By Travel columnist
updated 8/3/2006 2:24:28 PM ET 2006-08-03T18:24:28

Driving south from Trieste, Italy, the first corner of Croatia you encounter is the triangular peninsula called Istria. On my last trip, I never made it any farther. Now being touted as the “new Tuscany,” Istria has in fact long been noted for its beautiful Adriatic coast, lush forests, olive groves, vineyards and offshore islands.

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Long a part of the Roman Empire and Italy, Istria has more recently acquired an overlay of Austrian and Slavic influences that have done little to change the essentially Italian character of the region. The landscape is one of vineyards, olive groves and Venetian-style church towers; its kitchens offer pasta and pizza; and Italian is spoken almost as readily as Croatian.

The recent history is a little convoluted. After World War I, Italy wrested control of the region from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had governed it for more than 100 years. After World War II, Tito claimed it for Yugoslavia; at that time, a determined effort was made to stamp out the Italian language and culture. After Tito’s death, in the late 1980s, Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, taking Istria with it. In the ensuing war with Serbia, Istria was spared destruction and much of the old, Italian character resurfaced.

Recently, Istria has regained its tourism footing. Its 150-mile coastline is packed with Germans, Austrians, Slovenians and Italians from June through September, the region’s high season. It is easy to get to. Hydrofoils cross the Adriatic Sea from Venice in about an hour and a half, and most of the region is within a 90-minute drive of Trieste. Croatia Air connects Pula, at the southern tip of the peninsula, with many European capitals as well.

Magazine articles and guidebooks often give the impression that prices in Croatia are low, but Istria cannot be considered a cheap vacation. It does cost less than Italy or Austria, and it is far more rustic, especially in the interior. The best bets for bargains are private rooms away from the coast, especially in the off-season, when prices drop dramatically (sometimes more than 50 percent). Summer is too crowded, anyway, but May and October are perfect.

Sightseeing and dining

The main tourist center is the town of Porec, on the west coast. Set beside the stunningly blue Adriatic Sea, the town could have been created by Disney. The sightseeing highlight is the incandescent mosaic art of the Basilica of St. Euphrasius, which is set in the midst of the narrow streets that crisscross the Old Town. The town’s main street, Dekamanus, was built by the Romans to allow 10 soldiers to walk abreast. It leads past souvenir shops, cafes and ice cream stores to the sparse remains of the ancient Roman forum.

Just to the north and south of Porec, hotels and campsites pepper the coast. Here, swimming pools glint in the sun above the crystal waters of the Adriatic, and bike paths wind through vineyards and olive groves. The beaches are rocky, making this a wonderful area for diving as well as for swimming, windsurfing and sailing.

Slideshow: A European tour The surrounding hotels and campsites are set back in forests that spill down to the sea. The largest hotel chain in the region is Riviera, which has several hotels built on islands and coves along the crenulated coast and set in several of the evocative towns. Campsites and private homes provide more affordable accommodation, along with the chance to spend more time with the locals.

Porec is a good base for an exploration of the hill towns of central Istria, such as Motovun, which overlooks Istria’s prime truffle-hunting forests; Hum, which claims to be the smallest town in the world; Roc, home to the world’s main concertina festival; and Groznjan, a town that found new life when artists set up their studios in its abandoned rock houses. These villages sit on hilltops surrounded by impressive medieval walls. Walking down their narrow cobbled streets, flanked by stone houses with flowers spilling from the windows, immediately transports a visitor back in time.

Farther south along the west coast is the town of Rovinj, one of the most-photographed towns in Istria. It sits on what was once a small island, and it seems to float on the sea. Indeed, some say it is a piece of Venice that floated across the sea. The town’s narrow, stony streets rise to the Church of St. Euphemia, whose patio provides wonderful views along the coast and across the Adriatic. The main restaurants surround the small port, which is filled with fishing boats and luxury yachts.

