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.
Stjenkova 1, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-676-2100, hoteli-piran.si, from $107
Vrata Pod Zidom 1, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/99-680-1101, portaantica.com, from $115
Trg 1 Maja 10, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-673-3275
Presernovo Nabrezje, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-674-7101
Vladimira svalbe 34, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/52-818-089, ulika.hr
Konoba Veli Joze
Svetog Kriza 1, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/52-816-337
All of Istria is deeply rooted in history, and the biggest city, Pula, at the south end of the peninsula, is no different: First-century ruins abound. But a glitzy boutique hotel shows that there's a modern side, too.
The distant buzz of the scooters in the streets is the only hint that I'm anywhere near the center of a city. I've climbed a hill to check out a Roman theater just above Pula, and I seem to have found a locals-only spot. Teenagers recline on the ancient seats, and occasionally someone walking a dog passes through. Roman ruins are scattered around the historic center, too: A temple to Augustus stands on the main square; a floor mosaic has been excavated next to a parking lot near Ulica Sergijevaca, the main drag; and at the end of that street, a Roman city gate is decorated with reliefs.
One of the first sites any visitor sees—partly because its sheer size makes it impossible to miss—is the amphitheater, from the 1st century, left over from the days when Pula was the epicenter of Roman rule. The Arena, as it's called, is the sixth-largest in the Roman world—in its prime, it could accommodate more than 20,000 people—and it's still in remarkably good condition. Just inside the city gates, I sip a spiked coffee in honor of James Joyce at Caffe Uliks (Croatian for Ulysses), where a life-size bronze statue of the writer kicks back at an outdoor table. As any local will proudly tell you, Joyce moved to the city to teach English to Austro-Hungarian diplomats at the Berlitz school. (The fact that he only stayed in the city for six months and didn't write anything significant during that time usually doesn't make it into the story.)
To call Pula a city is to be somewhat generous. It only takes me a little more than an hour to explore the pedestrian squares, cafés, and bars in the center. Before long, I drive a couple of miles south to the seafront suburb of Pjescana uvala. I would have booked a place in Pula proper, but I couldn't resist the Valsabbion, an ultra-stylish boutique hotel and restaurant owned by sisters Sonja and Sandra Peric. There are 10 guest rooms—four with sea views—and each has its own look. In one, a deep-blue Louis XVI-style armchair sits next to a bed with a blue-and-gray-striped silk comforter. In another, modern, plush red-leather chairs nicely contrast with an antique cherrywood dresser. On the hotel's third floor is the ultimate retreat: a 26-foot-long hydromassage pool in a glassed-in rooftop spa.
At Valsabbion's restaurant, menus change seasonally, with à la carte dishes starting at around $16—a price that will get you a full meal in much of Istria—and tasting menus for around $75. I go for the Menu d'Autore, a $92 marathon of 13 courses that are paired with glasses of five Istrian wines. The dinner lasts almost four hours, and each course is more wonderfully odd than the last—a single clam baked inside a huge cylinder of black salt, and raw steak pounded into a pâté and cooked by blowtorch at the table. I shouldn't be surprised at the experimental approach here: Sonja has worked under Ferran Adrià, a pioneer of molecular gastronomy and head chef at Spain's elBulli, and she does an impressive job of taking traditional Istrian ingredients and reinterpreting them in her own way. What would otherwise be a hearty peasant dish of njoki, for example, comes tossed with smoked tuna topped with a dollop of BB-size tuna roe and has a sauce made from samphire, a local sea plant that tastes like a cross between spinach and asparagus. Would Istrians recognize it as resembling anything they grew up eating? Doubtful. Would they eat every last bite? Absolutely.
Pjescana uvala IX/26, Pjescana uvala, Croatia, 011-385/52-218-033, valsabbion.hr, rooms from $165, meals from $16
Trg Portarata 1, Pula, Croatia, 011-385/5-221-9158
Pula, Croatia, 011-385/52-219-028, $7
Not everyone ventures into Istria's hilly interior, but they should. The family farms, small towns, and churches—many of which have stunning frescoes—make it the heart and soul of the region.
