Why I love Istria
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  Posted March 8th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | No comments yet.

Travel Croatia

By: Jane Horrocks

English actress Jane Horrocks travels through Croatia and Istrian peninsula
From medieval beauty to perfect pizza: Absolutely Fabulous actress Jane Horrocks reveals why she loves Istria’s Croatian comforts Venice is less than three hours away from the island on a high-speed ferry Istria, formerly known as Histria, is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea One week in Villa Melissa starts from £995 for up to eight people sharing..

Rovinj7_Aug2015Croatian town Rovinj in Istria

Croatia is an increasingly popular destination for British travellers, and we decided to jump on the bandwagon. But rather than head for the stunning islands on the Dalmatian coast, we opted for the intriguing peninsula in the far north of the country, known as Istria. There are regular flights now from the UK to the region’s capital, Pula, where you quickly pick up the Italianate feel of place, thanks to its spectacularly well-preserved Roman amphitheatre (a must-see), to the pastas and pizza on the menus, to the elegant architecture left behind by 450 years of Venetian occupation.

Rovinj1The town of Rovinj juts out into the sea, a stunning cluster of Venetian houses clinging to a rocky isthmus, crowned with the spire of St Euphemia’s Basilica at the top of the tree-lined hill

Jane_pictured_above_headed_to_Istria_rather_than_one_of_the_stunJane (pictured above) headed to Istria rather than one of the stunning islands on the Dalmatian coast

Venice is less than three hours away on a high-speed ferry these days, and while the Italian influences in Istria are clear, we discovered a beautiful and unspoilt region that very much has its own identity. Our villa, Melissa, was close to the town of Sveti Lovrec and just a 40-minute drive north of Pula. Melissa came with a swimming pool and a beautiful garden that attracted endless butterflies and a pair of exotic hoopoes every breakfast time.

Sveti Lovrec is definitely what you’d call a sleepy spot. It’s a beautifully preserved example of a medieval fortified town – within its walls, the cobbled streets are deserted and silent but for the tolling of the church bell, while a couple of mini-supermarkets, bars and an excellent pizzeria are all situated outside the walls, closer to the main road. Don’t be fooled, though – Sveti Lovrec erupts into life in early August for a couple of days when the town holds its annual Beerfest.

IMG_2457Narrow streets in Sveti Lovrec

The ancient streets cram with people of all ages and echo all night with the sound of local bands playing everything from death metal to Irish folk. It’s great fun and very friendly – like a huge, unruly wedding. The peninsula’s rugged coastline means that the beaches tend to be small, pebbly affairs. 

If you’re looking for golden sands in Croatia, they are readily available in Dalmatia and on its many islands. But the geology here throws up far more interesting features. Take the Limski Kanal, for example: a spectacular six-mile, fjord-like estuary that cuts its way inland just a few miles south of Sveti Lovrec. You’d think such an enormous channel would be hard to miss, but on our first attempt by car we overshot the turning and ended up in the port of Vrsar, with my partner Nick squinting into a map on his iPhone.

limkanal02Limski Kanal

From here we accidentally ended up at the hospital, before a kind woman in a kiosk raised the traffic barrier so we could turn the car around. While finding a suitable place to do a three-point turn, we were struck by the number of naked families crossing the road in front of us. As we drove on, mildly embarrassed, it became clear that we had driven into Koversada, one of Europe’s first and biggest nudist colonies. 

We emerged shame-faced as though having driven through the set of a Carry On film, and returned to Vrsar to get on a boat instead. This was a much safer option. Boat trips run all day every day from the harbour and will take you on a little cruise along the Limski Kanal.

But before entering the Kanal, the boat travels further south for a truly spectacular approach to the beautiful town of Rovinj. The town juts out into the sea, a stunning cluster of Venetian houses clinging to a rocky isthmus, crowned with the spire of St Euphemia’s Basilica at the top of the tree-lined hill. It’s a view that rivals some of Venice’s finest.

Istria2Jane visited a restaurant in the hilltop town of Motovun (above), where she enjoyed first-rate olive oil, world-class wine and a seemingly endless supply of truffles

Pula arenaIn Pula, tourists quickly pick up the Italian feel thanks to its spectacularly well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. We disembarked and ascended the picturesque cobbled streets, enjoying the wonderful sea views from outside the Basilica and the cooler air and tranquillity within.

