Istria: The Fairy Tale Peninsular
Ever gone on holiday and felt like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale? For me the magic happens in European medieval villages. That mix of cobbled streets, gingerbread houses, and princess towers and turrets grabs my imagination, transports me back to my childhood and makes me keen to explore. Croatia’s Istria offers all this magic and more, and now for the first time BA has opened up a route from London Heathrow to Pula in the south of the region. In this advertising feature I explore how you can get the most of a trip to this storybook destination….
Things to do in Istria for a Perfect Croatian Summer
“You know that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming?” – Peter Pan.
Visit Istria and you may have to pinch yourself to check you haven’t wandered into a dream. For a start it is heart shaped. This 3600 square kilometre peninsula begins just south of Trieste in Italy and falls into three countries; Croatia, Slovenia and Italy (although the bulk is in Croatia.) This is a land of sleeping beauty, where nature is gently woken each day by the transformative sun. Like the land at the top of the Faraway Tree, the dreamscape changes every day and yet not at all; the kind of place that’s ripe for a Disney plot. After some time exploring the region online, learning about a new BA route to Pula and watching a few classic Disney clips – for research purposes you understand, here are my recommendations for enjoying fairy tale Istria…
1 Explore magnificent (not maleficent) Motovun
“Mirror Mirror on the wall, who in this realm is the fairest of all?” – Snow White
Rapunzel would love Motovun. It’s basically one giant staircase into the sky. A fortified hill town, it is located on top of a steep hill with a staircase of 1052 steps. Venetian’s fortified the town in the 14th century, and the medieval walls host a pathway allowing you to walk the ancient city’s circumference. From it you can see vineyards, the Mirna Valley and the fields of the Motovun forest where you can hunt for the region’s famous truffles. (More on that later) When you touch down in Pula and have explored it a little, you could do worse than make this town your base. Unsurprisingly for a hill town there’s paragliding and mountain-biking. However its most famous activity is an annual film festival.
2 Feast on the Food
“They saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.”
From the sky Istria must look like a picnic blanket of goodies, with crumbling olive and vine terraces backing onto orchards of ripe figs, leading to fields of wild asparagus. One of its treats is wine so make sure you visit a vineyard or wine cellar. Shop for good quality ingredients and make your own lunches with local olive oil. Pasta or steak with truffle come highly recommended and several restaurants in Motovun specialise in the delicacy. Food of all kinds is celebrated here. In April in Kaštel near Buje you can enjoy an Asparagus Festival, while at the Novograd harbour in June there’s a gathering in honour of scallops.
3 Get your kids up high
“Trip trap, trip trap, trip went the bridge” – Billy Goats Gruff
Talking of seeing Istria from a height, Labin is a good place to do this and you’ll be rewarded with views of the coastal resort of Rabac. Mount Ucka is Istrias highest point, with a vast panorama of Venice and The Dolomites. Meanwhile Pazin Caves offers a series of zip lines that fly over a canyon and medieval castle. Fittingly for a fairytale region it ends above Grandma’s House cave. If caverns are more your thing, have a cool down in Baredine Cave.
4 Go swimming in the blue
“Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep” – The Little Mermaid
Think your teens are too old for a trip to the beach? Think again. 250 kilometres of Istrian Riveria provide something for everyone. Find you own patch of beach to bury the eldest in the sand (with his headphones on if he’s really attached to them) If your children are proper little mermaids then take a boat trip out to Brijuni National Park, an archipelago surrounded by the crystal waters of the Adriatic. Or there’s an exciting aquapark in Porec if your family likes the adrenaline rush of a slide.
5 Absorb the history and heritage
“A tale as old as time” – Beauty and the Beast
Most of Istria is Croatian but years of Italian rule have left their mark, and Slovenia hovers on the doorstep like a lady in waiting. Rovinj Old Town is a good place to absorb some of the history and Venetian architecture. Start by climbing Saint Euphemia Cathedral; it overlooks the whole town and the sunset view of the sea are hard to beat. In Labin, formerly the largest mining center of Croatia, you can visit a recreation of a coal mine. Or simply wander the maze of churches palaces and houses in the Old Town, enjoying the Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture. Top out at the fortress Fortica with views over Rabac and the sparsely populated island of Cres.
Pula, the largest city in Istria, is known for its Arena; one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the world, and you’ll find ancient Roman architecture like the Temple of Augustus, the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi, and Hercules’ Gate. Meanwhile Hum is left over from the Middle Ages…explore and enjoy. It won’t take you long. The Guinness Book of Records recorded it as the smallest town in the world.
6 Go exploring into the big beyond
“Over the seven jewelled hills, beyond the seventh fall,” – Snow White
Often called the crossroads of Europe, Istria is a good base for seeing several countries and cultures. While the bulk of Istria is Croatian, the northwestern part of it lies in Slovenia and northwards of Slovenian Istria, you can find a tiny section in Italy. You’ll find it easiest to hire a car if you want to get into the Croatian interior or over to Slovenia where Portoroz is worth visiting if you like beaches and nightlife, Piran has a strong Venetian feel and Koper is a busy commercial port. You can also hop across to Venice by catamaran from Porec, Rovinj, Pula and Rabac. It can take up to four hours though so you may want to stay overnight. Or for a taste of Italy try Trieste. Just over the Italian/Slovenian border, the city is easy to reach by car or bus.
7 Get up early
“Why sometimes I’ve believed as any as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Alice in Wonderland
Any of the hill towns will give you a great sunrise photograph. Or head out into pine and beech forest for a shading early morning stroll. In season Istria is studded with fields of peonies and orchids so take a picnic breakfast and imagine you are Red Riding Hood.
8 Enjoy a festival
“Then a great holiday was proclaimed throughout the land…and our story begins on that most joyful day.” – Maleficent
Wine, dance, folklore, film, the sea, sailing, painting, jazz, sport, the stars and the saints. What do they have in common? They’re all local festivals. Whatever your passion you’ll probably find someone who shares it in Istria. Book your holiday around one of these summer festivals, or just see what you stumble across when you get there.
9 Fall in love every day
“This is true love. You think this happens every day?” – The Princess Bride
Istria is an ideal summer holiday destination, one you may end up falling in love with every day of your trip. Now that’s a proper fairy tale romance.
Istria is easy to reach, thanks to the small airport of Pula at the southern tip of the region. A new route from BA means you can fly direct to Pula International from London Heathrow. It takes two hours and 20 minutes and flies twice a week during the summer months. You can book now at ba.com. You can find out more information about the region at the Istria Tourist Board’s website.
Disclosure Note: This advertising feature is a collaboration with BA. All ideas, dreams of being a princess and truffle appreciation are my own.