The hilltop villages and ancient ports of Croatia's northern peninsula buzz with the sound of summer festivals and the flavours of gastronomic delights, says Mick Webb.
The Istrian peninsula dangles like a heart-shaped pendant from the northern end of Croatia's Adriatic coastline. Small (you can drive from one end to another in just over an hour) and self-contained, it can claim three of Croatia's most attractive coastal towns in Pula, Rovinj and Porec. Behind the beaches, though, the hilly, wooded interior produces high-quality wine, olive oil, ham and the diamond of gastronomy, the truffle, all of which have contributed to Istria's growing reputation as a gourmet destination.
High summer in Istria is synonymous with festivals of all kinds. However, late summer or autumn are the ideal times to walk, cycle as well as enjoy the culture and the cuisine, without peak-season prices and crowds Istria attracts one-third of Croatia's tourists.
The region's recent history is complicated and fractured, even by Balkan standards. You will meet long-term residents in middle age who were born when this area was part of Yugoslavia; their parents were born when it was under Italian rule; and their grandparents lived under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Going further back, Napoleon and the Venetians also left their mark on Istria.
The main historical attraction, though, is the legacy left by the Romans. Pula is the greatest beneficiary, with the splendidly preserved Triumphal Arch of the Sergii and its renowned arena, which is one of the world's best surviving Roman amphitheatres. Nearly 2000 years since it was built in white Istrian stone, it is regularly used for concerts, Pula's film festival and even an ice-hockey match.
Pula is the most southern and the largest of Istria's coastal towns with about a quarter of the region's 220,000 population. It is the first port of call for visitors arriving at the nearby airport. Rovinj, half an hour's drive up the coast, is beautifully located on a wide bay. Its old centre, originally an island, is a maze of narrow streets, bordered by high medieval buildings, which clamber up to the dominating cathedral of St Euphemia. A further half hour's drive north, and quite different once again, is Porec, whose street grid recalls its Roman origin, while elegant Venetian palaces line an equally photogenic bay.
As you travel inland, the scrubby vegetation and olive groves gradually give way to wooded hills and fertile valleys with occasional hilltop villages, each with its own character. The most attractive and most visited is Motovun, in the middle of truffle territory, which has arguably the best views of the Istrian interior from its ramparts, although equally worth seeing are the art-filled town of Groznjan and the wine village of Visnjan.
Festivals dot the calendar and Istria is an integral part of Croatia's move into the music festival market. The 19th-century fort of Punta Christo, outside Pula, will echo to the throb of sound systems during Outlook (29 August to 2 September), while Rovinj is hosting Unknown, a new eclectic electronic festival (10 to 14 September). By way of contrast, Buzet's Subotina, over the second weekend in September, involves much historical pageantry and marks the start of the white truffle season with a huge omelette containing 10kg of the prized tuber.
The best beaches are mainly along the west coast. As in the rest of Croatia, they are mostly pebble and rock. The most child-friendly sandy strand, Bijeca, is on the short southern coast at Medulin, 10km south of Pula. Nearby, the wild and undeveloped Kamenjac peninsula, pictured, has 30km of attractive coastline, with secluded coves. It's a spring haven for wild flowers and access is via Premantura village.
An excursion to the Brijuni Islands caters for all. A half-hour ferry journey from the fishing port of Fazana (renowned for its sardines) brings you to the offshore retreat where Tito used to entertain film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor as well as politicians from both East and West. You'll find a safari park (the original animals were official gifts to Tito), a Tito museum, remnants of a Roman villa, dinosaur footprints and an ancient olive tree.
As well as the Roman amphitheatre in Pula other stunning remains can be seen on the Brijuni Islands and in Porec, which retains the grid layout of the original Roman garrison town. The main street is still called the Dodecanus and on the site of what was once the Forum (now the Marafor Square) there are three temples.
Porec is also home to Istria's most striking church building, the sixth-century Euphrasian Basilica, a fine example of Byzantine architecture (7.30am to 8pm; entry free).
Bale, between Rovinj and Pula, has an almost perfect medieval centre with Venetian palaces, arches and cobbled alleyway. The gems of the interior are the hilltop villages, particularly Hum, said to be the world's smallest town, with 20 inhabitants. It is reached by an avenue, lined with stone monuments.
Windsurfing is a big favourite in Medulin. Yachts can be chartered from several ports; Istria yachting has a six-berth boat in Pula. Cyclists have some 500km of mountain and road trails to enjoy including the picturesque Parenzana route over an old railway line from Viznada to the Slovenian border.
FOOD AND DRINK
Istria deserves its reputation as a gourmet destination. Good-quality meals can be head in the most modest konoba (tavern). On the coast, the accent is on seafood and the leading eatery is Batalina in Banjole, with creative starters such as conger-eel pt.
Inland, the focus turns to meat, particularly the richly flavoured beef of the traditional Boskarin cattle. Among the seasonal vegetables are wild asparagus (in late spring) and black truffles (spring and summer), and the highly prized white variety is a highlight on autumn and winter menus. Zigante, in the village of Livade, offers a meal in which truffles flavour the pasta, the sauces and even the ice cream.
Of the wide variety of Istrian wines, try those based on the local grapes malvazija (white) and reran (red). Rakijas (brandies) are ubiquitous and can be flavoured with honey or even mistletoe. Meanwhile, the local olive oil is taken almost as seriously as the wine.