We also discovered the joy of cevapcici (delicious sausage-shaped ‘burgers’ served with raw onion and roasted pepper sauce) outside a bistro halfway up the hill before returning to the boat to navigate the Limski Kanal. The boat dropped us off to inspect a pirate’s cave allegedly used by Captain Morgan and now conveniently housing a small bar. From here we enjoyed lovely views of the calm waters and densely wooded banks of the Kanal, and also views of naked pensioners in speedboats: it seems the Croatians’ enthusiasm for naturism isn’t confined to the nudist colonies.

Pula1Arial view of Pula and its amphitheater

Along the northern bank, we found two wonderful restaurants specialising in the oysters and mussels. The food was beautifully fresh, utterly delicious and not ridiculously expensive.  The same goes for most of the restaurants in Istria – the quality was high but the prices were low. Apart from the excellent seafood, there are treats for the meat-eaters, too: suckling pigs roast on spits at roadside grills, while big smiling men in chef hats try to lure in passing motorists.

Another boat excursion well worth considering is to the Brijuni islands, reached via the small port of Fazana. This little archipelago, just a couple of miles off the coast, has a long and fascinating history. The Venetians quarried the stone here to build their own city; then, in the late 19th Century, an Austrian entrepreneur turned the islands into an exclusive beach resort for the well-to-do people of Vienna.

Rovinj2Boat trips often travel south for a truly spectacular approach to the beautiful town of Rovinj (above)

After the First World War, the Italians took control, but after the Wall Street crash the islands fell into disrepair. However, following the Second World War, when they switched to Yugoslavian control, General Tito turned them into his own private summer residence.

He built a golf course and safari park that have both survived, and a zoo that hasn’t. On Brijuni he entertained everyone from Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev to film stars such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. A little museum houses a terrific exhibition of photos of Tito with all his glamorous guests. Tito’s parakeet Koki is still alive and well, and he is available for a chat in his aviary in front of the museum. It’s once you leave the coast and drive inland that you realise why Istria is often dubbed ‘the new Tuscany’.

We headed north to hook up with some of Nick’s friends, and were stunned by the endless vistas of lush green valleys terraced with vineyards, and the distant hills topped with unbelievably picturesque villages and towns. One such town, Groznan, is reached only by a winding dirt track that curls up the mountain. The town was deserted after the Second World War but then became a haven for artists and musicians. 

Motovun1Jane Horrocks said: ‘[We] sat on a hillside terrace sipping prosecco and gazing at the preposterously beautiful town of Motovun a few miles away’

The sound of a cello echoed through the empty streets as we went to meet Mike and Marijana, and sat on a hillside terrace sipping prosecco and gazing at the preposterously beautiful town of Motovun a few miles away. Marijana and Mike were perfect guides – she used to run the famous musical conservatory in Groznan and he runs the successful Motovun Film Festival. Later we visited a wonderful restaurant, Konoba Mondo, in Motovun, and we had a terrific evening enjoying the Istrian produce that inspires its comparisons with Tuscany – first-rate olive oil, world-class wine and a seemingly endless supply of truffles.

Istrian wine fieldsBeautiful Istrian wine fields

All these regional specialities have been energetically nurtured and supported since the war, and truffles are the region’s pride. As we devoured plates of pasta, we could actually hear the truffle-hunting dogs in the valley below. Thanks to Mike, we discovered that our villa was only a couple of miles away from the cellars of his friend, Ivica Matosevic, one of Croatia’s leading winemakers.

A visit here at the end of our holiday was a real highlight – the charming Ivica (a one-time landscape gardener) makes wines that are on the list at Heston Blumenthal’s world-famous Fat Duck restaurant, but he still made time to show us his spanking-new winery and pour us the superb results of his endeavours – from the wood-aged white malvasia to the vibrant young red terrano, they were all fantastic.

In many ways, the visit to the winery summed up perfectly our experience of Istria – hospitable, charming, a bit off the beaten track and very much on the way up. Tuscany had better watch out.

Hope you have a great year and time to visit Croatian Istria, like I did.

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