Istria - The magical country

The Istrian peninsula, located on the Western edge of Croatia, where the Mediterranean Sea most deeply retracts into the European mainland, has always been a special place.
Such is the tourist region of Istria, which has only one county (the Istrian county), and which is by far the most visited county in Croatia. Istrian peculiarity stems from its location and isolation from the rest of Croatia by the high massif of the river Učka. This unique location and the mix of various influences led to the creation of a special culture, landscape, music and gastronomy, because of which many call it the magical land.

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The first known inhabitants of Istria were the Illyrian tribe of the Histri, after which Istria was named. In ancient times it had been an essential part of the Roman Empire, and after its collapse and the arrival of the Croats, Frankish rulers and the Aquileia Patriarchate took turns in ruling over it. From the 15th century, the western coastal region of Istria was governed by Venice and the Eastern part and the interior by the Habsburgs. In the late 18th century, Istria was briefly ruled by the French and after that, until the end of World War I, was under the rule of Austria. Between the two World Wars, Istria belonged to the Kingdom of Italy, and in 1945, Istria finally became Croatian territory, first as part of Yugoslavia and since 1991, as an independent county in the state.This brief historical review is important in understanding the origins of the wealth of Istrian culture and the characteristics of the area which,perhaps more than any other in Croatia, came the fore of the great mixing of cultures and the ethnic groups of Slavs, Germans and Romans. Istrians are therefore widely known as people who know how to keep their peculiarity, as well as a very tolerant people who respect diversity. Therefore, in Istria, despite the paucity of the Italian national minority, the Croatian and the Italian languages are equal.

Istria's cultural richness and the beauty of her heritage are present throughout this magical peninsula, and are perhaps most apparent in the town of Rovinj. The panorama of Rovinj with the church of St. Euphemia and the bell tower in the centre is one of the most impressive symbols of Istria. The beauty of Rovinj has long been attracting many artists inspired by its magical views, preserved old town houses and picturesque narrow streets of the old part of town. Among these streets, Grisia has a special place, as the artists who gather there traditionally offer their works to many tourists on the spot. The Museum of Rovinj in the Baroque building in the centre of the main city holds many paintings by old masters. There are works of artists from the 19th century, inspired by life in Rovinj, particularly from the period of the Austrian authorities, when Istria was a strategically very important part of the once powerful Habsburg Empire.

In Novigrad, a picturesque historic town on the peninsula, there is a “Galerion”, a unique and very special collection of artifacts and photographs which show in an impressive way the meaning and the life of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. The lapidary next to the parish church holds, and in a very unique way presents, historically valuable stone fragments of the church’s lithurgical inventory. Novigrad has managed to preserve much of its architectural heritage, including magnificent defensive walls. Similar to Novigrad is Umag, the northernmost coastal city of Istria, opposite which is one of the largest marinas in Croatia. Other picturesque coastal towns, such as Vrsar, are located on the hills above the safe bays, which are a favourite amongst many boaters.

Much of the cultural heritage preserved on the Istrian coast was built during the Venetian occupation. A winged lion, the symbol of the evangelist Mark and the patron Serenisime, can be seen in Bale in the South of Istria. An extremely rich archaeological heritage is also represented in numerous museums. The largest by the number of exhibits in the state is the Archaeological Museum in Pula. Like Rovinj, Novigrad and Umag, the central city on the West coast of Istria, Poreč, boasts its lovely location on the peninsula. In this city, which by the number of tourists is the strongest tourist centre in the whole of Croatia, stands the most valuable cultural and historical monument in Istria. This is the EUPHRASIAN BASILICA in Poreč, for now the only monument in Istria listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The basilica is named after Bishop Euphrasius, in whose time it was built on the foundations of an even older basilica.It is the period of the basilica’s construction that is one of the main reasons for its value, as from that early period of Christian history, there are almost no completely preserved monuments. It is unique and special in its style of construction and a splendid example of early Byzantine art of the 6th century, which is rarely found so far to the West, the result of a well organized government of the famous Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who was ruler at the time of restored power, after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Basilica is almost invisible from the outside because it blends into the urban structure of the old city centre of Poreč (18). Yet if we enter into its interior, we will immediately be impressed by the uniqueness of its structure (22), and in particular the splendor and uniqueness of the altar (21). Like other Byzantine churches of that era, it is embellished with rich mosaics, and the best preserved are on the apse of the church (17) and in a special collection in the whole complex of the basilica. Among them, the most famous is the mosaic of the fish (20), a historical symbol of Christ, which serves as a sort of symbol of Poreč, which is therefore sometimes called the city of mosaics. Poreč, of course, is not only defined by the basilica, but also by its picturesque urban core which holds other beautiful and well preserved buildings from ancient times. Like other cities in Istria, Poreč also has a local History Museum. In this museum, paintings have a special role, with the most valuable part of the collection belonging to the once powerful and rich family Carli (19).

