The Istrian peninsula, nestling at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, and the islands that tumble down the Kvarner gulf are some of the most sought-after holiday destinations in Europe. The coast is spectacular and the towns and cities are fascinating. Three National Parks – the Brijuni Islands, the Plitvice Lakes and Risnjak – preserve the natural charm of the area.
Until 1000 BC, the region was inhabited by Illyrians. From 42 BC Istria became part of the Roman empire, when the Province of Dalmatia was founded. Cities were built along the coast and on the islands, and many traces of Roman presence remain. Pula has a well-preserved amphitheatre dating back to the 1st century, the sixthlargest arena of its kind in the world. With the fall of the western Roman Empire, much of the eastern Adriatic coast came under the control of Byzantium. The intricate, well-preserved golden mosaics of the 6th-century basilica of St Euphrasius in Poreč survive from that time. In 1420 the area came under Venetian rule, a situation which was to last until 1797, when Napoleon dissolved the Venetian Republic. Nearly 400 years of Venetian rule are recorded by 15th-century open-air loggias, elegant bell towers and buildings with Venetian-Gothic windows, built by wealthy merchants.
With the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, Austria-Hungary extended its domain to include Venetian lands. Rijeka developed into an industrial port under Austro-Hungarian rule and is still today a hub for Croatian shipping. Close by in Opatija the Habsburgs built elegant villas and planted lush gardens for their winter holidays. In 1918 Istria briefly became part of the new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which subsequently became Yugoslavia in the same year. Many Istrian towns have two official names, an Italian and a Croatian one, a legacy from 1920, when Istria was given to Italy as a reward for having joined the Allies in World War I. During World War II, the region became a stronghold for Italian partisans. After 1943, most of Istria was given back to Yugoslavia.
On an isolated hill, among flourishing vineyards, stands Buje, the ancient Roman settlement of Bullea. Formerly a Frankish feudal village, in 1102 it became part of the Patriarchate of Aquileia and in 1412 the town came under Venetian rule. The town still retains the outline of the ancient walled castle and has kept its original medieval layout, with narrow alleys and lanes leading to the main square. The Cathedral of St Servelus (Sv. Servol) and its Aquileian bell tower stand here.
The church was built in the 16th century over the remains of a Roman temple, of which a few columns and pieces survive. Inside the church are wooden statues from the 14th and 15th centuries (Madonna with Child and St Barbara), sculptures representing St Servelus and St Sebastian (1737) by Giovanni Marchiori, and an organ by Gaetano Callido (1725–1813). A 15th-century Venetian Gothic palace and a 16thcentury loggia with a frescoed façade also face the square. Outside the walls is the Church of St Mary (Sv. Marija), erected in the 15th century: a wooden statue of the Virgin and a Pietà are from the same period. Some of the paintings of biblical scenes are by Gasparo della Vecchia (early 18th century). The Civic Museum houses some interesting handicrafts and pieces made by local craftsmen.
This town is located on a narrow peninsula which frames a small bay. It was founded by the Romans and given the name of Umacus. In 1268, it became an important port when it passed into Venetian hands. Later, in the 14th century, a wall and towers were built, some of which still remain.
The town still has many 15thand 16th-century stone houses, some with ornate Gothic windows. On the left outer wall of the 18th-century Church of St Mary (Sv. Marija) is a relief of St Pilgrim and the fortified town of Umag, and inside the church is a 15th-century Venetian-school polyptych. Today Umag is a busy seaside resort with numerous hotels. It has become known for its well-equipped sports centres, and major tennis tournaments are held here.
Poreč was a Roman town (Colonia Julia Parentium) which, after centuries of splendour, was sacked by the Goths and fell into decline. In 539 it was conquered by the Byzantines, who founded a bishopric around the year 800. The town then became part of the kingdom of the Franks, who gave it to the Patriarchate of Aquileia. In 1267 it was the first Istrian town to choose Venetian rule, and the town acquired a Venetian look as palaces, squares and religious buildings were built. In 1354 it was destroyed by the Genoese and later, plague, pirates and a long war greatly reduced the population. During Austrian domination it became the seat of the Istrian parliament and an important shipyard.
The old centre shelters on a narrow peninsula protected by rocks and the island of St Nicholas. Despite being a popular base for visitors to Istria, the Old Town has remained intact and Poreč invariably wins an annual award for “best-kept town”. The layout is based on the original Roman network, with a main road (Decumanus) and another main road at right angles (Cardo). The main monuments of the town line these roads. Along the Decumanus stand many Gothic houses. At the easternmost point is the Baroque Sinčić Palace (18th century), which houses the Poreč Museum (Zavičajni Muzej Poreštine). It is dedicated to Roman and early Christian archaeology; an ethnographic section illustrates daily life in the Poreč region.
