Brendan Francis Newnam hosts a national public radio show called “The Dinner Party Download” produced by American Public Media. He’s the author of the travel column “The State I’m In.” Follow him on Twitter @bnewnam.

(CNN) — Word on the cobblestone street is Istria is the “new Tuscany.” I disagree. The landscape of this northern part of Croatia is less cultivated. It’s less wealthy. And, last I checked, the Renaissance didn’t happen here. Plus, “Istria” is still a little-known proper noun and “Tuscany” has moved into adjective territory.

Show me an American suburb and I’ll show you a “Tuscan” kitchen, if not an entire foreclosed development named “Tuscan Hills.” Earlier this year when Olive Garden — the strip mall home of endless breadsticks — wanted to make itself more appealing, it announced it was making over its restaurants in the style of Tuscan farmhouses. Now, I don’t know if they serve shark in Tuscany, but the region has certainly jumped it.

That’s not going to happen to Istria anytime soon. No, it will continue to hide in plain sight. Right in the middle of Europe. A small peninsula the shape of a crudely drawn heart tucked behind the boot of Italy. Capped by the Alps, bottom dangling in the cartoon blue of the Adriatic sea.

Eventually the tour buses and cookbook authors will arrive en masse, but for now the region is so sparsely populated that sometimes with its raw grandeur and new highways it can feel like an imaginary world in a video game where you build your own civilization.

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