Istria Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

A large, triangular peninsula pointing down into the northern Adriatic, Istria (in Croatian, “Istra”) represents Croatian tourism at its most developed and diverse. In recent decades the region’s proximity to Western Europe has ensured an annual influx of sun-seeking tourists, with Italians, Germans, Austrians and what seems like the entire population of Slovenia flocking to the 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 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 coastal towns while Croats were dominant in 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 good base for further exploration; many of Istria’s most interesting spots are only a short bus ride away. On the western side of the Istrian peninsula are pretty 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.

Brief history of Istria

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 and France 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, opposition to fascism united Italians and Croats alike, although this didn’t prevent outbreaks of interethnic violence. The atrocities committed against Croats during the Fascist period were avenged indiscriminately by Tito's 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. The Yugoslav authorities actively pressured Istria’s Italians into leaving, and the region suffered serious depopulation as thousands fled. In response, the government encouraged emigration to Istria from the rest of the country. Thousands of Serb, Macedonian, Albanian and Bosnian families came to the Istrian coast to work in the 1960s and has never looked back.

Istria today

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 positive new attitude towards the Italian parts of its heritage. Bilingual road signs and public notices have gone up, and the region’s Italian-language schools – increasingly popular with cosmopolitan Croatian parents – are enjoying a new lease of life.

West Coast Croatia

Istria’s west coast represents the peninsula at its most developed. A succession of purpose-built resorts are scattered along the shore, but it's the long stretches of unspoiled rocky coast that give the area its character. Inland, the coastal strip fades imperceptibly into conifer-studded heathland, olive groves and the fertile red earth of farmers' fields bounded by dry-stone walls. Here and there you'll spot the enigmatic, conical-roofed kažuni, the stone huts traditionally used by Istrian shepherds for shelter when overnighting with their flocks. Rovinj is Istria’s best-preserved old Venetian port; farther north, beyond the picturesque hilltop village of Vrsar and the Limski kanal, spreads the large resort of Poreč – package-holiday-land writ large, although it does boast the peninsula’s finest ecclesiastical attraction in the shape of the mosaic-filled Basilica of St Euphrasius.

The presidential playground

Although the islands were a popular rural retreat for wealthy Romans, the Brijunis’ history as an offshore paradise really began in 1893, when they were bought by Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelwieser. Kupelwieser, whose aim was to turn the islands into a luxury resort patronized by the cream of Europe’s aristocracy, brought in Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, who rid the Brijunis of malaria by pouring petroleum on the swamps. Smart hotels and villas were built on Veli Brijun, and the Mediterranean scrub was cleared to make way for landscaped parks. The Brijunis’ heyday was in the period immediately before World War I: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Wilhelm II both stayed on the islands, and struggling English-language teacher James Joyce came here to celebrate his 23rd birthday on February 2, 1905.

Following World War I, the development of Brijuni as a golf- and polo-playing resort helped preserve the islands’ reputation as a key venue for aristocratic fun and games. Running costs proved high however, and Kupelwieser’s son Karl committed suicide here in 1930 when it became clear that this elite paradise would never turn a profit.

After World War II, Tito decided to make Veli Brijun one of his official bases, planting much of the island’s subtropical vegetation and commissioning a residence (the White Villa, or “Bijela Vila”) in which he was able to dazzle visiting heads of state with his hospitality. It was here that Tito, Nehru and Nasser signed the Brioni Declaration in 1956, which paved the way for the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, which nowadays consists of 118 nations (but none of the republics of the former Yugoslavia). Far away from prying eyes, the islands were the perfect spot from which to conduct secret diplomacy – Yugoslav-sponsored terrorist Abu Nidal was a house guest in 1978.

Tito himself resided in an ultra-secluded villa on the islet of Vanga, just off the western coast of Veli Brijun. He contrived to spend as much time here as possible, conducting government business when not busy hunting in his private game reserve or pottering about in his gardens and orchards (tangerines from which were traditionally sent to children’s homes throughout Yugoslavia as a New Year’s gift). International stars attending the Pula Film Festival stayed here as Tito’s personal guests, bestowing his regime with a veneer of showbiz glamour.

After Tito’s death in 1980 the islands were retained as an official residence, and a decade later became the favoured summer destination of President Tuđman. Tuđman’s rank ineptitude as a world statesman ensured that no foreign leader ever came to visit him here, and with successive presidents declining to make use of the islands, it looks like the Brijuni have lost their mythical status in Croatian politics.

