by Nora Fahmi
To say there’s an Italian influence in Istria and Dalmatia is an understatement. Most often compared to Tuscany, Istria doesn’t just look like Italy; it was Italy. At the end of the Second World War the heart-shaped peninsula became part of Yugoslavia (present-day Croatia). Today, despite their arduous past, Istria and Dalmatia are hailed as Italy’s twin travel destinations – evidence of the Italian pedigree that couldn’t be cast out.
As the largest sea port in Croatia and the country’s third largest city, Rijeka is a commercial and economic hub. At the city’s market, where crowds gather to buy the catch of the day, Venetian sculptor Urbano Bottasso’s stone decorations and fountains are on full display. Declared the “European capital of culture for 2020” by the European Commission, Rijeka is a blend of Austro-Hungarian–style buildings, Viennese-style cafés and art spaces. The city also has a deep political connection to Italy. In 1919 Italian poet-politician Gabriele d’Annunzio and followers declared Italy’s annexation of the city. His bronze statue still stands in the town square.
“Of all the places to see in Istria, Pula is undoubtedly the one I recommend the most for its striking Romanesque architecture, lively multicultural scene, beaches and natural beauty,” explains Massimo Chiavalon, owner of the vacation rentals agency Lovely Istria. The city’s character is shaped around an abundance of Roman architecture, the undisputed pièce de résistance being the marvellously preserved Roman amphitheatre. “But one must not forget to also visit the imposing Arch of the Sergii and the beautiful 2000-year-old Roman floor mosaic near the Chapel of St. Maria Formosa,” Chiavalon points out. Being so well connected to other major cities, Pula is a comfortable home base to explore the rest of the region.
It’s pretty. It’s romantic. It’s the perfect union of Italian and Croatian culture. Having been ruled by the Republic of Venice from 1283 until 1797, the city’s Venetian influence is still apparent. Low-rise pastel-colored buildings, cobblestone streets webbed with hanging laundry make up the backdrop of Rovinj’s car-free old town. The narrow streets lead visitors to the baroque Church of Saint Euphemia, offering stunning views from the 60 meter-high Venetian style bell tower.
“Whether you’re a Game of Thrones fan or not (many scenes of the hit series were shot here), you’ll fall in love with everything about Split, namely the turquoise waters, the coffee culture and the seafood,” says Yulia Safutdinova, travel blogger behind misstourist.com. When it comes to food, the city’s seafood-based local cuisine is heavily influenced by an Italian style of cooking. A classic dish is Crni Rizot (black risotto made of squid ink, mussels, clams and other shellfish). When in Split, a stop at Dvor is a must. With a stunning outdoor location by the sea, this restaurant is a great place to savour the local seafood or grab a coffee. “Also not-to-miss: a hike up Marjan Hill for a breathtaking view of the entire city and a hop onto Hvar Island for some intense partying at one of the island’s many posh clubs; Carpe Diem waterfront cocktail bar is a long-standing favourite,” suggests Safutdinova.
Old and new coexist in perfect harmony in Zadar, the relatively undiscovered cool cat of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. It boasts a historic centre made up of Roman ruins and medieval churches, alongside hip restaurants and bars. Slow food restaurant, Pet Bunara, offers a colorful array of traditional Croatian dishes with a modern twist. End the night at The Garden Lounge, a unique garden atop the Old City walls. Two of Zadar’s most notable attractions are the Monument of the Sun and the Sea Organ. The first is a giant solar-powered dance floor on the edge of the waterfront. The second is a set of concrete steps that seem to come out of the water and sound musical notes as the underwater pipes fill with water.
“Those who are looking for paradise on Earth should come and see Dubrovnik,” remarked playwright George Bernard Shaw. Often referred to as the pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik overlooks the Adriatic’s glittering blue water. One of the world’s best preserved walled cities, its pedestrian-only old town is made up of majestic churches, fountains, palaces and squares. Dubrovnik also attracts those who want to indulge in a more lavish holiday. Dine out at Nautika, an acclaimed restaurant headed by world-class chef Mario Bunda or pamper yourself at Villa Dubrovnik, a hotel complete with pool, spa and jaw-dropping views.