive trees in the Mediterranean. If it gives you a taste for record-breaking sights, then your next visit could be to Vodnjan to view Istria’s highest bell tower. The 63m tall tower was modelled on St Mark’s in Venice. Its bell, at 1845 kg, is the heaviest in Istria, and the tower stands next to St Blaise’s church, the largest parish church in Istria. That’s three records in one—and if that’s not enough, inside the church you’ll find magnificent altars and mummified saints.

 

You also shouldn’t miss the Euphrasian Basilica in the historic centre of Poreč, on Istria’s coast. In the sixth century, a new sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary was added to the cathedral, with three apses featuring stunning mosaics. The mosaic in the main apse is still in a perfect state of conservation. UNESCO added the group of buildings to the World Heritage List in 1997, stating that it had done so because it is “an outstanding example of an early Christian episcopal ensemble that is exceptional by virtue of its completeness and its unique Basilican cathedral”.

 

For old world charm, take a trip to Rovinj and enjoy its cobbled streets and charming squares, or take a trip around its 14 islands in a flat-bottomed Venetian boat. Rovinj itself was once an island and was only connected to the mainland in 1763, when the narrow channel separating it from the mainland was filled.

 

 

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Taste the flavours of Istria

 

The emphasis in Istria is on locally-produced food and short-travelled ingredients. Istria is synonymous with olive oil and Istrian olive oil is so good, it was exported by the ancient Romans throughout the Empire. There are plenty of places to taste the region’s premium extra-virgin olive oils or enjoy it in traditional dishes. In Istria, olive oil as seen as not only something delicious to cook with, but also as a medicinal cure-all, a beauty aid and an aphrodisiac!

 

The peninsula is also famous for its truffles and research has shown that some of Alba’s white truffles originated in Istria. Istrians only really became interested in truffles at the beginning of the last century, but now these prized fungi are a source of pride. Several excellent types of truffles grow in Istria nearly all year round, However, the most treasured one, the white truffle or Tuber magnatum pico, a kilo of which can fetch more than EUR 3000, comes to the market in the autumn. It’s big news and big business, and there’s even Tuberfest—an annual festival of authentic Istrian cuisine that takes place in October to celebrate and auction off the finest truffles! Visitors can go on truffle-hunting expeditions with an experience truffle-hunter and specially-trained dogs in the surrounding Motovun forest, the main site where white truffles are found and the place where the largest white truffle ever harvested was discovered—weighing almost a kilogram-and-a-half! That goes a long way in Istrian dishes, where usually a small amount of truffle is grated over pasta, gnocchi or frittata. If you miss Tuberfest, fear not; Buzet has a weekend festival dedicated to Istrian truffles every November!

 

Buzet is another ‘town of truffles’ and is now seen as a gourmet’s paradise, reaching the finals of the 2014/2015 European Destinations of Excellence awards for ‘Tourism and Local Gastronomy’. The town offers plenty of original local food that is prepared traditionally, yet presented in a modern way. Atmospheric taverns and acclaimed restaurants offer home-made pasta, seafood dishes, beefsteak with grated truffles, wild asparagus with prosciutto and local eggs, pralines and even truffle ice cream for dessert. Here, you’ll also be offered biska, a local spirit made of komovica, white mistletoe and four types of herbs or medicinal herb liqueurs. The town also has a reputation for making one of the best beers in Croatia.

 

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Istria’s cuisine has its roots in the Mediterranean diet, often the basis of diets recommended by health experts today for a healthier heart and mind, but of course, there are regional variations. Fish (baked, fried, boiled) and seafood, as well as combined in a brodetto (Italian-style fish stew) are popular, but goat, lamb, pork and poultry are used too, and in some areas, wild game. A variety of vegetables, legumes, cereals are found in Istrian dishes and wild herbs are used not just to complement dishes, but also for healing purposes.

 

The area is abound with olive trees, grape vines and fig and almond trees, and families often gather together to harvest these crops, preparing meals and sharing eating rituals, ensuring that Istrian traditions and recipes are passed down through the generations. The local cuisine is a great source of pride for Istria’s people and part of its preservation lies not just in these family gatherings but in the hands of long lines of restaurateurs, who have passed authentic recipes down through the generations.

 

At the beginning of this year, the Istrian Tourist Board honoured 18 local families for the remarkable work of several of their generations, which has left a powerful mark in the culinary art of this region. “The ‘Homage to Istrian gastronomy founders’ award recognises their talent, hard work and perseverance, and their love of regional, authentic cuisine.

 

Started between the 1930s and 1960s, their restaurants and taverns laid the foundations of Istrian cuisine as we know it today and echoes of the past resonate in their food and décor. Their delicacies, homemade pasta and asparagus, polenta and stews, local wine and olive oil, are all equally glorious.

 

These must-visit family restaurants are Kaštel (Plovanija), Mandrač (Novigrad) , Gostionica MD (Novigrad), Istarska konoba (Brtonigla), Kaštel tavern (Žbandaj near Poreč),Viking (in the Gulf of Lim), Vodnjanka (Vodnjan), Gina (Pula), Stari Grad (Pula), Milan (Pula), Premantura: (Premantura), Kod Dorine (Plomin), Porat Tavern (Plomin), konoba Vinež (near Labin) and Most (Buzet). Make sure you visit one or more of them during your stay in Istria.

 

Istria has a long tradition of wine-making and wine is very much part of its culture, with the region’s soil diversity—red along the coast and white in the hinterland—adding another dimension to the process. Travel the wine roads of Istria and their many wine cellars before you leave, too!

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Soak up the natural beauty—and the sea!

