Istria is like Napa Valley only better. Both have gentle climates and rolling hills covered in vineyards. Now imagine Napa as a peninsula, surrounded by blue Adriatic Sea water and sprinkle around olive groves, truffles and a few woodsy areas. Imagine a Greek hero, long ago, founding a city and Romans settling in 20 centuries ago, leaving incredible ancient ruins strewn here and there. Picture this beautiful landscape with winding roads and little traffic so you can easily ride a bike from stone village to stone village. This is Istria.
It takes a while to really "get" Istria. Because in order to understand it, you must slow down and get lost to find the beauty of Istria. Taking off on my bike and following my front wheel, I didn't know know exactly where I was or where I was headed. I was lost, but not too lost.
When you are lost, you pay attention and see things that you might otherwise miss like red poppy fields, bee hives, different kinds of vineyards, little shrines along the road, a Venetian well and Roman ruins. All along the way, there are little pieces of beauty.
Most roads in Istria don't have center lines and many are not paved. They are narrow and traffic is low - perfect for a bike or scooter. Ride along meandering roads and follow the little yellow signs to the next hamlet. Sometimes the roads wander through rolling hills and sometimes past the shoreline. Each little village brings new sights if you slow down and pay attention. Biking is perfect and Bike-Istra has a nice set of mapped routes. Or you can simply follow your front wheel.
The entire peninsula is picturesque and here are 3 Istrian jewels worth a visit.
Pula is the largest city in Istria with about 60,000 inhabitants. Legend has it that the city was founded by the mythical Jason and his Argonauts fleeing the Colchians after stealing the Golden Fleece. The story was recorded in the ancient Library of Alexandria in 300 BC by Apollonius and Callimachus in the epic Argonautica. Somehow the story of lost sailors finding their way to Istria in ancient myths seemed to parallel my search of Istria lost on a bike.
Recognizing its strategic importance, the Romans used Pula as a port of trade with protected sea access. It became an important Roman city with a colosseum built in the 1st century by the emperor Vespasian. The colosseum still stands today. You can walk in the ring where the gladiators battled 20 centuries ago under the same white stone arches carved by Roman masons. It is now an amazing venue for artists like Sting.
The Brijuni Islands provide protection to the harbor of Pula. These islands are now a national park. You can easily hop on a boat and sail around or tour the Brijuni Islands. The tour is a couple hours and a longer trip allows you to walk the trails.
Rovinj is so beautiful, a day trip turned into an impromptu and delightful 5 day stay. Think of Rovinj as the little sister to Split and Dubrovnik. The old town was under the control of the Roman, the Byzantine and the Venetian Empires but the city's architecture is heavily Venetian. Many walkways and homes are on the water similar to Venice. Cobbled streets of white marble wind through the old town and on the summit of the hill stands St. Euphemia's Church. Some of these streets are steep so be sure to wear appropriate footwear.
Rovinj is one of the last true Adriatic fishing ports and some consider it to be the star attraction of Istria. In summer tourists abound, however, the locals and town planners are balancing upgrading hotels and restaurants in order to keep the small town ambiance. Sailing around the 14 islands of the Rovinj Archipelago makes for a pleasant afternoon. The most popular are Sveta Katarina and Crveni Otok (Red Island), also known as Sveti Andrija. About 1.5km south is the Punta Corrente Forest Park and the wooded cape of Zlatni Rt (Golden Cape), with its age-old oak and pine trees and several large hotels.
There is so much to do in Rovinj and the Tourist Agency Planet is happy to help you planning activities, lodging and even restaurant suggestions. You can charter boat, rent a kayak or paddle board, hop a ferry to one of the islands or you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the town. You can easily rent a bike in town and ride many trails and pathways through the countryside and along the Adriatic shoreline. These beautiful and tranquil paths will take you past Roman and medieval ruins scattered among the olive groves and vineyards.
At the top of the hill in Rovinj stands The Church of St. Euphemia. This church is an impressive example of the Baroque style. The cathedral was built in 1736 on the ruins of 3 older churches. Inside are the relics of St. Euphemia, who was martyred during the reign of Diocletian in 304 AD. Her remains were moved to Rovinj from Constantinople in 800 AD where the Iconoclasts were busy destroying icons and holy relics. St. Euphemia's story is magical. Legend has it that a marble sarcophagus floating in the sea made it's way to the coast of Rovinj after a big storm at dawn on July 13, 800. Many of the townspeople tried to haul the sarcophagus to the Church of Saint George, without success. Finally, answering St. Euphemia's call, a small boy with two little cows managed to haul the sarcophagus up the hill. The people of Rovinj considered it a miracle and proclaimed St. Euphemia the town's patron-saint.
If you want a great view of Rovinj climb to the top of the belltower of the church. But be careful, the steps are probably older than St. Euphemia.
De Marcello is an Italian family run restaurant offering indoor/outdoor seating. While it doesn't have a water view, the food and owners more than make up for that with traditional Italian cuisine and friendly service. The owners, Marcello and Pina, will personally greet you and make you feel like friends rather than guests. The restaurant closes during the winter months because Rome is their other home. $-$$
Bistro Ancora offers tables at the water's edge. Restaurants on the water are more expensive so make it a special event and get there before sunset. During the tourist season, reservations are recommended, espcially if you want outdoor seating. $$-$$$
There is a caffe bar below the Church of St. Euphemia in the old town at the top of the hill that provides a commanding view of the sea and it is worth your time to find. A large grassy area separates you and the water so there are often couples with young ones or dogs frolicking about.
Places to Stay
Studio Pastello is picture perfect for 2 people. Located in the old town, this immaculate apartment has a new kitchen and bath. The window views of the harbor are breathtaking and the decor is Adriatic chic. It is one of our top 5 favorite places to stay in Croatia!
There are many camping opportunities close to town for the budget minded.
Motovun sits atop a hill with many steps in the center of Istria. It is a medieval walled city in the middle of truffle country. The date on the city gate is 1485 but the village dates back to Roman times.
Walking the cobbled streets to find a place for lunch we were greeted by the savory scent of truffles. Motovun is the undisputed capital of Croatian truffles, black and white. Many shops specialize in truffle oils and spreads. The restaurants, of course, offer sumptuous dishes with truffle sauces. Enjoy a gastronomic truffle experience as you gaze over the Istrian plains. Joji Sakurai explains in her piece, Truffles in Paradise, "while the Istrian truffle is premium grade, its culture is free of the snobbery, intrigue and astronomical prices found in Piedmont or in the Perigord region of France." You can even go truffle hunting with Nikola Tarandek, a truffle hunter, and his dogs.