Istria. It was here that Adriatic tourism as we know it first took off, and Istria still functions as an incubator of new ideas, ideas that end up being exported to the rest of the Croatian coast. The reasons for Istria’s preeminence are partly geographical – the peninsula lies very close to the Central European cities where most Croatia-bound travellers originally came from, so it’s hardly surprising that the Istrian hospitality industry has always been a few steps ahead of everyone else.
Adriatic mussels © starkovphoto
However, Istria also stands out for reasons unique to the peninsula itself. Take for example Croatia’s breakthrough as a gastronomic destination, a phenomenon rooted in the rediscovery of local culinary riches and great Croatian delicacies, such as Istria olive oil and Istrian prosciutto. Istria always had a reputation of neighbourhood inns serving homemade pasta, local game, seasonal goodies such as asparagus and truffles, and menus that ran from farmhouse sausages to the finest Adriatic scallops and mussels. The contemporary emphasis on locally-sourced food and the unselfconscious readiness to mix high- and low-cuisine was not something that Croatia learned by watching TV chefs on cable TV – it already existed in Istria.
Istrian vineyard © Motovun vineyard
The same might be said of boutique wine. It was the Istrian emphasis on small-scale quality, exemplified by local growers such as Degrassi, Clai and Matošević, that brought domestic varieties like Malvazija and Teran back to Europe’s top tables and gave Croatian wine growers further south something to aim for.
The number of celebrations marking seasonal bounty (whether harvesting chestnuts or fishing for squid) has always been an important part of Istrian life, and it’s here that the contemporary Croatian gastro-festival has its roots. Even now, there are more food festivals in Istria than in any other part of Croatia, and new events are being added to the calendar all the time.
Istria’s reputation for innovation doesn’t just rest on the constant reinvention of its rustic riches. There’s also a brash modernist side to the peninsula that sees tourism as a grand project as well as a cottage industry. It was in Istria after all that the nuts and bolts of Adriatic tourism were first put together. The impetus initially came from outside: Austrian and Italian overlords built roads, railways and resorts to cater for the sophisticated lotus-eaters of Vienna and Rome. However, the mass tourism boom of the Sixties was very much a home-grown affair. Local architects were brought in to design landmark hotels like the Materada in Poreč and the Eden in Rovinj, creating a distinctive Croatian-modernist style that still serves as an inspiration today. A commitment to socially-responsible planning ensured that hotel developments and historic town centres were kept apart. It was Istria that took the lead – Dalmatia had to wait until the late Sixties before the hotel-building boom took off, for the simple reason that it didn’t have good enough roads.
Lukobran Fažana © Istria Tourist Board
Innovative hotel architecture is still part and parcel of the Istrian cultural package. Completed in 2012, Rovinj’s Hotel Lone (designed by Zagreb’s 3LHD), was a deliberate attempt to match the achievements of the Sixties generation by creating something uncompromisingly contemporary that could also serve as an object of beauty. Over on the other side of Rovinj’s broad bay is the Hotel Amarin (Sudio UP; 2016), an agenda-setting family resort comprising alien-spaceship hotel and innovative, colour-coded children’s park. With the hanging-garden terraces of the Grand Hotel Park (3LHD again) currently taking shape opposite Rovinj’s medieval centre, the town is beginning to look like a premonition of Croatia’s future as well as a well-preserved morsel of an illustrious past.
Motuvun cycling © Motuvun tourist board
It’s by no means just about hotels: Istria has always been at the forefront of the Croatian camping scene too. It was here that the first mega-camps emerged in the Sixties and Seventies, and here that the first big naturist camps came into being at around the same time. Naturism, it seems, is slowly on the way out, with big let-it-all-hang-out resorts such as Polari near Rovinj and Koversada near Vrsar being redeveloped as family-oriented glamping sites – mostly for the fully clothed, but with secluded plots reserved for the FKK die-hards.
There are plenty of aspects of the Innovative-Istria brand that transcend mere discussion of tourist facilities. Croatia’s new-found reputation as a land of film festivals rested initially on two big Istrian events. Pula (established in 1953; Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon was one of the first films to be screened), and Motovun (launched in 1999 and now a major showcase for independents) are still the only Croatian film festivals that regional cineastes absolutely must attend. It is no surprise that Istria is also home to Croatia’s two essential media-industry shindigs: the Communication Days (May) and Weekend Media Festival (September), both in Rovinj, attract the kind of international experts that Zagreb would find it hard to muster.
Barrel © Tatlin
Istria’s reputation as the summertime heartland of European bass culture (thanks to Pula-based festivals like Outlook and Dimensions) owes a great deal to the initial success of Seasplash, the local reggae and dub event established in 2003. The Adriatic festival template was not something developed by outsiders and brought into the country as a fully-formed business idea – the whole thing took off thanks to a bunch of reggae fans in Pula.
The Seasplash Festival is moving from Pula to the Dalmatian town of Šibenik in 2019. It’s a significant loss to the Istrian scene, but also demonstrates the point that we made at the beginning: if it’s happening in Croatia, it probably happened in Istria first.