There are places in the world you always come back to. Some, because they are beautiful, or because they hold a significant memory. But the places that have had the strongest grip on me are the ones alluring for their strangeness: places that defy (again and again) my expectations of them. The Istrian peninsula is one such place.
The peninsula, which is shared by Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia, is one of the most culturally fluid in Europe. Spanning, roughly, the Adriatic coast between the Austro-Hungarian port-cities of Trieste (now in Italy) and Rijeka (now in Croatia—technically not in Croatia’s Istrian province but in neighboring Kvarner), the Istrian peninsula blends the Habsburgian and the Venetian, the Italian and the Balkan. In Trieste, on the Italian side of the peninsula, you can sit underneath the stucco angels in the 19th-century Café Tommaseo, where James Joyce, one of the region’s many literary expats-in-exile, famously wrote much of Dubliners, or order one of the Viennese coffees and Sachertortes, as ubiquitous in this city as cornetti and the Hugo cocktail (elderflower, prosecco, and mint).
Just a 40-minute drive across the Slovene border lies the tiny seaside town of Piran. The community is so indebted to its Venetian former conquerors that it is guarded by the winged lion of St. Mark, and has its Yugoslav-era street signs posted in both Slovenian and Italian. Slightly over an hour’s drive southwest from Trieste is Opatija, the 19th-century Croatian Adriatic tourist resort town historically beloved by nobles and bohemians (including the dancer Isadora Duncan) alike, the waterside promenade that connects each art nouveau villa is known as both the Italian lungomare and the rather more imperial-sounding Franz-Josef I Promenade. The latter name was given after the last major Habsburg emperor transformed the town into a pleasure-palace of sorts for his actress-lover Katharina Schratt. Even today, the town feels like something out of a Stefan Zweig novel; every other museum seems to be devoted to 19th-century postcards or travel posters from the Southern Railway that ran between Vienna and Trieste; an exhibition placard in one of them promises: “Opatija Cures Melancholy, Too”.
It is the sense of slippage—between languages, between cultures, between worlds—that has kept me going back to the region almost annually for years.
It is the sense of slippage—between languages, between cultures, between worlds—that has kept me going back to the region almost annually for years: falling in love first with Trieste, then with the “Slovenian Riveira”, then with Croatian Istria (what most foreigners think of when they hear “Istria”) itself. Wandering the streets of Rovinj (or Rovigno in Italian), perhaps the most beautiful of the Croatian seaside towns, I find myself lost, each street more vividly bright than the last (legend has it the town’s pastel shutters are made from reclaimed wood from the boats that brought the town its trade). I stop under the beamed ceilings of a local waterside café with bright blue chairs for baccalà mantecato—cold, creamed stockfish on toast. The meal fuses maritime lightness and Central European heartiness; the cuisine, like the region’s culture, belies a mix of influences. After eating, I pass the town clock, adorned with the winged lion of Venice. I climb up to the 18th-century Baroque Church of Saint Euphemia (modeled after Venice’s Basilica of St. Mark) before heading down to the grand Austrian buildings on the town’s outskirts: enormous painted palazzos, their windows in neat, geometric rows.
Further inland, I visit Grožnjan, a cobblestoned artists’ village along the old railway line which connects all three countries on the Istrian peninsula (the tracks and stations now overgrown with vines, wildflowers, and no less wild asparagus). Italian-speakers outnumber Croatian-speakers here, and over truffle-infused cheese (a local specialty; the surrounding woods teem with truffle-hunting boars), I practice switching languages mid-sentence with my waiter: a Slavic word here, an Italian word there, a few words from the distinctive Triestine dialect, itself derived from Greek, Dalmatian, and other languages brought to that port city through trade. After lunch in Grožnjan, I can choose to dine on salty Balkan bürek by the sea in Piran, Slovenia, or to seek a plate of hearty Italian spaghetti in Trieste. The borders are open; it’s less than an hour either way by car.
Getting there and where to stay:
The best way to get to the Istria reason is to fly into Rijeka (in Croatia) or Trieste (in Italy) and rent a car; bus travel in the region can be difficult, although the Trieste bus station offers direct transfers to Rovinj, Rijeka, Piran, and more. Most of the best sights on the Istrian peninsula are in Croatia itself, making Rovinj the ideal base for visits to Grožnjan, Opatija, and Rijeka as well as the Italian and Slovene parts of the peninsula. Try the impeccably minimalist Hotel Lone, part of the prestigious Design Hotels portfolio (from $400 a night in high season).
It’s worth spending a night in Piran or Trieste as well. The best hotel in the former is the recently renovated 19th-century Hotel Piran (from $150), right on the waterfront, while in Trieste, there’s nowhere quite like the Grand Duchi D’Aosta (from $200), an extravagantly-decorated (there’s Roman-style frescos in the underground thermal bath) grand hotel dating back from 1873. It’s equal parts faded grandeur and winking pastiche.
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