The world in a peninsula: Cycling Istria’s Parenzana Trail

Cycling Istria’s Parenzana Trail

View the story

The world in a peninsula

Cycling Istria’s Parenzana Trail

Pretty Rovinj is one of the stars of the Istrian coast (Matej Kastelic / Alamy Stock Photo)

Pretty Rovinj is one of the stars of the Istrian coast (Matej Kastelic / Alamy Stock Photo)

Cycling a former railway line through the rural valleys, coastal towns and hilltop villages of Croatian Istria reveals an ancient land shaped by empires and cultures far beyond its borders

Words Martin Symington

Olive groves scatter the countryside around Grožnjan (Alamy Stock Photo)

Olive groves scatter the countryside around Grožnjan (Alamy Stock Photo)

Item 1 of 1

Olive groves scatter the countryside around Grožnjan (Alamy Stock Photo)

Olive groves scatter the countryside around Grožnjan (Alamy Stock Photo)

“Here in Istria there is no way to escape our geography,” said Peter Valenta, my guide to cycling the Parenzana Trail, who was busy waving his arms towards the compass points to illustrate his theory. “The Latin world begins over in the west, the Slavs are to the east and the Central Europeans to the north.” He made it sound like we were at the crossroads of Europe rather than pedalling the border between Slovenia and Croatia, out on its Adriatic fringes. But in many ways he was right.

As we climbed onto our mountain bikes, Peter continued to put me in the picture: “The Parenzana railway, which runs from Trieste (Italy) to Poreč (Croatia), was completed in 1902, back when all of the Istrian peninsula belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. When that was dissolved, following the First World War, the region became part of Italy, but Mussolini tore up the tracks in 1935. That was a crime in my opinion, but hey, now it is my favourite cycle route in the world.”

Here are nine tunnels along the Parenzana line, spanning a total of 1,530m – one of the grandest is the 544m-long passage between Strunjan and Portorož (Martin Symington)

Here are nine tunnels along the Parenzana line, spanning a total of 1,530m – one of the grandest is the 544m-long passage between Strunjan and Portorož (Martin Symington)

After a glance back towards Trieste, across the waterlogged Sečovlje salt pans, a sliver of Istria that now lies in Slovenia, we turned off the road and onto a gravel track that plunged into rich forest. Ahead lay two-thirds of the 123km cycle path that spans the westernmost point of Croatia, where the bulk of the peninsula sprawls. This was the route the steam train used to ply, pulling passengers and freight along a narrow-gauge line that snaked hills and forests, vineyards and olive groves. It was once a lifeline to the farms and villages of inland Istria.

This triangular peninsula, at the northern crux of the Adriatic, is better known these days for tourist hotspots replete with Venetian gems and glittering coves. First-time visitors typically head for Poreč and Rovinj, on the Adriatic coast, or for Roman Pula. All of these are magnificent stops that feature later on in my journey. But, for a deeper look into Istria’s tangled history and culture, the two-wheeled meander into its hinterland along the Parenzana offered stories and landscapes that were just as intriguing.

Peter leads the way along the former railway line (Martin Symington)

Peter leads the way along the former railway line (Martin Symington)

Making tracks

Over the following days, we trundled pitch-black railway tunnels and crossed viaducts and iron bridges spanning ravines. The old, weedy stations and their platforms were mostly neglected, though one or two had been turned into cafés. We slowly wound into rolling countryside blanketed with silvery olive groves and enormous yellow pumpkins in fields of ruddy-coloured earth. Distant hills were topped by castles and clustered with villages of red roofs and square bell towers built from honey-coloured karst stone. They reminded me that there had been an Italian presence in Istria for centuries, even if it was now only a sliver.

Strolling the largely delapidated buildings of Završje, which crests a 240m-high hill (Martin Symington)

Strolling the largely delapidated buildings of Završje, which crests a 240m-high hill (Martin Symington)

This part of Istria has been dubbed ‘the new Tuscany’ in recent years. Sorry, but it is nothing like it. While Tuscany brings to mind elegant farmhouses and slender cypress trees, here the Italian presence felt ghostly. This is because most of the peninsula was ceded to Yugoslavia in the wake of the Second World War and the defeat of Mussolini. About three-quarters of the area’s Italian Istrians left; some went to Italy, many more to Argentina and Australia. Nevertheless, the region remains officially bilingual, and every town has both a Croat and an Italian name. ‘Parenzana’ comes from the line’s terminus, Poreč, which is known as Parenzo in Italian. Even ‘Istria’ is Italian; Croats call it Istra.