Poreč

How you react to Poreč (Parenzo) may well depend on what time of year you arrive. From May to late September, Istria’s largest tourist resort can seem positively engulfed by mass-market tourism; outside this period it can be just as charming as any other well-kept Mediterranean port. Happily, Poreč’s gargantuan hotel complexes are mainly concentrated in vast tourist settlements like Plava Laguna and Zelena Laguna to the south, and the town’s labyrinthine core of stone houses – ice-cream parlours and tacky souvenir shops notwithstanding – remains relatively unspoiled. The main points in Poreč’s favour are the Romanesque Basilica of Euphrasius, Istria’s one must-see ecclesiastical attraction, and the town’s transport links, which make it a convenient base from which to visit the rest of the Istrian peninsula.

The Basilica of Euphrasius

Poreč’s star turn is the Basilica of Euphrasius (Eufrazijeva basilika), situated in the centre of the town just off Eufrazijeva. Decorated with incandescent mosaics, this sixth-century Byzantine basilica created by Bishop Euphrasius around 535 is the central component of a complex that includes the bishop’s palace, atrium, baptistry and campanile. Entry is through the atrium, an arcaded courtyard whose walls incorporate ancient bits of masonry, although it was heavily restored in the last century.

The basilica was the last in a series of late Roman and early Byzantine churches built on this spot, the remains of which are still in evidence. Surviving stonework from the first, the Oratory of St Maur (named after the saint who is said to have lived in a house on the site), can be seen on the north side of the basilica. This was a secret place of worship when Christianity was still an underground religion, and fragments of mosaic show the sign of the fish, a clandestine Christian symbol of the time. Inside the basilica, the mosaic floor of a later, less secretive church has been carefully revealed through gaps in the existing floor. The present-day basilica is a rather bare structure: everything focuses on the apse, with its superb, late thirteenth-century ciborium and, behind this, the mosaics, with Byzantine solemnity quite different from the geometric late Roman designs. They’re studded with semiprecious gems, encrusted with mother-of-pearl and punctuated throughout by Euphrasius’s personal monogram – he was, it’s said, a notoriously vain man. The central part of the composition shows the Virgin enthroned with Child, flanked by St Maur, a worldly looking Euphrasius holding a model of his church and, next to him, his brother.

On the opposite side of the atrium, the octagonal baptistry (baptisterijum) is bare inside save for the entrance to the campanile, which you can ascend for views of Poreč’s red-brown roof tiles. On the north side of the atrium is the Bishop’s Palace, a seventeenth-century building harbouring a fascinating selection of mosaic fragments that once adorned the basilica floor, and an exquisite collection of Gothic altarpieces and Baroque statuary.

Novigrad

Reached by regular bus, Novigrad (Cittanova), 18km north of Poreč, is a pleasant peninsula-bound place centred around a Venetian-style church, although it has lost most of its old buildings apart from a few toothy sections of town wall. Novigrad’s privately run hotels have more character than the package accommodation in Poreč, and the atmosphere is more laidback all round – this is one place on the west coast where you can safely wander the streets without being stampeded to death by herds of ice-cream-wielding promenaders.

For bathing, the stretch of rock-and-concrete beach on the south side of town is outshone by the wonderful stretch of coastline to the north, where the rocky reefs backed by woods are more attractive and less crowded.

Inland Istria

You don’t need to travel away from the sea for long before the hotels and flash apartments give way to rustic villages of heavy grey-brown stone, many of them perched high on hillsides, a legacy of the times when a settlement’s defensive position was more important than its access to cultivable land. The landscape is varied, with fields and vineyards squeezed between pine forests, orchards of oranges and olive groves. It’s especially attractive in autumn, when the hillsides turn a dappled green and auburn, and the hill villages appear to hover eerily above the early morning mists.

Istria’s hilltop settlements owe their appearance to the region’s borderland status. Occupied since Neolithic times, they were fortified and refortified by successive generations, serving as strongholds on the shifting frontier between Venice and Austria. Many suffered serious depopulation after World War II, when local Italians were forced to leave. Empty houses in these half-abandoned towns have been offered to painters, sculptors and musicians in an attempt to keep life going on the hilltops and stimulate tourism at the same time – hence the reinvention of Motovun and Grožnjan in particular as cultural centres.

