by Jane Foster, The Telegraph, March, 9, 2018
As Dubrovnik succumbs to more and more visitors, Istria - the peninsula on the Italian border, in the far north of Croatia - is starting to look like a more and more appealing option, especially during the summer months.
British Airways began flights to the regional capital, Pula, last July and now EasyJet is opening two new routes - from Southend and Liverpool - this summer.
The landscape is very different to the wild, remote and mountainous southern coastline of Dalmatia; Istria feels neat and cultivated in comparison. Meanwhile, the cultural and historical influence of Italy and Central Europe is ever apparent and it has many attractions in its own right.
The Romans founded Pula as Istria’s main port back in 46BC and the ruins are now part of the contemporary city. The splendid Arena, a first-century AD amphitheatre, where crowds of up to 20,000 spectators would watch gladiator fights, now hosts open-air summer concerts (Icelandic signer Bjork and German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk will play here this summer) and stages the annual Pula Film Festival (pulafilmfestival.hr, July 14-22, 2018). Nearby, the former Roman Forum, overlooked by the imposing Temple of Augustus, is now Pula’s main square, rimmed by busy cafes and home to the useful walk-in city tourist office (pulainfo.hr).
Another Pula landmark is the Secession-style (Art Nouveau) iron-and-glass covered market from 1903, where locals shop each morning for seasonal fruit and vegetables, and a rich array of meat, seafood and dairy products.
Pula is also a busy port. The Uljanik shipyard, on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a causeway, was originally built by the Austro-Hungarian navy in 1856. It’s still working (just), and becomes a spectacle each evening after dark with a brilliant contemporary installation, Lighting Giants, which sees its eight towering cranes bathed in myriad colours, and reflected in the water.
However, most tourists who land at the airport will be headed not for the city itself, but for the coast. There are a handful of renovated 1970s hotels a few kilometres south of town, on the Verudela peninsula and in Medulin, with generous sports facilities and acceptable rock-and-pebble beaches, as well as two or three very good family-run restaurants serving authentic local seafood dishes. But far more compelling are the resorts on Istria’s west coast.
As you leave Pula, it’s well worth making a detour to Fažana (10km), to take a 15-minute boat ride to the car-free islet of Veli Brijun. Here you can happily spend a half-day wandering through carefully-tended parkland, complete with deer and peacocks, and drinking coffee in the shade of pine trees. In the early 19th century, it was a health resort, popular with wealthy Austro-Hungarians, as well as artists and writers, such as painter Gustav Klimt and writer Thomas Mann, and even Irish novelist James Joyce (who lived briefly in Pula in 1904-1905). Later, under Yugoslavia, it became President Tito’s summer residence, where he would entertain international royalty, politicians and film stars. Since 1983, it has been part of Brijuni National Park (np-brijuni.hr).
A half-hour drive north from here, Rovinj competes with Dubrovnik for the title of Croatia’s most picturesque destination. With its pastel-coloured Venetian-style facades curving round a wide sheltered fishing harbour, backed by a hill crowned with an 18th-century church, it is irresistibly photogenic. Besides its luxury design-conscious hotels, rustic-chic seafood eateries and candlelit cocktail bars, its home to Zlatni Rt, a green peninsular planted with pines, cedars and cypresses, skirted by a coastal path leading to a series of pebbles coves giving onto warm turquoise sea, perfect for bathing.
And then you have inland Istria – a rural hinterland of undulating vineyards and olive groves, guarded by medieval fortified hill towns such as Motovun and Grožnjan. Much loved by gourmets and connoisseurs for its pungent truffles and robust Teran red wine, the Mirna Valley lies at its centre. Here you’ll find stone villas to rent and agrotourism centres serving homemade fuži (a type of pasta) and hearty stews, as well as vineyards open for tasting – among the best are Meneghetti (meneghetti.hr) near Bale on the road heading south, and Trapan (trapan.hr) just outside Pula, where we started from.
How to get there
EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Pula from Gatwick, Southend and Liverpool; British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow; Jet2 (jet2.com) from Edinburgh. Several services are limited to weekends through the summer. Skyscanner.net is a good way of searching for options.
Where to stay in Istria
On Verudela peninsular, 4km south of Pula, this 368-room hotel has a rock-and-pebble beach, an outdoor pool and a wellness centre. Read a full review and check availability.
Specially designed for children (with a “learn while they play” philosophy) this waterside hotel has 280 rooms, contemporary interiors and a vast choice of family-friendly activities. Read a full review and check availability.
In the fortified hilltown of Motovun, this 33-room boutique hotel occupies an elegant Baroque building with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. Read a full review and check availability.
Where to eat
Batelina, Banjole (7km southeast of Pula city centre) serves carefully and imaginatively prepared seafood - the owner is a fisherman and the menu changes daily, depending on the previous night’s catch.
Kantinon, Rovinj (maistra.com/things-to-do/kantinon-tavern). Rovinj has lots of expensive fancy restaurants, but down-to-earth Kantinon, overlooking the fishing harbour, offers delicious seafood, sensible prices and a layed back atmosphere
Zigante, Livada (restaurantzigante.com). Owned by local truffle hunting champion Giancarlo Zigante, this is the best place to try Istrian truffle dishes – they serves a choice of six degustation menus, plus their own excellent wines.