Riding on History – Cycling the Parenzana Trail

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Disused railroads across Europe have been converted into pop – ular cycling and walking trails. The Parenzana is Istria’s own ‘rail trail’ that traces the path of a former railway. More than a scenic hike or bicycle ride – it offers a journey into the past.

A Journey into the Past

When I set out to follow the 123-km long Parenzana Trail, an abandoned railroad revitalised as a recreational path, I discovered I was not only tracing the winding route of a ghost train. With each step, I was also retracing an era in Istria’s history. Work on the Parenzana railway began at the turn of the 20th century, when the Istrian peninsula was part of the powerful Habsburg empire. On 1 April 1902, its steam-powered locomotive pulling over a dozen carriages departed from the port city of Trieste on its maiden journey. It was heading to Poreč, Parenzo in Italian, the coastal city after which the railway was named.

The opening of the Parenzana railroad was heralded as a sign of progress, connecting 33 towns across Istria at a time when there were few modern roads. Just over 100 years later, its route was transformed into a leisure trail for cyclists and hikers. Open since 2008, it runs through the most picturesque part of the peninsula, past bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, fertile fields, and some of its prettiest hilltop towns.

Parenzana cycling Istria

Cycling in Istria on Parenzana trail

The First Phase of Parenzana Trip

I started my journey next to the Ospo river on the edge of Muggia, in Italy. Though the train departed from Trieste, this is where the signposted trail of the bygone railway begins. As I pedalled along the river, I reflected that though its geography hasn’t changed in the past century, Istria’s boundaries have. Today the peninsula is no longer part of an empire; instead, it is shared among three countries: Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. I was soon crossing the border into Slovenia, marked by a sign on the pathway. The 32-km-long section through Slovenia is mostly asphalt, making it an easy ride. I stopped for coffee in Koper’s old town, had a look at the Parenzana’s original locomotive on display outside Izola, and browsed an outdoor market. Though the lifespan of the railway was ultimately short, it became a commercial lifeline during the 33 years the train made its daily course, giving the local economy a significant boost. Its carriages transported not only passengers and mail, but also products of Istria’s soil: grapes, wine, olives and fruit, as well as stone, wood and coal. Salt was another important commodity it shipped from Sečovlje (in today’s Slovenia), the Mediterranean’s northernmost salt pans, where it’s been produced since the 13th century. The Museum of Salt Making here welcomes visitors wanting to learn more about the history of this important trade.

I now had a steep uphill climb and 78 more kilometres ahead of me. Pavement soon turned to gravel as I slogged on until the hilltop city of Buje finally appeared. This is where I ended the first phase of my Parenzana trip, catching a ride home in my uncle’s van. But I soon returned to the same spot, this time without my city bike which I realised was not suited to the rocky paths. I continued my journey on foot, and was glad I did. I would have time to take in and savour the most scenic section of the Parenzana trail.



The Hilltop Towns, Festivals and Parenzana Museum

Perched at its highest point at 293 metres is charming Grožnjan. Like the former railway, the town’s stone houses have been restored and transformed. I paused in this artists’ village and browsed its colourful galleries and boutiques, before heading back to the path via a dark tunnel. I emerged among olive groves, and soon arrived at a rest stop where I took in the spectacular views of Istria’s undulating hills and the Mirna valley below. The hilltop towns of Motovun and Vižinada loomed in the distance, other stops on the trail that seemed far off. Resuming my walk, I passed a sign near Kostanjica pointing the way to B10 Istrian Fusion’s olive grove and tasting room. Close to where olives were once loaded onto trains, ramblers can stop to taste the high-quality olive oil produced in Istria for centuries.

The path became increasingly winding, leading me over bridges and viaducts. The train had to negotiate over 600 curves – the reason why the Parenzana was built as a narrow-gauge railway, it had Istria’s hilly topography and tight curves to reckon with. Next up, I came across the long-abandoned railway station that served tiny, delightful Završje. Today this ghost town has a handful of residents, but it used to be a busy market centre that depended on the railway. It was also a lifeline to Oprtalj, another petite but pretty town worth the uphill detour from where its station once stood. Back on the trail, I was finally heading downwards through dense tree tunnels all the way to Livade, where a truffle festival happens each autumn to celebrate this local delicacy. Another attraction here is the Parenzana Museum where visitors can learn snippets of the past about this historical railroad via archival photographs.


The Parenzana as the ‘Wine Railway ‘

The Parenzana was also known as the ‘wine railway,’ a legacy that has certainly not been lost. At the base of picturesque Motovun, I ambled past vast vineyards and the wineries of Roxanich and Fakin. Just steps away from the trail, they offer a tempting pitstop for connoisseurs of high-quality vintages.

The Parenzana Railway Still Lives On

From here, the path continues westwards to seaside Poreč, ending at its defunct station. By the time the train left the station for its last run on the 31st of August 1935, road transport had taken over from the railways. Also, a world war had come and gone, an empire was dissolved, and Istria was passed over to Italy. Under Mussolini’s rule, the Parenzana’s rails were dismantled and loaded onto a ship bound for Abyssinia. Its remnants ultimately found a final resting place on the seabed when the ship capsized. Today, over a century later, the Parenzana railway still lives on, in a new incarnation.

Author of the text: Isabel Putinja for SUBSTANCE by Valamar

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Bloggers, journalists, tourist guides, artists, entertainers and all kinds of hospitality experts and enthusiasts have gathered under the ValamArtists handle to lovingly bring you the best out of the Croatian holiday experience. Enjoy the ride!
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