Istria (Croatian: Istra) is the north-westernmost region of Croatia. In a triangular shape, it is bordered in the north by Slovenia, east by the Kvarner region of Croatia and on the south and west by the Adriatic Sea.
This region has been part of many empires — the Venetian Empire, Byzantine, Roman, and Austro-Hungarian — and of the Yugoslavian (Communist) republic. The cultural legacy of Istria is thus very rich and diverse.
After defeating the Illyrian Histri tribe, the Romans settled in the peninsula and left a large heritage, turning Pula into an important administrative centre and building villas, amphitheatres and temples. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the inner land remained a feudal territory occupied by Slavs, Frankish, Byzantines and finally Austrian Habsburgs, while the coast fell under control of the Republic of Venice in the 13th century. Intermittent combats were held between both powers until the fall of Venice in 1797. Since then, the Croatian population of Istria struggled for autonomy and were severely repressed both by Austrians and Fascist Italy (after World War I), eventually ending with a revenge from Yugoslav partisans after the World War II, forcing most autochthonous ethnic Italians to leave. A small ethnic Italian community still lives in the coastal towns. Relatively spared from the Yugoslav Wars, Istria is now a prosperous region. Later years have seen a growing regional sentiment and a reconciliation with its previously conflicted Italian identity.
The peninsula offers stark contrasts: the interior is very unspoiled and mountainous with ancient walled cities atop hills with surrounding fertile fields, whilst the coast has numerous beaches – do not expect any sand in them, though – and stunning scenery of rocky walls plummeting into the sea. The Istrian coast is among the most developed tourist destinations in Croatia. Hordes of Italian, German and French tourists enjoy package tourism during the crowded high season.
Croatian is the official and most common language, but in these formerly Venetian lands Italian is nearly universally understood. There is still an Italian ethnic community in many coastal towns. German is also very widely spoken. Most restaurants in the main town also have an English speaker or two on staff. Some market sellers will address you in all four ("Izvolite, Prego, Bitte, How can I help you?").
Ryanair provides a connection London (Stansted) to Pula three days a week, and Dublin Pula also. Scandjet connects Pula to Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm once a week (on Saturdays) during the summer. Eurowings also serves Pula.
Trains run daily between Ljubljana in Slovenia and Pula, and from Rijeka to Ljubljana. Due to a historical accident, the two train lines do not meet up despite some works having been commenced on a rail tunnel to link the two short distances.
Venezia Lines is a high-speed ferry operator that operates in the North Adriatic. It links the North Adriatic's coasts of Italy and Croatia. Venezia Lines uses 2 vessels, San Frangisk and her sister vessel San Pawl, each with a capacity of 310 passengers, They are deployed on routes between Venice, Italy and the Croatian ports of Mali Losinj, Porec, Pula, Rabac and Rovinj.
- Roman structures in Pula, including the Arena and Forum.
- The old Venetian town of Rovinj.
- St Euphrasius Basilica in Poreč.
- The many beaches along the coast.
- Brijuni (Brioni) Islands - private playground of Tito including an international zoo, dinosaur footprints and Roman and Byzantine ruins.
- Hill-top villages of Groznjan and Motovun, populated by artist communities.
- Magnificent frescoes of Our Lady of the Rocks chapel in Beram.
Istria is a fine region to practise hiking and biking, as much in the mountainous inland as in the coast.
With diversity at the heart of Istria, you’ll delight in new culinary experiences and reconnect with traditional flavors.
- Visit Lovran, Istria, near Opatija, for the Days of Cherries Festival in June
- Join the Truffle Days festival in the Motovun/Buzet area in late September
- Attend a music or folklore performance in the unique atmosphere of the Pula Arena
- Motovun Film Festival, Motovun (On the main road between Buzet and Buje), ☏ . Internationally-renowned film festival in the hilltop Northern town of Motovun.
- Visit Groznjan and its jazz Festival
- Visit the waterparks - Istralandia or Aquacolours.
Istrian gastronomy is known by its huge diversity. Pasta, gnocchi, risotto and polenta, as well as its high-quality vegetables (which can be found, at a cheap price, in any of the numerous open-air markets present in almost every Istrian town), accompany main dishes, as an Italian heritage. Especially, Istrian peppers have international recognition.
At the coast, fresh fish and seafood are a tradition. Scampi is the favourite, together with squid and sole. In the inland, air-cured ham (Prsut) and sausages are the highlights.
But the gastronomic pearl is no doubt the truffles. After the beginning of the season, in late September, truffles can be found accompanying any dish and sauce. Especially recommended is pasta with truffles. Also, olive oil with truffles is a typical product of the region.
Typical Istrian foods
- Simple but tasty meštra (minestrone), made from seasonal vegetables, is still prepared nowadays. A characteristically Istrian minestrone is made from “bobici” (corn), fennel, barley, etc. All of these dishes are spiced with pesto. It is the ingredients, and not just the flour, that makes Istrian dishes so thick.
- Home-made pastas such as noodles, lasagne, macaroni, blek or posutice, and the very Istrian fusi, are used in soups and side dishes. Fusi are offered as a starter or side dish and are prepared in various ways with sauces. Polenta and gnocchi have been prepared in Istrian homes for ages, but these dishes have their origins elsewhere.
