Istrian hilltop village + quiet border crossing
Istria is a large, beautiful Mediterranean region stretching along the coast near to Rijeka to Pula to Umag, connecting with the Slovenian seaside towns of Portoroz and Piran at the busy border. There is also a fat hinterland stuffed full of pretty hilltop villages like Grozjnan and Motovun. It is our understanding that many Istrians refer to themselves as Istrians first, but now the area is mainly in Croatia and partly Slovenia.
Well, we have 2 secret tips in one for you here, as we have found another option for a stunning little hilltop village for you to visit, either as part of a round daytrip exploring the Slovenian coastal hinterland and Istria, OR if you are continuing into Istria and down to Croatia it is a very quiet & beautiful route to a little known sleepy border crossing between Slovenia and Croatia!
For those looking for an alternative to the stunning, but sometimes busy Groznjan and Motovun hilltop villages, we recommend this roundtrip into Istria to a beautiful hilltop village, even closer to Lipizzaner Lodge, just over the border, called Buzet.. you can also choose to do a full circle home and take another even quieter border crossing back into Slovenia, but it will require you to follow "the force" when driving through some fabulously narrow little Slovenian Cliffside villages!
(Please note our first visit to Buzet was over the Christmas period, so the pictures below are without the green of summer, just imagine how beautiful this area is then)!
As usual, there are very many options for other special places you could add into this roundtrip along the way, just one for example, would be to stop off along the way at Hrastovlje where there is a medieval church that is in our top ten and a "must see". Actually most of our guests would usually visit Hrastovlje on another daytrip on the way down to the Slovenian coast, so we don't include it in this particular agenda!
This trip starts by zipping 20 minutes down the motorway and exiting at Crni Kal (Black Pond), where you will notice the wonky church tower above you! Bypass Hrastovlje and take the road towards Buzet. The road takes you down below the huge rocky cliffs you will notice above you to your left after passing Hrastovlje.. this cliff marks the edge of the "Karst" region, which covers most of southern Slovenia in leaky limestone.. perfect for forming caves and underground paradises!
A wonderful little place to stop off at is Kubed, which has St Florian, (yet another one of Slovenia's fortified castle churches), built high up on top of a rocky hill and protected by a unique 5 walled tower! You have to see the 5 walls to believe it. The views from up here are stunning and this tower is part of a network of fortresses that controlled this region and gave warning as far back as when the Ottoman troops were raiding.
(By the way, if you do this secret tip route in reverse from Croatia up into Slovenia, then Kubed would be a great place for a picknick)!
Continue along the curvy, pretty main road to the border and not far from here you can turn off sharp left at the sign for St Kvirik, go up a steep road to a wonderful little Roman church and park up.
There is a great walk form this Roman church here to the "Bridge", which is a natural rock formation on the far edge of the Slovenian Karst cliffs, but the weird thing is that apart from walking from here, the only other way to get to the bridge is by road and you have to go over the border into Croatia to get there.. A 3 min walk from the church takes you to the edge of the hill where you can see down to the Slovenian border crossing and from up here you can continue by foot to the bridge along a marked path and back.
Back in the car, the border is next and this is a very good bet to take as a prettier, less busier option to the better known border crossings. We can't guarantee it will be without a queue here, but you stand a better chance and even if you are just driving without stops, this will be a far more beautiful route.
Very soon after the border you can see the "Ears" (a natural stone formation in the shape of.. you guessed it!) and the bridge. You could park here and walk up to the bridge from the Croatian side as well of course, but it might be a bit of a climb.
It isn't far now to Buzet and you could park in the new town below and walk up to the medieval part of the town on the hill, or take a chance you will find a parking space and drive up closer to the old town. The medieval town is perched high up on top of the hill and is every bit as beautiful as Motovun or Grozjnan. Once you arrive at St Georges big gate you are at the entrance to the old town and from here you can pretty much do a circle, going left up into the town passed cafes and bars.
There are pretty little ancient buildings, narrow cobbled streets, a tower & church, with little cafes & restaurants to enjoy the majestic views from down into the valley. You can also see down to the Mirna river, which is a very important water source for Istria, providing irrigation for an area that was historically so important as the market garden for Venice, Trieste and Ljubljana, offering the very first green crops of the season.
There is also a great vista across to the towering jagged Karst cliffs high up above that lead to Slovenia.
The town itself is like a medieval museum with excellent signs outside all the historical buildings explaining their function and little bits of history. There are lots of these signs and they help to bring the town to life, so we recommend you just walk around and explore!
There are plenty of places to eat and drink here, but later we also found a quite beautiful stone gorge with a tributary for the river Mirna flowing through, not so far from the town itself in the valley below. This would be a fab place to go for a nature walk and have a picknick! You have to leave Buzet and find a stone track road away from the hill and follows the river channel.. if you see some slightly out of place modern outdoor gym equipment then you know you are on the right track!
A bit further and you will come to a fork and bridge with walking tracks on both sides of the pretty aqua river leading into the high walls of the gorge. We didn't have time to do this walk, but we think it is a full circle and there are signs and red & blue circles to show the way. (We will definitely come back to do this walk and explore).
Our time in Istria was coming to an end and we drove back a slightly different way, ascending steeply into the Karst cliffs you can see from the town walls. We stopped off at the top of the cliff to see a hair raising place where paragliders take off and float around up here for hours on end! It's not so high, a little over 1,000m, but scary enough and nice to go for a bit of a stroll along the rocky ridge where you will see really excellent examples of the white Karst limestone jutting out of the patchy grass everywhere.
No stone is smooth and you can get a good idea up here how these rocks are permeated by water over millions of years, dripping through to form the numerous caves and underground passages below.
Apart from the valley view, the white rocks and the odd paraglider floating past, the other amazing thing up here is to see is the railway that runs across the side of these cliffs.. it really is incredible how they built it, seemingly hanging out the side of the cliff, about 50 metres from the top!
You are so close to the Slovenian border up here you can see the ugly new border fence, (sadly, recently put into place) and it's not far to one of the quietest, prettiest, sleepiest border crossings in Europe! You can only cross here during daylight and the road is quite narrow, but the rocks and typical Karst trees, mainly needles, which can only grow in this rocky windswept ground to maybe 20% of normal size and make it quite a place to drive through!
You basically continue along the cliff, tracing the railway line and pop in and out of little stony villages on your way back to Crni Kal. Also keep your eyes peeled along the way for what look like perfectly round ponds.. these are called "Kal" and were traditionally used for animals to drink from in an area where getting water here was quite tricky.
There is a lovely little village called Podpec with a small car park just after you go under the railway bridge. From here you can see up perfectly to the little fortress tower that kept watch and controlled this region and.. even better, you can walk up to visit and see the stunning view!
As usual, there are way too many options in this "secret tip" article to fit into just one day, but you can choose from a lot of hiking, vistas and lots of different scenery on this roundtrip into the neighbouring part of Istria, or at the very least, you now have a really good quiet, beautiful option to continue your trip from Slovenia into Croatia.