Nearby in St Maurus Street (Sv. Mauro) is the House of Two Saints, all that is left of the abbey of St Cassius (12th century), with two Romanesque figures on the façade. To the west, the Decumanus leads to Trg Marafor, once the site of the forum, with houses from the 12th and 13th centuries and the remains of a pre-Roman temple. North of the square is the church of St Francis (Sv. Frane, 12th–14th centuries), altered in the Baroque period. To the east is the parish house with an ornate Romanesque façade. From here there is a passage that leads to the 6th-century Euphrasian Basilica, which has marvellous Byzantine mosaics.
4. Vrsar (Orsera)
The remains of a villa, a quarry and the foundations of an early Christian building all provide evidence that Romans once settled here. In documents preceding 1000 AD, this village is mentioned as the feudal territory of the bishop of Poreč, who owned a fortified summer residence here. Until 1778 it remained under the protection of the bishop and then came under Venetian rule.
The town had an outer wall and towers which have now almost disappeared except for the West and East Town Gate and some fragments of the walls. On the harbour is the Church of St Mary (Sv. Marija) from the 10th century, one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Istria. Guitar concerts are held here in the summer months. The town is dominated by the 18th-century Vergottini Castle, built by restructuring the bishop’s former residence.
Near the Romanesque gate in the medieval wall is the small church of St Anthony, built in the 17th century with an open portico. Environs Just outside Vrsar lies Koversada, Europe’s largest naturist resort. To the south of Vrsar, towards Rovinj, is the Limski Channel, now a marine reserve. The channel is 9 km (5 miles) long and 600 m (1,970 ft) wide, with steep sides perforated by limestone caves which have been lived in from time to time since the Neolithic Age. In the early 11th century, one of the caves was the home of the hermit St Romualdo, who founded the monastery of St Michael near Kloštar. Many of the restaurants in the area offer the oysters and mussels farmed in the channel.
5. Rovinj (Rovigno)
Rovinj was originally an island port built by the Romans. In 1763, Rovinj was joined to the coast by filling in the channel dividing the island from the mainland, creating a peninsula. Initially ruled by the Byzantines and the Franks, from 1283 until 1797 the town was under Venetian control. The remains of a wall dating back to the Middle Ages can still be seen.
In the square in front of the pier is Balbi’s Arch (1680), an ancient city gate, as well as a late- Renaissance clock tower. The Califfi Palace, dating from 1680, is now the Heritage Museum, housing 18th-century art from the Venetian school and works by modern Croatian artists. In the roads branching off the square are Baroque and Renaissance buildings. The backs of many of these face the sea. The cathedral, dedicated to St Euphemia (Sv. Eufemija), dominates the town.
Origi-nating in early Christian times, it was rebuilt in 1736. The saint’s remains are preserved in a Roman sarcophagus in the apse on the right of the threeaisle church. The adjacent bell tower is 62 m (200 ft) high (the second-highest in Istria), and was modelled on that of San Marco in Venice. It is crowned by a copper statue of St Euphemia. In the east of the city is the 13th-century Baptistry of the Holy Trinity (Sv. Trojstvo). Along the waterfront is the Centre for Maritime Research. It was founded in the late 19th century and has an aquarium. Nearby, Red Island (Crveni otok) is in fact two islands linked by an embankment. South of the town is Zlatni Rt, a forest park planted with cedars, pines and cypresses.
6. Fažana (Fasana)
This small fishing town is known mainly as the embarkation point for the islands of the Brijuni National Park. Its ancient name, Vasianum, derives from the production of oil and wine amphorae during the Roman period. Facing the sea is the church of SS Cosmas and Damian (Sv. Kuzma i Damjan), which was founded in the 11th century and has undergone various reconstructions.
Inside is a painting by Jurai Ventura of The Last Supper (1578), and in the sacristy are remains of frescoes by Italian artists from Friuli dating from the 15th–16th centuries. To the side of the church is a seven-storey bell tower with an octagonal spire. The Church of Our Lady of Carmel from the late 14th century has Gothic frescoes by unknown artists and a 17th-century loggia. Nearby is the church of St Eliseus from the 6th century, with a stone doorway and blind-arch windows, which preserves its Byzantine appearance from the 8th–9th centuries. Thanks to the growth in numbers of visitors heading for the Brijuni Islands, the town has grown and new facilities have been built.
7. Brijuni National Park
The Brijuni Archipelago is made up of 14 islands and was declared a national park in 1983. The two largest islands have been inhabited since the Palaeolithic era. In Roman times there were aristocratic villas and later religious communities.
The islands were abandoned in 1630 because of malaria, but people returned in the following century to work the stone quarries. In the late 19th century, the islands were bought by the Tyrolean industrialist Paul Kupelwieser. After World War II they were used as a summer residence by Marshal Tito, and were visited by heads of state. Visitors are only allowed on the two main islands, Veli Brijun and Mali Brijun.
