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Fall in love with the calm waters and luxury glamping of Croatia’s heart-shaped Istrian peninsula

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Gaze up at the ancient limestone walls of the Arena in Istria’s capital, Pula, and it almost feels possible to hear the roar of the crowds flocking here for the gladiatorial games, although these days you’re more likely to hear the laid-back tones of pop star Sting performing than the clatter of swords. One of the best-preserved amphitheatres in the world, this dazzling edifice is just one of the breathtaking sights in Pula that bear witness to the 700-year rule of the Romans.

Yet this bustling city at the southern tip of Croatia’s heart-shaped Istrian peninsula carries its impressive history lightly. Roman ruins are scattered about the place almost casually, rubbing against the cranes and shipyards of the industrial port.

We enjoyed the unlikely juxtaposition – Pula feels like an authentic working town rather than a tourist trap in aspic.

Ancient Beauty: On a tour of the Croatian region of Istria, Eve McGowan explores the sights of the capital Pula, including the ‘dazzling’ Arena, one of the best-preserved amphitheatres in the world

James Joyce spent a short period teaching English in Pula.  A statue of the writer stands outside Cafe Uliks (pictured)

James Joyce spent a short period teaching English in Pula. A statue of the writer stands outside Cafe Uliks (pictured)

You can enjoy a coffee in one of the cafes around Forum Square, overlooking the 1st century Temple of Augustus, or follow in the footsteps of James Joyce and walk through Sergii’s Arch built around the same time . Look out for the plaque and statue of Joyce on the terrace of the opposite restaurant Uliks (Ulysses) – the writer spent a short period here teaching English.

Bordering Slovenia and just two hours from Trieste in Italy, this region in northwestern Croatia has a complex political history.

In the last century alone, the country has changed countries so often that, as an expat friend explains, while today’s working-age Istrians usually consider themselves born in Yugoslavia, for their children it is Croatia, for their parents Italy and for their grandparents Austria.

The Italian influence is perhaps felt most strongly in the cuisine – restaurant menus feature polenta, sardines and fresh pasta – especially the delicious pljukanci, a slightly chewy spindle-shaped pasta that is a must-try, especially when served with the truffles for which this area is known.

And if you believe the hype, the olive oil from Istria is among the best in the world.

The delightful coastal town of Rovinj, a short drive along the coast from Pula, is known as Little Venice thanks to its pastel-colored Venetian-era facades that drop right down to the water at the pretty harbor. From here you can even take a boat trip to Venice itself, which takes about three hours.

A highlight of Eve's trip is a visit to the old town of Rovinj (pictured).

A highlight of Eve’s trip is a visit to the old town of Rovinj (pictured). “It’s Disney-beautiful,” she says

Rovinj is known as Little Venice thanks to its pastel colored facades from the Venetian era

Rovinj is known as Little Venice thanks to its pastel colored facades from the Venetian era

The old town of Rovinj was once an island and houses were built higher and higher to accommodate a growing population until the narrow strip of land connecting it to the mainland was widened. It’s Disney-beautiful – the picturesque houses staggering totter, clotheslines hanging above the limestone cobbled streets that wind up to the baroque St Euphemia Church.

The town has a chic feel – on Grisia, the street of artists, artisans sell handmade souvenirs straight from their workshops. There are smart restaurants – Monte at the top of the hill has Croatia’s first Michelin star.

For the best views, head to La Puntulina restaurant with a terrace overlooking dreamy rocky platforms. At Valentino Champagne and Cocktail Bar next door, you can enjoy a drink in a prime location to watch the sunset from golden cushions arranged on the rocks, while Restaurant Orca, just outside the town, has seafood to die for .

Istria’s first five-star hotel, Monte Mullini, opened in 2009 and is located on a hill a short walk from the old town.

Valentino Champagne and Cocktail Bar, above, is one of Rovinj's best places to watch sunsets, Eve . reveals

Valentino Champagne and Cocktail Bar, above, is one of Rovinj’s best places to watch sunsets, Eve . reveals

Our next stop is the beach at nearby Fazana – known as the city of the sardines thanks to its long fishing tradition, and its shallow waters make it the perfect place to cool off.

