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By Ellen Himelfarb, journalist for Woman & Home.

Featured in Woman & Home Magazine August 2023. Copy written by Ellen Himelfarb, holiday suggestions recommended by the Sunvil team.

The seaside city of Pula is the perfect place to begin exploring Croatia's beautiful northern Istria peninsula - a sun-baked stretch of coast that has served as a valuable crossroads to Europeans for millennia and still blends the continent's many influences. The vestiges of bygone times are everywhere - and are cherished.

Remarkably, Pula is home to one of Croatia's oldest citizens, a woman born near the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Her descendants have spanned Mussolini's Italy, German occupation during World War Two, been both Yugoslavian and Croatian, and seen the nation join the eurozone in January. Six generations of one family, born in Pula, an ancient and yet modern city.

I discover this leaving the restored Roman arena, the only surviving Roman amphitheatre to have four side towers entirely preserved. I stroll down a storied street with galleries, gelato stands, an oak-lined park and Austrian villa. I duck into Zerostrasse, an underground shelter built by the Austrians in the run-up to World War One. It's been redeveloped as a city museum, and I feel vaguely spooked until I hail a lift to the exit and find myself atop a 17th-century Venetian fortress. I can see the amphitheatre, the cathedral tower and a succession of saffron-coloured villas. Croatians call this port the end of the world. And it feels like it. The winding coastline means nearly everywhere I go provides a panorama of pleasure boats and swimmers. South of town in Verudela, my hotel infinity pool overlooks a pretty marina and pebbly pine-shaded beach.

Pula, Istria, Croatia

Sip and unwind

A 15-minute taxi ride north of Pula is all it takes for a drastic scene change. Vodnjan is a forgotten stage set of a town where my footsteps reverberate against the flaking facades. The photo ops are irresistible, from the stone church to the sun-faded noticeboard on a shuttered Romanesque hall to the shadowy marble-paved crescents – nobody is around to spoil the deserted feel.

Once home to 100 in-demand shoemakers, Vodnjan isn’t actually deserted today. At sundown, the townsfolk funnel into Caffe Bar Arka on the grand neo-Gothic central square for glasses of amber Karlovačko beer. As much as I’d love to stay, I’m due at Medea Winery to taste its new Malvasia whites.

At Medea’s chic new tasting room on Vodnjan’s outskirts, I alternate bites of hard Dinarski cheese with sips of the fresh, fruity, dry white, an Istrian speciality going back to 14th-century Venetian occupation. The winery’s 60 hectares of grapevines spill down into the beaches of Medulin in the south, and their product is refreshingly easy to drink.

It all feels so continental, it’s a wonder Croatia just introduced the euro this year. Anyone exploring the countryside of this heart-shaped peninsula could easily draw comparisons with Italy, a hop, skip and jump away. Indeed, even the street signs here are written in both Italian and Croatian languages. Where there are no vineyards, the olive groves take over and baroque bell towers announce medieval limestone villages. Amalfi Coast-esque seaside coves, like Fažana and Rovinj, lure in yachts on island-hopping adventures.

Old-world grandeur

The luxury coach steering me north-east for the next leg of my trip affords views over the verdant archipelago and – veering around the scrubby cliffs of Učka National Park – drops me in Opatija. Built atop the rubble of an ancient fishing village, the town was the capital of the beloved Austrian-Hungarian riviera, where the Empress Sisi (and Sigmund Freud) came to soak in natural spring-water baths. These have been supplanted by cool beach clubs like Lido, and a sophisticated proposition of grand, modernist hotels with restorative salt water pools.

At dusk I join young families for a promenade on the famous lungomare, a waterfront walk scented by mock orange and Atlas cedar. By the majestic Villa Angiolina, we overtake a bay of wooden gondolas, punted by the resident boatmen (barkajoli), and admire a classic car parked outside modest St Jacob Church, belonging to the parish priest.

The following afternoon I drive into the hills to circle the fortifications of tiny, tranquil Kastav, fought over by the Austrian Habsburgs and Venetians. And by evening I am back on the promenade in Opatija, for an epic hour-long walk southward to lovable Lovran. Brushing past branches of the laurel, Lovran’s namesake, I pause to admire flamboyant art nouveau villas and kneel to pet white fluffy terriers before my four-course dinner at the local Bistro Ganeum. Green gnocchi sprinkled with white asparagus shoots, sliced from a bushel the width of an old oak, is the standout.

Opatija, Kvarner, Croatia

Island escape

The cycle of slow, decadent meals and leisurely walks is Croatian’s version of ‘when in Rome’. At Nada, a warren of dining rooms on the north shore of Krk, my friend Sanjana enjoys a succession of charcuterie, salads, mushroom risotto, grilled whitefish and lamb chops, chilled Zlahtina wine and presnac cheesecake. ‘In Croatia, the guest is god,’ she says. Krk is Croatia’s only island with a bridge to the mainland (it is in the neighbouring region of Kvarner to Istria). Outsiders have settled here for 3,000 years. Café Volsonis has a basement billiard room layered with ancient stone remains. Down by the water is a castle built by the Frankopan family, who peacocked around Krk in medieval times. There are inscriptions on the sides of ancient buildings etched in the loop 9th-century Glagolitic script, now long obsolete. On the waterfront, the heat is tempered by the breeze: bura, in Croatian. I’d like to live this way for eternity. I’d say the Croatians don’t know how good they have it, but looking around at their placid, unhurried demeanour, it appears they probably do.

Island of Krk, Kvarner, Croatia

Where to stay

HOTEL ADMIRAL, OPATIJA
A town centre stay with all the amenities of a resort, this rambling hotel gives value for money.

PARK PLAZA HISTRIA, PULA
Monopolising a tree-lined peninsula in Pula’s beach outskirts, the Histria cascades down to the ocean.

Hotel Admiral, Opatija, Kvarner, Croatia 

Hotel Park Plaza Histria, Pula, Istria, Croatia

What to see and do

CAMINO, KRK
The island, an hour from Opatija via the connecting bridge, launched its new Camino pilgrimage route last year – a 93-mile seaside trail you can lap over seven days. You’ll spot ancient forts, aqueducts, castles, a Benedictine convent and swimming coves.

BRIJUNI NATIONAL PARK, FAŽANA
The ferry leaves Fažana pier every couple of hours and arrives 15 minutes later in Brijuni island. Hire a bicycle or golf cart by the dock and follow paths to a ruined Roman villa, pebble beach and safari park.

ARCHITECTURE WALK, LOVRAN
Architects Karl Seidl, Attilio Maguolo and Andrea Rubinich designed graceful villas by the sea for visiting aristocracy at the turn of the 20th century. You can spot them from the lungomare coastal path.

ST EUPHEMIA CHURCH, ROVINJ
A baroque beacon, St Euphemia is a sight to behold, with wonderful views from the church square.

The Sunvil Family

By The Sunvil Family

3rd August 2023



The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family

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