Croatia's captivating corner

Take a journey around Istria to find hilltop towns, countryside and coast refreshingly free of crowds


It’s baking hot, yet it’s only nine in the morning. The dog in front of me is panting and obviously feeling the heat. His master, Ivan Karlić, is frowning, which is giving me reason to worry. I’m on a truffle hunt, searching for breakfast, and I don’t want to go hungry.

Suddenly the hound becomes animated again and starts digging — his owner pulls him off, gives him a biscuit, and carefully uncovers the soil. Sure enough there’s a black truffle sticking out, slightly smaller than a golf ball but certainly big enough to eat.

Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula in the north-eastern corner of Croatia, is not as well-known as the south of the country, which has the impressive walled city of Dubrovnik and beautiful islands such as Hvar, just opposite Split.

But it’s been hosting tourists at its beachfront hotels since the days of the former Yugoslavia. So much so that President Tito used to spend six months of every year on Istria’s Brijuni Islands until his death in 1980.

I arrive in the port city of Pula, a good base as it has direct flights from London, although you’ll need a hire car to explore the region properly. Fortunately, the roads are quiet and a motorway runs south to north.

With Roman ruins, crystal-clear waters, and a historic old town, the architecture reflects Istria’s long and varied history, changing hands repeatedly to be ruled by different empires.

The Romans defeated the first inhabitants, the Histri, in 177BCE, and built roads, bridges, and aqueducts, later introducing Christianity to the region.

The 1st century amphitheatre is surprisingly intact, originally seating 23,000, although gladiator combat has now given way to more sedate cultural events — in summer there’s a film festival, opera season and numerous concerts.

Other Roman remains include the Temple of Augustus, which survived as a church, and the triumphal Arch of the Sergii, from 27BCE, commemorating victory at the Battle of Actium.

Built in the 6th century, the cathedral is a splendid example of Byzantine and Gothic architecture, housing ornate altars, frescoes, and beautifully crafted marble.

The Venetians followed in the 15th century and stayed for more than 400 years, leaving a significant architectural imprint on the region, notably the Gate of Hercules, an ancient Roman triumphal arch that was later embellished with a Venetian-style winged lion, the symbol of Venice.

They’re also responsible for the narrow alleys, quaint squares and charming streets of Pula’s old town.

Then in the 19th century, Pula became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was further developed as a naval base and shipyard.

Grander buildings from this period include the neoclassical town hall and the Baroque Governor’s Palace, while others also reflect the architectural style of the era, characterised by a blend of neoclassical, Baroque, and Secessionist influences.

There’s plenty to discover beyond the city itself as well. Occupying Istria’s southern tip, around 30 minutes’ drive from Pula is the protected area of Cape Kamenjak. Walking and biking trails explore the diverse coastline with its numerous hidden coves, rocky cliffs and beautiful pebble beaches.

There’s even a dinosaur footprint above one of them and the calm waters are ideal for swimming or snorkelling.

Further north up the coast, the small town of Rovinj clusters around the waterfront, with brightly painted houses tumbling down the hillside, overlooked by the tower of the iconic St Euphemia’s church.

Its narrow, cobbled streets are filled with art galleries, boutiques and craft workshops, and are mercifully free of cars. This is cool Croatia at its best, where sophisticates gather by the harbour for evening cocktails.

Nearby, the Limski Kanal is a narrow channel stretching inland for more than seven miles, a submerged limestone canyon. Its sides are lined with steep cliffs clad in lush greenery, reflected in its brackish waters.

It’s often used as a double for a Norwegian fjord in films, most notably in the 1950s movie The Vikings. On its north bank, the Kontija Nature Park has several well-maintained trails and is ideal for bird watchers.

Just under an hour north from Pula, Porec is the other important Roman town, with the remnants of the forum still visible in Marafor Square.

The great attraction here, however, is the Unesco-listed Euphrasian Basilica, a masterpiece of Byzantine art and architecture dating back to the 4th century. Inside, the mosaics covering the walls are particularly impressive and it’s worth climbing the belltower for panoramic views of the town’s Venetian fortifications.

The countryside inland is relatively new to tourism but its green valleys and forested rolling hills topped with fortified villages, make it startlingly attractive. The wine and olive oil here are some of the best in Croatia and you can visit vineyards and olive farms to sample their wares.

Hotels blend into the landscape and tend to be small boutique-style, often converted water mills or ancient castles, with only a handful of rooms. The most famous of the hilltop towns is Motovun but Grožnjan is less touristy and shares many of the same characteristics.

The city walls have survived intact with the Venetian Gate and the Gate of St Roch allowing access to its narrow streets.

Many of the traditional Istrian stone houses, with their ancient wells and peaceful courtyards, are now home to art galleries displaying painting, sculpture and ceramics.

Drive a little further east and Hum is the smallest town in the world — according to Guinness World Records — with only around 30 inhabitants. The walls enclose a handful of houses and the church of St Jerolim contains fragments of frescoes from the 12th century.

Before you move on, try buska, a famous brandy only made here. The recipe is secret but mistletoe is a key ingredient and it’s claimed to have strong medicinal qualities.

Meanwhile, the oak forests below are a rich source of truffles. The highly prized white truffles are to be found in the valleys from October to January, while the black ones I’ve been searching for are available year round.

In the kitchen on the Karlić Estate, near Buzet, Ivan cracks some eggs, grates some of the truffle, and beats the mixture gently, before putting into a pan with melted butter. When it’s still runny, he adds grated cheese, then tops it with thinly sliced truffle, and serves up his fritaja — or Croatian scrambled eggs.

Sitting outside, with those glorious views to enjoy as I eat, it’s a breakfast fit for a king.

Getting There

Direct flights to Pula cost from around £45 from Stansted with Ryanair, from £75 from Gatwick with easyJet and around £300 from Manchester with TUI.

Rooms at the Grand Hotel Brioni by Radisson near Pula cost from around £235 per night.

For more information about Istria, go to or

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