A region in the northwestern corner of Croatia dotted with olive groves, vineyards, truffle forests and picturesque towns, Istria is home to more attractions and highlights that you would first expect. As the lion’s share of the tourist attention in Croatia goes to Dubrovnik , Plitvice Lakes National Park and the Dalmatian coast, Istria remains a relatively undiscovered region.
That said, however, Istria is, in fact, a pretty popular vacation destination among people who live in this part of Europe. Some towns do get ridiculously crowded during the summer season, but that is still nothing compared to the hordes of tourists that Dubrovnik, for example, receives.
Istria—pronounced “EEstreeyah”—occupies a triangular peninsula in the far northeast of the Adriatic Sea. Most of its surface area lies on Croatian soil, but a tiny sliver lies within Slovenia. This peninsula with its many miles of coastline has the potential to rival the tourist-overrun coast of Dalmatia. Comparisons aren’t in order, though, as both the landscapes and the attractions of the two regions are quite different. As opposed to the imposing, barren limestone cliffs that characterize the Dalmatian coast, the Istrian coast is lined with gently sloping hills covered with vineyards and olive farms. Sand beaches are rare—most of the beaches in the area consist of pebbles and stones.
Without delving too deep into the region’s history, I would like to say that this is without question the most “Italian” part of Croatia. In fact, it used to be a part of Italy. This is clearly visible in the particular architectural style in some of the coastal towns—most notably Rovinj , as we will see below. Nowadays, Istria is a pleasant and fascinating mix between the Italian (Venetian) and the Croatian cultures.
Fun fact: the local dialect in which some of the local Istrian folk singers sing is related more closely to the old Venetian language than the current dialect spoken in Venice!
Istria is home to a surprising number of amazing attractions, but it is also entirely possible to get a serious feel of what this region is all about in the timespan of a weekend—three days and two nights.
The absolute number one highlight in Istria is the town of Rovinj—pronounced “RoVEEN.” Located about halfway down the west coast of the peninsula, this extraordinarily photogenic town is where every visit to Istria should start. The region isn’t particularly large and Rovinj actually makes for a magnificent base from which to explore the peninsula.
Rovinj’s Old Town, which, as a tourist, is where you want to be, occupies a small round peninsula with a steep hill in the middle. Atop that hill stands the striking St. Euphemia Church with its towering 190-foot bell tower. People without a fear of heights can climb this bell tower for free for pretty amazing views of the town below and the coastline beyond. Rovinj is a historic town characterized by beautiful pastel-colored houses, many of them featuring Venetian windows. This hilly town is crisscrossed by narrow, cobbled streets, stairways, alleys and lanes, which make for incredibly fun urban exploration. Besides the church, there aren’t really any major architectural highlights. The beauty of this town is its overwhelming charm, friendly atmosphere and almost impossible picturesqueness.
As I said, I suggest choosing Rovinj as a base to explore Istria. You should definitely spend at least one full day there, wandering through the Old Town and, just like me, snapping way too many photos.
In addition to Rovinj, Istria has a few other visit-worthy coastal towns. Depending on what you are after, you can visit the charmingly small town of Novigrad; the bustling town of Poreč, which is home to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed church; or the industrial town of Pula, which features a superbly well-preserved Roman amphitheater.
However, if—and this would be my recommendation—you want to get a feel for what Istria really is about, you should rent a car or a motorbike, head inland and explore the Istrian countryside. This region is not all about beaches, seafood and historic coastal towns; it also features some remarkable fortified rural villages.
One such village is Motovun—pronounced “MotoVOON.” The countryside of Istria is dotted with hilltop villages, some more interesting than others, and Motovun happens to be the greatest of them all. It is easy to see why this is the most visited village in inland Istria. Set atop a steep hill rising up from the surrounding farmlands and vineyards, Motovun is one of the most scenic villages I’ve probably ever seen in my life. It is easily as photogenic as Rovinj, yet in a completely different way.
Motovun’s highlights are located within the village walls, which encircle the hilltop. The yellow St. Stephen’s Church is a definite landmark—the only landmark, really, as this town is super-small. In addition to the church, there are a couple of defensive gateways, countless truffle, wine and olive oil shops and a few restaurants. Its location atop a hill provides pretty fine views over the surrounding countryside.
This is a small town, though, so you won’t need more than two to three hours to see it. Continue your journey across rural Istria by simply driving around aimlessly, perhaps taking the time to stop at a local olive farm, winery or roadside truffle stand. Istria is famous for its truffles, so you are strongly encouraged to try a dish with truffles in it—truffle pasta will do just fine.
If you have a weekend to spend in Istria, I would recommend that you focus on Rovinj and Motovun, two very different, yet incredibly beautiful destinations. Extra time can be spent visiting one of the other above-mentioned coastal towns or simply relaxing on the beach.
Written by and photos by Bram Reusen for EuropeUpClose.com