For a region with such a chequered history, Istria feels as if it has come out of its troubles rather well. It has at various times been ruled from Venice, Paris, Vienna Istanbul and - in more recent years - Rome, Belgrade and now Zagreb. The most cathartic change was not the 'homeland war' which accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia - this part of Tito's former territories wasn't gravely affected - but the changes which followed the Second World War. The Italians kept Trieste, but forfeited Istria - and a large number of ethnic Italians (the beautiful Venetian hill town of Motovun, above, was culturally Italian until after the war) left, their place being taken by Croatian speakers.
There's a lot of Italian still around. In much of Istria, street signs are in both languages. Trieste is (and feels) much nearer than Zagreb. Quite a few Istrians speak Italian as their first or second language, and the influx of Italian tourists reinforces the ties to the west.
Near Brtonigla - under an hour's drive from the Slovenian and Italian borders - I came across this moving war memorial. Mainly in Italian - with just a few words in Croatian. Commemorating those who fell victim to fascist (that is Mussolini's Italy) terror. And so many of the names are clearly Italian - every single first name, and a fair few of the surnames.
The ancient symbol of the Venetian republic, the winged lion, is evident in the hill towns, with their graceful churches and municipal buildings. Elesewhere even more ancient remnants of Italian rule are evident - Pula, on the soutern tip of Istria, has one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres, completed in 70 AD, and now doubling up as tourist attraction and concert venue. We just missed Leonard Cohen and - even more vexing - headed home before Joe Cocker came to town: "she came in through the lavacrum window"!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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