Picture credit: Pol Albarrán/Getty

A passage to Istria

Long nights and grey days turn our correspondent’s mind to the Croatian coast

Artillery Row

The nights are long, the days short and often grey. At times like this, attention focuses on the holiday breaks of the coming year. When to go? How to maximise the budget? Where to find the lived experience of somewhere quite different to Blighty that will take a credit card and understand English?

I am lucky. Travel as a lecturer, historian and writer has taken me to 58 countries. Leaning on my pen for support, there is always a balance to be struck between keeping favourite haunts a secret lest they become swamped, and a duty to pass on knowledge of the most soothing of hideaways. Thirty plus years of roving the world, often in a uniform, has cured me of the need to climb things, swing from ropes or brave white water. Yet, my inner historian is too restless to loiter on a beach and fry. There is much to be said for the experience of a new sight, scent, touch; treading paths significant to our forebears, or feeling walls that have witnessed great upheavals in the past. Sampling the odd (sometimes very odd) glass of wine to add to the atmosphere.

Istria, about 3 hours clockwise round the Adriatic Sea from Venice, has always hit the spot for me

Istria, about 3 hours clockwise round the Adriatic Sea from Venice, has always hit the spot for me. As I now lurk for several months of each year there to write, allow me to wave its red-and-white chequered flag and pass on a few tips for an Istrian adventure. It is that northern bulge of Croatia which was formerly part of Yugoslavia until 1991, Italian until 1947, Austrian until 1918 and whose coastal fringes were often Venetian and once Roman. Somewhere in this timeline, Slavs from southern Poland and western Ukraine settled the area and are the forebears of many Croatians. The duality of names for many Istrian towns, Pula/Pola, Poreč/Parenzo, Novigrad/Cittanova, reflect its mixed Slavic-Italian heritage. Southwards lies the Dalmatian coast with its chain of over a thousand islands, a yachtsman’s paradise. Far to the south are the fleshpots of Dubrovnik and Split, but the old imperial province of Venetia et Histria has generally escaped the attention of holidaying Brits. Nestling like a jigsaw puzzle piece next to Slovenia and the Italian port of Trieste, this land of olives and seafood is mostly prey to the attention of Germans, Austrians and Italians. 

But don’t let that put you off. They come exclusively to wallow in the sea and roast on the rocky coast. There are beaches, though mostly shingle than sand, and by July each summer the sea has gained that delicious bathtub-warm permanent temperature, with crystal clarity. Whatever the numbers of tourists, it is impossible to feel crowded in a country of only 4 million residents. In Istria particularly, the locals are particularly kind and helpful, fully aware how important tourism is to their well-being. 

It was an invitation to lecture on a cruise ship that caused me to return to the region where I had served with NATO forces in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. However, Istria escaped much of the damage meted out to the rest of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Yes, bullet holes still pepper some buildings elsewhere like acne, but not in Istria, the destination of many refugees who were generally left alone by all sides. In 1996 I left a region where tourists were rare, supermarkets unknown, cash was the norm, while ATMs and car hire were unheard-of.

Today, that has changed. I shop in Lidl and Kaufland supermarkets, buy petrol at much below the UK norm, all paid for in the ubiquitous Euro. I’m not sure how a region has managed to embrace modernity without losing its charm, but Istria has achieved this. Perhaps because its layers of history had seamlessly absorbed occupiers through the centuries from Romans to Ottomans, Napoleonic troops to Nazis, with a leavening of culture from imperial Venice and Austria. You might drive there, as I do, through France and Germany, which ends a wondrous 3-day road-trip through the alps of Bavaria, Austria and Italy, but you will probably fly into the regional capital, Pula, which handled 700,000 visitors in 2023. For train lovers, a new night sleeper service has recently started from Zurich or Munich to Zagreb. There are flights to nearby Trieste as well, and at either airport the effortless business of car hire is on tap.

Somehow the Croatians have avoided the winner-takes-all perils of daredevil Italian road driving, preferring a more sedate pace of life. Outside of the April-to-October tourist season the provincial Istrian population shrinks by as much as 80 percent, with just 200,000 locals keeping the infrastructure ticking over. This is when the usual cheap carriers operate reduced services into regional airports, boatmen overhaul and paint their craft, hoteliers renovate and the residents build. Coastal Croatia is experiencing a housing boom, with the number of tower cranes only exceeding those I witnessed in post-1989 Berlin. Hotels are springing up, resorts run by the excellent Valamar and Plava Laguna chains, amongst others, while many of the pool-equipped new villas will become second homes and Airbnb destinations for tourists. They will generate over 50 percent of the region’s GDP. However, unlike much of the Western Mediterranean and Greece, the development is managed, meaning lots of uncluttered coastline to explore and appreciate. 

I enjoy my winters on the shores of the Mediterranean. The ameliorating effect of the coast means that temperatures rarely plunge below 0°C, whilst the summers guarantee at least 30°C, often more. As in California, Istria benefits from that kind of predictable climate that allows you to arrange a barbeque with friends a year hence, and know the weather will be kind. Such certainties remove cultural tensions and encourage the slow pace of life. Why rush, when you can map out the next six months with confidence? Away from the coastal breezes, the summer temperatures soar and plunge inland. When Pula and Porec are basking in the thirties, Zagreb and Sarajevo (in Bosnia) are sweltering in the forties, but for them the barometer also sinks far below zero in winter.

