Istria is a peninsular in the Adriatic sea and the region is shared by Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. My husband and I stayed there for a week and based ourselves in Pula. Pula is the largest city in Istria County, although with a population of only 57,460 at the last census (compared to 751,500 in Leeds), it doesn't really feel like a city at all. The old town area has one main street with lots of shops and restaurants, with a Roman arch at one end, a square in the middle and a Roman amphitheatre at the other end. Its also a working port, so has a waterfront area, although this is more industrial than it is pretty. It's great for fish spotting though, there are literally hundreds of them (if you throw bread in the water it creates a feeding frenzy!).
We rented an apartment just off the main street; the apartment block contained a mix of holiday lets and residential properties. It was basic but clean, and really reasonably priced. We spent our first couple of days exploring Pula, admiring the Roman arch, visiting the amphitheatre (known locally as the arena), people watching from bars and eating al fresco. We also visited Kastel, an old fortress. The exhibition there is apparently nothing special, so we just wandered round in the sunshine and admired the panoramic views of Pula. As an added bonus, there was a photography exhibition there too, displaying old photos of Pula and the surrounding area, so I was happy. At this time of year, there seemed to be as many locals in the city as there were tourists, which helps the city maintain an authentic feel.
As we were on a tight budget, we shopped at the market most days for breakfast and lunch (which we ate wherever we happened to be on that day), then ate out in the evenings. The market is fab; there is an indoor meat and fish section, with a deli section upstairs and an outdoor part, selling fruit and vegetables, cheese, local oil and honey and flowers. All the cheese sellers offer tastings before you buy too, so walk round them all before you commit to anything! The stall holders are friendly and speak good English, although we mainly managed with about five Croatian words and a bit of pointing. My favourite bars were City Bar, which has outside seating in a small square (just off the main street) and friendly bar staff, along with Fiorin Jazz Cafe, which has a few tables outside (but is pretty cool inside too). Both these bars appear to be frequented by locals as well as tourists. Restaurant wise, I loved Hosteria, which is a Croatian restaurant down a side street off the waterside road (Riva). We ate Pljukanci (a Croatian pasta) with squid and it was amazing. We also had a fish platter at Barbara, which was on the main street so a bit more touristy, but the fish was amazing. It changes depending on what comes in off the boats, is simply grilled and perfectly seasoned. We also had a seafood platter at another restaurant on the main street, on a corner just behind the town hall, but sadly I didn't note the name. Clearly I need to remember to make notes for blog purposes! The staff here were really friendly and the seafood was great and really reasonably priced.
After seeing all that Pula had to offer, we decided to walk to the nearest beaches, which are a few kilometres away. The closest is Valkane, which has a slightly neglected feel about it... it has facilities, such as a beach bar and volleyball court, but could really use a facelift. Much nicer is Valseline, which you reach by following the coast road round, passing rocky coast and shingle coves on the way. Both these beaches seem to be more popular with locals than tourists, though this may have been because of the time of year.
Now, a note about the beaches. Istria doesn't seem to have sandy beaches; the coves are shingle and coast is rocky. This means you need to be equipped if you plan on a relaxing day at the beach... all the beach shops sell large flat cushions and I recommend that you buy one, otherwise you are not going to be doing much sunbathing! They also sell beach shoes, which protect your feet when accessing the sea and, perhaps more importantly, stop you from slipping off the rocks when carefully making your way in. We didn't buy any and had an unfortunate incident involving my husband, a slippery rock and a quicker than planned introduction to the water! Once you have figured out how to get in, however, the sea is amazing, so clear that you can see to the bottom, and you can see little fish swimming around your feet.
We then decided to brave the bus system (surprisingly easy and reliable) in order to visit Kamenjak, a national park at the very southern tip of Istria. Kamenjak is a long thin strip of protected coastline and is insanely beautiful. It's also, like the other beaches we visited, really quiet. Its easy to find a cove all to yourself to relax and swim. If you are feeling brave, you can join the cliff jumpers at the southern end of the park jumping 70 feet into the strong currents (no thanks); if not you can hire a bike in town and cycle the area.
On our last day, we headed to Rovinj, a fishing port and former island which is now connected to the mainland. Rovinj has a very Venetian feel (it was historically under Venetian and more recently Italian rule). There are mazes of narrow cobbled streets, which open up to piazzas or the beautiful coastline. There are numerous restaurants, which unsurprisingly specialise in fish and seafood. Many restaurants have coastal terraces and I seriously cannot think of a better place to eat. Eating grilled squid and seafood risotto a stone's throw from where it was caught, baking in the late summer sun is a meal I will remember for a long time to come. We loved Rovinj so much that we hope to go back next year.
There is so much more to Coastal Istria that we didn't mange to see, such as the Lim Fjord, Brijuni Islands and Porec, so I really hope we make it back next year, using Rovinj as our base and exploring from there. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a reasonably priced, relaxing break eating seafood and swimming in the sea.