Explore a remarkable 1,900-year-old Roman amphitheater in Pula. Visit Poreč and Rovinj, Croatia's two most popular seaside resorts, with Venetian-style campanili, loggias, and reliefs. Discover a thousand years of rich Istrian history in hilltop fortresses, early Christian churches, Byzantine mosaics, and Baroque palaces, and treat your taste buds to two local specialties: white and black truffles (a series of festivals is dedicated to them) and wine (crisp, fruity white Istarska Malvazija and light, harmonious red Teran).
The word conjures something magical as it rolls off the tongue: Istria. Beyond sounding poetic, however, the name of this region of Croatia is derived from the name of the Illyrian people who occupied the area well before the Romans first arrived in the 3rd century BC—namely, the Istrians, whose chief architectural legacy comprised numerous hilltop fortresses. In the northwest corner of Croatia bordering Slovenia, the triangular-shape Istrian peninsula looks rather like a bunch of grapes—a happy coincidence, given its strong viticultural heritage.
Much of Europe's history has passed through Istria for more than a thousand years, not least the history associated with three great civilizations—the Roman, the Germanic, and the Slavic. Centuries of Venetian rule later reinforced by years of Italian occupation between the world wars have left a sizable Italian minority here, and Italian influence is apparent in the architecture, the cuisine, and the local dialect. Here, even the effects of the concrete-box style of communist-era architecture seem relatively minimal compared to the overall sense of a much deeper past suggested by the rich mix of architectural styles—from a whole array of well-preserved Roman ruins to Romanesque basilicas; from breathtakingly well-preserved medieval towns, towers, and town walls to Baroque palaces and Austro-Hungarian fortifications.
The region's principal city and port, Pula, is on the tip of the peninsula and is best known for its remarkably preserved 1,900-year-old Roman amphitheater and Forum as well as the Triumphal Arch of the Sergians. Close by, the beautifully nurtured island retreat of Brijuni National Park can be visited in a day. Towns along the west coast have an unmistakable Venetian flavor left by more than 500 years of Venetian occupation. Poreč and Rovinj, Croatia's two most popular seaside resorts, are both endowed with graceful campanili and reliefs of the winged lion of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice. The effects of package tourism have long encroached—to varying degrees—on the outskirts of various towns, most notably Poreč among Istria's largest coastal destinations. Rovinj, though likewise brimming with tourists in high season, retains more of its ravishing historic beauty and redolence than almost any other town on the Adriatic. A side trip to the romantic hill towns of Motovun and Grožnjan will prove unforgettable, whether as a brief excursion from the sea in the warmer months or as a more substantial autumn journey. This inland area is particularly rich in truffles and mushrooms, and from mid-September to late October these local delicacies are celebrated with a series of gastronomic festivals.