Image credit: Croatia.hr
Mary Novakovich explores Croatia’s Istrian peninsula
Lively coastal resorts, peaceful hilltop villages, wine routes and olive groves – all of these make Istria an alluring destination. This heart-shaped peninsula dangling off Croatia’s northern Adriatic coast mixes a rich cultural heritage with a distinct Italian flavour that is simply irresistible.
Sell: Coasts and contrasts
The heavily indented coast of Istria (called Istra in Croatian) draws beach lovers to its western side – in particular the big resorts of Porec and Rovinj.
History buffs can soak up Roman history and visit a first-century amphitheatre in Pula and wander through medieval villages in Istria’s tranquil green interior.
Image credit: Croatia.hr
Its tumultuous past has left a fascinating legacy, blending Austro-Hungarian, Venetian and – most recently – Italian influences.
The cuisine alone will have foodies salivating at the thought of top-quality olive oil, truffles, wine and pasta. Wine routes wind their way through fertile vineyards, tempting guests to stop at friendly wineries to taste robust teran reds and crisp white malvazija.
Excellent air links make Istria easy to reach, with Ryanair, easyJet, Thomson, Jet2.com and Norwegian flying to Pula airport. Travellers can also fly into Trieste just to the west across the Italian border, or to Rijeka to the east of the Istrian peninsula. Both are served by Ryanair.
See: Beaches and villages
Istria’s western coast has some of the most popular beach resorts in Croatia. Rovinj is one of the most appealing to holidaymakers, with its attractive old town and Venetian architecture dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
Its harbour is a colourful sight, with fishing boats vying for attention with the many restaurants and cafes along the water’s edge.
Porec may be the largest beach resort in Istria, but it too has a wealth of history that includes Roman, Byzantine and Venetian legacies. Active types can take to the wide network of cycling and walking trails that spread out from Porec into the countryside.
Like many of Istria’s swimming areas, Porec’s beaches have concrete platforms over rocks to make them easier and safer for swimming.
Sandy beaches are rare, but there are some in Medulin on the southernmost tip of the peninsula as well as Valalta in Rovinj and Koversada in Vrsar just north of Rovinj.
Image credit: Renco Kosinožic
Holidaymakers in search of more intimate resorts can head farther up the western side to Novigrad, which resembles a smaller version of Rovinj, and Umag, which also has a Venetian style bell tower soaring over its old town.
Just before the peninsula reaches Italy, the small fishing village of Savudrija tempts guests with its simple waterside restaurants serving freshly caught fish.
In contrast, Istria’s eastern coast is quieter, wilder and more rugged. One of its loveliest resorts, Rabac, clings to the forested hillside before tumbling towards the harbour and the clear Adriatic.
Head inland, and Istria reveals another side to its beauty. Take the twisting road up to Motovun, whose mix of Venetian and Gothic architecture makes it one of the most exquisite of the peninsula’s hilltop towns.
A walk around the town’s fortifications reveals sublime views of the Istrian countryside and the forests that hide the region’s highly prized truffles. Every summer, its streets and squares become outdoor cinemas during the Motovun Film Festival, one of the highlights of Croatia’s calendar.
Near Motovun are several other hill towns and villages that can easily be explored for visitors with their own transport. A stroll on the cobbled streets of Groznjan’s medieval centre reveals a vibrant artists’ colony, while a visit to Buje’s Venetian old town comes with some of the most breathtaking views in Istria.
Sniff out the truffles in hilltop Buzet, nicknamed Truffle City for good reason, where the pungent tuber appears on many restaurant menus.
Stay: Chic hotels and family resorts
Rovinj and Porec cater for all budgets, from luxurious five-star to smaller, family-run hotels and campsites.
Backed by pine forests, the five-star Hotel Monte Mulini has airy, contemporary rooms with balconies that look out over Rovinj’s Lone Bay.
Guests can choose from three outdoor pools (including one for children), plus an indoor pool in the spa. Classic Collection Holidays offers seven nights with breakfast from £1,199 including flights and private transfers.
The three-star Valamar Pinia Hotel in Porec gives holidaymakers the convenience of an outdoor pool along with a Blue Flag beach 150 metres away.
Active holidaymakers can take advantage of the many sporty activities on offer, as well as bicycle hire. Seven nights’ full board with Jet2holidays, including flights from Manchester, costs from £651.
Porec’s quieter neighbour, Vrsar, a fishing town overlooking 18 islands, offers clients a more relaxed holiday.
Perched on a cliff with views of the sea and Vrsar’s marina, the Belvedere Apartments are part of a complex that includes an outdoor pool. Balkan Holidays offers a week’s self-catering here from £683, including flights and transfers.
Campsites and holiday parks are a popular choice with clients on a budget. Bi Village between Pula and Fazana has mobile homes in a vast park that borders a shingle beach.
There are two pools and a big range of sporting activities to keep families busy. Al Fresco Holidays has seven days’ self catering in a two-bedroom mobile home from £825 for four sharing. Travel is extra.
Further up the coast at Umag, the four-star Sol Umag offers guests a modern option with glorious sea views, and a private beach as well as an outdoor pool, plus it’s only just over half a mile from the centre of Umag’s old town. Selective Travel offers seven nights’ half board from £415, excluding flights.
Just steps away from a pebbly beach and a 10-minute walk from Rabac’s centre is the four-star Hotel Valamar Sanfior.
Sea views are everywhere, from the restaurant terrace to the indoor pool with glass walls. There’s an outdoor pool too, and the whole complex is surrounded by pine woods and walking trails. Seven nights’ half board with Prestige Holidays costs from £499, including flights and transfers.
Those looking for a change of scenery can head to the hills of Motovun and the family-run Hotel Kastel.
Cosy rooms have serene views of the wooded countryside, and there’s an indoor pool and peaceful gardens. Completely Croatia offers four nights’ B&B from £419 including flights and car hire.
Tito’s former exclusive playground in the Brijuni Islands has been a national park since 1983 and gives clients one of the more unusual experiences Istria has to offer.
Image credit: Croatia.hr
Only two of these 14 islands northwest of Pula are accessible to members of the public who don’t have their own boats, and only one of these, Veliki Brijun, has overnight accommodation.
Even before the former Yugoslav president entertained the great and the glamorous, the islands were favourite haunts of James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw.
Most people visit on day tours which can be quite rushed, but clients staying at Hotel Neptun-Istra can explore the nature reserve, walking trails, safari park and Roman and Byzantine ruins at a relaxed pace. Seven nights with breakfast with Anatolian Sky Holidays starts from £609, including flights and transfers.
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