The children dive for hermit crabs and in the distance we see boats that leave several times a day for Brijuni National Park, a beautiful archipelago where General Tito once lived.

Today, an electric train transports tourists past the sights on the largest of the 14 islands, including a safari park.

Eve stops at Fazana Beach, pictured, which is known as the City of Sardines due to its long fishing tradition

Eve stops at Fazana Beach, pictured, which is known as the City of Sardines due to its long fishing tradition

Boats leave Fazana several times a day for Brijuni National Park (above), a beautiful archipelago where General Tito once lived

We stay at Arena One 99 Glamping, which considers itself to be Croatia’s premier glamping resort. With approximately 200 air-conditioned cabins set in a pine forest, the well-maintained, traffic-free trails (bike rental is included) make it the perfect playground for 12- and 9-year-olds.

Its location on the shores of a coastal lagoon, in the calm waters of Medulin Bay, five miles south of Pula, is hard to beat. With beautiful beaches with comfortable sun loungers, restaurants and a mini market, everything for a relaxing holiday is within reach.

Upon arrival, we are taken in a golf cart to our stylish waterfront cabin. We are experienced glampers but have never experienced anything quite like this – think hot tubs, daily maid service, well equipped kitchens and en suite bathrooms with Elemis toiletries. Guests can use an app to reserve a place for the free yoga class and massages at the spa.

Eve will stay at Arena One 99 Glamping, which has approximately 200 air-conditioned cabins (one pictured above) set amidst a pine forest

Eve will stay at Arena One 99 Glamping, which has approximately 200 air-conditioned cabins (one pictured above) set amidst a pine forest

“We are experienced glampers but have never experienced anything like this,” she says of the glamping site

Eve's son is in 'heaven' when he discovers that there is a teen club (above) with the latest PlayStation

Eve’s son is in ‘heaven’ when he discovers that there is a teen club (above) with the latest PlayStation

We quickly put the app to the test with a very British emergency – a request for a kettle. It arrives at our tent door in minutes.

The tween is in heaven when he discovers a teen club with the latest PlayStation – there’s also a kids’ club with no screens for younger kids.

Arena Glamping offers bike, kayak and boat trips on Cape Kamenjak, but we choose to rent a small motorboat from the surf center (you can also book windsurfing lessons with a Croatian champion and rent pedal boats, kayaks and paddleboards) and leave on to explore your own strength.

We paddle past islands, some with beach bars, and finally drop anchor at a desert island with only the seagulls for company. Snorkeling is magical here. We spot dozens of spiky sea urchins that this coast is famous for – don’t forget to bring sea shoes!

The cabins have hot tubs, daily maid service, well-equipped kitchens and private bathrooms with Elemis . toiletries

The cabins have hot tubs, daily maid service, well-equipped kitchens and private bathrooms with Elemis . toiletries

A hot tub at the glamping site overlooks the calm waters of Medulin Bay, 5 miles south of Pula

A hot tub at the glamping site overlooks the calm waters of Medulin Bay, 5 miles south of Pula

Eve describes Arena One 99 Glamping and says: 'With beautiful beaches with comfortable sun loungers, restaurants and a mini market, everything for a relaxing holiday is within reach'

Eve describes Arena One 99 Glamping and says: ‘With beautiful beaches with comfortable sun loungers, restaurants and a mini market, everything for a relaxing holiday is within reach’

The glamping site offers cycling, kayaking and boat trips of the beautiful Cape Kamenjak, pictured above

The glamping site offers cycling, kayaking and boat trips of the beautiful Cape Kamenjak, pictured above

While the majority of visitors to Istria are Italian, German, Slovenian and Dutch tourists who can drive here or arrive by boat, there couldn’t be a better time for British travelers to take a dip in the Adriatic.

Budget flights direct to Pula with Ryanair and easyJet, as well as British Airways, mean it’s cheap and easy to get to.

Moreover, Croatia won’t join the euro until 2023 – for now the currency is still the kuna – so if you’re quick, your pound will go much further than in other hotspots.

TRAVEL FACTS

Eve McGowan was a guest of the Croatian National Tourist Board (croatia.hr). A two bedroom waterfront safari tent at Arena One 99 Glamping costs from around £210 per night, with a minimum stay of three nights (arenalamping.com).

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