8. Pula (Pola)
Pula is well known for its magnificent monuments from the Roman era, when it was a colony known as Pietas Julia. It became an episcopal seat in 425 and still has the foundations of some 5th-century religious buildings. It was destroyed by the Ostrogoths, but flourished again when it became the main base for the Byzantine fleet in the 6th and 7th centuries: the cathedral and chapel of St Mary of Formosa date from this time.
In 1150 it came under Venetian rule, but by the mid-17th century the population had declined to 300. It was revitalized in 1856 when Austria made it the base for its fleet. Today, Pula is a university town and, with Pazin, the administrative centre of Istria.
Known as Petina under the Romans, Pićan stands on a hilltop 350m (1,150 ft) high. It was a bishop’s see from Late Antiquity to the end of the 18th century, and has some intriguing medieval buildings. Inside the medieval walls is a cathedral dedicated to St Nicephorus, built in the 14th century, and rebuilt in the early 18th century after an earthquake.
The story of the Christian martyr Nicephorus is shown in a painting by Valentin Metzinger (1699–1759) in the cathedral. The Romanesque Church of St Michael (Sv. Mihovil) in the cemetery has early 15thcentury frescoes.
An ancient fortified town once stood here on the site of the Roman town Flanona, which was destroyed by the Avars in the 6th century. It was rebuilt after 1000 AD and took on its present look in the 13th century after it had become Venetian territory. Plomin, built on a sheer cliff 168 m (550 ft) above the bay of the same name, was once densely populated. Houses take up nearly all the space inside the walls (from the 13th–14th centuries and only partially preserved). Worn, narrow roads climb towards the centre, where the 11th-century Romanesque Church of St George (Sv. Juraj) stands. Inside is a tablet in Glagolitic script also dating from the 11th century, one of the oldest documents in this ancient Slavic script extant in Croatia.
The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Crkva Blažene Djevice Marije) also contains treasures of artistic merit. The church was consecrated in 1474, but was greatly altered in the 18th century. There are three Baroque altars in carved, painted wood and a rich church treasury. A fresco by Albert, a German painter from Konstanz, was found on the wall during restoration work.
11. Tour of the Fortified Towns
The resort of Opatija takes its name from a 14th-century Benedictine abbey, around which a village was built. On the site of the monastery now stands the Church of St James (Sv. Jakov), built in 1506 and enlarged in 1937. Tourist interest began to grow in around 1844 when a nobleman from Rijeka, Iginio Scarpa, built the grand Villa Angiolina here. The villa is surrounded by a large park and became the first hotel.
A few years later the Austrian Empress Maria Anna stayed here and her visit was immediately followed by visits from other court dignitaries. More luxury hotels and villas were then built and the small town became a fashionable turn-of-the-century resort. Tourism in Opatija was given a boost by the construction of the railway line which linked Austria with Rijeka, with a tram line to Opatija. The Emperor Franz Joseph also stayed at a hotel here, often for long periods during the winter in order to enjoy the mild climate of the area. Today the coast is still lined with luxury late-19th-century hotels and villas surrounded by parks and gardens. However, it is no longer the height of fashion, although older visitors are drawn by its comparative tranquillity.
The narrow island of Cres is 65 km (40 miles) long. In the north, a colony of native griffon vultures, protected by law since 1986, nests on a plateau swept by the dry, cold bora wind. The south is milder and olives and vines are grown. A single road travels from the north of Cres to the south of Lošinj, linking the islands by a bridge. Tourism focuses on just a few villages such as Cres and Osor.
Cres Town, Cres nestles in a bay sheltered by the hill behind. The town became important when the bishopric and governor’s seat were transferred here from Osor. The walls and the three gates with stone arches give the town a Venetian feel, and the Church of Our Lady of the Snow has paintings by artists from the Venetian school. The 16th-cen tury Town Hall, or Loggia, is now a fruit and vegetable market. The old port is a lively place, bustling with fishermen and visitors. The Town Gate, a clock tower and several Renaissance buildings face the port. The Church of St Isidore (the patron saint), dates from the 12th century.
Osor, Until the mid-15th century this was the main town on the island, with a port and a bishopric. It later declined and the capital was moved to Cres. Today the entire town is a museum, with Bronze Age remains and some splendid monuments, making it a centre of great artistic interest. The beautiful 15th-century Cathedral of the Assumption was completed in 1497 and is built of honey-coloured stone. The façade has an arched tympanum above a doorway with a relief of the Virgin Mary. Inside the church there is a painting of SS Nicholas and Gaudentius on the altar. The Cres Museum (Creski muzej) occupies the Arsan Palace and has stone inscriptions and interesting finds from the Illyrian and Roman periods, and the early Middle Ages. The façade of the Bishop’s Palace (second half of the 15th century) bears coats of arms of the bishops and nobles of the island and the interior is richly decorated. Some walls, foundations and mosaics are all that remain of the Church of St Peter.
