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Istria - Background information
The Romans conquered Istria in 177BC – it took them two military campaigns – when they took the Illyrian settlement of Vizače (Roman Nesactium) at Valtura, near Pula’s present-day airport, defeating the Histrian king Epulon (who, according to the Roman writer Tito Livio, stabbed himself and threw himself from the town walls rather than being captured alive). Following the Roman conquest, Roman settlements were established at Polentium (Pula), Parentium (Poreč), Tarsatica (Rijeka) and elsewhere (it took the Romans a further 150 years to defeat the Illyrian tribes further south in Dalmatia. Istria became an important source of olive oil and wine for the Romans, as well as limestone and other resources; you can still see the remains of olive oil production and storage on Brijuni.
The magnificent, UNESCO-listed mosaics in Poreč © Istria Tourist Board
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in AD476, the Istrian Peninsula was successively overrun by the Visigoths, Huns and Ostrogoths, before Byzantium established control over the Istrian and Dalmatian coast in the 6th century, under the emperor Justinian I. It was during this period of reasonably extended peace that Bishop Euphrasius built the large basilica in Poreč named after him, the exquisite mosaics of which are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After World War I, the Treaty of Rapallo (1920) gave Istria to the Kingdom of Italy, while Rijeka was annexed by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who set up his own, short-lived regency there, from 1919 to 1921. On 1 December 1918, partly in response to fears that Croatian territory would be bartered as part of the post-war settlement, the first communal Yugoslav state – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – was founded, later called the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Rijeka was formally handed to Italy with the Treaty of Rome (1924). During this period the border between Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes ran down the River Rječina in Rijeka.
The 1920s and 1930s and the rise of Italian fascism witnessed a policy of forced Italianisation in Istria, with the closure of a number of Croatian and Slovenian schools, a suppression of local language and culture, and the torching of the Narodni dom in Pula and Trieste. In response, the militantly anti-fascist group TIGR, considered one of the earliest anti-fascist movements in Europe, was established in Slovenia, and was active in Istria. Following the outbreak of World War II, Italy annexed further parts of Croatia, establishing concentration camps (including on the island of Rab), while the rest of Croatia and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were occupied by Nazi Germany. Armed resistance was organised by the Partisans under Josip Broz Tito. The Italian surrender in 1943 and the defeat of Germany in 1945 were accompanied in Istria by reprisal killings and massacres, most notoriously the ‘foibe massacres’, in which the bodies of Italians were disposed of in karst sinkholes. Between 1943 and 1954 a significant proportion of Istria’s Italian population moved to Italy in several waves – through fear of persecution, economic uncertainty and with encouragement from both Italy and Yugoslavia.
From 1945 Istria, along with the rest of Croatia, became part of Tito’s Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which endured for several years after Tito’s death in 1980, until its bloody collapse in the early 1990s. Unlike many other parts of Croatia, Istria emerged largely unscathed from the 1991–95 Homeland War (Croatian War of Independence). Over the past two decades Croatia has seen tourism soar, a new network of motorways has been built and foreign property buying has boomed. Croatia achieved candidate status in its bid for EU membership in 2004, finally joining the EU on 1 July 2013.
With almost 40,000 taxa of wildlife already formally identified in Croatia as a whole, the count continues and final numbers are estimated by the State Institute for Nature Protection to possibly lie somewhere between a minimum of 50,000 to over 100,000. Istria used to be densely wooded until much of it was used during Venetian rule for shipbuilding. Nonetheless, a lot of Istria remains wooded – mainly deciduous forest, with downy oak, beech, oriental hornbeam and sweet chestnut, as well as areas of conifer forest, predominantly spruce and black pine – and is still favoured for picking wild asparagus and other local delicacies, as well as for gathering truffles, and seasonal hunting.
