Istria - The Italian Croatia

Published: 12th March 2008
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A lot of people have never heard of Istria and many who have suspect that it may well be one of those umpteen former Balkan states that arrived on the scene when Yugoslavia broke up in the early nineties. This latter theory is partially correct, as Istria is in fact the most westerly portion of Croatia, but in all honesty it may just as well be a country in its own right. It is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea looking a lot like a miniature version of India, protruding into the north-east of the Adriatic, just south of Slovenia. Unlike much of Croatia, it is quite proximate to western European countries such as Austria and Italy and the Italian influence in particular is omnipresent. You could be forgiven for thinking you were visiting a long lost Italian colony. This extends to all road signs being in both Croatian and Italian and some of its older citizens actually speaking only Italian. Istria has, in fact, more Italian heritage than it has either Yugoslavian or Croatian.

Historically Istria has been fairly central to all European happenings, with ownership regularly moving from one entity to another on the transfer of power. Up to World War I it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the war it was handed to Italy where it remained until the end of World War II, when it reverted to Yugoslavia. When this Balkan grouping broke up in 1990 it transferred to Croatia where it has remained since. One of the advantages of its being on the periphery of Croatia was that it wasn't involved in the Balkan conflict of the early nineties, much like neighbouring Slovenia.

Pula, at the southern tip, is the most important town although Pazin, in the centre, is the capital of the region. Others of interest include the tourist towns of Umag, Novigrad, Porec, Vrsar, Rovinj and Fažana along the west coast. From the latter you can take a ferry to the famous Brijuni National Park, located on an island group which was the long time holiday home of Yugoslavia's venerated leader, Josip Broz Tito. The inland towns of Motovun, an ancient Istrian acropolis town on a hilltop, and Grožnjan, a pretty artists village, are worth a visit and very representative of small Istrian towns in general. Between Vrsar and Rovinj you will find the picturesque Limski Kanal, a 10 km long fjord running to the Adriatic sea at Lim Bay.

The east coast of the peninsula is a huge contrast to the west with the impressive Ucka mountain range plunging to the sea. This area is far less populated than the east but also much more dramatic, offering spectacular views of the islands of Cres, Zeca and Lošinj. A visit to the ancient Austro-Hungarian town of Opatija and its sumptuous architecture is recommended as is a trip over the Ucka mountains themselves which form the basis of a protected nature park.

The peninsula is like a reasonable sized island, with everywhere on it reachable within ninety minutes. It is small enough to be covered in a short trip but still large enough to be interesting, and it is in receipt of around one third of all Croatia's visitors. The property most readily associated with the area is the traditional Istrian white stone house, which you will find dotted liberally around its hilltop towns. If you are looking for a large resort with hundreds of similar apartments, communal swimming pools and a hopping Karaoke bar in the evenings, then steer well clear, it just isn't that kind of place. Those who buy here tend to do so because they like Istria the way it is, and the Croatian government is going out of its way to keep it that way. Most of the properties purchased here are either old stone houses for renovation or newly renovated units. You may have been led to believe that property in Istria is cheap, but it's not particularly. You can find good value apartments in towns such as Pula and Pazin, but decent stone buildings will cost money. A good renovation project will cost €120k plus to buy and between €500 and €700 per sq. m. to renovate depending on the finish quality. If you can find a 100 sq. m. renovated building for less than €200k you'll be doing very well. Buying a house and renovating it yourself is a lot of hard work and most of the good quality craftsmen are already gainfully employed. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that it is an easy route to quick money. Planning is difficult to get in Croatia so any external alterations may prove awkward to achieve. If you do want to take on a renovation it is better to purchase through a builder who deals specifically with such projects and can give you a fixed price for the finished product.

In somewhat of a departure from the norm or a complete fit of madness, delete where applicable, Istria has granted planning permission for Aquamania, the first Aqua Park in Croatia. It is due to be opened in 2008 in the town of Vodnjan,10km from Pula airport. The development is to be built on a 77,000 sq. m. site with twenty four different water slides and swimming pools along with the obligatory café bars and restaurants.

As with many other areas, Istria is becoming popular due to Ryanair's decision last January to fly to Pula airport from Dublin three times weekly. Unusually for Ryanair, this airport is reasonably accessible, in an area that people wish to visit and you don't need to spend twice the air fare on busses to get to where you are really going. This has opened up the promonotory to the Irish, who would have had to travel through Trieste or Zagreb to reach it prior to this.

Road infrastructure is also quite a bit better in this part of Croatia but remember that all 'beaches' are gravel or rock. If locals tell you that it is sand it is in fact gravel, not sand as we know it. All things are relative and this is relatively sandy in Croatia but their only real sand beaches are on the Elaphite Island of Lopud off Dubrovnik.

Croatia is also the nudie capital of Europe so if you like to give your 'jiggly bits' a bit of a roasting then this may well be the place for you. The Croatians blame the British royals for this particular affliction, as it is reputed that King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson came to Istria in the 1930's to get their kit off and go swimming as the Good Lord intended. Koversada, close to Vrsar, is the largest and most popular naturist resort in Europe and Valalta in Rovinj has headed a number of polls as the beach of choice for naturists. If the sight of rotund Germans letting it all hang out makes you want to hurl then it is probably best to avoid the area completely, in the summer in any case, as you'll find all sorts along this coastline, not just in its many naturist camps.

You will often find Istria referred to as the 'New Tuscany', a tag with which locals aren't entirely enamoured. I've never been to Tuscany but I've been informed that it looks a lot like Istria, therefore I must conclude that Tuscany may well be the 'Old Istria'. There are parallels which can't be ignored. Local culture revolves around family, food and drink. Istrians are also immensely proud of their wines, mostly robust whites, considered some of Croatia's best, along with their many brands of olive oil, renowned for their character.

When you visit Istrians involved in the property industry you can't avoid hearing talk of one thing - golf. This is amazing when you consider that Croatians don't traditionally play the game and there is only one full size course in the country - yet. The existing course is on the largest of Istria's Brijuni Islands, where it was constructed in 1922 by its Austrian owner and surprisingly survived right through Tito's reign. The course is unique in that it has sand greens and the grass is kept at bay by deer. Suffice it to say that Valderrama or Augusta aren't yet quaking in their boots but it is likely that this course will - eventually - be converted into a top class resort course. In 1999 the government proposed building twenty-two golf courses in Istria alone. So far just two have all the permits and are to commence this year - one at Crveni Vrh in Savudrija and the other in Marlera between Medulin and Ližnjan. Things do drag on a bit in Croatia though, so few people will hazard a guess as to when they may finish. Liliane Scully of Adriatic Riviers says that; "realistically it is a two to five year time frame." There is no doubt that the Croatians will take to golf in their droves, their passion for sport would make an Irishman blush. I had a full blown and reasonably intelligent conversation about rugby with a sport mad Croatian, another game they don't play very much, but Lord help us when they start.

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