Istria: Croatia’s hidden gem

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Tourist destinations are like clothes: they go in and out of fashion depending on the style of the season, and a recent à la mode country is certainly Croatia.

Croatia has a very good reason for its previous unpopularity amongst holidaymakers. In the 1990s it was embroiled in a war of independence against the Yugoslav People’s Army. It is a war greatly underrepresented in school history lessons, even though it killed 20,000 people, destroyed Croatia’s economy and infrastructure, and led to hundreds of displaced refugees.

Now in peacetime, Croatia has not only stabilised but massively increased its economy thanks to tourism. In 2013 it had over 14 million visitors, which is almost four times the population of Croatia itself. From the party town of Split to the walled city of Dubrovnik, made famous by Game of Thrones, and the sandy beaches of the south which are particularly popular for students; I’ve certainly seen a surge in Facebook photos with ‘Croatia’ as the tagged location.

There is, however, a hidden gem nestled in the northern peninsula of Croatia that is less mapped on the tourist trail than the stretch of southern coastline. On a road trip this summer that took me through ten countries in Europe, Istria was by far the most beautiful and memorable destination, superseding the likes of romanticised and mythologised Italy. It is, in fact, deeply rooted in Italian history, which is part of its fascination. Croatian tradition is distinctly Eastern European, yet Istria stands out, not only geographically but also culturally.

After World War I, Istria was assigned to Italian rule and suffered forced cultural repression at the hands of Mussolini’s fascism. The Istrian people had to Italianise their names and Croatian schools and cultural institutions were abolished. This radical change in Istria’s history can still be seen today. Towns such as Groznjan and Buje house a majority Italian population and place names are still referred to by their Italian counterpart. The stunning city of Rovinj, tumbling out of a headland, is known as ‘little Venice’ because of its labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets. The city of Pula even boasts its own amphitheatre to rival Rome, built during ancient times when it was a Roman port. Of course, Istrian towns are also groaning with pizzerias that are just as good as Italian ones, but half the price.

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However, Istria would not be half as interesting if it were purely Italian and it is the mixture of its Latinate and Eastern European history that enriches the culture. Istrian food is just as tasty as spaghetti bolognese and pepperoni pizza. Boskarin is a type of Istrian cattle, typically served with fuzi pasta, and is a symbol of the region, whilst supa is a soup made from pepper, oil, and wine that was traditionally used for medicinal purposes.

Then there are the truffles, Istria’s edible diamonds. It is little wonder that truffles are highly sought after and highly priced in London restaurants. We were lucky enough to be staying with a family who owned truffle hunting dogs, who introduced us into the strange world of these precious fungi. It is a lucrative business where a kilogram of truffles is worth 3,000 dollars and the largest truffle was sold for 400,000. Yet, the truffle has to be in perfect condition and weighed without a speck of dirt on it as its value is calculated to the nearest .00 of a gram, just like gold. They also spoil very quickly and must be eaten within eight days of harvesting. They grow in a specific Mediterranean climate so, although they do grow in parts of Italy, Istria’s crop is particularly prolific, which means its streets are filled with the tantalising smell of these culinary delights.

If places such as Hum, the smallest town in the world, do not interest you, then Istria offers vast swathes of nature reserves and mountain ranges. We spent a day with a ranger in Ucka nature reserve, scrambling across valleys and exploring abandoned railways and natural springs. Istria’s Italian past has made its mark even in this wild area as there is a stretch of space that used to be the only natural lake until Mussolini ordered his troops to drain it for farmland.

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At the highest peak, Vojak, around 1400 metres above sea level, we saw the Bay of Trieste, the Adriatic islands, and the Alps. On a very clear day you can even glimpse the Venetian tower in St Mark’s Square. Breath taking does not even cover it – you are quite literally on top of the world.

If the Mediterranean climate builds up a sweat, then there are many bodies of water to cool down in. Pazin, the central point of the peninsula, has a waterfall network to rival that of Krka and Plitvice in the south whilst the coastline, although not sandy, is relatively free of tourists and full of quiet coves and lagoons that look out onto a vibrantly blue sea. Better still, the peninsula itself is only a couple of hours across so you are never that far from the beaches.

The best day of the entire trip was when we hired out a boat in Rabac for the afternoon. As the sky was turning pastel pink and the sea was calm and empty we found ourselves surrounded by a pod of dolphins, including a mother and her calf. It was a truly magical moment in a truly magical part of the world.

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