As more tourists recognise the appeal of the Southern Croatian coastline, flocking to hotspots such as Dubrovnik and Split, the green and quietly beautiful North Western coast remains dotted with hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
Although the Istrian region has its share of tourist cities, such as Pula, it is also peppered with smaller towns which can provide a tranquil base for your holiday, whilst still in range of the popular attractions.
We were staying in Rovinj: a small town nestling on a peninsula that juts into the clear blue of the Adriatic. You can walk along the harbour and see the old town piled up by the water’s edge; brightly coloured apartment buildings, hotels, and restaurants overhanging the sea, leading to a Baroque basilica which sits on a hill in the centre. It is postcard-perfect, but handles its tourism well. The narrow winding streets feel quiet, unpretentious exhibitions and galleries emergy around every corner; from local artists, jazz cafés, bars, and restaurants, there is plenty to fascinate. Most importantly, it still carries that authentically bohemian feel that is becoming harder and harder to find. Roaming the town feel less like a guided tour, and more like your own private exploration.
By bus you can make your way inland to other little-known beauty spots. The tiny town of Bale just outside Rovinj, built from the remains of a Roman stronghold, is especially worth a visit. The cobbled streets and stone archways make it easy to believe that time has stood still (although if you need a hand breaking the illusion there are several Konobas nearby offering Modern takes on traditional Croatian dishes). Further afield, Motovun offers stunning views of the Istrian countryside to those who brave the climb to the village’s summit. At nearly 900 feet above sea level, it is the highest municipality in Istria, but the view and the village itself are worth the effort. Crumbling medieval buildings sit side-by-side with lush villas, and there are plenty of restaurants at the top where you can reward yourself by eating your bodyweight in truffles and local beer, all for a handful of Kunas.
In addition to the attractions inland, there are regular boat trips from the coastal towns to attractions both local and further affield. Ferries run from Rovinj to Trieste or Venice if you fancy a change of pace, but there are also small boating companies dotted along the harbour, each vying to offer the cheapest local tour. These take you to beautiful and little-known locations such as the Limski fjord (once used by pirates to attack the Venetians, and now known for its oyster crop) and Vrsar, a picturesque coastal town which enjoys, as part of a rich cultural history, the privilege of having hosted Casanova for a few weeks in the mid-18th century.
One staple stop on all the boat tours is the Brijuni national park. These emerald-coloured islands rival the famous Plitvice Lakes for sheer beauty, and there is arguably more to see and do. Once the private retreat of General Tito – the famous communist leader and incorrigible playboy – the island is steeped in history, and you can even take a safari through the animals donated to him by various heads of state, including ponies from Queen Elizabeth and elephants from Indira Ghandi. The island is protected however, and security is still tight around Tito’s ‘Secret Villa’. For easier access, the less restrictive Kamenjak national park is an hour down the coast and offers a more rugged alternative. Bake yourself on a rock, cliff-dive, go windsurfing, hunt for dinosaur footprints; the park lets you enjoy outstanding natural beauty whilst exploring at your own pace.
Istria is the undiscovered Croatia – the alternative to the festivals and the tourist hot-spots. At once tranquil and full of things to discover, rugged and rich, but always beautiful, it definitely deserves a visit, but make sure you get there before everyone else starts to catch on!