This article originally appeared in Hayo Magazine
The Istrian coast is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. With Croatia’s uncertain history, it seems almost impossible that the country could harbour something so stunning. Rovinj, Poreć and Pula define the coastline and share a rich history – and this is where we were.
We stepped off the boat onto the Rovinj dock and cast our eyes towards the old town on the water. The pastel pinks and yellows of the buildings stood in stark contrast to the bright blue water.
We walked down narrow cobbled streets with washing strung out above us and window shutters thrown wide open in the early afternoon heat. In the town, the streets were wider but cluttered with tiny shops and merchandise for sale. Traditional Venetian masks, hand-carved candles and local artwork were just a few of the many wonders.
In the centre of the town stood the clock tower, an old Venetian monument, preserved over time. Tourists clustered outside its doors as a tour guide gave a detailed history, speaking into his microphone so everyone could hear. We stopped for a moment and listen; ‘Underneath the tower was a prison for minor offenders…’, his accent was thick but his words were clear and the tourists seem enchanted by them.
Just round the corner was the Balbi Arch, another relic from ancient times and one that looked ready to crumble. It’s the former gate of the old fish market, a sign that Rovinj was once under the Venetian rule.
Through more medieval streets, cluttered with vendors, was the steep climb to the church of St Euphemia, a Baroque building and the pride and joy of Rovinj. It’s an important monument that defines the Rovinj skyline and builds on the characteristics of the charming fishing town. With unhindered views of the sea and the distance islets, the church used to keep a watchful eye on the coast.
Back on board Astral, Rovinj slipped away and became just a speck on the horizon. Seagulls flocked around the boat and smaller, quicker vessels sped past us on the open water.
Next stop, Poreć.
This time we cycled and explored the wild countryside of Croatia. The side of the road was dotted here and there with vineyards. The ground was rough and uneven in places where it has cracked in the heat, but the roads were good enough to cycle on and it didn’t take long before we arrived at the very heart of Poreć. Locking the bikes, we made our way along the marina and saw row upon row of magnificent, and expensive, yachts.
There were people lying out and sunbathing on the front of the boats, and others cooking up food. A man slowly paddleboarded past at a leisurely pace and was overtaken by the police, speeding out of the harbour. Looking out across the water, we saw the island of Saint Nicholas, home to the Valamar Isabella Hotel and neighbour to the Isabella Castle; once a summer retreat for the Italian Polensini family, the castle stood proudly on its 19th-century foundations. In the early summer heat, the island was alive with activity as people came and went, clambering aboard little boats and making their way to shore.
A volleyball stadium had been erected near the little market in the centre of the town and the loud music could be heard from everywhere. We walked down a boulevard, in the shade of the trees and notice museum after museum representing the radical changes of the city from Roman to Italian rule.
An old tower, part of the original walls, had been converted into a café, and here, the cobbled streets were more open but gradually narrowed as we reached the Euphrasian Basilica in the centre of the town.
We headed back to our bikes and slowly cycled back to our hotel where we caught the final rays of the setting sun.
Croatia’s coastline has been defined by its history and Istria, in particular, is more than just a destination. It’s an adventure, a chance to travel back in time. A chance to see the old flower boxes hung underneath shuttered windows, to feel the peeling paint as it comes away from the old stone, to breathe the fresh sea breeze as you sit in a café. It gives you a feeling of peace, of a reconciliation that happened much later than it should have. Embrace Croatia’s culture, explore her heritage and enjoy what she has to offer.