Cicerone author Rudolf Abraham and his young daughter set off on the Parenzana, a long-distance cycle route in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
We pedal slowly out of the tiny medieval hill town of Grožnjan, in Croatia’s Istria region, and then turn left off the asphalt onto a broad gravel track. Olive groves slip by, beyond banks overhung with blackberries, and cicadas sing along to the crunch of our tyres under a brilliant blue August sky.
This is the Parenzana, a cycle route running 123km between the city of Trieste in Italy and Poreč in Croatia. Developed in 2002, it follows the route of a narrow-gauge railway line that opened 100 years earlier, operating between 1902 and 1935. Built by the Austrians at a time when all of this region formed part of the Habsburg Empire, the railway line connected around 35 stations in what is now Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
The Parenzana carried freight such as salt from the Piran salt pans, wine and olive oil (for which Istria is still famous), lime, stone and other commodities, as well as passengers. The name Parenzano comes from the town of Poreč, known as Parenzo in Italian – the railway was officially called the Parenzaner Bahn, although to locals it was simply known as the Istranka or Istrijanka, after the Istria region.
It’s a wonderful cycling route, much of it on traffic-free gravel tracks, or in places where the old railway line has been overlaid by a modern road, along sections of reasonably quiet asphalt. (There are a couple of busier sections of road cycling in major towns on the coast, such as Koper and Poreč.) Most of the Parenzana (78km of it) lies in Istria – an area that remains one of my favourite parts of Croatia, a country I’ve been visiting for over 20 years and lived in for two – with 32km in Slovenia and 13km in Italy.
Its course is punctuated by tunnels, bridges and viaducts, nature reserves and salt pans, along with cultural highlights including the Unesco-listed Byzantine mosaics in Poreč, and the beautiful hill town of Motovun in Istria, surrounded by vineyards and truffle forests – along with plenty of scenic views in between.
Being relatively easy, it makes a great introduction to cycling holidays for kids, with plenty of scope for keeping stages reasonably short – I cycled the Parenzana with my daughter, who was six years old at the time.
Grožnjan, where we started, lies roughly midway along the Parenzana, and marks its highest point – and for a large chunk of the route from here, we could simply cruise downhill. (This, of course, had everything to do with cycling with a six-year-old, and nothing to do with the author feeling lazy – or so he tells people.) I’d cycled the route on the other side of the Grožnjan a few years earlier.
First, we head for Buje, passing the diminutive stone platform that was once the old station at Triban, and stopping for the night at a small guesthouse near Kaldanija, its gardens overflowing with lavender bushes. Then we continue northwest, before swinging right and riding downhill above the coast, with fantastic views out over vast expanse of the Sečovlje salt pans, where salt has been harvested since the 9th century. Fleur de sel is still being produced and collected here using traditional methods, and Sečovlje’s salt pans are also a nature reserve and a Ramsar site.
At the bottom of the hill we dismount to join the handful of cars waiting at the border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia, then under 5 minutes later we are off again and soon pedalling along the waterfront through Lucija and glitzy Portorož. Here we make a small detour off the Parenzana itself and continue along the waterfront to Piran, where we stop for the night. The most beautiful town on the Slovenian coast, and birthplace of the Baroque composer Tartini, Piran occupies an elongated headland, its parish church and soaring Venetian-style bell tower perched on a steep rise above a cluster of terracotta roofs and narrow, meandering streets and alleys.
The following morning we backtrack to Portorož, where we rejoin the Parenzana, turning inland to reach the entrance of the 550m-long Valeta Tunnel. The tunnel, surfaced and well lit, takes us over to the north side of the peninsula, where we make another short detour to cycle around the lagoon and chequerboard landscape of salt pans at Strunjan. Strunjan is also a nature reserve and, almost immediately, we spot a little egret at the edge of one of the reed beds.
The nature reserve covers the whole headland, the flysch cliffs on the north side of which are the highest on the Adriatic.
Returning to the Parenzana we meander across a landscape of olive groves and fields of sweetcorn to reach Izola, where we visit the Parenzana Museum before continuing along the coastal promenade for the last few kilometers to Koper.
Our cycling trip on the Parenzana finishes at the railway station in the town of Koper, where we leave our bikes to be picked up by Lumasport, take a requisite selfie with the old steam engine beside the station, and then head off towards the Unesco-listed Škocjan Caves to explore the breath-taking underground world of Slovenian karst.
You can find more information on the Parenzana, including a good map that can be downloaded as a pdf. If you’re planning a leisurely cycling trip on the Parenzana, check that your visit doesn’t clash with the MTB Parenzana – an annual international mountain bike race in September or October, when the route will be packed (and closed to non-competitors). The website of Istra Bike is another good source of information on the Parenzana and other cycling routes in the region. We hired mountain bikes (road or city bikes wouldn’t be up to the rough surface on much of the route) from Lumasport, an excellent service and rental outfit in Piran.
The Parenzana was my daughter’s first extended cycling trip – and it proved popular enough that we’ve since done cycling trips together along the canals of Brittany, part of the Elbe Cycle Path, pedalled around the lake-covered landscape of La Brenne, and will soon be heading off across Normandy on the Veloscenic