A Complete Guide To Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula
As you look at a map of Croatia, Istria is the little triangle up in the top left corner. It’s had a chequered history, being passed from pillar to post in battles for land. One day it belonged to the Romans, the next the Venetians, then on to the Habsburgs of Austro-Hungary. You’d think all that changing of nationality would render it a bit lost and lacking in identity but do not be fooled – Istria knows who it is and what it stands for!
The land stretches out like a green carpet when you stand on the walls of its hilltop towns, some even with views to the sea. But among the curves of the landscape lie poker-straight roads built by the Romans to transport their precious cargo up to the trading cities of Trieste and ancient Aquileia, a couple of days ride by chariot. Field after field of arable farms and vineyards make sense to the visitor when you meet an Istrian and hear them talk lovingly about their food and wine – a pride that comes from a farming integrity which brings only the best ingredients to your plate. And, when you sit down to sample their local dishes, you get a sense of what it was like 50 years ago everywhere else in the world when most food was organic and it was picked when it was good and ready. Seemingly self-sufficient, no matter where you dine the finest extra virgin olive oil and world-class wines come as standard, and often for just a handful of loose change. It’s no wonder so many world powers tried to claim this rich peninsula as its own.
On the Adriatic coast, its bygone days leave an even bigger footprint on the landscape. Towns and cities like Porec and Rovinj which are almost a mirror image of their big sister across the water, Venice. Except the streets are so clean Persil-Automatic went out of business – you could wear your whites for days here. And no awful drainage smells, just smooth bright cobblestones and the faint musky whiff of local truffles. And in every coastal town people sit down to eat the days catch, only minutes ago swimming in the sea – food so fresh and wine so good its only natural that customers linger at their tables a while, savouring the views and the flavours.
Whereas most of Istria has tinges of Italy laced through its landscape, architecture and culture (you’re never far away from a good pizzeria or gelateria), it also came with a relaxed vibe that evades their Italian neighbours. However, if you make the trip over to Opatija in the top right corner of the Istrian triangle, you may as well have stepped into another country! When the rich and royals of western Europe were having a good old shin dig in St Tropez, the Russian Oligarchs and eastern European gangsters were wining and dining their dolly-birds in the cliff side cafeterias of Opatija. The architecture becomes Austro-Hungarian, very grand and luxurious. Neatly painted stucco in soft pastel shades offset the white decorative mouldings at the edges. Preened gardens and box hedging, a jolly speaker-system attached to lamp-posts playing summer vibe songs, confectionary shops selling the prettiest Austrian pralines and bathers swimming in the lido’s : all reminiscent of a 1950’s seaside scene. Designer stores line the high street but this is no artificial paradise – the locals are present and cheery, probably because the rest of the world haven’t discovered their little gem of a town. Yes there are yachts in the harbour but it’s understated wealth and in no way pretentious.
On both coastlines the natural coves are dotted with small harbours and fishing villages which somehow hold a charm that is so inviting. Boats to bring in the fish and boats to take out the daytrippers, to the many islands that win national park status. It’s like Istria had so much beauty it burst into the sea and gave itself some paradise islands just for its pleasure.
The Perfect Hotel In Istria
Where better to position yourself for a few days exploring in Istria than right in the middle of the Istrian triangular peninsula. Hotel Resort Cize is the perfect distance from all of the places you must see and in a beautiful location in the Istrian hills. The roads in Istria are excellent and nowhere is too hard to get to so this is the ideal base.
Finding modern hotels in Istria can be difficult yet Resort Cize is contemporary and immaculate. The rooms are simple but well equipped, and the bathrooms have a stylish design to them. The room which overlooks the pool has a balcony that receives the sun from late afternoon and is the best place to see the sunset over the hills.
What sets this hotel apart however, is the level of service you will receive. The hotel manager, Grace, and in fact all of the dining room staff, could not do enough to make sure you had the best stay. Nothing is too much trouble and they are the perfect balance of friendly yet professional. You must eat here for dinner at least once in your stay because the food is all locally grown, exceptional value and can be tailored to however you prefer it. I’m going to put it out there and say this was possibly the nicest hotel we have ever stayed in, maybe not in terms of interior design but certainly in terms of comfort and home from home. I cannot recommend Resort Cize highly enough! For the best deals on this hotel, click here.
