On the west coast of Croatia is the beautiful town of Vrsar. An ideal place to stay for exploring Istria. It is a short distance from Pula airport, and the views on the drive down to the harbour are breathtaking. Islets glow in the sun and the cerulean sea sparkles.

Down to basics. The supermarket is well stocked with Croatian drinks and snacks, an essential part of any holiday. Also, there is an impressive array of craft stalls at the top of the marina busy with tour boats and fishing vessels. For those up at dawn, the cries of gulls in the wake of returning trawlers are uplifting.  

Pathways edge the Adriatic Sea, where exotic grasses waver in the breeze and aromatic shrubs scent the air. It is rocky terrain and swimmers take advantage of the clear water. There are a few cafés here and there too. Superb in the daytime, but sitting at them at dusk when blush-tinted skies and muted sunlight change the sea to shimmery powder blue is magical.

On the quaysides, there are several restaurants, ice cream parlours and bars serving non-alcoholic drinks as well as the usual beers, wines and spirits. The local lemonade can be savoured in many variations. Sometimes made with different fresh fruits, elderflowers, mint and cucumber. Delicious at any time, but even more refreshing in the heat.

Encircling the bay, buildings are stacked up the hillside, and like most Istrian towns, there is a church at the top. It can be reached via lengthy stone steps that end up in a square with a bar, and another smaller church, known as St Anthony of Padua with architecture resembling a loggia. There is also an arts and crafts shop selling contemporary products. Tourists often take a second glance at a figure sitting on a bench outside the door. A statue of Casanova lounges there – a token of the Venetian adventurer and author who frequented the vicinity in 1743/44 and wrote about it in his memoirs.

A limewashed archway leads to a larger plaza with eateries and bars and two shops with apartments above. A gallery selling handmade goods on one side, and Aura, a family distillery on the other. On some evenings, live acoustic music can be enjoyed there.

At the top, there is a park. Occasionally, lizards can be seen zig-zagging in the undergrowth, and the vista from the gardens takes in a majority of the region’s eighteen uninhabited islands.

Nearby, are the remains of a Medieval Castle that was originally the bishop of Poreč’s palace until 1778, but it is now privately owned. Next door, St Martin’s Church with its landmark bell tower is cool and inviting. Inside is tranquil and the frescoes finely painted into the plaster are in pastel hues.

Taking an alternative way down, lanes lead to another square where a motorised tourist train stops. Its route travels through recently built estates, as well as streets influenced by various historical periods.

Wherever you go, there is an abundance of new and classical sculptures, which seem to epitomise Vrsar with its medley of old and modern ways of living.

Discovering surrounding hilltop towns is a must, and taking a coach with a tour guide makes it an informative and easy way to see a few in a day.

Groznjan is a good starting point. The coach drops off near a church hidden behind a wealth of cypress trees, specifically chosen because of their links to a Greek mythological tale.

Apollo, the Greek god, presented a stag to his lover Cyparrius who accidentally speared it to death while hunting in the woods. He died of grief, metamorphosed into a cypress tree, and the stag’s spirit ascended to the heavens via its pointing foliage. Some believe this is why they are planted by graveyards enabling deceased souls to do the same.

A walkway to the side leads to the main town which opens up into a little marketplace selling antiques, art and other paraphernalia. The town is popular with artists who gather there, past and present.

On boundary walls, metal ship sculptures sail towards a horizon of green countryside; a mixture of hues; emerald, peridot and spearmint. Refreshing to behold and revitalised by heavy rainfall in winter as it rarely rains in the summer months.

Spreading trees provide shade and there is a particularly large specimen. Metres away is a so-called castle. It was mentioned in 1102, but it doesn’t look like a castle these days. However, it was the seat of feudal lords, and Venetian captains lived there. Vestiges of the original walls can be seen from the southern side, but the main architecture is from the 19th century. Today it is a cultural and musical centre for students.

There are many artisan shops in the well-preserved Medieval centre, although Baroque decoration is evident on some façades too.

Retail outlets sell local truffles and liqueurs. Some offer samples. Most are delicious, and although truffles are a delicacy, they are an acquired taste, earthy, savoury and pungent.

Scarlet geraniums sit at the base of columns and complement a loggia’s pale-cream-plastered walls. Known as the Fonticus, it was a courtroom and prison from the late 1590s. Imagine all the comings and goings it must have seen back then.

