Croatian Road Trip Part 6: Istria

In my last post I told you about the days we spent conquering the Biokovo Mountain Range after a week sailing the Adriatic.

My time in Croatia seemed to have been moving slowly. I’d done so much already, and It hadn’t even been a month. Don’t get me wrong, I’d enjoyed every minute of it, as you probably already know if you’ve been following along… Nevertheless, my time exploring Croatia was far from over.

In this chapter, I pick up where we left off in my last post. My brother, Josh, and I had just spent a few days in Split finalizing some boat bureaucracies related to the purchase of our first boat, the Staatenlos catamaran.

After getting things done in record time in Split, my brother and I got on the road once again, this time, headed north to explore Istria.

Istria 101

Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. This triangular piece of land is located pretty much at the head of the Adriatic. The region is shared by three countries: Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. Croatia, however, owns most of the Istrian peninsula.

Istria feels like a different land from the rest of Croatia. Christened ‘Terra Magica’ by the Romans, this small peninsula was part of Italy until right after World War II. Today, Istria has its own charm, and people flock to visit its towns for its landscapes, history, and celebrated gastronomy.

I found out first hand that it’s interior is every bit as beautiful a the coast. Remnants of Istria’s Roman, Byzantine, and Austrian past can be found in its churches, ancient sites, and museums all over the region.

Keep reading to learn about my impressions as we spent a few days in the coastal towns of Rovinj and Poreč̌. We also took some time to discover the principal city of Pula, home to some great sightseeing opportunities.

North-east, towards the Slovenian border, inland Istria is dotted with timeless hilltop villages like Motovun and Hum. On the wilder, less-developed east coast, we had the pleasure of visiting Rabac as one of our last stops in the region.

The peninsula offers diverse landscapes. On the one hand, the interior is unspoiled and mountainous with ancient walled cities sitting atop rolling hills with endless fields in the surroundings. While the coast, on the other hand, has numerous beaches – and stunning sceneries of rocky cliffs plummeting into the sea.

The Istrian coast is arguably the most developed tourist destination in Croatia; my brother and I were delighted to be visiting it during COVID times.

Read on to learn more about our fantastic and jam-packed road trip through Istria.

Oh, I should mention, for this leg of our trip, it was only my brother and me, Josh stayed in Split to care for the boat and finalize small details and final testings. I, on the other hand, was restless and yearning to see more of Croatia. So, in one go, we drove all the way from Split to Opatija.

First leg: Opatija, Hum, Motovun and Crveni Vrh

Opatija is an ancient and “mundane” town located on the Croatian coast in Istria, already quite close to Slovenia. On the way up, we took the highway and some mountain roads, yet we still managed to get to our destination pretty quickly.

Posedarje – On the way to the Velebit Mountains

This time we drove through the Velebit mountains. If you remember, we went through these mountains during my first week in Croatia already.

So by now, you should be familiar with the Dinaric Alps. Well, the Velebit is the north part and the Boikovo in the south. These vast mountain ranges literally divide the landscape in Croatia. The contrast is more pronounced in the winter, where you can see snow and grey on the east side and a much warmer and sunnier Mediterranean coastal climate on the west.

Sveti Juraj, Ličko-Senjska, Croatia – View of Rab and Cres

It was a nice ride through the big mountains, but not as scenic as before, so we left the mountain road to keep driving along the coast. We drove past Rijeka, straight north, until we arrived in Opatija.

Opatija Riviera- A resort town of my taste

Opatija was a pretty famous resort town that emerged during the Austrian Empire. Austrians made it distinguished by building stunning mansions, grand hotels, lovely parks, and charming roads. The city’s filled with architectural masterpieces which give the whole town an elegant and grandiose vibe.

Impressions of Opatija

I really enjoyed the place; I found it quite scenic. I would even go as far as to say it is my favorite seaside town. Its charm lies in its Mediterranean climate and its historic buildings reminiscent of the Austrian Riviera.

The town used to be connected by train to Vienna. From 1850 through the 1900s, it was full of big hotels and casinos. To me, it has a very Cote d’Azur feel but with much more lush green nature, just like the rest of Croatia. Just imagine the big hills of Mediterranean landscapes with lots of beautiful villas and houses all alongside.

