Istria, the large heart-shaped peninsula at the head of the Adriatic, is politically divided between Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. Ancient ports and picturesque fishing villages are dotted along the now tranquil coast (the region has a turbulent history). Remote medieval villages, ancient ruins and candlelit, fresco-filled churches hide in the rolling hills.
Natural habitats are diverse, with Mediterranean grassland and maquis dominating the low-altitude coastal areas. The pristine, 360-hectare Kamenjak National Park is the highlight, especially if you appreciate orchids. The inland hills are karst, formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks. Limestone cliffs conceal sprawling underground drainage systems. Caves and dramatic sinkholes (known locally as dolines) are common. The hills are clothed in beech and oak forests with an abundant floral understorey in spring.
When to go
This botanically rich area is stunning in spring. Visit over Easter when there are posies of wild flowers and blown eggshells decorated with pussy willow buds on sale in the markets. On our trip, my young daughter and I were invited to family feasts in eateries known as konobas.
Where to go
Approaching from Slovenia, we crossed into Croatia on a minor road leading to the prosperous truffle town of Buzet in the Mirna Valley. This high, limestone frontier ridge has spectacular views and endless hiking and botanising opportunities. In forest clearings, among the more familiar violas, woodland spurge, sprawling lesser periwinkle and mounds of wild primrose, I discovered plentiful stands of the floriferous Helleborus multifidus subsp. istriacus, a tall, nodding, green hellebore endemic to Istria.
Growing alongside was Galanthus nivalis, part of the vibrant and resilient woodland tapestry. Taking advantage of the early season moisture, Anemone nemorosa, Corydalis angustifolia, Pulmonaria visianii, Scilla bifolia, the beguiling dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) and crocuses too numerous (and tricky) to name jostled for position in the rough open ground.
Further into the shade, Lamium orvala offered its soft vintage-pink flowers in artful contrast to the stiff, emerging pleats of Veratrum album. We collected a generous bundle of wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius) and continued south on single-track mountain roads, passing gnarled ancient trees, deserted villages and several species of stunning bee orchid (Ophrys). It was truly an inspiring place.
Also worth a visit
- The 15th-century chapel of Sveta Marija na Škrilinama near Beram. Approached through woodland (find the key holder in the village first), it contains some of the most complete and beautiful frescoes in Croatia. No electricity and few tourists.
- Kamenjak Peninsula. The dusty, evergreen scrubland conceals diverse mini-meadows featuring Euphorbia cyparissias, Ononis viscosa and the pastel-pink form of Anemone pavonina to name but a few, as well as many orchids.
Plants to grow at home
Cornus mas. Bright clouds lit up the wooded Istrian hills and I had never seen Cornus like it before – luminescent, wild and unfettered.
The smoke tree Cotinus coggygria. A wonderful association. A member of the dogwood tribe, this cornelian cherry has many attractive features. It is a hardy, deciduous large shrub/small tree that in spring carries small, yolk-yellow umbel flowers held in clusters on dense, naked branches. Autumn brings deep-purple foliage and bright-red, edible fruits that are collected by the basketful throughout eastern and southern Europe and used to make sauces and preserves.
Guides and maps
- Flowers of Greece and the Balkans: A Field Guide by Oleg Polunin (Oxford Paperbacks, 1987)
- KOMPASSS #238 Istria (Croatia)
- Hiking & Cycling Map 1:75,000 (2011)
- Marco Polo Atlas Slovenia/Croatia/Bosnia (2014)
Where to stay
For hotels try:
Stancija 1904, Smoljanci 2, 52342 Svetvincenat, Istria, Croatia. Tel +385 52 560022, stancija.com, or
Hotel Kaštel, Trg Andrea Antico 7, 52424 Motovun, Istria, Croatia. Tel +385 52 681607, hotel-kastel-motovun.hr.
Inland, there is a good selection of Airbnb and agritourism offerings (agrotourizam), but make sure you find a good local konoba, and I can highly recommend. Rino, Dolinja Vas 23, 52462 Momjan, Istria, Croatia. Tel +385 52 779170, prelac.hr
Words Hannah Gardner
Illustration Alice Pattullo
Summer sale! 3 issues for £5
Try 3 issues of Gardens Illustrated today for just £5. Subscribe today and enjoy beautiful places, top planting ideas and expert advice for your garden. *Offer ends 1st July 2022. This offer is only available to UK residents paying by Direct Debit
Container Gardening Special Edition
The Gardens Illustrated Guide to Container Gardening. In this special edition, discover colourful flower combinations and seasonal planting schemes for pots designed by leading plantspeople, and essential know-how for container gardening success. Just £9.99 inc UK p&p
Gardens of the Globe
Discover some of the most glorious gardens from around the world.Find out more