Continental Croatia meets the Adriatic in Istria (Istra to Croats), the heart-shaped, 3600-sq-km peninsula just south of Trieste in Italy. The bucolic interior of rolling hills and fertile plains attracts artsy visitors to Istria’s hilltop villages, rural hotels and farmhouse restaurants, while the verdant indented coastline is enormously popular with the sun-and-sea set. While vast hotel complexes line much of the coast and the rocky beaches are not Croatia’s best, facilities are wide ranging, the sea is clean and secluded spots are still plentiful.
The coast, or ‘Blue Istria’, as the tourist board calls it, gets flooded with tourists in summer, but you can still feel alone and undisturbed in ‘Green Istria’ (the interior), even in mid-August. Add acclaimed gastronomy (starring fresh seafood, prime white truffles, wild asparagus, top-rated olive oils and award-winning wines), sprinkle it with historical charm and you have a little slice of heaven.
The west coast of Istria is the tourist showcase. At the tip of the peninsula is Pula, the coast’s largest city. The Brijuni Islands, Tito’s former playground, are an easy day trip from here. Rovinj is the most enchanting town and Poreč the easiest – and cheaper – holiday choice, with lodging and entertainment options aplenty. Just across the water is Italy, and the pervasive Italian influence makes it seem even closer. Italian is a second language in Istria, many Istrians have Italian passports and each town name has an Italian counterpart.