After a day of being a tourist in Opatija, we continued to inland Istria for the days to follow. We spent some time seeing the little towns in the interior. Our first stop was the town of Hum, arguably the smallest official village in the world with only 30 inhabitants.

To my knowledge, there is no other official town in the world with just 30 residents. Our stop in Hum was not very long; there is not much to see. So we simply walked around for a bit and took some pictures.

Hum u Istri – Officially the smallest “town” in the world

After, we continued to another famous town in Istria. This town is known for its scenic landscapes; it’s lovely wine, and, most notably, its black and white truffles.

Motovun – Loving the food of Istria. This town here is particularly known for abundant truffles in the area – and good wine…

The name of the town is Motovun, and if you haven’t heard of this place, you’re welcome. It is a fortified hill town in the Istrian interior. On top of the hill, there is a lovely castle and walls that outline the village. We visited the town over lunch and enjoyed a nice truffle meal – steak with truffles and local red wine.

Steak and truffles

From there, it’s not very far to the Slovenian border, but we continued to the Northernmost coastal town of Croatia: Crveni Vrh. There we enjoyed the great views of both Slovenia and Italy.

We got a pretty good view of Potoros and Piran, these large coastal towns in Slovenia. In the background you could see the Italian coast the city of Trieste – it was quite scenic.

Crveni Vrh, Istarska, Croatia – View of Piran, Slovenia with the Italian coast in the background.

On the way there we saw Slovenia and saw a border town called Korona – I wasn’t aware of this, we didn’t even know this town existed – but it was a tremendous little coincidence.

Awesome little coincidence. I must be on the right path.

Next leg: The west coast of the Istrian Peninsula: Umag, Poreč, Rovinj, Pula and Rabac

After taking some pictures of the Slovenian coast, we continued to a lighthouse and from there to the town of Umag – a small and picturesque Mediterranean village. Its harbor is the “Croatian gate to Europe”; basically, the first tourist destination you’ll encounter on the northern part of the Adriatic coast.

In this town, we did some sightseeing and ate some ice cream before continuing south to our next destination: Poreč, a town on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula. The city is almost 2,000 years old, and it grew around a harbor that is protected from the sea by a small island nearby.

Poreč, Istra – Hrvatska – Discovered Istria today – Hum, Motovun, Umag and Porec for this evening.

It is another really nice town right on the sea. We spent the night there and spent the evening walking around and taking pictures.

Tomorrow continuing to Rovinj and Pula.

The next day we drove down to Rovinj, the town next door. On the way to Rovinj, we stopped by the Limski Fjord. Also known as the Lim bay and valley is an impressive geographic landmark located just south of Poreč. It’s a shallow and narrow fjord that connects two ancient Roman provinces: Dalmatia and Itali.

Limski Fjord near Rovinj

After a brief stop at the fjord, we continued to Rovinj, a Croatian fishing port, quite similar to Porec actually. This old town stands on a headland, with houses crowding all the way down to the shore.

Rovinj, Old Town

There, a labyrinth of cobbled streets leads to a hilltop church; its imposing steeple is the central ornament in the city’s skyline. Originally the city was an island, separated from the mainland by a channel; the latter was filled in 1763.

The Rovinj archipelago is made up of 22 islets that lie immediately off the mainland. Today Rovinj is the third most populated town in Istria, right behind Pula and Poreč.

Again, it was a lovely town to walk around and do some sightseeing. We enjoyed some excellent views of the landscape from different parts of the old city. I don’t have many details for you, but I’ll let these photos speak for themselves:

After an afternoon in Rovinj, we got on the road again and continued south to Pula, a trendy town located at the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsula.

Pula Arena

This town is famous for its amphitheater and a castle that lies at the top of the hill. There is a noticeable historical footprint all over the city – this is of no wonder if you keep in mind that the Istrian region has had many rulers such as the Romans, Byzantines, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, and Yugoslavians (the Communists, that is).

Big Amphitheatre

For this reason, the region is rich with cultural heritage, but in my opinion, Pula is not worth all the fuzz, I think there are other towns in Croatia which are much more appealing.

Impressions of Pula

The city is mainly just a big harbor, with a not so lovely promenade. All the buildings are quite old, and the streets are winding and small. I definitely didn’t love the town. However, credit where credit’s due, we did go to the castle at the top and really enjoyed the views.

