Suddenly, there was a loud yelp from over my shoulder. It was the sort of sound that combines any number of the feelings that define six-year-olds. Giddy enthusiasm. The joy of a discovery. The impermeable certainty that, surely, nobody else in the entire history of humanity had ever made a finding such as this. An utter disbelief that what was definitely one of those tall stories that fathers like to tell had proved to be true. For there was my son Hal, on the very edge of Veliki Brijun, where the biggest of the Brijuni islands pushes a firm shoulder into the Adriatic – pointing at a shape chiselled into the rocks, and hopping from leg to leg, as if his trainers were on fire.
It was what we had been seeking for the past 10 minutes, and it was unmistakable. Toes. Claws. Wide instep. A large dinosaur footprint. It was a moment that would be exciting even in ordinary circumstances. But amid the strangeness and fragility of August 2020, it felt like a happy ending of sorts – a pirate’s treasure chest dug up on a secluded beach; an ancient artefact unearthed, Indiana Jones-style, at the dusty climax to a lengthy quest.
In relative terms, we had not travelled very far to reach this small archipelago, which sits just off the west flank of Istria – the peninsula that provides Croatia with its north-westerly conclusion. But with its obligatory face masks, frequent handwashing and palpable nervousness – even (and especially) during the near-three-hour flight to Pula from Gatwick – our journey into the Balkan summer resembled more a daring odyssey than a simple exercise in fly-and-flop. Sighting a fragment of a long-disappeared world at the end of it seemed oddly appropriate.
Not that Istria could be described as a “long-disappeared” anything, even in the grip of one of the worst pandemics in the course of a century. Croatia has grown exponentially in popularity with British tourists over the past two decades, and even if the peninsula does not pull in the weight of numbers generally welcomed by Dubrovnik or some sections of the Dalmatian Coast, it has become a trusted destination for a week or two in the sun. Nor is it only holidaymakers from the UK who appreciate its charms.
We decamped to a villa in Valica – a village in the uppermost reaches of the Istrian land mass, just outside the barely bigger seafront town of Umag. From our poolside veranda, we could practically see the European map, sketched out for our benefit – Slovenia just two miles to the north, where the countryside slopes down to the Gulf of Piran; Italy waiting just 20 miles beyond, where Trieste steps out of Alpine shadows. This meeting of borders was visible on our first evening, when we wandered down to eat in the “centre” of the village.
The voices in happy conversation at the tables Covid-distanced on the terrace at Restaurant Luciana were Italian and German as well as Croatian; the cars parked on the verges in front showed number plates from as far afield as Austria. Some had come for the evening; for dinner and wine. Others were clearly, and tipsily, staying nearby. All were enjoying themselves, over seafood risottos, and plates of pasta smothered in truffle sauce.
The same crossroads aesthetic was apparent on the Brijuni archipelago – 50 miles from Velica at the southern tip of the peninsula, but well within day-trip range (as is any part of Istria, wherever you are staying within it). Protected as a national park since 1983, the islands are reached via a two-mile, 15-minute ferry ride from Fazana that picked us up in 2020, and dropped us into several versions of the past. One of them, quietly but noticeably, was 1970s East European Socialism. Veliki Brijun was a favoured hideaway of Josip Tito – the Yugoslavian dictator who ruled Croatia’s vast predecessor between 1953 and 1980.
He first visited the islands in 1947; the White Villa, constructed in his honour, became his official summer residence in 1953. He would spend four months every year enjoying its seclusion, his last stay coming just before his death, in 1979. The property still basks in its privacy today. The hotels next to the ferry dock have fared somewhat worse in concealing their dates of birth, attempting to disguise their story behind al fresco seating and Aperol spritzes – but ultimately betraying themselves, in their obvious Balkan blockiness.
Hal is not much interested in post-war Yugoslavian architecture, although he did raise a small flag of interest for another, rather earlier epoch. Verige Bay is one of the wonders of the Adriatic – a crook of an elbow on Veliki Brijun’s south-east side, where an enormous Roman villa still watches the tide. We paddled in the ripples next to it – me with one eye on its tumbled columns and pillars, intrigued that so much remains of a structure that was built in the first century BC; Hal with both eyes on the seashells below the surface, which he plucked at with initial eagerness, then slight impatience.
I had promised him dinosaurs. Over in the very north-west corner of Veliki Brijun, best reached using the electric buggies you can hire at the dock, “Brijuni Cretaceous Park” sounds grand and official – but is practically an after-thought, almost forgotten beyond the island golf course, the White Villa, and the sad “safari park” where Tito kept the exotic animals gifted to him by world leaders (now home to one notably melancholy elephant). It really should be pinpointed with flashing lights and fanfare, because what waits behind the anonymous gate is many a childhood dream.
