Istria is a land of myth and magic, of glistening blue sea, vast green fields, and dark red earth. It is a triangle-shaped peninsula at the northwestern end of Croatia that protrudes just far enough into the Adriatic to catch the seductive Mediterranean climate. Most of Istria's pine- and rosemary-scented coastal landscape is lined with golden beaches and busy marinas framed by Venetian-style towns that look just as they must have when tall trading ships sailed in and out of their harbors.
Many nations have coveted and occupied Istria over the centuries, and it is remarkable that the peninsula has not become a cultural hodgepodge. Instead Istria has embraced the best of every country that contributed to its development through the ages. There you will find people with an easygoing attitude, tolerance for diversity, a love of fine food and wine, and above all, a passion for the land and sea.
Even the most transient tourist will recognize that Istrians have acquired Italian sensibilities without losing their Croatian souls. Many communicate with each other in a local dialect that is a lilting blend of Italian and Croatian, and most towns are known by both their Italian and Croatian names. Menus throughout the region read like a catalog of fusion cuisine and visitors often wonder if they've made an inadvertent border crossing.
Many Istrian coastal towns are dead ringers for Italian fishing villages, and much of the inland landscape's silvery olive groves and deep green vineyards could double as Tuscan. But when you get the bill for a meal or a hotel room, you'll know you're in Croatia and not Italy -- the cost of a week in Istria is well below the cost of the same week just across the Adriatic.
Istria shares a border with Slovenia to the north, but its roots sink deeply into the Adriatic, connecting and separating it from Italy in a sometimes stormy relationship that is responsible for much of Istria's cachet.
All this and a well-developed tourist infrastructure make Istria a desirable destination for anyone looking for a vacation drenched in nature and history. Croatia's tourist bureau color-codes Istria into blue (coastal) and green (inland) sectors. Most travelers gravitate to blue Istria, which contributes big numbers to the more than 2.5 million people -- mostly Europeans -- who visit annually, a number that represents the largest single block of tourism in Croatia.
Istria's past is also rich with heroes, conquerors, states people, and myths, as well as agricultural and commercial tradition. This mélange gives every town and village a sense of drama smoothed with Mediterranean joie de vivre seasoned with mystery.
Those who believe in legends say the Greek hero Jason, his Argonauts, and their sailing ship Argo took shelter in the Bay of Pula during their quest for the Golden Fleece. Those who believe in miracles say St. Euphemia and her stone sarcophagus somehow washed up on the shores of Rovinj shortly after disappearing from Constantinople in A.D. 800. Historians say Bronze Age tribes built primitive settlements in Istria's verdant hills and that an Illyrian tribe known as Histri gave its name to the land. There is no question that ancient Rome prospered from the trade that flowed through Istria's ports, which were lucrative profit centers coveted by numerous nations. Venice, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and others all vied for Istria until Marshal Tito declared "game over" and made offshore Brijuni his home.
Istria has been through centuries of unrest, and its turbulent past could have resulted in a legacy of despair. Instead, hard times gave birth to tolerance and acceptance in an enchanting region that is geographically rich and historically significant, a can't-miss formula.