We also met a friend from the community there. He was supposed to just stop by where we were for a quick drink… we ended up hanging out and playing cards for six hours. It was just him and his wife, my brother and I, but we had a great time. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many Aperol spirits in my life – I alone had 12 that night… I think. It was a great evening with great company.

The next day I woke up slightly hungover in Pula, and it was time to continue on our journey. Next, we were driving to Pag, a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea just north of Zadar. The island is not part of Istria, so we would soon be leaving Istria. We continued on the coastal road towards Rabac.

Final leg: From Istria to Sibenik through Pag Island

Rabac, Istarska

On this path, we found some more stunning views and another fjord leading inland towards a big power station. Right in the same area, there is a cement factory ruining the landscape. It’s a beautiful fjord, but a bit odd with a cement station right nearby.

A great short stay in Istria. Now driving back down to Sibenik with another stop on the island of Pag.

After a few photo stops, we kept along the highway past Rijeka until we arrived at the ferry port in Prizna, where we would catch our ferry to Pag. There is actually a bridge that goes from Pag to the mainland, but it’s located much further south, near Zadar.

Actually, before arriving in Prizna, we stopped at another Fjord in Zavratnica Bay. We had some really great views of the fjord from the top; we didn’t really have time to go down and see it from below. It was still cool, ample views of the narrow passage, which is actually quite famous, but hard to reach by sailboat. #challengeaccepted

Zavratnica Bay

After arriving in Prizna, we waited 45 minutes for the ferry to arrive. We got some beers and raddlers to enjoy as we crossed over with the ship. We ended up staying in the car the whole ride over.

Novalja-Zrce, Pag – With the ferry to the barren party island of Pag. Lets see how Croatias Ibiza Zrce is faring at the moment.

This was because two days before, Croatia implemented new restrictions after some new COVID cases. Mainly after Djokovic (a famous tennis player) got infected at a party, the government decided to become a little more strict by introducing mandatory masks and so on.

Pag Impressions from Novalja and Zrce

So officially, we had to wear a mask on the ferry, but we didn’t, we just stayed in our car. After all, this was no big deal since the ride over to Pag was super short, only 15 minutes.

If you don’t already know this, Pag is known for its barren, moonlike landscape, something I was able to notice even from the top of the Velebit mountains. Personally, I found Pag to be a lovely town; it has a beautiful beach resort with high mountains sloping down to the sea as a backdrop.

We actually decided to go to Pag because my brother wanted to revisit Zrće Beach, a long pebble beach on the northern part of the island. It is located near Novalja, and it is the Croatian Ibiza, basically the ultimate party beach.

The sea is calling

My brother had been there six years ago on his grad trip, and now wanted to see it again, and I did too. Needless to say, there was not much partying going on this time around. This year, none of the summer festivals or events are allowed to happen, everything has been canceled.

Even though the whole vibe on the island was significantly subdued, we still had a super pleasant evening. After sunset, we went to Zrće beach, but nothing was really going on when we got there. There was one beach club open, with maybe 50 people inside – no crowds.

Perhaps this was because we were there super early though, it was only around 9-10 pm when we went back, and this is still dinner time in the Mediterranean. We had two drinks each and went back to Novalja to ditch our car and go to dinner at Mobidick for some local fare.

Dinner was followed by a visit to Cocomo Beach Club, a nice beach club that was actually getting quite full right around midnight. It was a full-on nightclub, with lots of people and lots of dancing – pretty much business as usual in Croatian nightlife.

Cocomo Club Novalja #coronaparty

It was a fun night, but we didn’t make it a late one, since the next day we were already scheduled to return to Sibenik to set sail once more.

The next day on our drive down, we had some more stops in Pag in the center Pag. When you drive to town from Novalja, you can see it from this hill, and you get some beautiful views of the bay. This bay has very clear water, and its truly quite splendid.

We did some sightseeing in the town and enjoyed the beach a bit before taking the bridge on the south back to the mainland and driving straight down to Sibenik. That same afternoon we arrived at Marina Mandalina, where we met up with Josh again and two other girlfriends who came into town to set sail with us for a week.

The Adriatic awaits us again

But that’s the beginning of another adventure, so stay tuned to read all about that adventure on my next post.

The main reason to buy a catamaran is that I can stand upright in its saloon. All monohulls we looked at were not built for 2m guys. Of course, a catamaran suits me better for a couple of other reasons.