“Distant hills were topped by castles and clustered villages with red roofs and square bell towers built of honey-coloured karst“

Some hill villages that we passed through were derelict, such as Završje (Piemonte in Italian) where the railway used to be a vital link. On a calf-straining detour from the trail, we puffed up to this eerie huddle of a few rundown houses inhabited by old folk. These were scattered amid roofless, crumbling buildings reclaimed by knots of creeper.

The next stop was the fortressed Grožnjan, a striking contrast with Završje. Here I wandered neatly scrubbed cobbled lanes, immaculately restored stone houses and a hive of studios and galleries displaying avant-garde paintings, sculptures and wrought-iron furniture.

Galleries fill the cobbles of Grožnjan (allOver images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Galleries fill the cobbles of Grožnjan (allOver images / Alamy Stock Photo)

The reason for this is that this was another village that was deserted after the war by the region’s Italian-speaking population (who called it Grisignana). However, under the unlikely patronage of Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Marshall Tito, Grožnjan was declared a ‘town of artists’ in the 1960s. Some say the communist dictator’s idea was to create a magnet for imaginative youngsters from all over Yugoslavia, which he hoped would distract them from the hippiedom sweeping Western Europe. The ruse appears to have worked; today the village feels more boutique-y than groovy – a magnet for tourists rather than rebellious youth.

From there I freewheeled blissfully downhill to sensational views back towards Grožnjan and over the plush quilt of emeralds and gold that was the wide Mirna valley. At times, we dived into the woodlands, source of the truffles that grow in the damp soil beneath hazelnut trees. No product has pushed Istria onto Europe’s gustatory map as much as its white truffles. In 1999, an Istrian hunter named Giancarlo Zigante and his dog found global fame when they unearthed a truffle weighing a whopping 1.3 kilos.

Artists abound in Grožnjan and you’ll see their work scattering the streets during the Ex Tempore painting competition in late September (Tjasa Janovljak / Alamy Stock Photo)

Artists abound in Grožnjan and you’ll see their work scattering the streets during the Ex Tempore painting competition in late September (Tjasa Janovljak / Alamy Stock Photo)

Every farmhouse seemed to have a long wired run in which noisy dogs barked with abandon. The traditional truffle-hunting breed is the Lagoto Romagnolo, which looks like a cross between a spaniel and poodle with a bit of sheep thrown in. But, according to Peter, pretty much any dog will do. He also added, in a tone that did not invite dispute, that the prized Istrian fungi were “now known to be the best on Planet Earth”.

Eventually we spilled onto the wide Mirna valley floor where, out of the grassy terraces and sea of vines, rose majestic Motovun, Istria’s best-known and most-photographed fortified hill town. Scents of truffle and wine lingered in the air as I walked my bike up stone-staired streets to the Hotel Kastel on the ramparts. Later, in the floodlit Old Town square, I savoured the ethereal taste of white tartufi shaved over hand-rolled egg macaroni, asparagus and roasted hazelnuts. No dispute here, Peter, especially with a couple of glasses of rich, red Teran wine to wash it down.

The earliest part of Motovun’s fortifications date from the 11th century (Nino Marcutti / Alamy Stock Photo)

The earliest part of Motovun’s fortifications date from the 11th century (Nino Marcutti / Alamy Stock Photo)

End of the line

I woke to a pink-streaked sky and low, rolling clouds that transformed the hilltop of Motovun into a rocky island. As the morning mist burnt off, eel-like slithers of river appeared, shimmering in silvery watercolours.

Back on our bikes, we rejoined the former railway tracks of the Parenzana, weaving westwards through medieval villages and fortified farmhouses – some of which were topped with rounded turrets. The cultural balance seemed to have tilted, by degrees, from the Mediterranean towards Central Europe. I don’t think anybody has ever had the effrontery to claim any part of Istria as the ‘New Transylvania’, but the deep interior did feel a touch more Gothic.

Motovun is one of Istria’s most dramatic medieval hilltop settlements, and is best known for its film festival (Martin Symington)

Motovun is one of Istria’s most dramatic medieval hilltop settlements, and is best known for its film festival (Martin Symington)

Near the end of the Parenzana line, Peter stopped to greet his old friend, Milan Šimunović, who was scooping rocks from the red earth between rows of Teran vines. “Do you know Clint Eastwood?” the farmer asked me, with Peter translating. I assumed he meant some random familiarity with the star’s films, and I mumbled something about fistfuls of dollars. “How about Kelly’s Heroes?” he said. As it happened, I did dimly remember this 1970s war flick, though I had no idea it had been shot in nearby Vižinada. Milan, now in his 60s, told me how he had been an extra on the film as a boy, and what a good friend Clint had been.