Cobbled winding roads thread through archways, beside idyllic houses built on terraces that overlook rolling hills. No wonder the locals are so cheerful living there.

A few miles away is another hilltop location. Oprtalj. There the Venetian loggia is grander than the Fonticus. It takes in the panoramic Osoje Valley from the veranda. Painted in a rich orangey-brown it is in accord with other residences’ paintwork. The balustraded entrance faces the remains of rustic homes used historically by country folk who lived on the first floor, while animals sheltered at ground level. The kitchen was always at the top, so if a fire broke out, it didn’t damage all of the property or harm inhabitants. Maybe it’s an idea that should be adopted in today’s home designs. Nowadays, deserted dwellings are creatively adorned with unusual installations, such as hats suspended above alleyways. Certain doors are painted in unusual themes. Santa plaques dangle from one, while others have mindful words written prettily in Croatian and English.

It’s a modest and picturesque town, but there are two churches. They are sometimes locked, but they both have remarkable frescoes, and the gardens of the largest are pleasant for a stroll.

Last on the tour. Cepic – a sprawling village with houses and barns dotted across lush fields. A farm found along a track with trees and vines on either side is run as an independent business growing produce – grapes for wine and brandy, and olives for oil.

Visitors receive a warm welcome and are offered three of their Coslovich wines, along with local nibbles. Spicy cold meats and sausages, smoked and cured in the fresh air, and cheese. Fig and apricot jams. Smidgeons of bread dipped into flavoured olive oil are mouthwatering. It’s used as a condiment in Croatia, as it’s thought to be too precious for cooking.

Another enthralling day out is to Poreč. It was Istria’s initial Roman settlement and is only a twenty-minute drive from Vrsar.

At the top of Poreč is the grand Open University venue with its broad white steps and red brick façade. Across the road, there is an old and fascinating round tower from the Venetian era.

The sea is to the left and alluring, and a wander along the coastal promenade to the centre gives a good idea of what can be seen, as all attractions are signposted to the right.

All sorts of boats sail to and fro. Ferries travel to Venice, but it takes three hours to cross the Adriatic Sea, so it is advised to have an early morning start to make the most of discovering the romantic capital of Italy’s Veneto.

The walk around the edge of the peninsula goes by the old part of the city and passes by pebbly beaches, dramatic shores, and wildflowers – an appealing combination.

The Euphrasian Basilica soon comes into sight. The sacred and spiritual complex is Poreč’s main attraction. Inside, important areas are numbered so nothing is missed of the archaic Christian and Byzantium cathedral – it is not surprising that it’s listed on the World Heritage Register by UNESCO.

The air is infused with a delicate floral scent wafting around religious artefacts and architecture of the Bishop’s Palace and Basilica. The trek up to the bell tower is worth aching knees, as the panorama from there is supreme: turquoise sea, terracotta roofs and verdant geography.

Four giant powerful-looking bells hang from the rafters. Back on the ground, their joyful chiming is pleasurable while admiring the ruins and mosaic-floored archaeological site.

Sightseeing is thirsty work and there are plenty of bars to choose from. As well, as the local lemonade, the non-alcoholic mojitos are a pleasant change. Mint, lime and cucumber with trimmings. Truly the best in the arid heat.

It’s relaxing shopping in the pedestrianised streets where quirky independent businesses and outlets sell traditional wares alongside the latest fashions. One even specialises in rubber ducks, very popular judging by the people going in and out. Shopkeepers are friendly and offer samples of local produce: Grappa and teranino liqueurs – deliciously sweet. And because of the location, copies of icons can be bought, some skilfully hand-painted – all are inspiring.

There is even a Christmas Shop which seems to be a worldwide trend as most big towns and cities seem to have them. It’s exciting when the decorations go up at the beginning of December to recall destinations, especially Porec.

Crème de la crème. The Ancient Istria One Day Tour by minibus is a treat. 

First stop: Rovinj, a petite city that was originally an island. It’s steeped in Venetian heritage and influenced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Houses are piled up on the hillside to its pinnacle, where the baroque Church of St Euphemia looks regally over its people and the sea. And even from a distance, the unusual weather vane of its patron saint can be seen twinkling as it swivels in the breeze.

Through an inside market, and up pale cobbled lanes, locals greet and nod. Shopkeepers and restauranteurs organise their business frontages for the day.

On the crest, shade outside the church is welcome while listening to information relayed by the tour guide. Make sure to admire the sights before going inside.