13. Risnjak National Park: The Leska Trail
The vast Gorski Kotor plateau, separating Croatia from Slovenia, begins north of Rijeka. Part of the area has been declared a national park in order to protect the forests and natural environment and the ecological balance of the area.
The park, set up in 1953, first covered an area of 32 sq km (12 sq miles), but it is now double that size, most of it made up of forests and grasslands with many karst (limestone) features. The climatic conditions, caused by the territory’s particular exposure and altitude, are very varied and about 30 different plant communities have been identified. The Leska trail was set up in 1993, and 23 information panels inform visitors about various aspects of this area.
This is the largest of the Adriatic islands, with an area of 409 sq km (158 sq miles). A bridge links the island to the mainland, built to provide good connections to the island’s international airport. Along the eastern coast the island looks almost ghostly, its white rocks swept by the bora wind. Inland and on the more protected western coast, there is rich, lush vegetation.
Krk was first inhabited by the Liburnians, followed by the Romans, who founded Curicum (the present-day Krk) and Fulfinum. Traces of walls, baths and villas with floor mosaics still remain. In the 6th century it came under Croatian rule and after the Frankish and Byzantine occupation it became part of the possessions of Venice. It was then granted to Dujam I, founder of the Frankopan family, and from 1480 to 1797 it was directly ruled by Venice. Krk was a centre for Glagolitic script and the Baška Tablet, now in the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Zagreb, was found on the island.
15. Novi Vinodolski
The Old Town, built on a hill overlooking the Vinodol valley, holds an important place in Croatian history. On 6 January 1288, in the castle built by the Frankopan dukes, the Vinodol Codex, one of the oldest legislative Croatian texts in the ancient Glagolitic script, was produced. The document is now in the National Library in Zagreb. It was signed by the representatives of nine communes, and established rules for the ownership and use of local land. In 1988, the 700th anniversary of the Vinodol Codex, a fountain created by the sculptor Dorijan Sokolić was placed in the central square of Novi.
The fountain bears the names of the places which participated in drawing up the laws. The town is also remembered for the stratagem used by Bishop Kristofor to save the troops defeated by the Turks: the horses’ shoes were put on backwards so as to foil their pursuers. Having reached the safety of Vinodol Castle, the bishop gave thanks by rebuilding the Church of SS Philip and James (Sv. Filip i Jakov). He was buried here in 1499. The church, decorated in the 17th century in the Baroque style, has a magnificent altar from that period. The side altar has a Gothic Virgin Mary from the 15th century. The 13th-century Frankopan Castle has been restored and is now a museum, with exhibits from the Roman and medieval periods and a rich, varied collection of traditional folk costumes.
The island of Rab lies parallel to the Velebit massif, creating a channel which was much dreaded by sailors because it forms a tunnel for the cold, dry bora wind which makes this part of the coast rocky and barren. The opposite, western side of the island is protected from the wind and the climate is mild. Here the landscape is much greener and maquis alternates with woods of pine, oak and holm oak. The Romans knew the island by the name of Arba, or Scadurna, and, after its conquest, built a settlement on the site of the present-day town of Rab. This island is a popular holiday destination with its sandy beaches, rocky coves and mild climate.
The main town, Rab, which gives its name to the island, became a bishopric in the early Christian period and was inhabited by Slavic people in the 6th century. After it had been conquered by the Franks, it was administered by Venice and a treaty of mutual defence was agreed upon which lasted until 1000 AD. Rab was at times under the rule of the Hungarian kings until 1409, when it became Venetian territory. Venice ruled the island until 1797. The town, famous for its four bell towers which make it look like a ship with four masts, has some lovely Venetian architecture. Along the three main streets are fine aristocratic buildings with Romanesque doorways, such as the Nimira, Tudorin, Kukulić, Galzigna and Cassio Palaces. The ancient medieval walls that encircled the Old Town on the southern point of the peninsula were destroyed, and in the 15th century a wall was built which also enclosed the New Town, called Varoš. Part of this wall is well preserved, particularly the stretch facing the bay of St Euphemia.
17. Plitvice Lakes National Park
The Plitvice Lakes National Park, set in the heart of Croatia, was founded in 1949. This area of 300 sq km (115 sq miles), covered in lakes and forest, has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. It is particularly known for its spectacular waterfalls.
There are 16 lakes within the park and visitors can move around by following the paths along the shores or by using footbridges. Shuttle buses take people to the starting points of the trails and to the hotels in the park. The largest lake can be toured by electric boat. There are no towns or villages in the reserve, only hotels.