The 200 or so footprints etched into the shoreline – hardened vestiges of a time when this segment of Europe was part of the shallows of the Tethys Sea – are not immediately easy to spot. But once identified, their authorship is thrillingly beyond doubt. Hal gesticulated wildly at one sizeable example, and bellowed the magic word “T-Rex!”. I did not have the heart to correct him. Particularly when the truth – that the prints are mainly 125-130 million years old, and could not have been made by the creature he was shouting about because the king of the dinosaurs was an exclusively North American beast – was so drily out of sync with the situation.
Instead, I pointed vaguely back up the beach, at the model of the culprit – a carnivorous allosaurid which predated the Tyrannosaurus Rex by some 60 million years, but had much of its predatory ability – and replied “yes, pretty much”. In pandemic times, what’s a fake dinosaur or two, between father and son? Istria echoes to many such tales of yesterday. Back on the mainland, Pula is dominated by another Roman relic – the amphitheatre that has towered over its harbour since 27BC. In pre-Covid years, it was thronged with sightseers.
In 2020, it was eerily empty but for a few curious souls – quiet enough for a mock gladiatorial fight in its gravel-covered arena, and proof of the adage that few things hurt quite as much as a jab to the thigh from an overly exuberant six-year-old brandishing a souvenir wooden sword. If this is hot work, there are numerous coves and curves of coast where you can cool off.
Umag tells no lies with its Sandy Beach; Kanegra Beach, down the hill from our villa, felt almost unreal, with its views of Portoroz – the Slovenian resort town being so close, yet so out of reach, in a Covid August. Even tiny Rovinj – a mini-Dubrovnik pinned to its bluff in a blur of orange rooftops and cobbled lanes – offers a shard of seafront, culled from the water below restaurant La Puntulina. We managed to tiptoe around the rock pools, squishing in between Italian and Croatian families, and their sandcastle construction sites.
The peninsula also throws out a wildness, its mountainous interior rising when we went in search of the gentler waves of its east coast; Kvarner Bay emerging suddenly from behind a ridge where the village of Plomin clings tightly to a gorge on the sea’s edge. But then, Istria likes to play these games. On the west coast, near Novigrad, there is a similar visual shock where the ground falls dramatically away to the Mirna river, and the A9 flings itself across the chasm on a bridge that narrows the region’s motorway to a lane each way.
It was as we trundled carefully across what resembled a tightrope of tarmac, high above the estuary of the peninsula’s longest river, that Hal noticed the telltale tubing of Aquapark Istralandia. Novigrad’s water park proved to be everything you would expect of such an attraction – apparently unhindered by a pandemic, crammed with paying customers, and happy to temper the viral threat with what smelt like an extra dose of chlorine.
We joined the queue for slides such as Escape Hole and Crazy Hills, grabbed a giant rubber ring to speed down the Sky River, and gulped nervously at the “adrenalin” chutes – Black Kamikaza, Free Fall, Space Rocket – that Hal was (mercifully) too young to ride. Except for the hand-sanitiser stations, it could have been an afternoon in pre-Covid times, all spilt cola, punnets of fries and smeared sun cream.
Of course, there are no dinosaurs here. But that, too, can be arranged. Just outside Porec, Dinopark Funtana makes Istria’s Mesozoic heritage ultra-conspicuous for those who don’t want to trip along the Brijuni shore. There are roundabouts, mini-rollercoasters and pirate boat swings. But the headline act is the inventively named “Jurassic Park”, which takes a greatest-hits approach to prehistoric reptilia, placing 80 moulded dinosaurs along a wooded trail – including a T-Rex.
Once again, Hal grinned wolfishly as he communed with pre-asteroid earth’s most fearsome killer; once again, I decided that discretion was probably the better part of parenthood. In pandemic times, adventure trumps authenticity every time.
Getting there British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) offers a seasonal service to Pula from London Heathrow. easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) flies to the city in summer from Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick and Luton, and will launch a connection from Glasgow in June 2021.
Staying there James Villas (0808 256 1950; jamesvillas.co.uk) offers a range of properties in Istria, including the three-bedroom Alte Muehle, near Novigrad, which can be booked from £1,300 per week – and the four-bedroom Villa Tranquility, near Porec, which starts at £1,450 for seven nights. Flights extra in both cases.
See our guide to the best hotels in Istria