Sometimes called the ‘new Tuscany’, Istria (Istra to Croatians) is the heart-shaped 3600-sq-km peninsula just south of Trieste, Italy, with a landscape of green rolling hills, drowned valleys and fertile plains. While the scenic interior is beginning to attract artists and artisans to its hilltop villages, the rugged and indented coastline is enormously popular with the sun ‘n’ sea set. Even though most beaches are rocky, there’s plenty of accommodation in the vast hotel complexes that line much of the coast.
Pazin, in the interior, is the administrative capital of the region, while coastal Pula, with its thriving shipyard and Roman amphitheatre, is the economic centre. Tourism along the coast centres on the fetching fishing village of Rovinj and the ancient Roman town of Poreč. The northern part of the peninsula belongs to Slovenia, while the Ćićarija mountains (an extension of the Dinaric Range) in the northeastern corner separate Istria from the continental mainland. Just across the water is Italy, but the pervasive Italian influence makes it seem much closer. Istria’s historic ties to Italy are cemented by the floods of Italian tourists in summer, enchanted by the fresh seafood, excellent pasta and the fact that Italian is a second language in Istria. In a 1991 census, nearly 20% of the inhabitants declared their nationality as Istrian rather than Croatian and, although only 8% of the population is ethnic Italian, many Istrians have Italian passports.