Croatia: Strolling beyond the sea

Inland from Croatia's Adriatic coast, on the northern Istrian peninsular, walkers will find wild terrain. Follow a disused railway that once carried truffles, olive oil and wine to the Alps and discover a landscape of viaducts, valleys and hilltop trails

By Mark Rowe
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 14:23 BST

"Please don't put flowers in it," says Mirjana Rajkovic, putting me right on the indented, lava red, inky blue vase I thought I'd just bought. "It's called a bucalita. We use it for wine soup. Fill it with hot red wine, add some sugar, pepper, and olive oil, dip bread in it. Drink it with a spoon. By the time you're half way through, you should be fast asleep."

I've purchased my bucalita in the exquisitely chiselled hilltop village of Grožnjan, in Istria, a peninsula that dangles like a sail-shaped earring in the north east of the Adriatic. Follow the shoreline north and you'll soon reach Trieste, then Venice. But I'm headed east, walking in Istria, across the hinterland, intrigued by the promise of some remote walking through a landscape that's seen little development in the past 100 years.

I've not encountered anywhere like Grožnjan before. For sure, it has charms: medieval architecture and higgledy-piggledy alleyways mantled in vines bearing kiwi fruit, and an age-old church. Along the coast, ships gather, as they have for centuries, to transport limestone from Istria to be hewn into palacios in Venice. But what really distinguishes Grožnjan is its more recent history. The town was abandoned after the horrors of World War II, but in the 1960s the Yugoslav government attempted to resuscitate it by handing it over to artists. Today, more than 20 painters, ceramicists and others artists have studios in this Croatian St Ives. "It's all handmade, all local, made right here," says Luca, who's compiled the walk I'm about to do across his home peninsula. "You can't import stuff from China and sell it here."

Just below the church of St Vitus, at Atelier Togy, my gaze is held by the porcelain and ceramics that are shaded, scuffed and scoured to look like textiles, such as cotton handbags. I ask the man sitting on the plastic chair whether the handiwork is his, but it turns out to be that of his grandfather, Jozef Todras, one of the Grožnjan pioneers. "My grandmother worked here too," says Philip. "My mother too, and my sister. I've absolutely no artistic talent — that's why I studied economics."

There are 16 miles to my overnight stop at Motovun, and the route follows the Parenzana, a disused railway that carried truffles, olive oil and wine from central Istria to Trieste and onwards to Austria. Now it's been reinvented as a premier walking route, labelled, in a distant echo of the language used hereabouts in the days of Communism, as the 'put zdravlja i prijateljstvi', or 'the path of health and friendship'.

I've opted for a self-guided route, so I can take as long as I wish, without the need to either keep up with pace-setters or worry about being the backmarker. Each day, my luggage is transferred to the next hotel. "As far as I know we're the only company offering this service," Dalibor, who runs the Istrian touring and guiding company that shuttles me around the peninsula, had told me on arrival in Istria. Don't Croatians walk much then, I'd asked. "My impression is that Croatians would prefer to drive — and drive right up to the table in the bar."

Along the way I'm clutching Luca's route map. It's illustrated with photos and I notice he measures the distances in minutes. The path contours tightly around the hills. It's an old train track, all right, but some turns are so serpentine they appear inspired by the routes my six-year-old son might make for his train set, joining up every last piece of track. Dante wrote part of The Divine Comedy in Istria and I slowly descend in circles towards the valley floor. I'm walking the Parenzana alone, but with a companion there are times where one of you might be 50 minutes' walk ahead but within hailing distance across the valley. After three hours I'm a little disconcerted that while it feels as if I can almost reach out and touch Motovun, I'm only halfway along the track.

Frogs and contraband fungi

I thread my way through tunnels and over viaducts — the most fetching at Završje, where the northeast face of the limestone traverse is damp and smothered in ferns, while the adjacent west-facing edge is arid, exposing a cliff face to the sun. A hidden stream gurgles through the canopy 65ft below.

Hares prance across the scrub, a dayglow green lizard slithers over my boots. Poppies stand tall among the many wild flowers. I hear cuckoos, and pause to listen to the flute-play of a nightingale. At an information board I note I'm walking through the territory of the Italian agile frog, which can 'long-jump 100cm'. I walk on, relishing the idea of stumbling upon a group of frogs limbering up by a sand pit before taking a running hop for glory.

The path drops me into Livade, a tiny village dominated by two truffle restaurants that eyeball one another across the main street. Istria, along with France and Italy, is the only place where you'll find white truffles (high-value fungi, fetching up to €4,000/£3,165 a kilo). Istrians deploy dogs to root them out as they're quicker than pigs.

Truffles are big business and truffle smuggling is, I'm told, a problem. It's a trade I imagine manifesting itself with truffle rustlers digging up the earth under a full moon before slipping over the border laden with contraband fungi.

A glance at the shelves of the Zigante store in Livade confirms the high worth of these subterranean delicacies: a 90g jar of 'minced white truffles' (something lost in translation I suspect) is priced at £40. I pass what I can only describe as a dog coop: a dozen yapping dogs tethered to pegs and separated from juicy walkers' legs by chicken wire. I wonder if they're truffle dogs. Luca later explains the best truffle dogs can go for €4,000 (£3,165), so at that price they'll be locked away in an underground vault.

Then, after 15 miles, my brain finally allows me to address a question that's been nagging at me all day: how to reach Motovun, perched nearly 900ft up a hilltop? I look at Luca's notes and realise that I now face 1,052 steps up to the town. Then, just as a uniformed official moves to bar my way, a cyclist hurtles insanely down these steep steps. A further 59 bikers will follow, competing in Motovun's annual downhill cycling event. My ascent isn't nearly so swift.

The terrace of my hotel, Hotel Kaštel, perched at the top of the town, is where I reward myself with a sundowner, sitting and gazing back dreamily at almost my entire route. Later, I eat at the terrace restaurant, Pod Napun, still overlooking the valley and dining on Istrian minestrone, a hearty broth I'd assumed was vegetarian but comes served with flecks of ox meat and ham.

My next walk begins in the hilltop village of Oprtalj and takes me through villages and vineyards, rather than above or below them. I pass cemeteries as crammed with high yew trees as they are with gravestones. Just above Lugansi, the path becomes a proper walking track, where lumps of limestone protrude through the thick turf, rather than the gravel of an old railway. For the first time, Croatian stone and soil knead the soles of my boots. It's a nice feeling, enhanced by views eastwards across alpine meadows of sprouting corn and rose hips. Unseen gates creek in the wind. I see woodpeckers, and hoopoes — with their punk-style quiffs. Butterflies seem to settle on every plant; there are so many swallowtails, chalkhill blues and marbled whites that I'm transported to the 'white horse' downlands of Wiltshire. Others are patterned in the parti-coloured style of shawls typical of the Balkans, a reminder my path is tracking east.

The meadows stretch away in each direction and, no longer able to distinguish the hilltop towns from one another, I'm happily disoriented. At a viewpoint by a limestone outcrop I overlook a gorge around 800ft below. The descent to the valley floor and up the other side involves an hour of arduous walking, and in doing so I seem to cross a threshold between hills and a hardier terrain of foothills belonging to real mountains.

The path is waymarked by RAF-style roundels: a red circle with a dab of white at its heart. At times they look so fresh that I think Luca must be running ahead with his paintbrush. But three hours into that day's walk the signs disappear and I wonder if Luca's tin has run out. I spend 45 minutes — not entirely unpleasantly — lost in a lattice of olive groves and vineyards. For directions, I ask an elderly lady who speaks no English. We try Italian (mine, non-existent), Russian (hers, reluctant), then German (hurrah!) and I strike out for my night's stop, Buzet. Luca has since assured me the roundels are now updated.

On Wolf's Mountain

For a change, Buzet is neither on a hilltop nor the valley floor, but positioned somewhere in between, like a raised belly button. A modern town has grown up around its ankles, but the medieval heart of Buzet is the ideal place to unwind after a day plodding through the hills. The doughty tourist office has constructed a trail to follow but after 28 miles in two days I'm content to amble around the city walls, put my feet up on a bench and take in the views.

On my final day I climb Mount Vojak, which has been visible, steadily reeling me in since I left Grožnjan. At Poklon, 3,025ft above sea level, I dive into woods where many beech trees have been carved with the names of lovers. The ancient name for this mountain ridge, Vucka Gora, or Wolf's Mountain, adds a frisson, but the path is easy, my footsteps muffled by lichens, and I pass gunnera, the giant rhubarb found in Cornwall.

I emerge by a transmitter mast and an array of satellite dishes and giant golf-ball radar installations. Then the summit, 4,580ft above sea level, springs itself on me — it's barely taken an hour to reach it. I take in one of the signature views of Europe. With my binoculars I can trace the east coast of Italy. Venice appears as it might had Canaletto been a French impressionist. I can tell from the vertical and horizontal conglomeration of limestone that the city is there, but it's all too fuzzy to distinguish any buildings.

My hilltop stops of Buje and Motovun are there too, and my eye follows Istria as it flattens and tapers to the south. East lie countless Dalmatian islands. To the north and north east are the Alps and other huge mountains with tough, don't-mess-with-me sounding names: Triglav (9,396ft), Kanin (8,488ft) and Grintovec (8,392ft).

The unexpected summit souvenir shop somehow fails to detract from this spectacle. A German hiker ducks in before me with the obvious question: do you sell coffee? (No).

It's a 4,593ft drop from the summit to sea level and journey's end. The views are just so haltingly beautiful that every half hour or so I park myself on a large piece of chalk and try and take it all in. The dissolving wash from boats cuts and slices like aircraft contrails over the Adriatic, leaving the flat sea as if a blank board ready for a game of noughts and crosses.

Just before I arrive in the coastal resort of Lovran, the trail passes through a suburb and does something I thought was peculiar only to English footpaths: it threads its way in bloody-minded fashion across drives, gardens and past front doors, giving me an insight into the home furnishing tastes of Istria's middle classes. By the harbour, the Adriatic all but brims over the sea walls; swifts enjoy a feeding frenzy above. Beyond even the swifts, I can pick out an overgrown golf ball on Mt Vojak.

Croatians may walk in minutes; I prefer to measure my distances in pies, pints and chips. Five miles allow me (this is, I know, almost certainly erroneous) to drink one pint and not put on weight; walk 10 miles, and it's two pints and a pie and chips. By this reckoning, my 37-mile hike has left me in significant calorific credit. I get to work on a new currency; how many ice creams does my trek equate to?


Getting there: Ryanair flies from Stansted and Birmingham to Trieste, and Stansted to Pula; Thomson Airways flies to Pula from Manchester and Birmingham. Lufthansa flies to Trieste from Heathrow via Munich.

Macs Adventure offers the seven-day, self-guided walking holiday, Istria: Vineyards & Villages, between April and October starting from £659 per person including B&B accommodation and daily baggage transfers, as well as transfers to the start of walks plus route notes.

Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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