The Romans called it ‘Terra Magica’ and it’s no surprise why. There are many things about Istria which make it a unique and enchanting place to visit: its scenic landscape of rolling hills which rivals the countryside of Tuscany, picturesque hill-top villages and medieval fortified towns, lush valleys covered in vineyards, and a beautiful coastline and spectacular islands.
The region also boasts many stunning architectural treasures which are testimonies to its Roman, Venetian and Byzantine past. Istria has been ruled and governed by several different civilizations, empires and countries. Parts of the region were under the Roman Empire from 100 BC, the Venetian Republic in the 9th century, the Roman Empire in the 11th century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, Italy from 1919 to 1945, and Yugoslavia from1945 to 1991.
This triangular-shaped peninsula sits at the confluence of three countries at the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Today most of Istria is situated in Croatia, with a tiny area in its north-westernmost tip located in Italy, while a small strip in the north is belongs to Slovenia – this country’s only access to the sea.
This historical mix of civilizations and ethnicities makes the region ethnically complex but rich. Today the majority of the population is Croatian-speaking, with Italian and Slovenian-speaking minorities. Many Istrians speak more than one of these languages. There is a distinctive dialect of Croatian spoken here, with several regional variations. The language is Slavic with many influences of Italian and German.
The largest city is Pula at the southern-most tip. The city has many monuments left over from its Roman past, notably the Roman amphitheater and the temple of Augustus, dating to the 1st century. The Basilica of St Mary Formose dates back to the Byzantine period.
The coastal towns on the west coast have become important centres of tourism because of their unique charm and nearby scenic beaches. These towns are typically made up of old circular-shaped town centres which jut out into the sea. Rovinj is one of the most picturesque and best-preserved, with many vestiges of its Venetian past found in its architecture and narrow, winding lanes.
The coastal town of Poreč has a historical old city centre with an interesting mix of architectural styles. There are Baroque palaces and Romanesque buildings, as well as gothic houses from medieval period. The Euphrasian Basilica dating from the 6th century has an impressive collection of Byzantine mosaics. This town is popular with tourists not only for its historical architecture but also for its beaches.
The gentle, rolling hills of the centre of Istria provide some of the peninsula’s most spectacular scenery. The many hilltop towns were typically built in a circular pattern with the church and belfry tower dominating their skylines. The stunningly scenic town of Grožnjan is a typical medieval fortified hill-top town which was largely deserted when its Italian population moved to Italy after World War II. In the past twenty years, the village has experienced a revival. Many of its old houses have been lovingly restored. Artists started to move in and open studios and art galleries. It has become the center of the International Association of Musical Youth, with an annual music summer school and concerts organised each year.
Nearby Oprtalj (Portole is its Italian name) is another picturesque hill-top town which is going through a similar transformation that Groznjan went through. The Romanesque church of St Jelena and church of St Leonard have impressive gothic frescoes.
Motovun is a stunning town perched high on a hill-top with awe-inspiring views of the valley below. This fortified Venetian town has many examples of Gothic architecture dating from the medieval period. Many painters and sculptors have opened galleries here and this is the site of an annual international film festival.
Gračišće is an equally charming but smaller and less touristic fortified town located on a steep hillside. Its medieval walls, town gates and defence tower date back to the 15th century. The Salamon Palace is a sensational example of gothic architecture dating back to the same period. There are spectacular views of the rolling hills and valleys from the Votive Church of St Mary.
The beaches of the east coast are less crowded than the touristy west coast. The beautiful old town of Labin with its many Baroque and Renaissance palaces is worth a visit, as is the quiet beach in nearby Rabac. On the other side of the Ucka mountain range, Lovran and Opatija are also popular seaside locations.
The magnificent island of Cres is easily reachable by ferry from Brestova. Each town is surprisingly different. The small seaside village of Lubenice perched on a hilltop has a spectacular view of neighbouring islands. The fishing village of Valun has a charming harbour and nice pebble beaches. Just over a small bridge and perched at the edge of the islands of Cres and Losinj is the village of Osor.
These are only some of the treasures to be found in Istria, the ‘magic land’ of the Adriatic. Istria was always a popular destination for holidaying Italians, Germans and Austrians but in the past few years it has hosted more and more visitors from Western Europe and North America. It has a lot to offer: the sea and beaches, spectacular scenery, and a rich architectural and cultural history.