To the far south, Pula, the industrial center and port of Istria, has the richest remains of the Roman Empire. The amphitheater, which was built in the first century B.C. and seated 22,000 people, has wonderfully preserved outer walls, though little is left of the interior seats and galleries. A triumphal arch erected for the Roman general Sergius leads into the old town center, which has some sketchy remains of the old Roman forum and the Temple of Augustus.

About 7 miles north of Pula, the Church of St. Blaise in Vodnjan contains the largest collection of saintly relics outside of Rome. The church claims relics from 270 saints. Behind the altar is an amazing collection of mummies, which were moved here from Venice in 1818. Miraculously, the bodies have not decayed. This is also the largest church in Istria and has its tallest bell tower — the same height as the bell tower of Saint Mark’s in Venice.

Istrian cooking takes advantage of many Italian techniques. Along the coast, restaurants serve branzino (sea bass), sogliola (sole), cozze (mussels), vongole (clams) and gamberi (prawns). Locals claim that the seafood tastes better here than elsewhere in the Adriatic and Mediterranean because the feeding grounds along the rocky Istrian coast are so rich.

In the interior of Istria, agritourism has produced excellent restaurants that serve only meals prepared from livestock, produce, wine, cheese and olive oil raised and made within a mile or two of the restaurant. Lamb, goat, beef and chicken grace the tables together with seasonal vegetables and fruit. These meals, made with the freshest of ingredients, are a rare treat.

Here are a handful of suggestions, restaurants and places to stay based on my short visit in May 2006. (The telephone code for Croatia is 00385.)

Getting around

I recommend a car. AutoEurope (800-223-5555) can arrange rental cars for a three-day minimum with pickup in the Istrian towns of Porec, Pula and Umag. Cost is approximately $55 a day for an economy car based on a three-day rental. Comparable automobiles picked up in Italy cost around $70 a day because of required insurance charges. A smaller car is recommended for the narrow Istrian roads. Buses connect most of the main towns in Istria, but the schedules aren’t always convenient and it is difficult to explore the smaller towns once you get off.

Dining

One of the best fish restaurants in Istria is Restaurant Trost in Vrsar, just south of Porec (in the marina, tel. 052-445197).

In the interior, restaurant Agroturizam Stefanic, near Motovun (tel. 052-689026), serves only what the surrounding towns raise, hunt or produce — including the region’s famous truffles. It is the essence of living off the land.

In Rovinj, an affordable restaurant (and one of the oldest in town) is Kanoba Neptun (J. Rakovca 10, tel. 052-816086). It seems the perfect tourist trap, but the fresh fish cooked over wood coals is delectable. The staff hovers over those who are enjoying the succulent fish rather than the tourists wolfing down pizza, bratwurst and the pasta of the day.

Where to stay

Hotel Neptun (tel. 052-465100), right on the docks of Porec, and Hotel Fortuna (tel. 052-465100), set on St. Nikola island only a few hundred yards from Porec, are both good year-round choices. They are part of the Riviera chain.

For accommodations in a private home near Porec, contact the Damjanic family (tel. 052-444553). The daughter speaks good English and they have two wonderful apartments set in the midst of vineyards only about a mile and a half from the sea. If they don’t have room, they will put you in contact with another family that does. The family also produces some of the best wines in Istria.

Guidebooks

I used three guidebooks during my visit to Istria in May: Lonely Planet, The Rough Guide and Frommer’s. The best of the lot for history and description is Lonely Planet. The Rough Guide is a close second, but it lacks detail for some of the smaller towns. Frommer’s guide is uneven; it has excellent descriptions of the main towns and good stories about local sights, but its coverage of the many interior towns runs to platitudes. The three guidebooks are about equal when it comes to hotels, though none prepared me for the excellent design of the coastal hotels, which are not at all the side-by-side tourist high-rises that one too often finds on southern European beaches.

Never heard of Istria? Soon you will, I guarantee it. Istria has already been discovered by many Europeans and it is now moving onto the radar screen of American travelers. It is a beautiful region of Europe, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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