The largest town in Istria, PULA, is located in the extreme South of the Istrian peninsula and at first glance does not imply the cultural richness which it hides, and the beauty of its surroundings. The reason for this is its location in the plains, the size of the town and the buildings on its edges. If we enter into the centre of town, we will immediately be impressed by the monumental and well preserved amphitheatre (28), which testifies to the extraordinary importance of Pula and Istria since ancient times. This is the sixth largest Roman amphitheatre in the world and also one of the best preserved.The amphitheatre was built during the reign of Emperor Vespasian in the first century after Christ, and its appearance has remained virtually unchanged for two thousand years. It once served as an arena for cruel gladiator fighting which was watched by up to 20 000 people, and today serves as a tourist attraction and as a stage for various events (31), most of which are musical performances - from classical music and ballet (30) to rock concerts (29), which favours a unique atmosphere and the acoustics of the arena. However, the most famous of all national events is the international film festival held in July each year.

In addition to the amphitheatre in Pula, there are many other monuments from the Roman period, such as the Arch of the Sergi in the city centre. One of the most important museums in Croatia – the Archaeological Museum of Istria is also located in Pula. It holds the largest number of archaeological finds in Istria, dating from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages (34). Many monuments, particularly from recent times, are held in the Historical Museum of Istria and also in small galleries. Interesting pictures and graphics can be found in the impressive building of the City Council, particularly from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Pula was one of the largest military ports in the world. 

The areas that surround Pula are also extremely abundant in valuable cultural and historical monuments, the most notable being the Brijuni National Park, the main pearl of the natural heritage of Istria. In the park are especially valuable monuments of Antiquity, such as Roman villas and complexes and fortresses from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among them is the most magnificent fortress on the island of Mali Brijun, which now
occasionally serves as a stage for theatrical performances. In the vicinity of Pula is the old and ancient Illyrian city of Nezakcijum, dating back to the pre-Roman era, and the impressive lighthouse Porer located on the southermost point of the Istrian peninsula near Cape Kamenjak. While the cultural heritage of the coastal part of Istria attracts visitors mainly with its urban Mediterranean setting, there is the equally breathtakingly beautiful inside, with its predominantly cultivated landscape and small Istrian villages and towns. Istria’s most beautiful parts are romantic hilltop towns, among which is MOTOVUN , located above the valley of the largest Istrian river, Mirna and the Motovun forest greens. The town is the venue for the Motovun Film Festival, which, unlike the more traditional Pula Film Festival, attracts mainly young audiences and thus provides a kind of injection of vitality to this ancient city.

The magical Grožnjan is revived by young people as it is the International Cultural Centre of the Croatian Musical Youth. There is old Buzet , Oprtalj, Hum, Pićan, the romantic Završje and many other towns. In addition to decorating the Istrian hills, most of these towns have beautiful vantage points from which, as in Buzet , the magic beauty of the Istrian land can be enjoyed. Istria also boasts the smallest city in the world, tiny Hum, with only 17 inhabitants. It is known for the Glagolitic road – a seven kilometre long road decorated with sculptures of stylized letters from the old Croatian alphabet, Glagolitic. The interiors of churches and palaces from the Istrian interior offer many interesting features, such as the attractive interior of the church of St. Blaise in Vodnjan, with mummies of saints from the time of early Christianity, and the altar and valuable paintings  in the church of Santa Maria in Buje. Of all the art in churches, perhaps the most famous are the frescoes by Vincent of Kastav, depicting a death dance from the 15th century, located in the church of Santa Maria in Škrlin, in Beram near Pazin.The town of LABIN holds a special place in Istria, as the only major city in the East of the Istrian County. This former mining town has a particularly picturesque historical centre full of important buildings from different historical periods in which there are numerous galleries and small museums. Particularly interesting is the outdoor sculpture gallery, where nowadays, numerous domestic and foreign sculptors create and exhibit their work. The city is also known for the revolution of the miners, who rebelled against the fascist occupiers between the two World Wars.

Located in the heart of Istria is the capital, PAZIN, dominated by the monumental castle over the scary Pazin pit, which was an inspiration for the great Jules Verne for his novel “Mathias Sandorf ”. The citadel was founded in the early Middle Ages at the time of Frankish rulers, and today has a form obtained mainly in the 16th century, at the time of the Habsburgs. In the castle is, according to many, the most interesting museum in the entire county, the Ethnographic Museum of Istria. It preserves a valuable collection of folk costumes that show the specificity of Istrian folk heritage. Among them are the particularly harmonious folk costumes of Vodnjan, a town in the south of Istria.

Not far from Vodnjan is another special Istrian town, Svetvinčenat, which is known for its central square. The Renaissance Square is dominated by the Grimani castle, a symbol of the town, and a church and a number of houses in the same style. Throughout Istria there is all kinds of beauty, from the ancient church towers, such as in Sveti Lovreč, castles and palaces as in Bale to the mysterious ruins like Boljun, which invite us to wander about this magic land.

Source: Croatian National Tourist Board