Although most travel books spotlight the southern locales of Dalmatia and Dubrovnik as the tourist destinations of choice in Croatia, on a recent trip I opted to explore the northwestern region of Istria. It’s a well-known summer destination for many Europeans, with the fresh sea breezes, bright sunshine and turquoise waters.
I flew into Venice, Italy, just across the Mediterranean Sea – an ideal way to arrive during the summer, when ferries connect both countries. But during the off-season, I had to make my way around the sea via trains and buses, viewing much of the countryside though jet-lagged eyes.
I finally arrived at the Adriatic seaside town of Porec, where I spent my first evening wandering the medieval cobblestone streets, popping into local pubs for a bottle of “pivo.” The next morning, I began my cycling journey along the coastline and up into the hillside surrounding villages. I set off with a trail map for a 45 km roundtrip route, but soon discovered not everything is as it appears, and I was often faced with the decision of which road to take. I was back in Porec shortly after noon, and took off on route No. 2 in the afternoon. In total, I clocked in 100 km combined. There’s nothing more rewarding than discovering new territory by bike and foot.
Food in Istria is plentiful; while seafood is the obvious highlight – Pilchard (sardine) is a summertime specialty – vegetarians are also well accommodated. This is also the one region where the rare truffle can be found deep beneath the soil. Truffles were first discovered in the Mirna Valley back in 1929, and they continue to be gathered here with the help of dogs. Most sought-after is the Istrian white truffle, although the black truffle is highly regarded as well – it has a peppery flavour that nicely complements a pasta meal.
The Istria region is also well known for its and wines, cultivated from the vineyards that populate the countryside. Istria’s wine list contains three distinct varieties: the whites of Malvazija (malmsey) and Muskat (muscatel), and the red teran. Agritourism is a great option for discovering local wines, as independent producers invite the public to learn about the winemaking process and purchase a bottle to go.
My next destination was Motovun, a walled 13th-century former fortress 300 metres above sea level and 45 km inland. This was one of the most thrilling rides I have ever taken: I gradually climbed my way through the mountain ranges, eventually reaching the summit and its spectacular view of Motovun touching the skyline beyond. I also enjoyed descending non-stop for 6 km back down the other side, reaching speeds of nearly 50 km/h. But my greatest challenge was ahead of me.
As I approached the town above, I was advised to catch a lift up with one of the van shuttles. I chose to ride straight up the daunting, steep, 2km roadway. As I peered down over the landscape below, I felt quite the accomplishment. I checked into the Hotel Kastel, the only one in this surprisingly modern and artistic town. (I later found out this town of 600 inhabitants hosts an annual international film festival.)
The next morning, I made my way to Rovinj, 60km back toward the coast. As I approached, I saw the standard church steeple in the horizon, high above the bustling harbour below. The town market was buzzing with the daily dealings of the locals. I parked the bike and trekked around, discovering the contrasts between the old and new towns.
As my cycling tour ended, I prepped for the kayaking portion of my journey. Leaving Istria and heading south approximately 500km along the Dalmatian coast was an absolutely awe-inspiring drive, as the roads veered through the mountain ranges by way of 5km tunnels hugging the cliff-side at each imposing turn.
Croatia has a recent history of unrest that still resonates with many travellers; it’s been just over 10 years since the end of the civil war between Croatia and Serbia. Today the borders between the two countries are open and relations are relatively peaceful, though I noticed a fenced-off area along the motorway where entry is forbidden due to the large amount of live mines still present, and the background is dotted with bombed-out residences. The locals realize that international tourism is a much-needed lifeline for their economy, still in the recovery phase of post-Communism days.
My next destination was Trogir, situated midway between Istria and Dubrovnik. Kayaking among the 1,185 known islands just off the coast was perhaps the most memorable experience of my travels. Looking up from sea level at the roadways winding through the mountains made me marvel at how diverse the landscape actually is. These waters are a haven for divers in search of lost wreckages and spectacular barrier reefs. The expansive natural composition of the land provides an abundance of other adventure opportunities such as rock climbing, hang gliding and windsurfing. The mild weather is also a boon for unique flora and fauna.
The last day of my tour was spent exploring the port city of Split, the second largest after the capital of Zagreb. From here I boarded my Blue Line ship heading back to Italy, nearing the completion of my round-trip escapades. I had travelled thousands of kilometres by various modes of transportation in areas where English is not the primary language, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Sometimes, getting away from your daily routine is just what the body and mind needs to rejuvenate and re-energize.
GETTING THERE Flights are available into Zagreb from most major European cities with typically one change of planes if connecting from elsewhere in the world. Split also has commuter flights from various parts of Europe. Pula in Istria often has seasonal flights as well so best to do your research as to what works best for you.
GOOD TO KNOW One Canadian dollar is equivalent to about 5 kuna. ATM machines are widely available. Electricity is 220V/50Hz using the standard European two-point plugs.
COSTS Accommodations, meals, drinks and bike/kayak rental can be done for less than $100 a day. Local transportation is inexpensive; a six-hour train ride is approximately EUR20.
TOUR COMPANIES Active Journeys is a Canadian operator offering biking and hiking tours in Croatia (www.activejourneys.com); Falco Tours is a local operator offering kayaking and canoeing tours (www.falco-tours.com); Island Hopping is a local operator offering bike and boat tours (www.islandhopping.com).
TRAINS Individual tickets and passes are available online at www.railpass.com.