We followed the E70 from Belgrade to Zagreb entering Croatia at the Granični prelaz Batrovci (SRB) / Granični prijelaz Bajakovo (HR) crossing where for two hours we inched along in bumper to bumper traffic, but counted ourselves lucky that we weren’t transport trucks. That line was at a complete standstill and stretched for miles; we never did see it move while we were creeping along.
Officially called the Republika Hrvatska, Croatia (the anglicized version of Hrvatska) has been a member of the EU since July, 2013. It is slated to join the Schengen Zone in 2023 which is unfortunate for non EU/EEA travelers who often use the Balkans (Croatia in particular, with its spectacular coastline) as a non-Schengen option. Our previous blog, Italy to Hungary: a Quickish Exit from the Schengen Zone, gives a brief synopsis of Schengen rules.
The Istria Peninsula is the largest peninsula on the Adriatic Sea and is shared amongst three countries: Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, with Croatia holding, by far, the most significant portion of land. The Romans described the “Histri” tribes living along the coast as fierce pirates and it took two military campaigns, in and around 177 BCE, to finally subdue them. With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century, Goths conquered the Peninsula and held it for several decades. The Byzantine Empire took control in the mid-6th century and ruled until the late 8th century when the Peninsula was annexed by the Frankish Kingdom, which later morphed into the Holy Roman Empire ruled by the House of Hapsburg.
Meanwhile, as these various superpowers were “ruling” Istria, the Slavs had been slowly migrating into the area. Slav immigration to the interior of the Peninsula really picked up in the 10th and 11th centuries with promises of cultivable land. It should be noted, however, that ownership of the land wasn’t part of the deal; feudalism had reached Istria. While this part of the Peninsula was under Hapsburg (Austrian) control, it was a fairly lax form of leadership, allowing the customs and traditions of the Slav immigrants to spread and take hold.
A different scenario was playing out along the Peninsula’s coastline. As early as the 9th century, the Venetians had been exerting increasing levels of influence (interference?) in the coastal towns of Istria and by the mid-14th century, through both peaceful negotiations and some less peaceful means, they had successfully incorporated most of the coast into their Republic.
Napoleon entered the fray in the 18th century. His victories in the region put an end to the Venetian Empire, handing ownership of the Istria coast to the newly established Austrian Empire. Following the World Wars, the Peninsula, along with the rest of Croatia, was part of Yugoslavia, regaining their independence in 1991.
Today the Peninsula is often described as Green Istria and Blue Istria – vineyards and olive groves inland giving way to the crystal clear water of the Adriatic Sea. It is full of charming towns perched on hilltops or clinging to rocky outcrops along the shore, and definitely worth visiting.
Dollars – We averaged about $144/day Canadian ($108 USD / €109) for 7 nights on the Peninsula and one night in Zagreb, or roughly $4,320 per month CAD ($3,232 USD / €3,256), with the bulk of our costs being accommodation and car related expenses.
The Croatian Kuna will be replaced by the Euro on January 1, 2023, which not everyone seems happy about as they believe it will increase the cost of everything, which frankly is already high when compared to the rest of the Balkans.
Environment – We opted to visit Croatia in September hoping that as this is the start of their shoulder season (July and August are high season) we would have a better chance of finding reasonably priced accommodation. It was still a challenge, but with the benefit of our own car, we could look for places on the outskirts and in both Zagreb and Pula found stays that fell within the mid-$60/night range. We spent only one night in Zagreb and found the Best West Sveta Nedelja which was okay (the foot of the bed was broken), but at least it was clean. In Pula we spent 7 nights in Apartman “Lima” in a residential neighbourhood only about a 2 km walk into the heart of Pula.
“Ignorance is bliss” comes to mind for this unit. It was comfortable, the host was very accommodating (even changed out the TV for us when it stopped working with our Firestick), kitchen was nicely equipped, but when Howard made a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night and (fortunately) flicked on the light, he was met with an intrusion of cockroaches (now there’s an apt description). We never saw any during the day or early evening (nor ever in our bedroom) but no matter how desperate I was I didn’t venture to the bathroom in the middle of the night!! Mosquitoes were a bit of a problem in Croatia and were definitely in abundance in Pula, so bad in fact, that it was unpleasant to sit outside on the unit’s lovely patio.
