Under the Croatian Tuscan sun
iao! Istria’s locals say hi in Italian, instead of using the Croatian ‘dobar dan.’ Some habits are hard to shake. Located on the west coast of Croatia, the peninsula belonged to Italy between World War I and II and has a deeply rooted sense of the Italian culture. Before Italy, the peninsula was Roman, Byzantine and Venetian, as well as Austrian and Slavic, among others. Located at a crossroads between the main European cultures, Istria appealed to both conquerors and traders.
Like a green oasis in the middle of the Adriatic, forests cover a third of the peninsula, whilst the islands and the coast are lined with pines and oaks. However, vineyards and olive trees are the prized vegetation, and the main ambassadors for the region’s Mediterranean charm. Thank you, Romans! Istria’s olive oil was once the Empire’s favourite and prestigious gastronomical guide Flos Olei recently named Istria as the second best extra virgin olive oil region for six years in a row – topped only by the Italian Tuscany.
The smallest city in the world
With less than 20 inhabitants, Hum is officially listed as the smallest city in the world. Located 14 kilometres outside Buzet, it is known for its medieval architecture, the brandy (‘biska,’ the official drink in Istria), and its wine. The original recipe, written in the Glagolitic alphabet (ancient Slavic) was found here.
Although they are 500 kilometres apart, the similarities between the regions are numerous and only too evident. And tasty, too. Pasta (like ‘fusi’) is always on the menu and everything is seasoned with olive oil and rosemary. However, though it may often be compared to Tuscany, Istria deserves to be recognised in its own right. The multicultural mix of its past has shaped the region’s architecture, gastronomy and traditions. From the medieval cities of Grožnjan and Motovun to the Euphrasian Basilica of Poreč -the only example of early Byzantine art in the Mediterranean- to the villas and palaces in Opatija, the most fashionable seaside resort during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Empress Sissi often holidayed in these elegant buildings, now refurbished and serving as luxury hotels.
Rovinj (Rovigno in Italian), meanwhile, flaunts its Venetian roots. Amongst the pastel houses, top billing goes to the Baroque church of Saint Euphemia. This sea-locked village is the perfect place to stay. It is also the ideal departure point for day trips, perfect for getting to know the peninsula and ending the day sipping a glass of wine overlooking the sea.
History buffs will love Pula with its Roman amphitheatre, the largest 1st century AD monument in the world. During the summer months, the Spectacvla Antiqva recreates the glory days of the amphitheatre with gladiator fights, and during the rest of the year it hosts concerts and the Pula Film Festival, the oldest film festival in Croatia. The Brijuni Islands are also a great day-trip option. Declared a national park for their striking natural wealth, the islands are home to more than 680 plant varieties and 250 bird species. Visited by holidaymaking aristocrats for more than a century, the islands boast more than 40km of beaches.
But there’s more than Medieval castles and postcard-perfect landscapes to this ‘Terra Magica.’ Istria’s secret weapon is located inland, specifically in Motovun, in the valley of river Mirna. Local dogs have been trained to sniff out black and white truffles, which can go for more than €1,000 per kilo. Truffles are served in almost all the restaurants in the region, grated over a plate of pasta – how else?