By Hank Brill
Istria is best known for Pula's spectacular Roman amphitheatre, Rovinj's unspoiled Venetian ambience and hilltop Motovun's medieval mystique, but don't let this little Croatian peninsula's historical heritage fool you into thinking it's a backward sort of place. Excellent transportation infrastructure and new investment in resort facilities have made Istria a very up-to-date destination for vacationers and people interested in holiday and investment property.
Istria's location along the northern Adriatic already places it within a day's drive of cities in the heart of Europe like Venice, Milan, Vienna and Budapest. Now exploring the peninsula once you arrive has been made easier by the Croatian government's $40 million investment in the Istrian "Y," a new, limited access highway system that connects Pula at Istria's southern tip with both Zagreb, Croatia to the northeast and Trieste, Italy to the northwest. There's also a new highway running through the Mirna valley wine country that connects the upper ends of the "Y," and adventurous travelers can reach even the tiniest villages by means of paved secondary roads.
If you're in a hurry to reach Istria, Pula's modern airport provides direct flights to and from major European hubs like Amsterdam and London's Gatwick in addition to Croatia's capital Zagreb. Low cost airlines like FlyGlobeSpan.com are adding even more flights from the UK to Pula.
Istria's clear, azure seas and mild, Mediterranean climate have attracted visitors for centuries. The Austrians built ornate Art Nouveau hotels in Opatija and Pula that still welcome guests today as do the large resort hotels built during the Tito era whose selling points are their extensive sport facilities and reasonable prices.
A growing number of elegant boutique hotels and spas provide a new dimension to Istrian tourist facilities. Lying on the other side of Pjescana Uvala (Sandy Bay) from the 80's era Histria Hotel and Casino is the new Valsabbion Hotel that boasts an indoor pool overlooking the sea, a full services spa and a restaurant reputed to be the finest in Croatia. Marina Veruda, one of the largest yacht charter centers on the Adriatic, is just a few yards away.
Remembering that the Italian fashion house Brioni draws its name from the Brijuni Islands near Pula, Brioni CEO Umberto Angeloni has teamed with the local Istrian government to revitalize a place once known throughout the world as the playground of Europe's elite. They've already initiated an annual polo tournament to be attended this month (June) by former U. S. President Bill Clinton among others, but the project will only be complete in 2007 when two new hotels and a luxury spa open. It will be a place, says Angeloni, where "Pierce Brosnan would feel perfectly at home in a Brioni suit, sipping a shaken-but-not-stirred martini."
Also in Istria's near term future are as many as twenty golf course projects (including one between Pula and Rovinj designed by Jack Nicklaus), a new hospital and university in Pula, and membership along with the rest of Croatia in the European Union within the next 3 to 4 years.
Istrians are determined, however, to control development so that it does not spoil their home's natural beauty and rich, cultural heritage. They are justly proud of the many European "blue flag" ratings for water quality along Istria's shoreline, and coastline development restrictions and upgrades to sewage treatment facilities aim at improving even that exemplary record. Planners have set aside large areas of land for agriculture only and encouraged owners to plant olive groves and vineyards. Historical preservation is a priority as well.
The result is an enchanting blend of the modern and the traditional. Modern supermarkets are an option in Istria's larger towns, but the local markets are still crowded with people purchasing fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruits from their neighbors. While modern highways link Istria with the heart of Europe, winding cobblestone streets remain to invite you for a stroll at dusk. Haute cuisine is an option in Pula, Porec or Opatija, but so is a hearty meal of raznjici (grilled meat on a skewer) prepared over an Istrian fireplace in a country inn.
Everything is up to date in lovely Istria where modern convenience and luxury blend seamlessly with nature's charms and history's landmarks.
First Published: Jun 19, 2006