Vižinada still dines out on its Hollywood moment, and we passed signs announcing, in English, that ‘Clint Eastwood was here too!’ In the movie, the town stood in for Clermont in France; however, I noticed a stone effigy of the Lion of Saint Mark in the main square, making this the first stop where the Venetian influence in Istria was unmistakable.

Peter introduces his friend, who buddied up with film-star Clint Eastwood in the 1960s (Martin Symington)

Peter introduces his friend, who buddied up with film-star Clint Eastwood in the 1960s (Martin Symington)

By now, we were not far from Poreč, where the railway ended. It was here that, in 1936, the torn-up tracks were said to have been loaded onto a freighter bound for Italian Ethiopia, where I was told the Fascists had planned to reassemble them. But fate intervened. The ship sank before it reached the Suez Canal. That was the final stop for the Parenzana line: the bottom of the Mediterranean.

“Farewell Parenzana trail,” I muttered to myself as we pedalled into Poreč, where an altogether different history awaited. La Serenissima (better known as the Republic of Venice) had ruled here for four hundred years. ‘Parenzo’ had been a principal port of this maritime superpower and bore all the architectural trappings that went along with it. Indeed, I am sure that the Venetians of the era would still recognise its Old Town, with its piazzale and palazzi packed tightly onto the rocky headland. Ditto the dazzlingly mosaicked Euphrasian Basilica, though this was built by the Byzantines long before the Republic ever set foot here.

Poreč’s two-storey Gothic Parisi-Gonan Palace was built in 1474 (travelimages / Alamy Stock Photo)

Poreč’s two-storey Gothic Parisi-Gonan Palace was built in 1474 (travelimages / Alamy Stock Photo)

Less familiar to ancient Venetians would be the gelateria, whining vespas, vendors selling paintings and trinkets, and the string of outdoor cafés lining the horseshoe-shaped harbour. Nowadays, Poreč is a humming coastal tourist town whose busy season lasts from spring till autumn. This is despite the fact that, except for a few stony inlets and coves where bathers wobble into the water wearing plastic sandals, the Istrian peninsula is almost bereft of beaches.

Instead, people sunbathed on ledges and dived into crystal-clear water from floating platforms and mini-amphitheatres built into the rock. Some enterprising bar owners served drinks literally ‘on the rocks’. Hotels lay mostly outside the old town, facing the wooded Sveti Nikola Island. With day trips to Venice – just two-and-a-half hours away by ferry – still common, the old links existed even if the influence of its former sponsor isn’t as big as it once was.

Pula’s Roman amphitheatre is the sixth largest of its kind in the world and held 20,000 spectators in its heyday, despite the town being home to little more than 5,000 people (Nino Marcutti / Alamy Stock Photo)

Pula’s Roman amphitheatre is the sixth largest of its kind in the world and held 20,000 spectators in its heyday, despite the town being home to little more than 5,000 people (Nino Marcutti / Alamy Stock Photo)

Off the Rails

I had come to the end of the Parenzana line, but the peninsula had a few more surprises up its sleeve. I recalled a sight that had looked promising and hopped back on my bike. A few kilometres south of Poreč, the coastline is disrupted by an astonishing mountain-ringed fjord, known as the Limski Kanal, which I had first glimpsed from a twisting cycle track, gazing across to spy a long blue sword that pierced Istria’s dark green heart.
A slice of Norway has evidently been carved from the land here. The area is so distinctly Scandinavian in appearance that – and here is another revelation for film buffs – it was the location for the 1958 Kirk Douglas epic The Vikings. I wish I could tell you that I encountered an old Istrian who had been an extra on that film, but I just had to content myself with the impossible blue of the fjord instead.

Skidding and jamming on my brakes, I bumped down a looping track to the water’s edge and what, at first sight, appeared to be the sheer face of a mountain. I then struggled up a dizzying spiral road to a hot, bleak plateau strewn with scrub. I had travelled from ‘Norway’ to somewhere reminiscent of North Africa in just a couple of thigh-straining hours.

“I gazed up at the arched walls and triple-tiered stands from where 20,000 patricians and plebeians would have egged on gladiators“

From here it was time to join another dismantled railway; this one was a branch linking Rovinj to the old line between Vienna and Pula. Like the Parenzana, it had been revived for cyclists, though it was only a few easy kilometres long and dropped me back in the Mediterranean world I had left that morning. Here I discovered that Rovinj (Rovigno), with its statues of horses carved from creamy stone, was even more exuberantly Venetian than its Istrian cousins. The ethereally glowing campanile of the Duomo was very obviously modelled on its counterpart on Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

Croatia, Yugoslavia, Italy; the Habsburgs, the Venetians, the Byzantines – I had pedalled my way across a peninsula seething with history. But before my flight home from Pula, I had to wind back a few more centuries if I was to take in one last marvel of Istria.