Compared with the tourist complexes of the west, Istria’s east coast is a relatively quiet area with few obvious attractions. East of Pula, the main road to Rijeka heads inland, remaining at a discreet distance from the shoreline for the next 50km.
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Thirty kilometres out of Pula the road passes through RAŠA, built by the Italians as a model coal-mining town in 1937. Alongside neat rows of workers’ houses, Raša also boasts a fine example of Mussolini-era architecture in St Barbara’s Church (Crkva svete Barbare) – Barbara being the patron saint of miners. It’s an austere but graceful structure featuring a campanile in the shape of a pithead, and a curving facade representing an upturned coal barrow.
Five kilometres beyond Raša, LABIN is divided into two parts, with an original medieval town crowning the hill above and a twentieth-century suburb, Podlabin, sprawling across the plain below. Labin was for many years Croatia’s coal-mining capital, and earned itself a place in working-class history in 1921, when striking miners declared the “Labin Republic” before being pacified by the Italian authorities. There’s precious little sign of mining heritage nowadays apart from the one remaining pithead in Podlabin, which still bears the word “Tito” proudly spelt out in wrought-iron letters. Subsidence caused by mining led to Labin’s Old Town being partially abandoned in the 1980s, although the subsequent decline of the coal industry, coupled with a thoroughgoing restoration programme, encouraged people to return. The offer of cheap studio space encouraged artists to move to old Labin, and several ateliers open their doors from April through to October. It’s consequently one of the more attractive of Istria’s hill towns – all the more so for its proximity to the beach at Rabac, only forty minutes’ walk downhill.