Europe's All-purpose Peninsula
Longing for the beach? Join the Europeans summering on Istria's west coast. Need a city fix? Sip espresso at a café in Pula. Prefer the countryside? Stay on a farm in the hilly interior. But hurry: Come 2010, the area plans to switch to the euro. The beauty will still be there, but we're not so sure about the bargains.
A 267-mile stretch of rocky coves jutting into the Adriatic finds old-world towns with serious gelato shops; it's easy to see why Italians have made this coastline their summer escape for decades.
My first experience with Istria was eight years ago. I was on a day trip from Trieste, Italy, just 25 miles to the northeast, and spent most of my time in Okrepcevalnica Cantina, a cozy bar with a wood-beamed ceiling in the backstreets of Piran (on the strip of Istrian coast that belongs to Slovenia). I stopped in for just one drink, but when I went to pay, I asked the kindly proprietor about a tap behind the counter labeled REFOSK. She smiled and poured me a glass of light red wine on the house. Then I asked what the plastic jug of cloudy liquid by the register was. "Most," she said (young wine). Waving away my wallet, she poured me a tall glass of that. Then she asked if I wanted to try the malvazija. It went on like that for an hour. This time, I'm determined not to let Istrian hospitality get in the way of seeing the sights.
The key to understanding Istria is to know that its essence can't be pinned down. A product of Roman, medieval Italian, and Slavic influences, the region is, at heart, not any of those cultures. You could ask locals what country they were born in, and depending on their age, the answer might be Italy, Yugoslavia, Croatia, or Slovenia—Istria has, at one time, been a part of each of those countries (today it's mostly Croatian, with a sliver in Slovenia). Ask, however, where they were born, and they'll reply, "Istria."
Piran follows the general model of most coastal Istrian villages: a jumble of Venetian Gothic buildings terraced along a narrow thumb of land on the Adriatic. I park my car outside the city wall and walk in to discover locals gathered at the Tartini square, next to an inlet with bobbing fishing boats. Old men huddle around chessboards on benches, and young couples at outdoor café tables compulsively check their cell phones. I step into the square's Church of St. Peter to see the Crucifix of Piran, a sculpture that looks almost modernist but was carved in the late 1300s. From there, I head up the hillside to the 12th-century St. George Cathedral. An old woman has just finished washing the steps and is now weeding the seam where the wall meets the cobblestoned street.
There's no shortage of hotels in Piran—this is a tourist destination, after all—but Hotel Piran, on the promenade, stands apart. About two thirds of the hotel was renovated in 2002, but in the original art nouveau structure, the rates are lower—my room has sea views through a porthole window, just the kind of character I prefer. At Restaurant Pavel, the sound of gentle waves drowns out the clink of cutlery, and the waiters guide my choices to local specialties like grilled sole and appetizer platters of salami, tart sheep's cheese, and kraski prsut, Istria's more rustic, tougher cousin to prosciutto. I order the palacinke s cokolado, crepes in chocolate sauce, for dessert and, afterward, wander the moonlit alleys.
From Piran, most travelers make a beeline for Porec, 33 miles south, to check out the 6th-century Byzantine mosaics in the Euphrasian Basilica. The scenes—Mary and Jesus, Jesus with the 12 apostles—are incredibly detailed and practically glow, thanks to the gold tiles. But the town itself suffers from mass tourism like nowhere else in Istria.
A far better base for the central coast is Rovinj. Its historic center is the sort of place featured on the covers of guidebooks, an oval of pastel medieval houses rising directly from deep-blue waters and swirling in a tangle of alleys up to the 18th-century hilltop Church of St. Euphemia. I've booked a room at Porta Antica. The studios with kitchenettes cost less than rooms at most of the town's mid-class hotels. Each apartment is different: Some have exposed-stone walls; others have wood rafters along the ceiling. Outside, women hand-sew lace in one doorway, little girls trade cards in another, and neighbors are engaged in enthusiastic conversation between their Venetian balconies.
I dine one night at Krcma Ulika, a candlelit place with only seven tables inside and a changing menu of surprisingly gourmet food. I especially like the grilled zucchini slices wrapped around a tuna pâté. The next night, I dig into simple staples like njoki (potato dumplings) with goulash and a mixed grill of turkey, pork, and sausage at the understated Konoba Veli Joze, which is crowded with farm and fishing implements, an old-fashioned diving suit, and other Croatian kitsch. After dinner, I take a slow walk through the streets. It's tomb-quiet; there's not a tourist in sight. The only thing I hear is the rhythmic rustle of waves against the moon-slicked limestone.