Beram

Beram, 6km west of Pazin just off the road to Poreč and Motovun, is an unspoilt hilltop village with moss-covered stone walls and some of the finest sacred art in the region.

One kilometre northeast of the village is the Chapel of Our Lady on the Rocks (Crkvica svete Marije na škriljinah), a diminutive Gothic church with a set of frescoes dating from 1475, signed by local artist Vincent of Kastav. Of the many well-executed New Testament scenes that cover the chapel interior, two large frescoes stand out. The marvellous, 8m-long equestrian pageant of the Adoration of the Kings reveals a wealth of fine detail – distant ships, mountains, churches and wildlife – strongly reminiscent of early Flemish painting, while on the west wall a Dance of Death is illustrated with macabre clarity: skeletons clasp scythes and blow trumpets, weaving in and out of a Chaucerian procession of citizens led by the pope. A rich merchant brings up the rear, greedily clinging to his possessions while indicating the money with which he hopes to buy his freedom.

Our Lady on the Rocks

One kilometre northeast of the village is the Chapel of Our Lady on the Rocks (Crkvica svete Marije na škriljinah), a diminutive Gothic church with a set of frescoes dating from 1475, signed by local artist Vincent of Kastav. Of the many well-executed New Testament scenes that cover the chapel interior, two large frescoes stand out. The marvellous, 8m-long equestrian pageant of the Adoration of the Kings reveals a wealth of fine detail – distant ships, mountains, churches and wildlife – strongly reminiscent of early Flemish painting, while on the west wall a Dance of Death is illustrated with macabre clarity: skeletons clasp scythes and blow trumpets, weaving in and out of a Chaucerian procession of citizens led by the pope. A rich merchant brings up the rear, greedily clinging to his possessions while indicating the money with which he hopes to buy his freedom.

Motovun

Perhaps the most famous of the Istrian hill towns, Motovun (Montona) is an attractive clump of medieval houses straddling a green wooded hill, high above a patchwork of wheatfields and vineyards. Like so many towns in Istria, Motovun was predominantly Italian-speaking until the 1940s (when racing driver Mario Andretti was born here), after which most of the inhabitants left for Italy. The problem of depopulation was partly solved by turning Motovun into an artists’ colony – the godfather of Croatian naïve art, Krsto Hegedušić, was one of the first painters to move here in the 1960s, and several studios and craft shops open their doors to tourists over the summer.

The Motovun Film Festival

All accommodation in Motovun and central Istria is likely to be booked solid during the Motovun Film Festival, which usually straddles a long weekend at the end of July or beginning of August. Since its inception in 1999 the festival has established itself as Croatia’s premier cinematic event, with feature films (European art-house movies for the most part) premiered on an open-air screen in the main town square. Featuring a minimum of segregation between stars and public, the festival is also one of the key social events of the summer, with thousands of celebrants ascending Motovun’s hill – most are here to enjoy the 24-hour party atmosphere as much as the films. Box offices at the entrance to the Old Town sell tickets to the screenings.

Oprtalj

Straddling a grassy ridge high above the Mirna valley, Oprtalj (Portole) was, like Motovun, off the map for many years, half of its houses in ruins and tufts of grass growing from the walls of the rest. In recent years, however, it’s undergone a rebirth; old houses are being renovated, new restaurants are opening and more and more visitors are finding out about the place. Both the fifteenth-century St Mary’s Church (Crkva svete Marije) in the village centre, and the sixteenth-century Chapel of St Rock (Crkvica svetog Roka) at the entrance to town have some interesting fresco fragments you can glimpse through the windows; otherwise the nicest way to spend your time here is simply to wander.

The Parenzana hiking and cycling trail

Completed in 1902 but only operational until 1935, the Parenzana (derived from Parenzo, the Italian name for Poreč) was a 130km-long narrow-gauge railway line that linked the port of Trieste with the growing tourist destination of Poreč. It followed a meandering course across the Istrian countryside, with embankments and viaducts negotiating the peninsula’s notoriously up-and-down terrain. The process of converting the former track into a foot- and cycle-path was begun in 2006, with a highly scenic 60km section of the railway (“Parenzana I”) in central Istria receiving most of the initial attention. A second phase (“Parenzana II”), revitalizing the stretch from Vižinada, 10km southwest of Motovun, to Poreč, was completed in 2012.

