It’s not all tartufi and vino on this postcard-pretty peninsula. Here are some of Istria’s unexpected aspects we bet you didn’t know.
Istria’s environment rivals Eden
Istria sits on the 45th parallel, meaning it’s exactly on the halfway point of the northern hemisphere, directly between the Equator and the North Pole. As such, it’s often referred to as having the perfect climate, an ideal balance between the four seasons. Istria is well-balanced when it comes to topography, too – its endless vineyard-dotted hills have earned the peninsula the epithet of the Croatian Tuscany. But Istria is also known for its coast, all 537 kilometres of it, complemented by an equally dazzling mountainous northern region. The Ćićarija and Učka ranges stretch into Slovenia, Učka’s highest peak on this side of the border being Vojak at 1,396 metres.
Istria’s diverse days of yore
The first mention of Istria and its inhabiting Histrian tribe who gave the peninsula its name were first recorded by Ancient Greek historians in the sixth century BC. Since then, Istria’s history has been diverse. Poreč, for example, saw Roman rule around the second century BC, when its strategic natural harbour was made into a military fort. Centuries later in the 1200s, the Venetian Republic swept in, ruling for over 500 years. During the mid-19th century, Poreč, along with the rest of the Istrian peninsula, became part of the Austrian Empire. The peninsula’s rich history can also be explored in depth in Motovun, Istria’s best-preserved medieval town. The smallest city in Istria, and the world is 12th-century Hum, with an official population of around 30.
Istria’s far-out architecture
Istria’s most far-out building, in all senses of the word, is the Savudrija lighthouse, the westernmost point of the region and, indeed, the country. It’s also Croatia’s oldest lighthouse, built as part of the small fishing village of Savudrija in 1818. Another far-out building is Istria’s largest ancient construction: the Pula Arena. Once the stomping ground of gladiators, the amphitheatre was built during Emperor Vespasian’s reign in the first century AD. It’s still in use today, the gladiators replaced by opera singers and tennis players. The Forma Viva Sculpture Park in the Sveta Nedelja region is another far-out Istrian area – though not many know of it. Sitting slightly further inland from Istria’s eastern coast, Sveta Nedelja is far from the madding crowds, and its sculpture park, with more than 70 statues by local artists and architects, is certainly worth a visit.
Istria’s biggest animals then and now
The largest animal in Istria is the Istrian ox, boškarin. Boškarin are white, long-horned cattle once used to plough the fields. Today, boškarin is served as a delicacy in many of the peninsula’s top restaurants, in pasta, with gnocchi and as a steak. But, eras before the boškarin, there was the brachiosaurus. Between 80 and 140 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled in Istria. Bones have been found on the bottom of the sea near Rovinj and footprints across multiple sites, including the Brijuni National Park, the Marlera peninsula, Fenoliga islet and a bay in Premantura.
Istria’s record-breaking claims to fame
Two Guinness World Records were broken in Pula, both in or around its Arena. The Largest Necktie record was broken on October 18, 2003. Neckties were actually invented in Croatia. Members of the Academia Cravatica organisation took five days to create a 808-metre necktie, 25 metres at its widest, eight metres at its narrowest, which was then tied around Pula Arena. The Largest Torchlit Image Formed by People record was also broken in Pula with more than 4,013 participants forming a sign that read ‘Pula+Istria’, beating the previous record of 3,777. The lightshow was staged on May 9, 2015, as part of Pula’s Visualia Technology Festival, and was created by the Sonitus Association, Pula Tourism Office and the Archaeological Museum of Istria.
Istria on the big screen
Istria and its ideal geography have long been highly sought-after as film settings. The western Istrian village of Vižinada doubled up for France in the war-time comedy Kelly’s Heroes in 1970, starring Clint Eastwood. Today known as the Istrian Hollywood, the small inland village of Draguć was first mentioned as a medieval castle in 1102. Since then, Draguć has become a real A-lister. It stood in for France in La Femme Musketeer (2004) and Dubrovnik in the Marin Držić biopic Libertas (2006). Istria’s southernmost point, Cape Kamenjak, served as 14th-century Europe in Season of the Witch (2011) starring Nicholas Cage. Most recently, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, starring Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds, was filmed in Rovinj.
This article is sponsored by the Istrian Tourism Board.