Must-See Places In Istria
For me, Istria can be broken down into 3 segments : the beautiful hilltop towns, and the 2 Adriatic coastlines, one on the east and one on the west. The hilltop towns well worth a visit are Motovun with its medieval walls and gates, and fantastic views, and Groznjan for its connections to music and art (it has an annual Jazz Festival every July). They’re both the kind of places where you find yourself imagining your retirement – a slower pace of life where the cars are left outside the walls and you’re left wondering how the locals ever carry their shopping bags up these steep cobbled streets. Lord only knows how you remain upright in one of these hilltop towns on a wet day though : the smooth lime cobblestones may be a photographers dream but you’re going to need to adopt the snow-tyre effect and wrap chains around your feet if you don’t want to end up on your bottom.
Motovun is great for foodies and has strong connections to the truffle trade of Istria; you can sample and buy their truffled delights in some of the little stores and gift shops or taste these local delicacies with your meal. Konoba Mondo is a gorgeous little restaurant that takes its food seriously but its reputation is so good you may need to book. The little town of Groznjan is great for a wander too – not only are the house fronts made to look their best with hanging baskets and vines of Bougainvillea, but the insides of stores are a shoppers dream – tiny little stone rooms filled to the brim with local artists pieces and unique Istrian gifts – like the olive oil soaps, wrapped so beautifully in designer packaging that even your smelliest friend wouldn’t take offense at a souvenir!
I’ve already mentioned the seaside town of Opatija on the east coast of Istria – a favourite with rich Eastern Europeans. If you do make it over that side for the day then you must sample some of the towns famous Austrian pralines and perhaps with some strong Austrian coffee? There are plenty of little cafe’s, all a pleasure to take a beverage in and all with their own unique style, but if there’s just one place you go, make it Caffe Wagner on the preened terrace overlooking the promenade – an exquisite experience and great for people watching opportunities. A town where well dressed yacht owners take a stroll, either along the Lungomare (seafront promenade) or in one of the shaded landscaped parks. Opatija was built with luxury in mind over 100 years ago but it still oozes it today and is quite a contrast to the more natural and rustic charms of the rest of Istria.
On the west coast of Istria there are Croatian towns and cities where you won’t even believe their beauty – this is the section of Istria which really blew us away. Porec and Fazana in any other country would be teaming with tourists and Saga would be putting on day trips… not in Istria. As far as I can see, Croatia is only just starting to be on everyone’s radar and people are cottoning on to places like Split and Dubrovnik, but Istria just doesn’t seem to have attracted that much attention yet, despite the fact it’s so picturesque and holiday-perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there are a handful of tourists and places are geared up to cater for holidaymakers, but when you compare their beauty so say Santorini, or Venice, or Sorrento, it just makes little sense that the tourist crowds are so small – but hey, I’m not complaining! The tight little streets of these towns are so neat and tidy with the perfect amount of restaurants and bars to achieve the right level of atmosphere. Then, on the harbourside of Fazana, you can snap a picture perfect scene of colourful architecture and cute little fishing boats bobbing upon the water. Porec is a larger town and offers more in the way of boat trips and activities, but in no way has it lost its old-world charm.
Rovinj is possibly the jewel in the crown for Istria. It’s apparently better looking than its Croatian rival, Dubrovnik, but hasn’t had Game Of Thrones to propel it into stardom. However, let’s hope that this never happens and Rovinj can keep its captivating streets relatively quiet and free of social media influencers blocking up every pretty corner with their big floppy hats and obedient boyfriends! Built on a hilly outcrop, the streets wind up and up until you reach a big church with a big old tower. The views from the top are amazing but the bell-tower climb is a little hairy and the air a bit stale from sweating guys making the ascent – where are all the men!? It’s little wonder there are several super-yachts anchored up in the nearby bay, come for a peek at this popular little tourist spot.
Istria has been our first taste of Croatia and we liked it very much, but I am super interested to know how it compares the rest of the country : has the old Italian influence made it a unique little peninsula or has the rest of Croatia got a similar vibe? I would certainly welcome any comments or feedback on this query. Feel free to leave me some input below and for more posts on Istria to follow, make sure you sign up to my newsletter. Thanks for reading!
Incidentally, if you are making Istria a stop on a larger trip to Croatia and want more info about the rest of the country, I found a great post over at Tracy’s Travels In Time entitled The Best Croatia Itinerary: Dubrovnik to Zagreb. Plenty of excellent advice and definitely worth checking out if you’re planning on travelling further south in Croatia.
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