Outside the towns you will often see various species of deer in the fields, especially at dawn and dusk, and it is not uncommon to see plenty of other species of wildlife – buzzard, kestrel, goshawk, hoopoe, rock partridge, owls (little owl and scops owl among other species), alpine swift , blue rock thrush and several species of woodpecker are just some of the birds you have a good chance of seeing, with Palud and Sečovlje on the coast being particularly good for waterfowl and wading birds, including little egret, great white egret, purple heron and little grebe. There are many species of bat present, including greater horseshoe bat and Geoffroy’s bat. Croatia’s rocky karst landscape makes a perfect habitat for reptiles, and Istria is no exception, with several species of wall lizard, as well as Dalmatian algyroides, green lizard, slow worm and glass lizard, and several species of snake such as dice snake and four-lined snake.
Istrians – whether of Croatian, Italian or other ethnicity, and whatever their mother tongue – are in the experience of both authors an incredibly warm, friendly and open people, justifiably proud of their peninsula’s rich cultural heritage and delicious cuisine. A testament to this is how often different ethnicities live side by side, and despite having gone through a period of fascism and an exodus in the first half of the last century, Istrians remain open-minded and forward-looking.
Istria’s rich, multi-layered culture is everywhere apparent – critical tools required to appreciate it are simply eyes and ears.
Some parts of Istria, along with the nearby island of Krk, were centres of Glagolitic learning during the medieval period, and one of the most important Glagolitic inscriptions in Croatia was discovered at Plomin. Churches in Roč, Hum and elsewhere in the Istrian interior still bear traces of Glagolitic graffiti among their frescoes, and a series of sculptures inspired by letters of the Glagolitic alphabet can be found along the road between Roč and Hum.
Istria is also linked to the names of several foreign novelists, including the likes of Jules Verne (who set part of his novel Mathius Sandorf in Pazin Castle, Pazinska jama and the Limski kanal), James Joyce (who taught English in Pula for a short period, at which time he worked on some of the material which would later become his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Dante (who visited Pazin and possibly based the entrance to Hell in his Inferno on Pazinska jama).
There are some beautiful and little-known medieval frescoes hidden away in the Istrian interior, many dating from the 15th century. You’ll find them in churches in Roč, Hum, Draguć, Oprtalj and elsewhere (including over the Slovenian border at Hrastovlje) – though it is undoubtedly the Dance of Death scene at Beram that is the most striking, painted in 1474 by Vincent of Kastav. The churches are usually locked, but a local keyholder will be happy to come and let you look inside.
The Dance of Death frescos in Beram © Central Istrian Tourist Board
Istria has some superb Roman and Byzantine mosaics, including a large and mostly intact Roman floor mosaic in Pula illustrating the Punishment of Dirce, and of course the magnificent Byzantine mosaics at Poreč (pages 95–6), the latter on a par with the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna and in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
Istria’s architectural heritage belies its historical ties with Venice, while at the same time evoking its periods of Roman, Byzantine and Austro-Hungarian rule – together with some distinctively Istrian elements. Rovinj is perhaps the most familiar symbol of the area’s Venetian past, with its Renaissance and Baroque palaces and narrow, cobbled streets. Less well known but equally evocative are the small towns of Sveti Lovreč and Svetvinčenat, with their clear medieval street patterns and Venetian loggias.
Roman remains in Istria (or anywhere else in Croatia for that matter) don’t get much more impressive than the 1st-century amphitheatre in Pula. Istria’s – and Croatia’s – finest Byzantine remains are in Poreč, where the dazzling 6th-century mosaics of the Euphrasian Basilica are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Smaller Byzantine monuments include the 6th-century Chapel of St Mary Formosa in Pula. In Opatija and Rijeka, you’ll find some wonderfully opulent Secessionist architecture, which hints at this part of Istria’s former Austro-Hungarian grandeur.
Istria has some impressive castles, in particular Pazin Castle (which sits perched on the edge of a dramatic gorge), Trsat Castle in Rijeka, and the surprisingly large Grimaldi Castle at Svetvinčenat, while just over the border in Slovenia the iconic Predjama Castle (pages 179–80) is built into an overhanging cliff .
A kažun in rural Istria © Istria Tourist Board
Out in the countryside of central Istria, along with plenty of stone farmhouses, you might see kažuni – small, circular stone huts with a conical roof, which are built, like the drystone walls in the fields around them, without any mortar. These humble but beautifully constructed kažuni – just as much as ‘Venetian’ Rovinj or ‘Roman’ Pula – have become more or less emblematic of Istria.