The most breathtaking sections of the Parenzana are those connecting Buje, Grožnjan, Livade, Motovun and Vižinada. Gradients are reasonably smooth, and seasoned cyclists will be able to cover a lot of ground in the space of a day’s riding; walkers should limit themselves to one stage at a time.

Free maps of the Parenzana are available from tourist offices in inland Istria; for more information see parenzana.net.

Grožnjan

North of Motovun on the other side of the Mirna valley, Grožnjan (Grisignana) is an ancient hill village that was severely depopulated during the Italian exodus after World War II and given a new lease of life in the 1970s when many of its properties were offered to artists as studios. There’s also a summer school for young musicians, many of whom take part in outdoor concerts organized as part of the Grožnjan Musical Summer (Grožnjansko glazbeno ljeto), which takes place every August. Indeed high summer is the best time to come, when most of the artists are in residence and a smattering of galleries open their doors. Outside this time, Grožnjan can be exceedingly quiet, but it’s an undeniably attractive spot, with its jumble of shuttered houses made from honey-brown stone, covered in creeping plants. The town’s battlements command superb views of the surrounding countryside, with Motovun perched on its hilltop to the southeast, and the ridge of Mount Učka dominating the horizon beyond it.

Buzet

The second-largest town in the Istrian interior is Buzet, whose original old hilltop settlement quietly decays on the heights above the River Mirna while the bulk of the population lives in the new town below. Though it’s not as pretty as Motovun or Grožnjan, Buzet has good accommodation, good food and is an excellent base from which to explore the region. The town’s importance as a truffle-hunting centre is celebrated with the Buzetska Subotina festival (“Buzet Saturday”; usually the second weekend of September), when an enormous truffle omelette is cooked on the main square and shared out among thousands of visitors – the tourist office will have details.

Reached by a winding road or a steep flight of stairs, old Buzet’s cobbled streets seem a world away from the largely concrete new quarter down on the valley floor. The remaining ramparts of Buzet’s medieval fortifications provide expansive views, with the Mirna valley below and the imposing grey ridge of the Ćićarija to the east.

Roč

Framed against the backdrop of the rocky Ćićarija ridge, the dainty village of Roč, about 10km east of Buzet, sits behind sixteenth-century walls so low that the place looks more like a child’s sandcastle than an erstwhile medieval strongpoint. Roč has a strong folk music tradition centred on an archaic, push-button accordion known as the Trieština, which is rarely found outside Istria and northeastern Italy. The best time to hear it in action is during the International Accordion Festival (Zarmoniku v Roč) over the second weekend in May: the tourist office in Buzet will have details.

With their neat rows of sturdy farmhouses, the narrow lanes of Roč provide a wonderful environment in which to savour the rustic atmosphere of eastern Istria. There’s a small display of Roman tombstones inside the arch of the main gate into town, and the Romanesque St Barthol’s Church (Crkva svetog Bartula) in the centre, an ancient, barn-like structure lurking behind an enormous chestnut tree and sporting an unusually asymmetrical bell tower.

Hum

Heaped up on a hill surrounded by grasslands and forest, Hum is the self-proclaimed “smallest town in the world”, since it has preserved all the attributes – walls, gate, church, campanile – that a town is supposed to possess, despite its population having dwindled to a current total of just fourteen. Originally fortified in the eleventh century, Hum was a prosperous place in the Middle Ages, and it still looks quite imposing as you pass through a town gate topped by a castellated bell tower. Beyond, the neo-Baroque Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Crkva blažene djevice Marije), built in 1802 as the last gasp of urban development in a shrinking town, lords it over a settlement which now amounts to two one-metre-wide streets paved with grassed-over cobbles and lined by chunky grey-brown farmhouses. A clutch of souvenir shops (usually open April–Oct) sell Glagolitic characters modelled from clay or wood, and locally made biska (mistletoe brandy).

East Coast Croatia

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 distance from the shoreline for the next 50km.

Raša

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.

Labin

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 the coal-mining capital of the Adriatic, 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.

The Old Town

Labin’s hilltop Old Town is a warren of steep alleys threading their way between houses attractively decked out in ochres and pinks. At the highest point of the Old Town there is a viewing terrace providing superb views of the coast, with Rabac in the foreground and the mountainous shape of Cres beyond.

The Rough Guide to Croatia and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Croatia here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Croatia?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels