It is a route that is alive with possibilities for discovery, such as exploring connected towns, from the spa town of Portorož, to the town of artists at Grožnjan and the ghost town of Završje; foraging for wild asparagus in spring and mushrooms in autumn; pushing the limits of your Italian and Croatian with a local farmer, only too happy to share his young wine; and finding a tiny restaurant of a kind you never thought existed, and having the best home-made pasta with truffles you will ever eat.
The Trail of Health and Friendship is a recreational trail for walkers and cyclists that has been developed with EU funding on the route of a former narrow gauge railway, La Parenzana, in the Istrian region that ran from Trieste in Italy to Poreč in modern-day Croatia. It was in service between 1902 and 1935 and it takes its name from the Italian name for Poreč: Parenzo.
Though short, its life was eventful. Initially bringing economic progress to the small towns and villages on its route, through what is now Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. For the first time farmers had a direct link to the markets in Koper and Trieste for their products (mostly wine and olive oil, along with fish and salt). During WWI it was used for transporting military personnel and equipment, as well as food for the local population.
After the war Istria became part of the Kingdom of Italy, which continued to run the railway until it was unprofitable to do so during the Great Depression. At this point the Italian fascist rulers, as part of their efforts to persecute the ethnic Slovene and Croat population of Istria, gave the order to abandon it. The final train pulled into Trieste station on 31st August 1935, and after this the economic situation worsened, forcing many people to emigrate.
During its service there were incidents that ranged from comical – passengers getting out to push the train on steep sections – to tragic – the worst being when, whilst stopped in Strunjan, a group of fascists shot at a group of children who were playing nearby, killing two of them, maiming two more and wounding three others.
Now though La Parenzana is living up to its new moniker as its redevelopment involves cross-border cooperation between Italian, Slovenian and Croatian authorities, as well as the EU. Let’s hope it continues to build friendships and to help people to discover this unique region.