 

Istria has a wealth of natural beauty spots and parks to visit. You can explore the riverbanks of its longest river, the Mirna, which flows from Ćićarija out to the Adriatic Sea by Novigrad, passing Hum, the Motovun forest, an exotic bird habitat and a superb cliff for rock climbing on the way. The river is also famously calm, so ideal for kayaking. If you enjoy walks by the water, then the Lim Channel, also known as Lim Bay or Lim Fjord, is also a must see. This 10km channel north of Rovinj is a flooded canyon and has clear, deep blue water and beautiful, forested banks.

 

Brijuni National Park has more to offer than its ancient olive tree. The Brijuni archipelago consists of two main pine-covered islands and 12 islets separated from Pula by the 3km-wide Fažana Channel. The islands are covered by meadows, parks, and oak and laurel forests, and are home to rare plants such as wild cucumber and marine poppy. You can book boat trips, inclusive of a guided tour, to the largest of the two islands.

 

If you’re a keen cyclist, the 78km Parenzana Bike Trail follows the route of the narrow-gauge railway line that once connected Poreč to Trieste before it was removed by Mussolini to be repurposed as munitions. The trail goes via Buje, Grožnjan, Oprtalj, Motovun, Vižinada and Nova Vas, travelling along the coast and through an old rail tunnel.

 

Hikers, swimmers, surfers, nature-lovers and palaeontology enthusiasts will enjoy the Kamenjak Nature Park with its beautiful bays, clear water, wild orchids and fragrant shrubs and dozens of dinosaur footprints, while climbers might prefer Učka Nature Park. Here, the Vela Draga trail leads through a precipitous canyon with limestone columns, providing perfect climbing terrain.

 

Of course, nature includes animals, so keep your eyes open for a boškarin, the largest autochthonous Istrian animal. This is a working animal which was used in agriculture and today, it’s a highly valued cattle breed. There’s even a display during an event in Kanfanar—the folk fest Jakovlja—in which the prettiest, the heaviest and the most obedient boškarin gets a medal.

 

Istria has a multitude of Blue Flag beaches, varying from the busy to the secluded and from sandy to rocky, and some have also been awarded the Green Beach Flag. You can explore the underwater world in a semi-submarine, choose a greener activity such as swimming, windsurfing, snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), or just enjoy the beach. If you prefer your excursions to be underground rather than underwater, visit Baredine Cave, Istria’s first tourist cave, and admire its five beautiful chambers.

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Get a different view of Istria

 

The medieval town of Motovun is perched on a hill, and if you want to work up an appetite for its famous Teran wine and white truffles, you have the opportunity to do a spot of paragliding, offering magnificent views of the forest and surrounding countryside.

 

Istria also has a good selection of events and festivals. Not all of them concern truffles and cattle! Pula hosts two of Croatia’s largest music festivals – Outlook and Dimensions – in the ruins of its enormous Austro-Hungarian Fort, Punta Cristo, which offers amazing views of the bay. It’s also a good place to enjoy the evening light show, when the cranes of the Uljanik shipyard are illuminated in 16,000 different colour schemes, which come alive on the hour for 15 minutes as part of the contemporary art installation ‘Lighting Giants’.

 

From concerts by big names to festivals celebrating everything from Roman times, olive oil and wine to photography, jazz, reggae and film, there’s something for everyone.

 

You can see a lot of Istria from a boat, taking river trips, island cruises or kayaks, and you can see even more by bike. There’s an excellent network of road and MTB routes joining some of Istria’s most beautiful and interesting attractions, taking you to the oldest lighthouse in the Adriatic in Savudrija (the first European lighthouse that used gas for lighting), the charming fortified Novigrad, Florčići at Pićan (the largest waterfall of Istria) and the Palud protected ornithological reserve to name but a few. For a greater challenge, you can take a bike route up to one of medieval hilltop towns or villages such as Buje, Momjan, Grožnjan (‘the town of artists’), Završje, Oprtalj, Motovun and Vižinada. Luckily, there’s usually a tavern to be found at the top, and some areas have electric bikes for rent. Istria also offers a network of terminals called Istria e-mobility for the charging of electric bikes.

 

IMAGE: Istria Tourist Board

Green stays in Istria

 

Istria is working hard to preserve its green spaces and culture, understanding the importance of conservation for not just its residents and visitors, but for the planet. Although few residents have electric cars, there are 15 charging stations on the peninsula to help visitors travel sustainably.

 

Aware of how crowded its coastal resorts can get in high season, Istria is making a concerted effort to develop its inland tourism offering and authentic experiences away from the beaches, and this is starting to bear fruit.

 

In this year’s European Travel Commission awards for the best European destinations for sustainable cultural tourism, Motovun is a finalist in the wine tourism category and Rovinj’s Batana Eco-Museum is a finalist in the category of innovation and digitisation; winners are yet to be announced at the time of going to press. However, the Eco-Museum is already on the UNESCO Register of Good Safeguarding Practices for Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World—the first Croatian project to be included.

 

The Association of Employers in Croatian Hospitality (UPUHH) has started a program to set standards for environmental friendliness and certify hotels who comply with international standards of sustainability, awarding them a basic, advanced or superior category certificate. Some of Istria’s certified hotels include the Hotel Maestral in Novigrad (advanced), the Valamar Zagreb in Poreč and the Hotel Valamar Sanfior in Rabac (advanced).

 

Istria’s Department for Tourism awards accommodation that meets a number of predefined criteria with their EcoDomus label. The criteria include social and ecological responsibility, protection of environment and health, use of eco cleansers, use of natural materials, water and energy saving, waste sorting and recycling. There are currently more than 30 private accommodation owners in Istria with the EcoDomus label, situated all over Istria.

 

These certification schemes mean you can be sure of finding not only green experiences in Istria, but a green place to stay, too.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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