Istria, dangling like a heart-shaped pendant from the north corner of Croatia’s coastline, is a contrasting peninsula swathed in Italian influences. Sometimes known as ‘Croatia’s Tuscany’, it was in fact Italian until 1945 and the flavour can be found in every corner, not just in the highly-acclaimed food. Whether you prefer the sun and sea of the coast or the charms of inland areas, both Blue and Green Istria are special in their own ways. So, let’s take a look at the highlights of walking in this striking region…
1. Green Istria: the stunning scenery
A timeless world that harmoniously combines ancient towns and Roman settlements with a magnificent natural backdrop is at the heart of Istria’s very existence. Rolling landscapes scattered with peonies, bee and green-winged orchids lead inland from the sparkling coastline and surrender to hilltop castles that sleepily guard mist-clad villages and dispersed small holdings. Meandering in the oldest towns you’ll be transported back 2,000 years, surrounded by rolling landscapes of olive groves, truffle-rich valleys, oak and fruit orchards and vineyards, reminiscent of Italy’s finest regions. Walking here is a delight – as honey buzzards call in the distance and church bells echo across the valleys, the fresh air is characteristically invigorating and a feeling of pure tranquillity will embrace you. A favourite moment: Walking from Motovun to Buzet, you’ll emerge from the woods to a natural open balcony (on the edge of a huge rock) on a hillside where you can sit and enjoy a picnic and absorb the views that span for miles…
2. Rich in history
Venetian castles and Renaissance palaces stand prominently in rustic hilltop villages, many with small populations, which add to their charm. Take Grožnjan, a small and sleepy ‘artists’ village’ where only a few hundred people reside in transformed abandoned houses and musicians attend the summer school. With the rich history and idyllic valley views, it’s little wonder that this enchanting village is a hub for artists who come to paint the quaint cobbled streets and valleys. Fairytale Motovun is another charming town that is the gateway to a walker’s wonderland. Perched on a hilltop, the views out over the countryside are magnificent – meadow paths and mountain tracks are scattered with dappled rivers that tumble down through olive terraces and Mediterranean shrubs.
3. The gourmet food
The Istrian gastronomy represents a seasonal Croatian style of cooking that blends inland favourites with coastal specialities. Typical seafood dishes include fresh fish drizzled in high-quality local olive oil, prawns, calamari and fish soup, whilst the best Istrian meats include kobasice (succulent, tasty sausages) and ombolo (smoked pork loin), both commonly cooked on the open hearth. The olive oil from the region is famous – Istria has been voted the best olive oil region in the world for two years running. Locals pick the olives from the groves that cling to the hillsides all over the peninsula, and have done since Roman times. The local truffles are also renowned around the world, even making it into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s largest truffle! The forests boast three sorts of black truffles as well as the big white truffle, one of the most prized in the world. You’ll find this unique fresh delicacy in homemade pasta dishes, on pizzas, and many other meals, including desserts.
4. The world-famous wines
The local wines in Istria are delicious and also world-famous. The European Best Destinations organisation classified Istria amongst the top 10 wine destinations in Europe for 2016, praising the region, soil and climate and the inhabitants’ tastes and talents as contributing to the charm of the fine red and white Istrian wines. The best known is the crisp white Malvazija, golden yellow in colour and a great complement to seafood. If you’re more of a red drinker, Teran goes perfectly with red meat such as beef steak.
5. Blue Istria: from castles to coast
Mount Vojak, Istria’s highest peak, towers over the east coast in Ucka Nature Park, a haven for many protected flowers and plants – orange fire lily, amethyst sea holly and bee orchids. From the summit you have 360˚ views of the coast and Alpine peaks in Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland. When you reach the coast, the warm sea breeze in your hair, you’ll see locals relaxing, chatting and enjoying waterside dining at the restaurants. Coastal town Opatija, on the Adriatic Riviera, was once the playground of the wealthy classes, and a visit here is sure to evoke images of C19 aristocracy – little fish restaurants, markets, C17 churches and vibrant squares add to the grandeur bestowed by the opulent villas and manicured gardens that line the waterfront. Enjoy strolling along a panoramic walkway that leads 6km along the sea between yachting marinas, pretty coves, sea cliffs and azure bays. Why not end the day by watching the electrifying sunset with a drink in hand and reflecting on the natural wonder that is Istria…
Tina James is the Managing Director at Headwater Holidays.