If Croatia is the new Italy, then the Istrian peninsular is Italy in miniature – Venetian architecture, Roman remains, beach-life, great food and drink – see it all by hopping from resort to resort...
Istria is full of engaging towns and cities, and using the area's excellent network of buses and ferries you don't need to settle for just one. The Istrian peninsula is a triangular piece of land the size of Cornwall jutting into the Adriatic Sea, and is shared between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, although it is Croatia which has the lion’s share of its coastline and hinterland.
The port of Pula - Istria’s biggest city - at the peninsula’s southernmost tip is an ideal place to base yourself for your resort-hopping itinerary. It’s a working port city rather than a resort, so although it may not be as pretty as other towns, it has its charms (and the region’s best transport links), a lot of history and is an interesting place to stay.
The Romans once occupied Pula and there are several world-class relics of their stay remaining. The highlight of any trip to Pula is its Roman amphitheatre, known simply as the Arena, which claims to be the sixth biggest Roman amphitheatre in the world – it certainly puts Rome’s Colosseum to shame, being practically complete. It’s open to the public to wander around in the day, and hosts concerts in the summer – thankfully we arrived the day after Michael Bolton had performed, although we were sad to miss Sinead O’Connor. There is a tiny name-less bar on Ozad Arene at the quieter, hillier side of the Arena. This is a great place to enjoy an ozujsko – the ubiquitous and impossible-to-pronounce local beer - while looking through the Arena’s arches to the deep blue waters of the Adriatic beyond. The outdoor seating areas are within touching distance of the Arena while the staff will carry your drinks to you from the bar across the road.
More Roman remains can be found in Pula's pedestrianised centre, a 15-minute stroll from the Arena. Via Sergia is the main thoroughfare through the centre, beginning at the Arch of the Sergians and ending at Pula’s main square, the Roman Forum, which is edged with restaurants and bars as well as the Temple of Augustus, the Town Hall and the tourist information office.
Our favourite Pula restaurant was Kantina (Flanaticka 18; 052 214054) - the menus are in Croatian but the friendly English-speaking waiter helped us choose a lovely selection of local meats and cheeses (40kn), followed by sea bass (90kn).
There is no shortage of bars and cafés in central Pula – Uliks (Via Sergia, directly beneath the Arch of the Sergians) is a popular place to people watch. It’s named after James Joyce’s novel Ulysses – the Irish writer spent time in Pula in the 1920s teaching English.
Arena Apartments make a great base for your Istrian adventure. The owner, Ratko, offers to pick you up from the airport and drop you at one of his five simple and spacious apartments in a block just 10m from the Arena – if there's a concert on you'll get a great view. We paid €58 per night in June for a double. Ratko prefers cash payment in euros but accepts kuna too.
If Pula is Istria’s Rome, then Rovinj is its Venice. A half-hour bus journey (35kn) up the western coast of Istria from Pula takes you to this gorgeous medieval town/fishing port/resort. It’s dominated by the huge St. Euphemia Church and its belltower – a replica of St. Mark’s in Venice. There are 22 tiny islands off-shore in the Rovinj archipelago, while Rovinj's medieval old town is built on a peninsula that was once an island itself.
A great way to admire this picturesque town from afar is to take a boat trip from the harbour – a one-hour trip will cost around 70kn and will take you around many of the outlying islands.
Although Rovinj is unsurprisingly popular with tourists, it’s possible to lose yourself in the quiet streets of the atmospheric old town which never seem too crowded. And if it gets too hot, the cooling breezes from the top of St Eupemia’s campanile are a God-send.
The best place to watch the sunset over Rovinj is from Valentino (Svetog Kriza; www.valentino-rovinj.com), an impossibly romantic bar with cushions on the rocks of the old town peninsula. The wine here is pricey, at 40kn a glass, but sipping the fruity local red you’ll wonder why Croatian wine isn’t more highly regarded. Don’t have too many though - the last bus back to Pula leaves at 23:30.
It may be stretching the analogy a little to say Porec is Istria’s Florence, but for art-lovers the Basilica of Euphrasius is a must. The complex consists of a 6th Century bishop’s palace, mosaics, a baptistery and a campanile from which there are amazing views of the red roofs of the old town. 50-minutes on a bus from Pula (65kn), Porec is now Istria’s most developed tourist resort, with busy beaches, an aquarium and plenty of bars and restaurants. The swankiest are along Obala Marsala Tita beside the harbour, Sveti Nikola (Obala Marsala Tita 23; 052 423018) being the pick of the bunch.
Slovenia has less than 50km of Istrian coastline with the twin resorts of Portoroz and Piran easily accessible by ferry. To enter Slovenia, you’ll need your passport as you’ll be leaving the EU – you’ll also need euros. It’s easy to fall in love with Slovenia – such a small country doesn’t deserve such good cities, mountains and lakes as well as its sea-side resorts, which are an excellent point of entry to discover this beautiful country. Read my guide on Ljubljana and Lake Bled here.
The final port of call is the city of Trieste in north east Italy, from where it’s easy to get to Venice, the rest of northern Italy, or home like us from Trieste’s airport, now serviced by Ryanair.
We stayed at the Nuovo Albergo Centro (doubles from €55), which, as the name suggests, is slap bang in the centre, and just two minutes from the Canal Grande – the pretty waterside area lined with restaurants.
The main square, Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia – one of the biggest squares I’ve ever seen – has fine buildings to three sides and is open to the Adriatic on the other. We enjoyed a nightcap at Harry’s Grill (Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia) – the posh bar of the poshest hotel in town, The Grand Hotel Duchi (www.duchi.eu), before saying ciao to Trieste and bog (it’s goodbye in Croatian, honest) to Istria.
Bus timetables and prices can be found here: www.pulainfo.hr/en/prijevoz/bus/54/
Ferry timetables and prices can be found here: www.usticalines.it/orari_tariffe.php?lingua=E
For more on where to eat and drink in Istria, read Jenny Green’s guide here.