The altars are ornate, and under two large oil paintings, a sarcophagus contains relics of St Euphemia, the daughter of a Roman senator. The lid is closed, but it’s opened annually. Not too gory an encounter, though, as the remains are encased in wax, similar to Madame Tussaud’s figures.

Lunch – organised by the tour operator. The three-course meal of traditional cuisine starts with minestrone. A different recipe from the Italian version, as it is enriched with meat. Very tasty!

So onto the highlight. To Pula and its Amphitheatre – one of the six largest in the world outside of Rome and well preserved.

In the summertime, lavender fragrances the air, and its purple sprigs give a harmonious flash of colour against the monumental white and grey walls by the entrance.

A gladiator meets tourists inside, and unlike characters from the olden days in the 1st century, he offers his sword and helmet to wear for a photo opportunity before going into the arena. At 133m long and 105m wide, it is striking and used for sports events and musical concerts. Elton John and Robbie Williams have performed there. Sitting on the curved limestone seating and gazing around at the gargantuan edifices, it is easy to conjure up the Romans’ roars from yesteryear. The seats are a tad uncomfortable, but the spectators back then would have been on their feet.

Below the stadium in underground chambers, there are exhibits of amphoras, ancient maps and a basic but ingenious elevator. Pretty amazing considering the resources back then. Envision the gladiators’ and audiences’ euphoria as the armed competitors appeared as if by magic.

The rest of Pula is brimming with other Roman architecture. An octagonal mausoleum and historical gateways. The Twin Gates, and the Gate of Hercules from the 1st century, both of which were unearthed in the 19th century after being hidden in the Medieval period.

The Triumphal Arch of Sergei is in the city centre and beside it is a statue of the writer James Joyce. He taught English in Pula from 1904 -1905 and worked on material for his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Dante, the Italian writer and philosopher, also stayed in Pula and wrote about it in some of his works.

The Forum quadrangle is in the heart of the community. It is the cultural and legislative centre, with its Communal Palace, and to its right, the Temple of Augustus, one of the best examples of Roman temples. Its classical columns are elegant and make a romantic setting for wedding pictures. Brides and grooms can often be seen posing on the steps.

A boat trip while in Istria with its many waterways is a must. A variety of vessels offer different options. Dolphin safaris – glass bottom boat adventures – diving expeditions.

Lidja Tours pleasure boat from Vrsar cruising along Lim Fjord to Rovinj is an excellent choice. Although called a fjord it is really a sea gorge. Originally it was called the Limski Kanal, but it has been known as a fjord after sections of the movie, Viking, were filmed there in the late 1950s.

The boat left from Vrsar, and it is great seeing the resort from a sailor’s perspective and bypassing the Island of St George, which can be seen from many Vrsar perspectives. It is enlightening to see it at close range, with its densely populated trees and shrubs making it a wildlife haven.

Further on, more islands emerge from the depths of blue where paddleboarders, canoeists and windsurfers explore the tiny coves.

The crew serves drinks and points out geographical features as the fjord widens. Dolphins often splash in the waves and coastal birds dive deftly for fish. The area is a protected national monument, so swimming is only allowed in particular regions.

Together with a replica galleon, the boat moors up near a cave. A pirate cave with a bar set up at the entrance.

All natural wonders are fascinating, but this one isn’t very deep into the rock face. Although appealing, there is another cave in a different location that is worth investigating. St Romuald’s Cave, named after the hermit who lived in it from 1004 to 1005, and known for the fossils and Stone Age art revealed there.

The walk up and around the Pirate Cave is charming, with succulents and giant cacti growing in the gardens. Pathways are chiselled into the cliffs, and photographs can be taken from a crow’s nest overlooking the magnificent waterway where people swim.

The mini expedition ends with a trip to the already-visited Rovinj. Passengers can roam around the port as they wish and it is a great chance to see the port from a nautical vantage point. The hillside city from the sea resembles a jigsaw of jumbled buildings as they reflect on the ripples. Art shops sell paintings of the scene, but none are as charismatic as the real thing.

Discovering hidden corners, and idyllic alleyways leading down to the water’s edge not on the usual tourist haunts is delightful. The hours pass by quickly and it is soon time to return to the boat.

It provides the perfect opportunity on the journey back to Vrsar, to sit back, sip drinks, marvel at the scenery and reflect upon a memorable week on the Istrian Peninsula.