Cuisine reflects Istria’s cultural traditions. All the best pasta dishes from neighbouring Italy, but also seafood and pork, pasta, olive oil and garlic reflecting its Turkish-Venetian, Austro-Hungarian past. However, as I lurk on the coast for extended periods, I’ll do my own catering, using recipes found online. I tend to rise early in the summer months, don my Panama, and saunter to the local fish market, my faithful hound Mr Bor in tow. Italian-style, I’ll pause for a still-warm croissant and strong coffee at a favourite café then haggle with the trawlermen for fish. They’ll have been up all-night fishing and are already groggy from dealing with the restaurateurs who have preceded me. To begin with, I bought bags of scallops for gratifyingly low prices, but now an array of slimy, silvery fish, which I get them to gut for me. For seasoning and desserts, there are plenty of truffles, wild herbs, strawberries and figs about, for these lands were once the playgrounds of wealthy Romans who let their gardens run to seed when their empire collapsed. 

The inner historian in all of you will want to visit Pula, the undoubted tourist hub of the region. This vibrant city is known for its world-class festivals, its fresh and delicious cuisine, and for its unique venue in the repurposed Roman amphitheatre, which has hosted everyone from Robbie Williams and Simply Red to Mozart and Verdi. Once the home of the Austro-Hungarian navy, its forts are worth exploring, from where Lieutenant Commander Georg von Trapp, later patriarch to the family of singers, plied his trade as a submarine captain during the First World War. There is also the delight of strolling down a shopping street and passing under the Arch of the Sergii, an ancient triumphal archway, dating to around 29–27 BC and named after a powerful family of Roman officials who dominated the colony for centuries.

Rovinj on the western coast is one of those towns where one immediately exhales at the setting and beauty

Rovinj on the western coast is one of those towns where one immediately exhales at the setting and beauty. Founded by Illyrian tribes before capture by Rome, the first settlement was built on an island close to the coast, connected to the mainland only in 1763. During this time, Rovinj was one of the region’s most important towns, fortified by two rows of walls and three town gates. Today, it weaves its magic as a perfect blend of ancient and modern, where the old town rises majestically from its waterfront stone houses to the soaring cathedral church of St. Euphemia, and its huge Venetian bell tower, visible to mariners far out to sea and not dissimilar to the smaller Mont St Michel in Normandy.

Poreč, where I used to live, is another coastal settlement that reinforces the atmosphere of history. Its narrow streets still follow the original Roman town plan, although fluted windows and battlements betray a later Venetian Gothic influence. This all comes together in the Euphrasian Basilica, a 6th century Byzantine cathedral built by bishop Euphrasius over an earlier Roman secular site. Perhaps small and plain by cathedral standards, there is the enjoyment of following the footsteps of the faithful through the Millenia, while looking down to appreciate stunning mosaics left behind by an earlier culture. A stroll around Poreč leaves the visitor with an impression of ice creams and defensive walls, of mediaeval towers and casinos, a miniature version of the better-known Dubrovnik.

A few miles inland, Istria changes from flat coastal plain to a land of sloping vineyards and hilltop towns like Buje, Motovun and Grožnjan. They date back to ancient times, when height meant safety. The older ones retain their stone walls and gates, a central church (more than adequate for the tiny populations of today) and confident stone dwellings. They come alive in the summer months with arts and jazz festivals and as stops for the many intrepid cyclists seen pounding their pedals at every turn. My most exciting find was Vižinada. As I drove through it a few years back, I thought the central square and church looked familiar. My good friend Professor Google soon confirmed it was the site of the bank heist-World War II movie Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland. Besides some Roman fragments and the Venetian church, the older locals will tell you that in 2,000 years the only thing of note that ever happened in sleepy Vižinada was in 1969 when Hollywood came to town and they all took part in the crowd scenes.

Besides the sixth largest surviving amphitheatre in the world, built in Pula between 27 BC and 68 AD, the Romans also left behind their olive trees and vines. In 2013 Xylella, a pathogen spread by insects, started to kill swathes of trees in Italy, France, Spain and Greece, which between them account for 95 percent of European olive oil production. At present there is no known cure other than uprooting and burning the afflicted trees. Capable of attacking cherry, almond and plum trees as well as olives, Croatia seems to have escaped Xylella infection for now. I left last season’s sentinels looking healthy and proud, their harvest now commanding a premium in Europe’s olive famine. 

The story of Croatian wine is similar. At the end of the nineteenth century, Istrians heard that the big wine-producing countries of France, Spain and Italy had lost most of their vineyards to another insect-spread pest, Phylloxera. They rushed out and dug up all their olive groves and fruit orchards, planting thousands of hectares of vines instead. What followed was several years of amazing growth; prices rose and seemed a panacea for all the hardships of peasant life along the Adriatic coast. Alas, Phylloxera eventually turned up in Istria and wiped out all the newly-planted vines. It led to an era of great famine. There was mass emigration via Trieste to North and South America, Australia and elsewhere. Until recently, viticulture was regarded with caution and some growers switched to commercial crops of lavender. Heavenly under the big skies of a gentle Istrian sun.

High iron-content gives Istrian soil its terracotta hue and was used to make amphorae for holding wine and oil in Roman manufactories along the coast. I have many fragments picked up field walking while exercising my hound. The same soil is now used for growing red grape Croatian vines. On first arriving in Istria, I found the region divides its wines into three categories. Vrhunsko Vino for premium quality, Kvalitetno Vino for middling and Stolno Vino for table wine. These days the sons and daughters of Istria’s grape farmers are packed off to Italy and France where they study viticulture and marketing. Even during my time, the quality has come on in leaps and bounds. Native Malvazija Istarska, Refosk and Teran grapes have been combined with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce some outstanding wines, totally unlike the dry reds of nearby northern Italy. Yes, I’m already packing my bags for a swift return to Istria, where the sun is calling and the wine is waiting.

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