Bucolic Istria

Romantic landscapes, world class wines, truffles & olive oil, verdant countryside

As I sat in the shaded stone courtyard taking in the soft breeze and lazily scraping up the last bits of lunch from my plate, it occurred to me that this must have been what Tuscany was like before the Hollywood movies, the cookbooks and the hordes of tourists: Tuscany when it was still under-the-radar and affordable.

“No, Istria is not the new Tuscany,” I thought. “It’s the old Tuscany.”  . . .  Brendan Francis Newnam, Special to CNN


The spectacular light, sprawling landscapes, fusion of traditional and new cuisine & notable indigenous wines distinguish Istria.  The old world charm, bucolic villages, raw port towns, picturesque seaside promenades & casual tempo make it a uniquely Croatian experience.

While Dubrovnik was heavily influenced by the east, Istria, in the far north between continental Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, turned towards the west.  Like the rest of Croatia, Istria has been annexed by the Romans,  Venetians, Astro-Hungarian empire and most influentially,  Italy.  Istria was even occupied by Napoleon until he gave it (along with Dalmatia) to the Austrians, who ruled for 100 years.  Austria then passed on its rule to the Italians until after World War II, when Istria was annexed to Yugoslavia.

Driving along the southeast coast of Istria you get a strong feeling of Vienna.  The graceful architecture, promenades and cafes of Opatija, Icici & Lovran transport you to a time gone by, where the aristocracy frequented traditional health spas, built mansions along the seafront and lived “en famille” at the luxurious hotels.

Further west in Rovinj, Pula, Porec and all along the coast, the Austrian grandeur gives way to charming villas, colorful waterfront tableaus & towns strongly reminiscent of Tuscany. Several UNESCO sites preserve the original buildings and culture – Pula even boasts the best preserved Coliseum outside Italy  (built between 27BC and 68AD).  Rovinj contends as one of the most charming towns in Croatia with pastel houses built straight up out of the azure sea, sailing yachts dotting the horizon, narrow cobbled lanes, street artists and polished stone seaside promenade.

Inland, the medieval hill towns of Motovun, Mrgani (Morgan), and the artist colony, Groznjan, are surrounded by vineyards, truffle forests, olive orchards, citrus groves and essential herbs.  The wines and cuisine of Istria are worthy of its reputation and the vineyards of master vintners open for your discovery.  Wonderful restaurants and family konobas scattered all along the coast and villages serve traditional specialties made with local truffles, fresh fish, venison, wild board, local fruits and vegetables seasoned with local herbs.   And of course along with a wide variety of well established regional wines, restaurateurs also serve their own home produced wines, well worth trying.

The traditional health spas, hot springs and therapeutic cures live on throughout Istria.  Whether you prefer a distinctly old world experience or modern and luxurious spa, there are many to choose from.

Istrian Cuisine & Wines

Istria stands up to world traditions when it comes to cuisine and wines.  The local cuisine reflects the history, geography and climate of the Peninsula, creating a unique flavor of  indigenous plants, aromatic spices, seasonal vegetables, seafood, and olive oil.    The Istrians are inventive with their cuisine, which is a blend of local, Italian and German influences, with  meat, wild game, truffles, fresh fish  and pastas seasoned with local herbs and vegetables.  Hearty vegetable soup known as maneštra, sheep’s cheese, Istrian pršut (prosciutto) and  traditional Istrian pastries compliment most meals. The famous Istrian supa with red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and toasted white bread  is reminiscent of local Tuscan farmers soups.

And of course Istria is internationally recognized for its wines and its truffles.  Attesting to the importance of truffles, there are dozens of small restaurants and trattorias scattered across the “truffle zone”, where you can taste delicious Istrian black and white truffle specialties matched with local wines.  Many local restaurants offer seasonal truffle menus.

Istria is best known for its indigenous Malvazija white and Teran red varietals.  While Merlot is also a long-standing tradition in Istria, today we are also seeing great Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays and Cabernet Franc along with interesting Orange wines and a few refreshing sparkling wines.

“. . . the most well know varietal is the Istrian Malvasia, with a refined aroma and fresh taste that best accompanies seafood dishes.  The red wines Teran and Refosk are old and indigenous Istrian wines.  Their deep ruby colour, lively fruity scent and pronounced aroma are perfect with meat dishes.”

The Istrian tourist board has put together thorough and helpful list of restaurants and wines in the region.