By: Paula Wallis
If you’ve been considering a beach holiday along the Istrian Riviera, you’re not alone. If not, why not? Croatia’s Istrian Riviera is becoming an ever more popular sunny destination for holidaying European families. But there’s a slow influx of North Americans that have discovered the beauty of the Adriatic coast as well.
My first impression upon arriving in Croatia was how clean and well maintained the highways and roads through the countryside were. All the buildings and homes alongside the roads were in good repair and the surrounding areas seemed immaculately landscaped. This held true for every area we passed through or visited for the duration of our time in Croatia. What a beautiful, green country.
The town of Porec teems with German, Dutch, Italian and some few English holiday-makers. Many of the menus and tourist information signs seem to be in German, Croatian or Italian. But if you don’t speak any of these languages, you’ll get by just fine on English alone.
Extremely family friendly, there are plenty of resort style hotels to choose from in Porec and the surrounding area. From guesthouses and hostels right in the city proper to 4 and 5 star resorts within a twenty minute walk, you’ll find the kind of holiday you seek.
My sister-in-law was kind enough to arrange the booking on her end (from the U.K.) for myself, my husband, and our one year old daughter. If you are making multiple stops in Europe, or even just two or three, your best bet is to book through a U.K. travel agent to fly out of London onto your next destination, as there are some incredible deals to be had. We’ve found that it’s next to impossible to find similar deals flying direct from Canada to Europe. Of course we have the luxury of staying with family in England, so this may not be an option available to you.
Through Thomas Cook, she arranged an extremely affordable package vacation flying out of London Gatwick into Pula, Croatia. We were booked into the Hotel Mediteran, a partially-inclusive resort about a twenty minute walk from Porec city center. The staff at Hotel Mediteran were more than happy to accommodate our family; arranging for a cot for our daughter and, upon our arrival, sending a mini-fridge up to our room (for a small rental fee) to store formula and baby food in.
A full breakfast buffet and dinner buffet, including coffee, tea, juice, soft drinks, red or white wine and lager were included in the package deal we purchased with our flights. Food choices were varied and tasty, although the line-ups could get pretty lengthy if you arrived just as the restaurant opened its doors.
Don’t expect pristine sandy beaches on your arrival to Porec and the surrounding area. What you will find is a wonderfully maintained seawall that wanders its way along the ocean front with rocky outcroppings to be used as “beaches.” What they’ve done here is taken the naturally occurring rock formations along the water’s edge, flattened them somewhat, laid natural stone tiling on them, and added ladders here and there for safer access to the water. All of it makes for a very aesthetically pleasing, and surprisingly comfortable experience for ocean lovers. Of course they also have acres and acres of grassy area next to the seawall to set up your beach blanket in the sun. Plenty of Pine trees along the seawall provide pleasantly shaded areas to spend the day as well.
If basking in the sun by the seaside is not your particular cup of tea, Hotel Mediteran boasts a large salt water pool with plenty of poolside seating. Finding a seat by the pool doesn’t generally pose too much of a problem here, but you’ll still find many guests here practicing the irritating habit of “chair saving;” (rising at 6am to rush out to the pool and throw their towel over select chairs before breakfast – and then, oddly, not showing up to claim their chairs until sometime after noon.)
Our hotel was not lacking for daily and nightly entertainment. An energetic team of staff members kept kids busy playing pool sports, treasure hunts, and other games during the day, while the nights were geared toward the adult guests. Local musicians, dancers and even magic shows kept those guests who did not care to wander too far from the resort entertained. We didn’t take in any of the shows ourselves, being more of the ‘exploring the city type’, but from what we did see and hear on our way in or out, there was certainly some excellent local talent performing for the guests.
