MTB Parenzana
© MTB Parenzana

Rail to trail in Istria

Follow the Parenzana, a former narrow-gauge rail, now a trail for hikers and cyclists

Written by
Isabel Putinja

Parenzana is the defunct railway that was reset in motion as a scenic walking and cycling trail. Follow along this historic path crossing bridges, passing through tunnels and over viaducts through bucolic landscapes dotted with hilltop towns.

The Parenzana was long a ghost railway when it finally got back on track in a new form, 100 years after it first opened in 1902 during the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 2006, its defunct railbed was resurrected as a recreational walking and cycling trail and christened the path of 'health and friendship' for its 123km-long path that links the three countries sharing the geographical peninsula of Istria: Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Today this off-road trail traces the route once taken by the Parenzana's steam locomotive, crossing 11 bridges, passing through nine tunnels and over six viaducts through bucolic landscapes dotted with hilltop towns.

But the family-friendly Parenzana is much more than just a recreational trail. Cyclists and walkers following this former narrow-gauge railway line also trace Istria's history as they make their way along its gravel pathway. The ghost railway journeys across borders and past landmarks which stand as reminders of a forgotten past, a time when the railways were the only link with the outside world. They forged commercial links and brought an economic boon to rural areas. The Parenzana trail is also a relic of the peninsula's political past as a region that was juggled between various kingdoms, rulers and regimes.

Dusko Marusic/PIXSELL
Dusko Marusic/PIXSELL

Back in the day, the railcars transported not only people but also the fruits of Istria's soil. It made a halt at the saltworks in Sečovlje (still in operation in today's Slovenia) and passed through vineyards, olive groves and dense forests, whizzing past quarries. These agrarian landscapes are still very much the same today. Along the way, the train picked up and offloaded passengers and parcels of mail, but also goods such as salt, grapes and wine, olives and olive oil, fruit, fish, firewood, coal and stone. During World War I, it transported soldiers and supplies through this corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire to and from the port city of Trieste.

As the railway became an increasingly important commercial link in this part of the north Adriatic, the settlements it passed through developed into bustling market towns. Buje, Grožnjan, Završje and Oprtalj prospered once the railway arrived and the local agricultural industry intensified and thrived thanks to the trade route it created. Make a halt in tiny atmospheric Završje and you'll get the impression it's a virtual ghost town with few inhabitants, but in the early 20th century it had a mill, two shops, artisan workshops, a school, post office and six churches. The fact that these once densely populated towns have few residents today is also a poignant reminder that Istria is a land of emigration that experienced significant population movements in the 20th century due to economic decline, war and changes of regime.

The Istrian peninsula's topography of hilly terrain and thick woodlands was a challenging landscape in which to build a railway. This is why the Parenzana is considered a feat of engineering. The locomotive had to negotiate steep inclines and sharp turns and bends. After arriving at Buje station from Trieste, the locomotive would be replaced with a less powerful but more agile one able to negotiate the sharp turns it encountered as it zigzagged down hillsides towards Livade. The train travelled at an average speed of 25km/hr, covering the 123km journey from Trieste to Poreč in the space of seven hours. Today a cyclist cover this in much better time! Stop at the lookout points dotted along the trail and you'll marvel not only at the tableau of rolling hills before you but also at the prowess of the railways' engineers.

© Motovun Tourist Board

Failure to respect the speed limit of 30km/hr resulted in a few disasters. In June 1917, the train left its tracks in between Triban and Grožnjan, and in May 1923, a train operator lost his life when he didn't slow down to the recommended speed of 10km/hr at a sharp bend near Oprtalj. The railway was also sometimes subject to the natural elements: in March 1910, a train was derailed close to Muggia station (in today's Italy) by the strong bura wind, known to be particularly fierce in the north Adriatic.

The railway was in operation during a time when locomotives were steam-powered. Because of the many challenging climbs, the train's three-cubic-metre tank had to be refilled with water several times along its route. There were eight water stations along the way where the supply was replenished and passengers could stretch their legs in the meantime. Cyclists and ramblers exploring the trail today can hit pause once they run out of steam at the sporadic rest points made up of benches and picnic tables along the way. Or refuel with a meal at the countryside inn-like La Parenzana Hotel & Restaurant in Buje, the local restaurant aModoMio and Vero café in Grožnjan or the upscale restaurant at Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel in Motovun.

Ultimately, the Parenzana railway had a short life. It took its last journey on August 31, 1935 – 33 years after its inauguration. With the development of road transport, the importance of the railway quickly declined and with it, the towns it had nourished economically. Istria was under Mussolini's rule when the dictator ordered the railway be dismantled and the rails transported to Abyssinia by ship. The ship sank on the way to Africa and the Parenzana railway's last and final stop was the bottom of the sea.

Information signs along the trail mark where the railway's 35 stations once stood – a few are still standing today. These share interesting snippets of the Parenzana's history and facts about the railway. At the Parenzana Museum in Livade, railway buffs can browse through archival photographs, vintage postcards and an interactive map, and learn more about the railway's historical and socio-economic significance. A life-sized model of its locomotive permanently stationed just outside Vižinada is another reminder of this once important transportation link in the region. Though it had a short life, the Parenzana lives on.

This article is sponsored by the Istrian Tourism Board.
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