Istria gets its name from the Histri, an Ilyrian tribe who ruled the region before succumbing to the Romans in the second century BC.

The invaders left a profound mark on Istria, building farms and villas, turning Pula into a major urban centre and creating a Romanized population which would remain Latin-speaking even under subsequent rulers. Following the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, Istria fell under the control first of Odoacer's Ostrogoth state in the fifth century, then ofJustinian's Byzantine Empire in the sixth, a period which gave the region its greatest ecclesiastical monument, the Basilica of St Euphrasius in Porec. Slav tribes began settling the peninsula from the seventh century onwards, driving the original Romanized inhabitants of the interior into the hills, where they preserved their Latin-derived dialects for generations before finally being Slavicized from the eighteenth century onwards.

Istria became a province of the Frankish Empire in 1040, but maritime and inland Istria began to follow divergent courses as the Middle Ages progressed. Most of the interior was presented as a feudal dependency to the Patriarchate of Aquileia – a virtually independent ecclesiastical city-state owing nominal fealty to Byzantium – in the twelfth century, while the coastal towns survived as independent communes until, one by one, they adopted Venetian suzerainty from the thirteenth century onwards. The lands of the Aquileian Patriarchs subsequently came under Habsburg control, ushering in centuries of intermittent warfare between Austrians and Venetians for control of the peninsula. The fall of Venice in 1797, followed by the collapse of Napoleon's short-lived Illyrian Provinces, left the Austrians in control of the whole of Istria. They confirmed Italian as the official language of the peninsula, even though Croats outnumbered Italians by more than two to one. Istria received a degree of autonomy in 1861, with Porec becoming the seat of a regional diet, but only the property-owning classes were allowed to vote, thereby excluding many Croats and perpetuating the Italian-speaking community's domination of Istrian politics.

Austrian rule ended in 1918, when Italy – already promised Istria by Britain and France as an inducement to enter World War I – occupied the whole peninsula. When Mussolini's Fascist Party came to power in October 1922, prospects for the Croatian majority in Istria worsened still further: the Croatian language was banished from public life, while a law of 1927 decreed that Slav surnames were henceforth to be rendered in Italian. During World War 11, however, opposition to Fascism united Italians and Croats alike, and Tito's Partisan movement in Istria was a genuinely multinational affair, although this didn't prevent outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence and tit-for-tat killings. The atrocities committed against Croats during the Fascist period were avenged indiscriminately by the Partisans, and the foibe of Istria – limestone pits into which bodies were thrown – still evoke painful memories for Italians to this day.

After 1945, the right of Yugoslavia to occupy the centre of the peninsula was more or less unquestioned by the victorious Allies, but both northern Istria and the port of Pula became the subject of bitter postwar wrangles between Yugoslavia and Italy. The Allies occupied Pula, and divided the north into two zones: Zone A, controlled by Anglo-American forces, included Trieste and its hinterland; while Zone B, controlled by the Partisans, comprised Koper, Piran, Umag and Novigrad. Pula was handed to theYugoslays in 1947, and in 1954 a compromise designed to appease both parties in northern Istria saw Zone A given to the Italians, while Zone B became part ofYugoslavia.

Despite promising all national minorities full rights after 1945, the Yugoslav authorities actively pressured Istria's Italians into leaving, and the region suffered serious depopulation as thousands fled – especially after the award of Zone B to Yugoslavia in 1954. In response, the Yugoslav government encouraged emigration to Istria from the rest of the country, and today there area fair number of Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians and Bosnian in Istria, many of whom were attracted to the coast by the tourist industry, which took off in the 1960s and, despite a few lean years during the war-ridden 1990s, has never looked back.

Geographically distant from the main flashpoints of the Serb–Croat conflict, Istria entered the twenty-first century more cosmopolitan, more prosperous and more self-confident than any other region of the country. This state of affairs was not without problems, however, with local Istrian politicians tending to regard Zagreb as the centre of a tax-hungry state which took money out of Istria without putting anything back in. Growing regionalist sentiment in the early 1990s led to the rise of the Istrian Democratic Party (Istarska demokratska stranka, or IDS), a moderate, centrist party which has remained the peninsula's most influential political force ever since. One consequence of Istria's new-found sense of identity has been a reassessment of its often traumatic relationship with Italy, and a positive new attitude towards its cultural and linguistic ties with that country. Bilingual road signs and public notices are going up all over the place, and the region's Italian-language schools – increasingly popular with cosmopolitan Croatian parents – are enjoying a new lease of life.


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