Rupert Parker drives around northeastern Croatia for his guide to Istria.
I’m in Istria, the northeastern corner of Croatia, next to Italy. It’s not as well-known as the south of the country, which has the impressive walled city of Dubrovnik and beautiful islands, like Hvar, just opposite Split. But it’s been hosting tourists at its beachfront hotels since the days of the former Yugoslavia. So much so that President Tito used to spend six months every year on Istria’s Brijuni Islands until his death in 1980.
The port city of Pula makes a good base for this guide to Istria as it has direct flights from London, and the city offers Roman ruins, crystal-clear waters, and a historic old town. The 1st century Roman amphitheatre is surprisingly intact, originally seating 23,000, although gladiator combat has now been given way to more peaceful cultural events – in summer there’s a film festival, opera season and numerous concerts.
Other Roman remains include the Temple of Augustus, which survived as a church, and the triumphal Arch of the Sergii, from 27 BC, commemorating victory at the Battle of Actium. Built in the 6th century, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a splendid example of Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Step inside to admire its ornate altars, frescoes, and beautifully crafted marble.
The Venetians came here in the 15th century and stayed for over 400 years, leaving a significant architectural imprint on the city. One of the notable landmarks from this period is the Gate of Hercules, an ancient Roman triumphal arch that was later embellished with a Venetian-style winged lion, the symbol of Venice. They’re also responsible for the narrow alleys, quaint squares and charming streets of Pula’s old town.
In the 19th century, Pula became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was further developed as a naval base and shipyard. Buildings from this period include the neoclassical Town Hall and the Baroque Governor’s Palace. Other buildings reflect the architectural style of the era, characterized by a blend of neoclassical, Baroque, and Secessionist influences.
Around 30 minutes’ drive from the city is the protected area of Cape Kamenjak at Istria’s southern tip. Walking or biking trails explore its diverse coastline with numerous hidden coves, rocky cliffs, and beautiful pebble beaches. There’s even a dinosaur footprint above one of them and the crystal clear waters are ideal for swimming or snorkelling
Driving north up the coast, the small town of Rovinj clusters around the waterfront, brightly painted houses tumbling down the hillside, overlooked by the tower of the iconic St. Euphemia’s Church. Its narrow cobbled streets are filled with art galleries, boutiques, and craft workshops, mercifully free of cars. This is cool Croatia at its best, where sophisticates gather by the harbour for evening cocktails
Another important Roman town on this guide to Istria is Poreč with the remnants of the forum still visible in Marafor Square. The great attraction here, however, is the UNESCO listed Euphrasian Basilica, a masterpiece of Byzantine art and architecture, from the 4th century. The mosaics that cover the walls of the interior are particularly stunning and it’s worth climbing the bell tower for panoramic views of the town and coastline.
Between Rovinj and Poreč, mistakenly referred to as a fjord, Limski Kanal is a narrow channel stretching inland for around 12km. Its sides are lined with steep cliffs clad in lush greenery, reflected in its crystal-clear waters. It’s often been used in a film location, most notably for fifties movie “The Vikings”. On its north bank is the Kontija Nature Park, with several well-maintained trails, ideal for bird watchers.
Inland Guide to Istria
Inland Istria is a verdant paradise adorned with rolling hills, picturesque vineyards, and medieval hilltop towns. Motovun is the most famous but Grožnjan is less touristy and shares the same characteristics. The city walls survive intact with the Venetian Gate and the Gate of St. Roch allowing access to the narrow streets. The traditional Istrian stone houses, ancient wells, and charming courtyards are home to numerous art galleries, including painting, sculpture and ceramics.
Hum, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the smallest city in the world, with around 20 inhabitants. The walls enclose a handful of houses and the church of St Jerolim contains fragments of frescoes from the 12th century. Try Buska, their famous brandy, and only made here. The recipe is secret but mistletoe is a key ingredient and it’s claimed to have strong medicinal qualities.
The oak forests below are rich sources of truffles with the highly prized white truffle in the valleys from October to January. I set out early morning with Ivan Karlić and his dog, searching for breakfast and am not disappointed. Suddenly the hound’s animated and starts digging. Sure enough there’s a black truffle, slightly smaller than a golf ball, and perfect to flavour my scrambled eggs.
Tell Me More About This Insider Guide To Istria, Croatia
Grand Hotel Brioni by Radisson just outside Pula makes a comfortable base.
The restaurant in the Hotel Amfiteatar in Pula is right next to the Roman Amphitheatre.
Restaurant Sveti Nikola in Poreč has sea views and good food.
Batelina has excellent fish in Banjole near Pula.
Konoba Nono, in Petrovija, serves excellent meat.
Mate Vekić, in Savudrija, does an Olive Oil tour and tasting. Their oil always wins prizes in international competitions.
Karlić Tartuffi organises truffle hunting experiences in Paladini near Buzet.
Istria has information about this guide to Istria and the rest of the region.
Visit Croatia has information about this guide to Istria and information on Croatia.