Havana Bar became a favorite stop of ours on our way out on the town. Tucked around the corner and attached to the hotel, it was the perfect little meeting spot before a night out. Although attached to the hotel, the bar staff informed us that they were not part of the hotel and tabs could not be signed to your room number. No problem, the drinks there were cheap. As the name suggests, Havana Bar is a bit of a shrine to Che Guevera and all things Cuban. Great music, friendly staff, bamboo chairs with comfy cushions and a lovely open air seating area kept us there for a bit longer than intended for more than a few nights.
Of course, if taking in the shows at the hotel or sunbathing by the pool or the sea don’t hold a lot of interest for you, there are a multitude of activities and tours in and around Porec that should keep you busy.
Take a boat tour to Brijuni Islands and explore the history and natural beauty of the islands. Plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing here.
Ride the Kupa River. This river forms a scenic natural border between Croatia and Slovenia and you can book a leisurely canoe tour, or a thrilling river rafting excursion, depending on the kind of adventure you seek.
Book a “Croatian Evening” Tour. Sample delicious local cuisine, with plenty of Croatian wine to wash it down, accompanied by Istrian and international song and dance that tell of local history. Vibrant, colorful and authentic costumes make for some great photo opportunities.
Spend the day deep-sea fishing on a trawler. Experienced local fishermen will teach you to lower and raise their fishing nets while telling tales of a fisherman’s life. Even if you’re not much of a sport fisher, it’s still an incredibly relaxing way to spend a day in the sun.
Visit one of Europe’s most photographed locales, Lake Bled. Known as “The Pearl of the Alps”, Slovenia’s Lake Bled will bring to mind scenes from the Sound of Music. Set in a pine forest, with snow capped mountains providing a stunning backdrop, the glass-like surface of the lake isn’t the only thing here worth photographing. Visit gorgeous Bled Castle, and take in the view of the toy town houses and the tiny island church; which you can get to by gondola if you wish to see it up close. Locals claim that you must make a wish as you ring the church bell to attain your heart’s desire.
Book a ferry trip to nearby Venice, Italy and visit the famous floating city and all that it has to offer. Your hotel in Porec will be happy to arrange bookings for the ferry from Croatia to Italy, or you can book at any travel agent in the city of Porec.
In order to do the city of Venice the justice it so richly deserves, I would need to write a whole separate article that touches on every aspect of its history, culture and beauty. However, since this article is mainly about Porec, Croatia, I’ll try and just touch on a few points of interest and some of the not to be missed sight-seeing opportunities of Venice.
For the coach from the hotel to the ferry port (which we could have easily walked, had we known how close it was!), return tickets for the Venezian Lines ferry to Venice, (approximately two and a half hours each way), and the boat taxi from the customs office into Venice proper, we were charged about 400 Kuna, which works out to about $80 Canadian. Very reasonable!
We were lucky enough to have our family with us in Croatia, who were more than happy to babysit for us as my husband and I took the day to ourselves to explore Venice. When we arrived in Venice, I was glad we had decided not to bring our baby, as we saw more than a few families struggling with strollers in this not-very-stroller-friendly city. And I couldn’t imagine packing her around all day in the humidity we were experiencing.
Once in Venice, there are loads of tour companies offering gondola tours, boat taxi tours, walking tours, etc. However, we chose to wander through the city by ourselves at first to explore at our own pace and decide which tours interested us. One of the first sights we saw, walking along the water’s edge, was the famous Bridge of Sighs,or Ponte dei Sospiri. Local legend has it that lovers who seal their love with a kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset in a gondola will be granted everlasting love and happiness. The origin of the name of the bridge, however, is not nearly so romantic. It passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. The name derives from the thought that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.
Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the Bridge of Sighs was under construction, and the scaffolding was covered over with a giant Coca Cola advertisement, which felt slightly jarring to the eyes amidst the beauty of Venice.
We also, of course, made a point of taking a tour by gondola while sipping champagne as we glided through the canals. It’s cheaper to buy your tickets for the gondola on the ferry ride over from Croatia; but even if you have to spend a couple of extra dollars buying them from a gondolier, it’s well worth the price, for a once in a lifetime experience.
