A large, triangular peninsula pointing down into the northern Adriatic, Istria (in Croatian, “Istra”) represents Croatian tourism at its most developed. In recent decades the region’s proximity to Western Europe has ensured an annual influx of sun-seeking package tourists, with Italians, Germans, Austrians and what seems like the entire population of Slovenia flocking to the mega-hotel developments that dot the coastline. Istrian beaches – often rocky areas that have been concreted over to provide sunbathers with a level surface on which to sprawl – lack the appeal of the out-of-the-way coves that you’ll find on the Dalmatian islands, yet the hotel complexes and rambling campsites have done little to detract from the essential charm of the Istrian coast, with its compact towns of alley-hugging houses grouped around spear-belfried churches. Meanwhile, inland Istria is an area of rare and disarming beauty, characterized by medieval hilltop settlements and stone-built villages.
Istria’s cultural legacy is a complex affair. Historically, Italians lived in the towns while Croats occupied the rural areas. Despite post-World War II expulsions, there’s still a fair-sized Italian community, and Italian is very much the peninsula’s second language.
With its amphitheatre and other Roman relics, the port of Pula, at the southern tip of the peninsula, is Istria’s largest city and a rewarding place to spend a couple of days; many of Istria’s most interesting spots are only a short bus ride away. On the western side of the Istrian peninsula are pretty resort towns like Rovinj and Novigrad, with their cobbled piazzas, shuttered houses and back alleys laden with laundry. Poised midway between the two, Poreč is much more of a package destination, but offers bundles of Mediterranean charm if you visit out of season. Inland Istria couldn’t be more different – historic hilltop towns like Motovun, Grožnjan, Oprtalj and Hum look like leftovers from another century, half-abandoned accretions of ancient stone poised high above rich green pastures and forests.
Istria gets its name from the Histri, an Illyrian tribe that ruled the region before succumbing to the Romans in the second century BC. The invaders left a profound mark on the area, building farms and villas, and turning Pula into a major urban centre. Slav tribes began settling the peninsula from the seventh century onwards, driving the original Romanized inhabitants of the peninsula towards the coastal towns or into the hills.
Venetians and Habsburgs
Coastal and inland Istria began to follow divergent courses as the Middle Ages progressed. The coastal towns adopted Venetian suzerainty from the thirteenth century onwards, while the rest of the peninsula came under Habsburg control. The fall of Venice in 1797 left the Austrians in charge of the whole of Istria. They confirmed Italian as the official local language, even though Croats outnumbered Italians by more than two to one. Istria received a degree of autonomy in 1861, but only the property-owning classes were allowed to vote, thereby excluding many Croats and perpetuating the Italian-speaking community’s domination of Istrian politics.
Croatians and Italians
Austrian rule ended in 1918, when Italy – already promised Istria by Britain as an inducement to enter World War I – occupied the whole peninsula. Following Mussolini’s rise to power in October 1922, the Croatian language was banished from public life, and Slav surnames were changed into their Italian equivalents. During World War II, however, opposition to fascism united Italians and Croats alike, and Tito’s Partisan movement in Istria was a genuinely multinational affair, although this didn’t prevent outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence. The atrocities committed against Croats during the Fascist period were avenged indiscriminately by the Partisans, and the foibe of Istria – limestone pits into which bodies were thrown – still evoke painful memories for Italians to this day.
After 1945 Istria became the subject of bitter wrangling between Yugoslavia and Italy, with the Yugoslavs ultimately being awarded the whole of the peninsula. Despite promising all nationalities full rights after 1945, the Yugoslav authorities actively pressured Istria’s Italians into leaving, and the region suffered serious depopulation as thousands fled. In response, the Yugoslav government encouraged emigration to Istria from the rest of the country, and today there are a fair number of Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians and Bosnians in Istria, many of whom were attracted to the coast by the tourist industry, which took off in the 1960s and has never looked back.
Geographically distant from the main flashpoints of the Serb-Croat conflict, Istria entered the twenty-first century more cosmopolitan, more prosperous and more self-confident than any other region of the country. With locals tending to regard Zagreb as the centre of a tax-hungry state, Istrian particularism is a major political force, with the Istrian Democratic Party (Istarska demokratska stranka, or IDS) consistently winning the lion’s share of the local vote.
One consequence of Istria’s newfound sense of identity has been a reassessment of its often traumatic relationship with Italy, and a positive new attitude towards its cultural and linguistic ties with that country. Bilingual road signs and public notices have gone up all over the place, and the region’s Italian-language schools – increasingly popular with cosmopolitan Croatian parents – are enjoying a new lease of life.