Tips, Tricks & Transportation – There are lots of grocery store options on the Peninsula. We liked both Tommy and Plodine supermarkets though Plodine might be slightly more expensive and Studenac or Ultra markets were good small corner stores that seemed to be everywhere (Studenac, in particular).
The Učka Tunnel is a toll tunnel on the A8 motorway (the route onto the Peninsula) and was under construction during our visit (2022) causing lengthy delays. When we left the Peninsula on our way to Zadar on the coast, we took the old highway along the coast which normally would be slower but when we checked the time on Google maps it was just as fast due to the backups, and we avoided some road tolls. During our tour of the Peninsula we also stuck to older coastal routes to avoid tolls – there isn’t much traffic on them so although they are narrow and twisty you can move along them quickly and the route is so much prettier.
Out and About
The capital of Croatia was directly along our route from Serbia to the Istria Peninsula so we stopped for a night and joined a free tour the next morning. We lucked into the most entertaining guide we have ever had – it’s too bad you can’t request a specific guide on these types of tours as I would wholeheartedly recommend Vid, if you are ever in Zagreb. By the way, although these are “free” tours, we always tip the guide, usually between $20-$30 CAD depending on the country and the quality.
Some interesting highlights from our tour:
- The necktie was invented by Croatians. King Louis XIII was inspecting a Croatian naval unit and was captivated by the bits of fabric each man sported around his neck. He insisted this accessory be adopted by the people of France and voilà the cravat became an enduring fashion statement. Why were the sailors wearing bits of coloured cloth? So if they died in battle, their wives could identify them.
- The most visited (statistically) museum in Croatia is the Museum of Broken Relationships, located in the upper town. Their collection consists of memorabilia donated by the heartbroken. The museum sits around the corner from the Cathedral of St. Cyril and Methodius where the square is lined with authentic gas lamps (lit by hand every evening). So you can canoodle with your lover in the romantic gaslight, move right on to exchanging vows in the cathedral and, if necessary, donate the pieces of your failed relationship to the museum on your way out of the upper town.
- The chandeliers in the Zagreb Cathedral are from a liquidation sale of items from the Gold Coast casino in Las Vegas, but they’ve been blessed so all is good. I really wanted to go inside the cathedral to see the chandeliers but the building suffered serious damage in a 2020 earthquake and is closed while it undergoes massive restoration. Earthquakes are a common occurrence in Croatia (although not on the Peninsula, hence the amphitheatre in Pula is still in excellent condition).
- Tourism is a significant contributor to the country’s GDP. Croatia has a population of 4M and before the pandemic 20M people visited.
We really liked Zagreb. Even on an overcast day, the city center was lively and inviting and I was sorry we only allowed ourselves a few hours to visit.
Street art depicting prominent Croatians:
The bell tower of the Church of Saint Euphemia seems to be reaching for the sky as the rest of the old medieval town falls away to meet the sea. Polished limestone streets wind past shops and restaurants thrumming with activity, yet the town doesn’t feel crowded. We loved Rovinj.
We joined another free tour which unfortunately wasn’t great. Free tours can be a bit hit or miss and are definitely “guide” dependent, but I always learn something I wouldn’t know left to my own devices. Like the Venetian lion atop the Arch of Balbi – he has genitalia, highly unusual for Venetian lion stonework.
The medieval town of Rovinj was once surrounded by walls with seven gates, although only three original gates remain standing – The Gate of St. Benedict, The Portica, and The Gate of the Holy Cross. The main town gate near the marina (The Fishermen Gate), was destroyed and replaced by the Arch of Balbi, and its unique lion, in the late 17th century.
Rovinj is the definition of charming, Pula is not. It is an industrial, port town with traffic and grime, but it does have one of the best preserved amphitheatres outside of Italy.
Pula achieved Roman colony status around 46 BCE and a proliferation of building projects soon followed. The best examples still standing are the Arch of the Sergii, the Temple of Augustus and the Pula Arena. The remains of the Arena, which was constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE, are unique because this amphitheatre is still completely enclosed with four side towers intact. The towers, purportedly, each housed a cistern and fountain system allowing perfumed water to sprinkle down on spectators. Built with Istrian stone, a dense limestone often mistaken for marble, it must have been dazzling in the sunlight. Even today, it is striking, rising above the Pula harbour. The Venetians loved Istrian stone, in particular for its resistance to salt and sun. They extracted massive amounts from the quarries near Rovinj and you’ll find this stone features prominently in many of the palaces, churches, bridges, etc. in Venice.