For every 100 tourists in the resort towns along the coast, there are maybe three in the Istrian interior. It's not that there's nothing to see—the rolling hills, small vineyards, and fields flecked red with poppies make it nearly impossible not to think of Tuscany. It's just that for some reason, the area really hasn't made it onto the tourism radar yet.
There are a few hotels scattered about, but I decide to go for one of the more than 75 agroturizams, or farmstays. The Gologoricki Dol makes the cut for the most basic reason: I'll only be here for one night, and unlike some of the other agroturizams, there's no minimum-stay requirement. I'm glad it worked out that way. The clutch of stone buildings is at the end of a road that winds past vineyards, a stream, and a field with horses, goats, cattle, and one very noisy donkey. It doesn't get much more authentic. A lack of English doesn't stop the friendly owner, Slavko Stojsic, from inviting me down to the cellar to taste his homemade wine and share some eager conversation translated by his English-speaking daughter, Ana.
Meals at the farm are comically ample. For dinner, we eat corn soup with beans, potatoes, and carrots, followed by njoki in a venison ragú; breakfast the next day consists of scrambled eggs with chunks of cheese and strips of ham, coffee, and fried dough rings called fritula. They're delicious and clearly bad for me, and I insist that Slavko's wife stop bringing them out after the second basketful. She obliges.
It doesn't take more than 25 minutes to get from one hill town to the next, so it's easy to tackle several in a day. I start with the provincial capital of Pazin—an oversize cow town with a 10th-century castle—and move on to Motovun, 12 miles away. It's picture-perfect from afar, but when I get there, I see that it's packed with souvenir shops and tour buses. Similarly, Groznjan, a village of 80 residents and 37 galleries, feels a little fabricated, so I keep moving. In tiny Beram, I learn that to see the floor-to-ceiling medieval frescoes at St. Mary of the Rocks, you first have to find the person with the key, or kljuc (pronounced "klyooch"). Here's what I can tell you: Sonja, the key master, lives at Number 38 on the town square and is not shy about dropping hints regarding tips ($2 should make her happy).
In the medieval hamlet of Draguc, I ask the two women outside the lone bar, "Kljuc Sveti Roka?" ("Key to St. Roch?"). They help me track down the old woman with the skeleton key for the Chapel of St. Roch, a minuscule church at the edge of town. The interior is swathed in frescoes—worn and faded in places, but still spectacular—featuring scenes from the Massacre of the Innocents and the Baptism of Christ.
Hum may not have any charming, hidden frescoes, but it does claim world-record status as "The Smallest Town in the World." I ask Aleksandra Rigo, who owns the Etno Butiga souvenir store with her brother, Elvis, how Hum got the title. "It has everything a town requires," she explains. "From the Middle Ages, it had the prefect—like a mayor—two churches, and the council of wise men."
Apparently it was the concept of electing a mayor that made the status official. "Every June, we pick this guy, who is like the boss for one year," says Aleksandra. "We have a party, and we drink a lot of biska."
At Humska Konoba, I have a sunset dinner: prsut and truffled cheese followed by a noodle, corn, and chickpea soup with sausage. For dessert, I go for the Istarska supa, an "Istrian soup" of mulled red wine over toasted bread, along with pepper, olive oil, and sugar, served in a ceramic jug.
As I'm walking to my car, I hear strains of a guitar, an accordion, and voices singing. People have gathered on the main square and are passing around big earthenware jugs of biska (mistletoe brandy). Then the crowd starts rehearsing what looks like a play. Members of the audience toss what are clearly verbal insults at the performers. I don't have the slightest idea what this is all about, but then someone produces a voting rod and it all becomes clear: They're rehearsing for the upcoming selection of the new mayor.
I watch for half an hour and can't figure out whom they're planning to elect, but it doesn't really matter. I'm sitting under the stars on a medieval stone wall in the world's smallest town, watching what could charitably be called the world's worst actors keep up a 1,600-year-old tradition of democracy. Someone passes me a jug of biska and I take a sip. Now this is what I came for.
Gologoricki Dol cerovlje
Golgoricki Dol 6, near Cerovlje, Croatia, 011-385/52-684-625, from $52
Hum 2, Hum, Croatia, 011-385/91-600-3456, hum.hr, from $4
Hum 9, Hum, Croatia, 011-385/91-888-9608