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Istria: the new Tuscany? Almost

As the roads became more decrepit the landscape rocked, rolled and undulated, drawing me up to those historic hill towns

May 30, 2011 | By:

James Joyce loathed it. Oliver Bennett loved it. Welcome to Istria, the best bit of the former Yugoslavia

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Looks familiar: the Istrian shore bears witness to its past as a Venetian colony

It’s hard to beat a medieval hilltop town, and when there’s a free art-house film festival on, it’s very heaven. Motovun in Croatia is that perfect hilltop town and I walked around its twilit ancient walls, snacking on a shashlik and chugging a beer. Then the festival starting screening a film in the medieval square, and I suddenly was in a movie: my own private Cinema Paradiso.

Istria is the small, India-shaped peninsula at the top of Croatia. Its landscape of tangled oak woods and hill towns, with a rocky Adriatic coast punctuated by cypress trees, all looks a bit Tuscan. Indeed, Istria is routinely called ‘the new Tuscany’.

Its motherland was a Venetian colony until the Napoleonic era, Italian in the interwar period and joined Yugoslavia in 1945. Post-Tito, and post a bit-part in the Balkan conflict, Croatia is up there with the other Mediterranean big hitters. Almost.

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I arrived in Istria via Italy – flying to Trieste, a short drive away through Slovenia – and stayed in Porec. This seaside town is a set-piece of considerable charm, with a Venetian campanile crowning a peninsular old town, and grid-like streets full of grand old houses with ogee windows, leading on to a rather ritzy quayside replete with newish-looking yachty wealth.

I had a Kvarner shrimp risotto at the Sv Nikola restaurant, washed down with Istria’s white Malvasia wines – the ancient vine touted by those sea-faring Venetians – and gazed out to sea. After a post-prandial doze on a nearby rock, I went to see Porec’s astonishing Byzantine Euphrasian Basilica, with glittering golden mosaics that had somehow survived over one and a half millennia, then went for a swim.

James Joyce: a reluctant promoter

In Istria this involves clambering over rocks, and gingerly putting toes into crystalline water where sea urchins lurk treacherously. The lack of sand has hampered mass tourism in Istria, but there are advantages: the water quality, the depth and the company. Swim a mile or two along the coast from Porec and everyone is naked: Istria is a Euro-nudist paradise.

After a blissful night in Porec eating pizza and drinking lashings of Malvasia, I went inwards into Istria, a region about the size of Wales (aren’t they all?). The capital, Pula, was big-city enough to deliver a bit of an urban blast, but also had a fantastic Roman forum, a huge Coliseum (almost as big as Rome’s and a lot less busy) and a statue of James Joyce, who briefly lived here. Joyce hated it, but tough: he’s doing his bit to promote Pula.

A strong coffee later, I drove into deep Istria: a journey that revealed wildflower-strewn meadows, old limestone houses with turquoise shutters, wayside Catholic shrines and the odd Soviet reminder, like a red star. I paused at a memorial to the Yugoslavian partisans, then plunged deeper into this forested, clay-soiled land, a terra that brings forth a cuisine of wild mushrooms, truffles, boars, wild asparagus, vineyards and olive groves.

That night I stayed in the hotel San Rocco, an old stone property in the tongue-twisting town of Brtonigla, then went to the local Konoba Morgan for country food. Konoba means ‘cellar’ and denotes a traditional restaurant, where they cook great lumps of flesh of all varieties traditionally, beneath hot ashes in the fireplace or oven. Rustico.

As the roads became more decrepit (some haven’t recovered since Communism departed) the landscape rocked, rolled and undulated, drawing me up to those historic hill towns. Buje and Groznjan were gorgeous, cobbled towns repopulated by picturesque artists. And then it was on to Motovun, where the film festival was warming up. I parked and walked up to the town, through the ancient portico guarded by flat-nosed stone Venetian lions, and into a cobbled world of grizzled Euro-auteurs and arty actors. Cannes can wipe out on its red carpet; Motovun’s my kind of film fest.