There are plenty of caffes to stop and sip on an icy cold beer, fine wine, or frothy cappuccino lining the famous piazza at St. Mark’s Basilica, and it’s certainly a lovely place to do so, with string ensembles setting a lively backdrop amongst caffe patrons, and plenty of people watching to be done. However, don’t think the view and the ambience comes cheaply here. Before your behind even hits the chair, the nearest waiter will be over pointing out the “orchestra fee” on the menu (at least they forewarn you); not inexpensive at 11 Euro per person. On top of that there was a 10 Euro “seat charge.” And that’s all before you even order a beer! When we saw the 12 Euro price tag on the menu for bottled beer, we decided to take a fellow travelers advice and head deeper into Venice, where we were told the prices were much more reasonable.
Sitting, eating, or drinking is forbidden in the piazza as well, so grabbing a slice and a soda and settling down on the steps to people watch is out of the question. This is enforced by guards that patrol the outskirts of the square, gesturing for weary sightseers to stand up and move along. The fine for not complying is forty-five Euro, although I think you’d have to push the guards patience pretty far before they actually enforced the fine.
I was glad we heeded our fellow travelers advice to head deeper into Venice, because the only way to truly experience Venice (if not by gondola) is getting lost in the labyrinth of tiny lanes and cobblestone alleys throughout the city. Not to worry, you can’t get too lost; you’ll always find yourself somewhere recognizable, or the locals are happy to point you to your destination (if any), but just be sure to give yourself time to wander a bit if you’re on a schedule at all. There are so many charming little shops, cozy wine bars, and caffes with shaded seats outdoors, that it’s easy to lose track of time here.
Many of the shops sell handmade Pinocchio marionettes, along with English or Italian versions of the storybook which can be purchased along with them. Another big seller here is handmade Venetian Carnival Masks, which make for gorgeous mementos of Venice.
In sore need of a drink and some food, we were having a hard time deciding which pizzeria or caffe to stop and revive ourselves at. So of course we ended up at an English pub. In Italy. Watching English premier league football. Did I mention that my husband’s English?
I was pleasantly surprised by the Devil’s Forest Pub. Although I was looking for an authentic Italian meal in an authentic Italian restaurant, you couldn’t help but like the friendly English staff and the backpacker kind of feel of the place. The first thing we were informed upon asking for menus was that they “don’t serve English pub food.” Perfect. A small but delicious selection of pastas and sauces did the trick for me, with some decent red wine to wash it down with.
After a few more hours of shopping and wandering through the lanes, with a taxi-boat tour of the Grand Canal thrown in to rest our weary feet, we were ready for a quick slice of pizza and a cold beer before we caught the ferry back to Croatia. One more thing I should mention regarding the ferry between Croatia and Italy; you may want to take a look at the weather forecast on the day you plan to travel. Our trip over to Italy was a pleasant two and a half hour journey across calm waters. The trip back, however, was an entirely different story. A storm had moved in rather quickly as we began our journey back to Croatia, turning a two and a half hour crossing into a harrowing six hour ordeal, with most of the passengers and crew suffering from extreme seasickness as the ferry lunged, rolled, and pitched back down into the deep troughs left by sizeable waves that at times seemed to engulf the whole boat. One tip for seasickness; face toward the back of the boat, fix your eyes on the horizon, and hold on. This helped me through much of the journey, but unfortunately, since our trip was now a good four hours longer than intended, I was out of luck once the sun went down and I had no visual horizon to fixate on. I made it though. Barely.
Back on dry land in Croatia (where I saw more than a few passengers actually kneel down and kiss the ground in gratitude), we headed back to our local, Havana Club, to plan for the next days activities.
Our trip to Porec happened to coincide with the end of season festival, which happens yearly on the last weekend in August, and is known as the “Porec 24 Hours.” It is Porec’s way of showing gratitude to the tourists for a successful season, and the locals use it as an opportunity to let off a little steam and have some fun after working non-stop through the tourist season.
