When we travel, Joe and I try to see and experience something new everywhere we go. Even if we’ve visited a place before, we add a new town or region to our list. Our sense of adventure has become a part of us. Exploring back country roads in a little rental car is often a highlight of any trip. And this past weekend was no exception: the region of Istria was calling our name. So we booked a car, outlined some plans, and set off into the unknown.
Istria is fairly large and contains numerous sub-regions. We only visited a few, but discovered many highlights along the way. The bright green, mountainous beauty of the area blew us away, and each hill-top town and verdant valley we encountered enchanted us more and more.
Joe is our trusty driver on these weekend trips – his manual transmission-wrangling skills are far more developed than mine. Driving in Croatia was surprisingly relaxing and easy; the roads were decent, our fellow road trippers and commuters were reasonably polite and not too crazy, and the scenery was stunning. The multiple tolls we had to pay were the only unpleasant surprises along the way. Google Maps did suggest another route – through the country of Slovenia. So much for that.
Once out of Zagreb, we climbed some rolling hills which turned into forested mountains. Nestled in small valleys and on hilltops were the most beautiful, picturesque villages you can imagine. We stopped to wander around one and didn’t want to leave. Red roofs and painted stone walls stood out against the deep green trees and fields, and the inevitable church spire pierced the sky. The further we drove into Istria, the more vineyards we began to see. Cornfields and forests were interspersed with the vines on rolling hills, and the occasional ancient castle peeked through the trees.
Pula (the town)
Our ultimate destination lay at the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula. This most north-westerly region of Croatia juts out into the northern corner of the Adriatic sea like a thick, hooked nose. The city of Pula was a bustling port in Roman times, and houses a large amphitheater dating (mostly) to the 1st c. C.E. There is also a small temple dedicated to the emperor Augustus as well as a stone arch celebrating a victory of the Sergii brothers around 29 B.C.E. The Roman archaeologist in me was in heaven.
Premantura (the beach)
Croatia is famous for its beaches, and Istria has its fair share. We were determined to spend some time in the crystal clear waters, so on the recommendation of a local, we headed for the area of Premantura. This long peninsula dangles off the end of Istria and contains a vast national park. Without much planning, we headed south.
We ventured into the park behind a long line of vehicles. Our little Peugeot bumped and bounced along the dustiest dirt road you’ve ever seen. Eventually, we turned off towards the first signed beach we found. We picked and climbed our way down the rock shelf coastline and, after a bit of bickering and grumbling, found a spot away from the crowds. The turquoise water splashed up onto the flat but sharp rock slabs. Tiny snails clung to the insides of small holes in the stones.
The water was insanely clear and refreshing, and we managed to find relatively flat sunning spots away from the spray. Unfortunately, the sun and clouds had other plans, and started playing hide-and-seek shortly after we got settled. A couple quick plunges into the water spent most of our sunlight. This represents one of many moments in which I’ve realized: not every day or adventure has to be (or will be) perfect.
Read more about Istria’s delightful wines (and friendly winery owners and hosts) in the next post!
A Dark and Stormy Night
Or, our failed attempt to enjoy some quality Mexican food.
After a long day of sight-seeing, beach exploring, and wine tasting, we were looking forward to some fajitas and a margarita. When your husband craves fajitas and you find them, you go.
Not long after we arrived and sat, the heavens cracked open and a deluge began. Thunder rumbled and boomed and lightning flashed through the torrential downpour. More and more people crowded under the palapa-style roof around our table as they settled in to weather the storm.
I could to be kind and blame the horrendous service on the weather. It likely had to do with the one swamped server tending an entire covered patio. Or their broken order entry system without which they were lost. After an hour and a half of waiting, who really cares. After begging our server for some beers and chips to sustain us while we waited, our fajitas finally arrived. Unfortunately, redemption was not possible. But the storm did stop.
On the way back to Zagreb, we decided to make a small detour to see 15th c. Veliki Tabor castle. Little did we know that our three and a half hour drive would turn into a five hour odyssey. Thank you, traffic and tolls. Fortunately, we traveled through some of the most beautiful hills and valleys I’ve ever seen. The castle itself wasn’t particularly special – many rooms were empty and under construction – but the views were spectacular. OMG am I getting blasé about castles now…?? High standards.
Istria may not be the most famous or well-known region of Croatia, but it’s well worth the trip. If you enjoy delicious wine, incredibly friendly and welcoming people, gorgeous old towns, beautiful coastline, and the occasional Roman ruin – this area is for you. Don’t miss it!