Alice Woolliams continues her Croatian odyssey to the Istrian Peninsula and IslandsPhoto by Sobrecroacia.com
After a few days of culture in Zagreb, it was time to hit the road for the second destination on our route. Just across the Mediterranean from Italy, Pula is a hidden gem on the Istrian peninsula. This fascinating historic coastal town is full of Roman ruins and surrounded by the typical rocky coves and pine groves of the Istria region.
It’s about 300 km and a three hour drive from Zagreb to Pula and the route is easy to follow along main roads. After leaving the capital, you’ll find yourself on the A1 driving through some lovely mountain scenery. Next, follow the A6 to Rijeka and then the A7, A8 and A9 across the peninsula. All these roads are tolls but they’re not expensive for the convenience they provide!
This cool time lapse video shows the whole route and gives you a taste of what to expect from the drive:
Things to See
As the location is so close to Italy, it’s not much of a surprise to see that Istria was conquered by the Romans in ancient times. Today, the results of the region’s past are some amazing ruins and interesting local cuisine that differs from elsewhere in Croatia.
Start your tour of Pula at the Roman amphitheatre, which is the sixth largest surviving arena of its kind. Towering over nearby buildings, the dramatic ruins are a beautiful reminder of one of the most popular aspects of Roman life. Although many of the stones have been stolen over the years to build local houses, the Colosseum is still remarkably well preserved. An affordable ticket (20kn) will get you entry to both the arena and the caves beneath.
Photo by boris_licina
Pula’s famous landmark is more than just a ruin, though – The Arena (as it’s known) hosts a film festival in July each year and concerts from big names in the music world, including Pavarotti and Elton John!
The Roman Forum – or market place – is also well worth a visit. The main square in the modern city, it was built on the site of the original market place and is still home to the Temple of Augustus and a 10th Century city hall. As you wander around the streets nearby, more monuments, such as the Gate of Hercules and the Golden Gate, wait to be discovered and add to the historic atmosphere.
If all this culture has piqued your interest, head to the Archaeology Museum (entry – 12kn) to learn more about the history of Istria and discover treasures and artefacts which have been found nearby over the years.
Day TripsPhoto by Gruenemann
With a car at your disposal, take a drive to the small town of Fažana and then hop on a boat to Brijuni, a group of 14 islands famed for their beauty. Now a Croatian National Park, they were once part of the Republic of Venice and a playground for Europe’s ancient Royals.
Nowadays, you can explore two of the islands for more fascinating ruins and great beaches. On the largest island, Veliki Brijun, over 200 dinosaur footprints have also been discovered and it’s easy to see how – Brijuni has a wild, elemental feel, despite the new holiday resorts which have sprung up along the coastline.
For more stunning scenery and unspoiled beaches, head south (about 10 km) to the southernmost tip of Istria known as Cape Kamenjak. The drive alone, following the coast past Premantura (another picturesque stopover), will be a highlight of your road trip in Croatia.Photo by lostajy
What to Eat
Istria has its own cuisine, with influences from Italy and Austro-Hungarian princes. As a result, there are a large number of pizzerias in town and it’s an interesting experience to try a Croatian version of this signature Italian food!
As you’d expect from a coastal town, seafood also dominates the menus, with Frogfish, sea bass and clams the most popular dishes with the locals. Kvarner scampi – caught in the Adriatic – is a sought-after delicacy both in Croatia and Pula is the perfect place to sample these unusual prawns.
Local wine is another speciality that can’t be missed in Istria – it’s the leading producer of Croatia’s best wines! Try a glass of red Teran or the white Malvasia with your dinner.
Where to Sleep
For crumbling grandeur and a taste of Pula’s history, the Hotel Riviera – originally built for high ranking Austro-Hungarian officials – is perfect. Inside, it’s a little dated compared to the impressive exterior but the rooms do the job.
Pula Art Hostel, meanwhile, is a good budget choice but most travellers find rooms and apartments offer the best accommodation options. Locals gather at the bus, ferry and rail terminals to advertise and it’s easy to find a place and a price to suit you.