The festival is held throughout the streets of Porec and the riva, where loads of food and beverage tents are set up, serving up local favorites alongside more recognizable brands, such as the Jagermeister tent, or the Red Bull tent. Dine on burek ( a delicious pastry filled with heavy cheese, meat, or pastry), fresh fish along the waterfront, palacinke (crepe desserts filled with chocolate, nuts or fruit – also delicious) or pretty much anything else you may be craving as you walk along the waterfront market, stopping to take in several bands or DJ’s along the way. You’ll know when you’re getting close to the town square, as the crowds here get livelier and livelier the later it gets and the decibels seem to rise accordingly. Here you’ll find a large main stage, complete with pyrotechnics, dancers and a succession of ever-more-energetic DJ’s. The crowd here is fun, welcoming and hell-bent on dancing up a storm. Count yourself lucky if you’re staying at the Hotel Mediteran, or at one of the hotels close to it, as these seem to be far enough away that the music is slightly muffled by the trees and hills between these hotels and the town square, because the rave continues until dawn all weekend long.
After the crowds depart and Porec has quieted down again somewhat, it’s a good time to do some shopping, sightseeing and try out some of the local restaurants. Take a stroll through the Old Town and take your pick of Croatian cuisine, kebab shops, seafood restaurants, or try one of the many Italian restaurants. Having once been part of the Venetian Republic, and due to it’s proximity to Venice, Italy; Porec has some of the best Italian restaurants to be found outside of Italy! And at very reasonable prices too.
If you’re looking for traditional Croatian cuisine, try Konoba Aba in Old Town. Dine indoors in an intimate setting or on their lovely patio, lit by candlelight and somehow just as cozy as the indoor seating. The staff here was humorous, friendly and very accommodating. And the food was spectacular. Just the thought of the filet mignon with tartufi (Croatian truffles) still makes my mouth water.
Another restaurant in Old Town Porec worth checking out, simply for the view and the experience, is Torre Rotonda. Originally built in 1474 under the Venetian government, the round tower was part of a strategically important fort used to defend Porec from the Turkish government. Now it is home to a trendy caffe bar with a perfect vantage for watching sunsets on the ocean or night life in the town of Porec. If you’re not a fan of heights, grab a table in one of the cozy nooks, formerly used as niches to house cannons, in the medieval interior of the tower.
Marconi’s Restaurant, also in Old Town, is a family friendly Italian restaurant with large outdoor seating capacity, very reasonable prices, and servers who aim to please. It’s a pleasant spot to duck out of the sun on a hot day, and have a relaxing drink or a meal on their shaded patio.
Whether you are thinking of Croatia for a romantic holiday for two, a fun destination for you and a group of family or friends, or a holiday in the sun for you, your spouse and the kids, the Istrian Riviera certainly fits the bill for any of these. There were so many games and activities geared toward children and families along the seawall that there’s not much point in listing them all. Suffice it to say that your children won’t soon be bored here!
One thing I should mention; if your child or children are still young enough that you bring the stroller or pram with you whenever you travel, I recommend that you leave it at home when you travel to Porec. Although more than family friendly, Porec and the surrounding area is definitely not stroller friendly. With countless steps, uneven roads and tiny alleys filled with slow moving sight-seers, it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to navigate all of this with a stroller. Even the hotels, which are equipped with elevators, quite often have a few flights of stairs you have to pack the stroller up before you even get to the elevator! If you and your baby are comfortable with it, a sling or a Snuggly is a good way to go here.
The Istrian Riviera was certainly different than any sunny holiday we’ve experienced, but it’s definitely one that I would love to experience again – perhaps exploring more of the coast and heading inland a bit on our next visit. If you have any tips or destinations in Porec or Venice to add, please feel free to comment below!
About the author:
Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com