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

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.

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