You could be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally boarded the wrong flight when you first arrive in .
Not only does it look suspiciously like an Italian city, most of the signs are in both Italian and Croatian, and a fair proportion of the locals can be overheard speaking a language more commonly expected in their neighbouring nation.
Up until World War II, , and the Istrian region of which it is capital, belonged to Italy, but most of the region passed to Yugoslavia shortly afterwards.
It’s hardly surprising then that is a bit of a melting pot – its history includes Roman, Austro-Hungarian, German, Yugoslavian and now Croatian rule, so the area has had more than its fair share of influences.
With a diverse range of people and languages, Istria is one of the most accepting places in the country and has some of the friendliest people. With the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia, the city’s formerly-thriving tourism industry all but died, but visitors are now well and truly coming back.
‘s star attraction is the massive amphitheatre, the sixth largest in the world. Built in the 1st century, it’s still in remarkably good shape. There are a few stones missing from the very top – legend has it the Romans once tried to move it when they lost control of the city, but otherwise its grandeur and position right on the roadside just north of the city gives it a presence almost as great as Rome’s great Colosseum.
These days, it is used mainly for rock concerts and the Film Festival, an auspicious event which has been showcasing
the best of Croatian cinema for over 50 years. A Marilyn Manson concert held there caused an outcry among the largely Roman Catholic population back in 2005, but he still managed to fill the huge arena.
The Arch of the Sergians, ‘s own version of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe is worth a look, as is the nearby statue of the writer James Joyce, who once taught English in . There’s also an impressive archaeological museum, worth visiting as much for the surrounding gardens as the impressive collection of artefacts collected from various time periods. It’s also worth taking a peek at the Temple of Augustus, the Fortress, and the tranquil Naval Cemetery, where 150,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers are buried.
Hit the beach
itself has a rather unappealing marina, which authorities are currently trying to move away from the city centre, but there are a few beaches within close range. If you ask a local where the sandy beaches are, they’ll probably look at you with some confusion. Istrians are much more proud of their pebbly beaches, and the shingled shore at Verudela, a short bus trip from the city, is one of the best around.
It’s not everyday you sees zebras, ostriches and horses hanging out together in a big park that also contains dinosaur footprints. So it’s well worth making the somewhat convoluted day trip to the Brijuni Islands. Filled with exotic animals and luxurious villas by former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito, who used the largest island of Veliki Brijuni as a playground with which to entertain the rich and famous, the archipelago forms Istria’s only national park.
As well as the zoo, there’s also a gothic church, golf courses and Roman ruins to keep you occupied on a day trip. There are some exclusive villas and a few hotels on the islands themselves, but you can also visit for a day by catching a ferry from Fazana, a short bus trip from .
Visit TNT’s Croatia Travel Guide.