- Due to the plentiful sunlight and the vicinity of the sea, vegetables, which are widely grown in Istria, have a very special taste and naturally, interesting local names. Various vegetables, from verzot (Brussels sprouts) to cikorija (radicchio), koromač-finoči (fennel root), cuketi (zucchini), mangold, melancani (eggplant), peas, and “kapus” (cabbage), are used to prepare side dishes, with the obligatory olive oil and plenty of garlic.
- Meat dishes (fish, mutton, poultry, beef) are well known for their method of preparation, gvacat (squazzetto) is a meat dish with sauce containing native Istrian spices. Many dishes are prepared in a “padela” (a frying pan with a handle) or under a črepnja (cover for cooking over embers). These dishes are more commonly found in the vicinity of Koper than in the town itself, but with a little effort you will be able to find excellent fish soup, marinade, or similar dishes even within the town itself. Despite some attempts to preserve and revive authentic Istrian cuisine, there is a tendency in Koper towards more modern culinary ideas, which offer the most varied dishes, from fish, meat, pasta, and pizzas – something for every pocket.
- Olive oil, which has been used in Istrian cuisine since the old days, has the most suitable ratio between saturated and unsaturated fat. It has a high percentage of oleic acid and a suitable quantity of essential fatty acids. In the fruits of the area, there are also sugars, cellulose, and minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, and copper, which have a beneficial effect on the veins, heart, and digestion.
Typical products from Istria
- Fig loaf: This wonderful treat is made from ground dried figs, mixed with fig or grape juice, shaped into a loaf and lightly rolled in flour. Cut into slices, this is a delicious, healthy and natural snack without added sugar and preservatives.
- Istrian jota: This version of the traditional dish jota, made from sauerkraut and beans, differs from its Karst counterpart in that it does not contain any potatoes. It is served with white or yellow polenta, as a main course and in many other ways.
- Fritaja: This egg dish is a typical characteristic of Istrian cuisine. Fritaja species are very different. Selection and preparation depends on the imagination, taste, and from what we have in the refrigerator. You can prepare fritaja with ham, bacon, asparagus, eggplant, mushrooms, truffles, baby onions or other vegetables, or cheese.
- Piran salt: Piran salt, this precious product of the Sečovelje Salina Nature Park, is the result of restless finds, warm sun, and the hardworking salt-pan workers. It is made manually, according to traditional methods dating back more than 700 years. In the past also Koper had soltfealds.
- Khaki: The homeland of khaki - golden apples is the East Asia. In Europe and the USA are khakis produced from the second half of the 19th century. In Europe it was brought about in 1870, produced mainly by the Mediterranean countries. The Slovenian Istria and Primorje started growing khaki a little later, during the first decades of the last century. Most of the khaki's is produced in the valley Strunjan. In Strunjan so each year in the first week of November have Khaki Day, where visitors can taste various kinds of khakis, khaki spirit, khaki jam, various khaki desserts (pies, krostate, cakes, tarts) and so on.
- The olive trees: These ancient trees, which originate in the Mediterranean, can reach a respectable age. Olives were picked from wild olive trees in prehistoric times. Later they were ennobled and the ancient Greeks allegedly knew around fifteen species of olive trees. The oil produced was used for many purposes: food, lighting, worshipping the gods and as one of the more important trade goods. The Babylonian code from 2500 BC includes regulations regarding the olive oil trade. The Phoenicians and the Greeks even had special ships for transporting amphorae containing olive oil. Due to its increasing importance, the Romans planted olive trees all across their empire, wherever it was able to grow. Olive trees have been growing in Istria since the Roman times and even the most respected classes of Roman society had olives on their menus – including the imperial kitchen of Emperor Augustus. Slovenian Istria is one of the northernmost regions where olive trees grow successfully. Olive oils from this region are undoubtedly one of the best and they are known as oils with exceptional aromatic and medicinal properties, mostly due to the special Mediterranean climate where they grow.
- Asparagus: Wild asparagus or šparoga, is a characteristic Mediterranean plant. It grows at the edge of the forests of Slovenian Istria and it grows up to one meter high. It is born each year in the spring months from half of March to half of May. An old Istrian proverb says: "April spareser, Maio sareser" (April of asparagus, May of cherries).
- Lavender: The lavender is one of the plants that you immediately associate with the Mediterranean. However, it can also be found in an ornamental garden. It is recognized by its dark blue or violet flowers and a typical fragrance. It has a relaxing and beneficial action on the body. It is used as a healing plant, because lavender flowers are full of active substances. The lavender is used to treat migraine, dizziness and flatulence. In addition, lavender is also used for decoration in bouquets of dried flowers and potpuri. Because of their fragrance, dried flowers are put in wardrobes to drive away moths.
Istria is a land of vineyards. Wines are sweet and fruity, with a wide variety of grapes present, such as white malvasia, red teran and muscat. The most famous vineyard area is Kalavojna, on the eastern coast.
Regional liquor grappa is widely produced in here, with several varieties available.