Most people who visit Croatia focus on Dubrovnik and the islands, maybe stopping in at Split in transit. It’s understandable, as Croatia is a long, thin country, similar in that way to Chile. It can be difficult to see it all. But, as with Chile, the spread-out geographic footprint gives the country an incredible amount of diversity. It’s not all islands, beaches, and cruise ships. Istria, the peninsula comprised of northwest Croatia, as well as parts of Slovenia and Italy, has a completely different feel to the popular regions you find further south, and is well worth a visit.
In our post on Slovenia (found here), we talked about Piran, which is in the Slovenian part of Istria. Now we’ll focus on Croatian Istria. The area is filled with slightly off-the-beaten-path seaside towns and hilltop towns in the interior, which are well known for their wineries, truffles, and olives.
From Piran, we traveled south to Rovinj. It’s only a 1-2 hour drive, depending on whether you can get a direct bus (or drive yourself) or a bus that stops in other coastal communities. We chose Rovinj because it is reputed to be the most beautiful town in the region. It’s centrally located allowing for great daytrips, and it’s big enough to have plenty of accommodations and restaurants. We were there for three nights.
The whole region has a very distinct Italian feel. This stems from the fact that it was part of Italy up until the end of WWII and, therefore, populated by Italians. Many of the Italians left during different wars and power struggles within the region, but you can still feel the influence.
The first full day, after a brief walk around the small inland town of Bale (cute non-touristy town, worth a visit), we dedicated to exploring Rovinj itself. The town is beautiful, set on a peninsula out in the Adriatic, with Basilica of St. Euphemia perched on a hill in the middle of the town. We spent most of an afternoon exploring the medieval streets. Since it was so hot, we really wished we were swimming.
After an early dinner, we headed back to our rental apartment in a residential area of the town, quickly changed into our swimsuits, and headed for the beach for an early evening swim. After a couple of wrong turns, we ended up in the middle of the nudist part of the beach. Determining nude vs clothed sections of a beach in Croatia can be difficult. Let’s just say majority rules. But we were sick of searching for the beach, and the sun was about to set – so, when in Rome…. Just kidding, we kept our bathing suits on and just ignored all the exposed flesh around us.
Wine and truffles and castles, oh my!
The next day, we drove north to explore the wine regions near the Slovenia border and some of the beautiful hillside towns away from the coast. Wine tasting is a bit different here, in that you’re expected to make appointments rather than just stop in. But we stopped in anyway, at Kabola and Kozlovic. For our money, scenery doesn’t get much better than vineyards on rolling hills, with centuries-old farmhouses dotting the countryside. The wine wasn’t half bad either.
From there, we visited the hilltop towns of Groznjan and Motovun. Each town is built around a castle or fortress, with the hill providing a great view over the surrounding countryside. Many of the towns now cater to tourists, with local arts and crafts shops and countless stores selling local truffles, wine, olive oil, and cheese (yum!).
We also stopped for a wander around Zavrsje, which is a mostly abandoned town in the Croatian interior. There are a number of these, where the town was essentially deserted after WWII as ethnic Italians fled communist rule in what became Yugoslavia. Some, like Zavrsje, still have a handful of locals but are filled with abandoned buildings, while others like Groznjan have taken on a second life as artist refuges.
Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Pula, on the southern tip of the peninsula, with its Roman Coliseum. Maybe next time…
To sum up…
We realize most people have limited time on vacation, and for someone with only a week or 10 days to spend in Croatia, it makes sense to spend it further south. But to get a totally different feel, and to avoid the worse of the tourist crowds while still enjoying everything the Adriatic has to offer plus some local wine, we highly recommend Istria.