WWII bombing around the Chapel of St. Maria Formosa unearthed the remains of a block of 3rd century Roman houses (about 2 m below the current street level). One of the floor mosaics has been preserved in situ and while it’s a bit hard to find if you like mosaics, this one is impressive and worth hunting for (with some assistance from Google Maps – search for Mosaic The Punishment of Dirce).
Beginning at sunset, every night, the giant cranes in the harbour come alive with colour. The Lighting Giants glow with the colours of the rainbow and can be specially programmed for certain events and holidays. A pretty view while enjoying a late night gelato.
San Benedetto Fortress
The Istria Peninsula is dotted with the rusting remains of numerous military installations.
We laughed at the liability nightmare (by North American standards) the San Benedetto Fortress presented. Some websites said you could walk around the exterior but the interior was closed to the public, others made no mention of it being closed. We found the iron gates wide open and nothing at the site would indicate it’s off limits (there’s even a sign explaining the different rooms), so we didn’t hesitate to scramble up the crumbling staircase at the entrance.
Built in 1903 as part of the Austro-Hungarian fortification system, it was a canon battery for the much larger Fort Forno (which was too far away for us to walk to with the time we had allotted) and after WWII became a repository for underwater mines, ammunitions and explosives. It was fascinating wandering through the rooms.
An ancient hilltop fortress has apparently stood above Rovinj since prehistoric times, though the first mention of it comes from 789 CE when it was destroyed. Rebuilt and re-purposed throughout the middle ages, it eventually fell into disuse. Over the past few centuries various owners have tried to undo some of the neglect but only recently has restoration begun in earnest – bags of cement and piles or rock were all over the site.
Us (our thoughts on the area) – We would definitely go back to Rovinj. September seemed to be the perfect time of year – the weather is lovely (warm enough to swim but not blistering hot), the crowds have thinned and it seemed to be fairly mosquito-free! Off to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.
Restaurants – The Peninsula is known for truffles, wine and olive oil. We had a rather expensive lunch in Pula at Veritas Food & Wine, not too far from the Forum Square, next to the crumbling remains of the Chapel of St. Maria Formosa, where Howard discovered a little truffle goes a long way (my meal was delicious, pesto with dried figs – sweet and savory, yum). Our waiter seemed delighted (no one is ever really exuberant in this part of the world) when he learned we were Canadians as he has family in Windsor and he was very attentive.
In Rovinj we had some of the best gelato ever at Gelateria Italia. As the name suggests, it is owned by a family of Italians so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the gelato was good. So good in fact, we made a special trip into Rovinj late one afternoon just for gelato!
If you are a wine drinker like me (and according to Croatian wine marketing, moderate wine consumption improves your memory, fights signs of aging and helps with weight loss, so why wouldn’t you be), Teran (red) and Istarska Malvazija (white) are grape varieties definitely worth trying. Teran grapes produce full-bodied wines perfect for pairing with truffle dishes. In warmer weather I prefer white wines and really enjoyed the light and flowery Malvazija wines I tried. Like everything else in Croatia, wine is more expensive compared to the rest of the Balkans and I was paying $7-9/bottle (CAD) for wines on par with Romanian and Serbian wines running at $3-5/bottle.
Speech – The Istria Peninsula is officially a bilingual community – Croatian and Italian, although 90% of the population lists Croatian as their native language – accordingly you’ll see highway road signs in the region display both versions of city names (Roving/Rovigno; Pula/Pola; Poreč/Parenzo; Vrsar/Orsera etc.). Given how touristy Croatia has become we found almost everyone slipped into English for us the minute we opened our mouths – except the owners of the gelato shop in Rovinj, they were Italian through and through!
As we’ve moved through the Balkans it’s been interesting to note how many of the words are similar. Here’s our list of the basic words we tried to use in conversation:
|Buon Giorno (bwohn-johr-noh)
|Dobro Jutro (doh-broh you-troh)
|Dobar Dan (doh-bahr dahn)
|Per favore (pehr fah-voh-reh)
|Da / Ne
|Si (see) / No
|Mi Dispiace (mee dees-pyah-cheh)