Istria is bucolic bliss in primary colors: Dark red earth, glistening blue sea, and rolling hills that tumble into valleys cloaked in shades of green and gold. Its sensory stimulation is packed into a triangular peninsula at the northwestern end of Croatia, dipping into the Adriatic just far enough to catch the seductive Mediterranean climate. Most of Istria’s pine- and rosemary-scented coastal landscape is lined with pebble beaches and marinas framed by Venetian-style harbor towns.
Many nations have occupied Istria over the centuries, and it is remarkable that the peninsula has not become a cultural hodgepodge. Instead, the region has embraced the best of every country that contributed to its development through the ages, a philosophy that still informs Istrians’ easygoing attitude, tolerance for diversity, love of fine food and wine, and above all, their passion for the land and sea.
Even the most transient tourist will recognize that Istrians have acquired Italian sensibilities without losing their Croatian souls. Istria was part of Italy until World War II, and many residents still communicate with each other in a local dialect that is a lilting blend of Italian and Croatian. Most towns are known by both their Italian and Croatian names and sometimes fool visitors into wondering if they’ve made an inadvertent border crossing.
Many of the region’s coastal towns are dead ringers for Italian fishing villages, and much of the inland landscape’s silvery olive groves and deep green vineyards could double as Tuscan. But when you get the bill for a meal or a hotel room, you’ll know you’re in Croatia and not Italy. The cost of a week in Istria is well below the cost of the same week just across the Adriatic—for now, at least. Istria is fast becoming a desirable destination, and hotels and restaurants in fashionable places like Rovinj are upgrading accordingly.
All this and a well-developed tourist infrastructure make Istria ideal for anyone looking for a vacation drenched in nature, history, and sybaritic pursuits. Croatia’s tourist bureau color-codes Istria into Blue (coastal) and Green (inland) sectors. Most travelers gravitate to Blue Istria, which contributes big numbers to the region’s more than 2.5 million annual visitors (mostly Europeans), the largest single block of tourism in Croatia.
Istria’s past is also rich with heroes, conquerors, myths, statesmen and stateswomen, and long agricultural and commercial traditions. This mélange gives every town an intriguing sense of drama, smoothed by Mediterranean joie de vivre.
Those who believe in legends say the Greek hero Jason, his Argonauts, and their sailing ship “Argo” took shelter in the Bay of Pula during their quest for the Golden Fleece. Those who believe in miracles say St. Euphemia and her stone sarcophagus somehow washed up on the shores of Rovinj shortly after disappearing from Constantinople in a.d. 800. Historians say Bronze Age tribes built primitive settlements in Istria’s verdant hills and that an Illyrian tribe known as Histri gave its name to the land. There is no question that ancient Rome prospered from the trade that flowed through Istria’s ports, which were lucrative profit centers coveted at one time or another by Venice, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, all of whom vied for control until Marshal Tito declared “game over” and made offshore Brijuni his vacation home.
Istria has been through centuries of unrest, and its turbulent past could have resulted in a legacy of despair. Instead, hard times gave birth to tolerance and acceptance in an enchanting region that is geographically rich, historically significant, and a feast for the senses.