Did you always want to visit Italy but were put off by crowds of tourists and rip off prices? Istrian peninsula in Croatia is becoming the “new Tuscany” but only at half the price. Istria is an untouched paradise for those who love rolling hills, authentic hilltop villages, dramatic coastline and the cleanest sea I have ever seen. And foodies can take delight in local cuisine that is famous for locally grown white truffles, olive oil, and excellent wine to pair with fresh seafood just caught in the Adriatic Sea. Truffles are everywhere in Istria, from pasta dishes to pizza toppings, and they are very fresh, delicious and comparatively cheap! If you’re a serious foodie and a truffle junkie, make sure to check out the truffle-crazy town of Pazin.
Historically, Istria had a lot to do with Italy. It was a part of the Republic of Venice since the 11th century, and the inner Istria part was held for centuries by the Holy Roman Empire. The Venetian part of the peninsula passed to the Roman Empire in the late 18th century. After less than 20 years of Napoleon rule, the Austrian Empire ruled the territory from 1814 to 1918. That is why it is easy to find Austrian schnitzel and apple strudel side-by-side with homemade Italian pasta in local restaurants. After the World War I, Istria was given back to Italy until the end of the World War II, when it became a part of Yugoslavia. Locals told us that in schools two languages are taught: Italian and Croatian. The years of communist rule didn’t destroy in untouched beauty of the peninsula. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, in 1991, most of Istria peninsula became a part of independent republic of Croatia, with a bit of Northern part belonging to Slovenia.
Eventually the region is doomed to be crowded by the tour buses and cookbook authors, but for now it is still sparsely populated with only one major highway along its western side. It is still easy to find pristine spots even in the middle of August, when the entire Europe goes on vacation.
Istria comes in two flavors: coastal paradise, also called Blue Istria, and rustic hilltop villages inland, known as Green Istria. The coast is full of little tourist towns and fishing villages. Coastal towns worth visiting are Opatija, which used to be a 19th century playground for Austro-Hungarian nobility, and Pula, not-so-romantic port town, but with something to offer to history buffs: a stunning Roman amphitheater – sixth largest in the world- which was built between 27 B.C. and 68 A.D. But most guide books will tell you that the most beautiful coastal town in Istria, and possibly all of Croatia, is Rovinj. Rovinj is a typical for that area hilltop town, with a church on the top of that hill, from which narrow cobble-stone streets wind down to the coast.
But our absolute favorite was Bale. Lonely Planet called Bale “one of Istria’s best-kept secrets” in its latest guide, so maybe it will be flooded with tourists in the next year or two. We ended up there by chance, looking for a hotel in Rovinj but settled on Bale because it was conveniently located between Rovinj and Pula. It was absolutely gorgeous with winding streets and rosebushes and amazing restaurants. From Bale, Rovinj is easily reachable by bike, an excellent adventure on its own, as the route takes you through olive oil plantations and vineyards. We stayed at hotel La Grisa, which was absolutely amazingly authentic with a gourmet restaurant that locals reserved well in advance.
But inland or Green Istria is what people are thinking about when they call Istria the “new Tuscany.” The region is most known for its hilltop towns of Motovun, Groznjan and Hum, officially the smallest town in the world with a population of 17 people.
Croatian wine is of excellent quality and always blends well with the truffle dishes. We visited Kozlovic winery in the northern part of Istria and tasted some exceptional local wines there. And I sat sipping the wine and looking at the vineyards and rolling hills of Istria, it occurred to me that this must have been what Tuscany was like before the hordes of tourists, when it was still under-the-radar and affordable. And that is why Istria is the gem of Europe!