January the 9th, 2024 – Istria and its various destinations get a lot of press these days, but what about Istria off the beaten track? Here are some gems on the Istrian peninsula to consider as suggested by our Istria expert, Nikolina Demark.
Walk the Parenzana trail
Not necessarily the whole thing, of course: running through three countries, the Parenzana trail is 123 kilometres long in total, and it’s perfectly fine to only walk or cycle a part of it. Historically, Parenzana was known as the narrow-gauge railway which connected the Italian port city of Trieste with Poreč in Istria, passing through many inland villages and smaller towns along the way.
Fun fact: as the inauguration of the Parenzana line in Trieste was delayed several times due to various issues, the locals got sceptical after a while. When the first train ceremonially arrived in Trieste on April 1st, 1902, almost no one showed up at the railway station because people were convinced the announcement was an April Fools’ joke.
But it wasn’t, and the railway soon made it possible for agricultural produce to be distributed all over the region, stimulating Istria’s economic progress and becoming somewhat of a lifeline for the local population. Although the railway line ceased operation in 1935, it certainly left a mark on the region, and so it was decided to revive the route as a hiking and cycling trail.
Parenzana will take you over bridges and viaducts, now secured by guard rails; it runs through well-lit tunnels and snakes through the lush landscape. The entire trail is well-marked and is split into shorter routes – a comprehensive guide is available on parenzana.net, in several languages.
Ride the zip line over the Pazin abyss
Although Pula is the biggest town in Istria, the county’s administrative seat is actually Pazin, a town located in the very centre of the region. Pazin is the perfect place to get better acquainted with Istria off the beaten track.
Pazin boasts a medieval castle that was once a residence of Istrian margraves and hasn’t lost any of its grandeur with time. Perched on top of a tall cliff plummeting into the Pazin abyss, the castle dominates the majestic landscape which inspired literary giants of the likes of Dante Alighieri and Jules Verne.
And what better way to take in the impressive sights than flying over the natural attraction? The Pazin zipline runs over the abyss in two stages: the first cable is 220m long and the second 280m, giving adrenaline lovers plenty of time to admire the historic landscape, as well as the karst phenomenon down below.
The zipline operates regularly from May 1st, but can be visited in the off-season as well upon request, provided you’re visiting with a group – contact info is available on their Facebook page.
Hike the contraband trails of Učka mountain
Have you ever had a chance to retrace the steps of smugglers of the past? A few years ago, three unique hiking trails were established on the Učka mountain, the natural border between Kvarner and Istria, introducing hikers to the history of contraband activity in the area. If you want to get lost (although not entirely) in Istria off the beaten track, this is the activity for you.
In the 1930s, a duty-free zone was established on the coastline around Rijeka to stimulate tourism and the local economy. Overnight, consumer goods became much cheaper, and the struggling population soon started to smuggle products such as sugar and petroleum out of the duty-free zone and over the Učka mountain on foot. They sold the goods for profit in the rest of the region as a way to survive in times of scarcity – check out this TCN feature for the full story.
You can find detailed information about the hiking routes in a dedicated mobile app, along with a list of accommodation providers and restaurants in the area. It’s available to download on GooglePlay and AppStore – search for ‘Kontraband thematic trails’.
Discover the history of mining in Raša
Istria has a long history of coal mining, specifically in the area around Labin town located off the eastern coast of the peninsula. Arguably the most unique place in the mining landscape is Raša, known as Istria’s youngest town which was purposefully built in the 1930s to house miners and their families.
Two pairs of streets lined with former miners’ houses meet at the central square in Raša, crowned with a church built in the shape of an overturned mining cart and dedicated to the patron saint of miners, St Barbara.
Even though the mines closed a long time ago, you can experience what it was like to spend your days in the dark underworld in Istria off the beaten track. Located on the main square in Raša, the Miners House Arsia tells the story of Istrian miners and provides insight into their lives both above and below ground.
Starting from the entrance built like a mining shaft, the museum evokes the atmosphere of a mine – you can walk on the original railroad tracks surrounded by the sounds of coal digging and distant explosions, watch archival films to learn the stories of real miners who once inhabited the town, but also step into their homes thanks to a perfect recreation of a typical miner’s apartment.
Learn more about the Miners’ House over at the Raša Tourist Board.
Visit Croatia’s oldest lighthouse in Savudrija
The Adriatic coast is dotted with numerous historic lighthouses, most of them built in the 19th century. The one in Savudrija, the northwestern tip of Istria, boasts two champion titles: it’s the oldest active lighthouse in Croatia, and the world’s first lighthouse powered by coal gas.
The lighthouse was built of white Istrian stone and powered by coal shipped in from the Labin mines. It was inaugurated in 1818 and became a local sensation overnight: people were so fascinated by the new structure, the lighthouse keepers were soon granted a licence to bear arms and were instructed to shoot any enthusiasts who attempted to scale the building and climb to the top.
Nowadays fully automated and monitored by a single keeper, the lighthouse isn’t that much of a novelty anymore, but is still a beautiful landmark and in itself a good enough reason to visit Savudrija. Let it also be known that the place boasts a pretty spectacular coastline, lined with pines and traditional fishermen’s boats. The waters around Cape Savudrija are favoured by surfers and divers alike.