As I waited to board my flight to see the highlights of Istria, I felt quite nervous. This was the first time I was travelling alone with really no idea of what to expect. Who, if anyone, would be there to meet me and what would my guide be like?
Most of my fears were abated when I arrived in Pula and I saw my name on a large placard. The Croatian National Tourist Office had arranged an action packed two day itinerary to see the highlights of Istria. It looked like they had everything under control. I thought of all the digital nomads who travel solo regularly and felt a new found respect for them, arriving in a new country, late at night without anyone waiting for them.
My first day started early with a tour of Rabac, a pretty little harbour town with tons of character. It is unspoilt and relatively quiet, so perfect for couples looking for a relaxing holiday. Rabac has plenty of good restaurants and cafes, and boat trips are available to nearby towns and cities. You can book a day trip to Venice ( approx. 2.5 hours ) which only costs 520kn (about €70) including a guide. What a great way to see the city, with no traffic!
I enjoyed a stroll along the seashore. The water was so clear and there were so many quiet places to swim. There was no need to fight for a sun bed at the waters edge – the rocks were perfect for sunbathing. Beaches in Rabac and throughout most of Istria are mainly pebbly, so I recommend bringing surf shoes.
I stayed in the Valamar Sanfior hotel, which has a perfect beachfront location. This modern hotel offers excellent facilities for couples and families, including indoor and outdoor pools, spa, kids entertainment and free wifi. A fifteen minute stroll along the promenade will lead you to Rabac. It is rated number 1 on TripAdvisor and it’s not difficult to see why! Another one of the highlights of staying in Rabac, is its close proximity to Labin – one of my personal highlights of Istria.
A picturesque old town perched 320 meters above Rabac, Labin is full of colourful streets, winding alleyways and now home to over 30 artists. I met the very talented artist Vinko Saina and was shown around his atelier. We received such a warm welcome, all galleries were open and tourists are welcome to explore the local artists collections.
I was beginning to see why there was a certain hysteria about Istria of late. It reminded me of when I visited Umbria for the first time. Dubrovnik and Tuscany have all the hype, but the unsung heroes, Umbria and Istria, have just as much, if not more, to offer.
I also had the pleasure of tasting some of Istria’s famous olive oil in Labin and Vodnjan. This was a first for me. I found it astonishing the difference between the ‘good’ olive oils and the regular bottle I use at home – there is actually no comparison. The peppery characteristic hit the back of my throat and made me cough quite considerably. This signifies the inclusion of antioxidants, which have excellent health benefits.
I visited the art gastro gallery of Negri in Labin, where it’s tradition dates back to 17th century. Negri olive oil is used by many Michelin star chefs around the world and is incorporated in the world’s best olive oil guide for several years. It retails for €50 in many counties. In Labin you can buy a bottle for €16. Trust me, it’s a must buy if you are in any way interested in food.
Many people take a spoonful of this each day as they believe in its therapeutic value – it’s that good! You can also try wine there too, I loved the white Malvazija. Just make sure you keep some room in your suitcase, you are likely to leave with a few bottles…
Labin was once an old mining town, and the National Museum in the centre of town has re created an underground mine, which is also worth a visit. You need to put on a hard hat to wander through the underground tunnels. It is hard to believe people worked in those conditions for twelve hours a day. My back was aching after crouching for 10 minutes!
Make time to dine in the Velo Kafe for lunch. Over looking the main square, the location and food is superb. And when you have finished your nice meal why not take Sentona’s walking trail back to Rabac. The one hour downhill walk will take you through stunning scenery, full of bridges, lakes and lush forests.
If you are looking for a larger and livelier town to stay in, Pula should tick all boxes. Although it is a city, it has a small town feel and a great atmosphere. It is perfect for a weekend break or as a holiday destination. There are numerous al fresco eateries and bars, and the main Forum Square has some stunning roman architecture.
There are also plenty of good shopping areas with most of the high street shops established here. Our very own James Joyce lived in Pula in 1904 and 1905. Enjoy a drink in Uliks pub ( Ulysses in Croatian) where you will see memorabilia on the wall and a life size bronze statue of James Joyce outside – needless to say this is a popular choice with Irish holidaymakers!
Activities are organised for Bloomsday and even the cranes at the harbour are illuminated green for Patricks day! Pula’s harbour is home to one of the world’s largest working shipyards and designer Dean Skira turned it into a giant light show. This is now a tourist attraction and the light show takes place every night from dusk until 10pm throughout the year, and until midnight in the summer months.
The main gateway (Arch of Sergius) that leads into the heart of Pula was built in 27BC and there are numerous remnants of buildings from the 15th century scattered throughout the city. This bustling city is also home to a stunning amphitheatre. It is the sixth largest in the world, and one of the best preserved. Top class concerts are held here so if you are planning a visit to Pula check out the list of events in the arena here.
I stayed in the Park Plaza Histria Hotel, which offers the best of both worlds. It is only ten minutes from Pula city, but is also close to the sea, so it has a resort holiday feel to it. I was really impressed with this hotel, I immediately got the WOW factor when I walked into the massive reception and saw the contemporary decor. In fact I felt that this hotel deserved a five star rating.
The hotel is also close to Verudela. This is a picturesque spot where you can watch tombstoners jump off the cliff into the sea, and the sun set over their famous sacred rock.
My next stop was the pretty town of Fanzana. It is full of character and some great waterfront restaurants. It is also the launch pad to visit the nearby Brijuni islands. Now a National Park they are home to 250 of birds, 700 different plants, stunning forest trails, a safari park, archaeological sites, and lots more.
Numerous politicians and celebrities have visited here over the years including Queen Elizabeth II and Elizabeth Taylor. After my tour of Brijuni I had lunch in Stara Konoba right at the water’s edge in Fazana, it was superb. They serve traditional home cooked Istrian food and their signature dish is pilchard – very salty sardines.
Speaking of food, every meal I had was exceptional. It seems Istria is a food lovers paradise. With influences from Italy, Greece and Hungary, it manages to take the best from all countries to create mouthwatering dishes. Istria is rich with truffles, has some of the best prosciutto, and of course amazing seafood.
Make sure you try their specialty, buzara, a type of seafood stew, you won’t be disappointed. I tied Octopus carpachio for the first time in Vela Nera in Liznjan – it was outstanding! This small but modern hotel is close to the remains of the pre-historic Roman city of Nesactium.
There are so many more highlights of Istria that I didn’t get the opportunity to visit. Rovinj is the most well known holiday resort. It is a fishing village complete with piazzas and cobbled stone streets, but also has plenty of bars, restaurants and shops to satisfy any holidaymaker. It’s pretty harbour offers boat trips to the nearby islands and there are some great choices of hotels to stay in. I didn’t get to visit Rovinj on this occasion, so I guess I’ll just have to go back. Other popular resorts are Porec, Opatija and Lovran. Honestly I could go on forever….
Istria is the largest peninsula in Croatia. It’s mountainous interior offers amazing walking and bike trails through stunning lakes and forests. It is full of old towns, pretty fishing villages, amazing restaurants, and is surrounded by the clearest sea water. Istria is perfect for a weekend break, as a relaxing destination or for an active holiday. Of course if you want to see the highlights of Istria, I recommend combining all three!
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