Why visit the Istria Peninsula in Croatia?
Croatia is one of the top UK holiday destinations with many holidaymakers travelling to the popular cities of Dubrovnik, Hvar or Split as they offer beautiful scenery, great weather and very friendly people. I had never visited Croatia and decided to take a trip to the lesser known area in the northwest called the Istria Peninsula - that is not as easily accessible from the UK - and I was not disappointed.
I flew into Venice (Italy) and spent one night in a hotel on the mainland in the business district. Whilst here I did spend the afternoon visiting the main sights in St Mark's square so I can say I have seen Venice!
I took a water taxi and it is quite magical to see all the houses appearing to just be sitting on the water with the gondolas drifting in between the houses down little canals. In hindsight, I should have allowed another day as it was too short a visit, as there is so much to see and do.
The next day I travelled by car around to the Istria peninsula, which was a lovely drive (2 and a half hours) through mountainous northern Italy, across Slovenia and passing border control into Croatia. Very easy to travel through border control. I had been warned that there is normally a long queue but this didn't materialise and I just had to show my passport. Then I carried on to my destination, the city of Pula.
Do not buy any Croatian Kuna until you are in the country as you receive a far better exchange rate and they do accept Euro's on the toll roads and some international shops..
I stayed in Verudela, a peninsula just south of Pula, in a lovely holiday apartment. Beautiful location with beaches, an Aquarium (set in a fortress that had a shark tank and a turtle rescue centre) and lots of restaurants and fun activities. My children, loved it here, especially the Segway tour in the dark around the peninsula. The only downside to this location was at the weekend it was very busy due to all the locals descending on the beaches.
There are lots of interesting places to visit in this area. The Brijuni National Park is a day visit as I parked my car and took a boat out to this archipelago of scattered islets. The largest Island, Veli Brijun has beautiful white beaches, remnants of a Roman villa and natural history sites where 200 dinosaur footprints have been found. A great day out.
Another city to visit is Rovinj, a beautiful fishing port town set on the west coast. To reach the old town I had to park outside and then walk into pedestrian cobbled streets with unique shops and bars on the waterfront. I decided to visit St Euphemia church - sat on the hilltop - and climb to the top of the bell tower. To get to the top I had to walk up a wooden staircase - to say it was rickety is an understatement! (Health and safety in the UK would shut it down!) Once at the top it was so worth it for the views across the bay to 14 islands however, I still had to come down those stairs....
Off the beaten track I found small beaches with tiny food/drink outlets visited by locals. Serving regional delicacies such as black risotto, Buzara (mussels in wine) Istrian ham and Peka (meat and vegetables cooked under a terracotta pot). I tried all these dishes during my stay and they were lovely and reasonably priced. I also tried the local liqueur Rakija which had a honey taste that reminded me of Grappa but slightly smoother.
Whilst driving I just came across a sign for a cave, so I decided to take a look. I travelled down a gravel track and came across a small car park and gardens with a small reception. They ran tours every half an hour as the cave could only hold 5 people at one time.
It was so interesting as the cave was only found by chance as a family member was digging up vegetables and a large hole appeared! I entered the cave by some tiny stairs (think of a castle turret stairs) and it was amazingly full of stalagmites and stalactites - it was too dark to take decent photos. This was a hidden gem as it was not in any tourist brochure.
Pula was located only 15 minutes from where I was staying so I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful city a few times. Located on the seafront with a rich cultural heritage with it's Pula's Forum (main square) with the temple of Augustus to the Arch of the Sergii, a very walkable city.
There are also underground tunnels that stretch the entire city that were erected during WW1 to provide a shelter for people in case of air raids - they could of held 50,000 people. It was interesting to see and it was nice to be away from the intense summer heat for half an hour.
The main attraction is the Roman Amphitheatre, it is spectacular. It is located in the heart of the city with its arched walls and four towers that still has underground passages that were used by gladiators. I went to see a "gladiators" performance on our last night in the arena. It was a tourist attraction and I tend not to go to those sort of events, but I was so pleased I did. I sat on the stone seats that locals would have watched a similar show centuries ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and with the sun setting in the distance it was an amazing experience, never to be forgotten - my children still talk about it!
Another day I took a late afternoon trip to find dolphins from the port of Pula, unfortunately I didn't see any!
However, I did see the most beautiful sunset travelling back to the port passing one of the worlds oldest working docks.
A renowned lighting designer Dean Skira has lit up the shipyards iconic cranes in 16,000 different colour schemes which I was skeptical about but it was surprisingly beautiful - the photo doesn't do it justice.
Croatia is a small country, but as I discovered has so much to offer a traveller. The country's main income is tourism, and is developing sustainable and responsible initiatives to stop excessive tourism, protect the waters, endangered species and prosper local communities.
To find out more about the Istra Peninsula and what it has to offer take a look here: www.istra.hr