Spend enough time on this verdant peninsula and someone will tell you: “I have a friend here who has lived in four different countries and never moved.” A 100-year-old Istrian, for example, would be able to say that she was born in Austro-Hungary (which ended in 1918), came of age when Istria was part of Italy (until 1947), spent most of her adult years as a Yugoslavian, and, finally, starting in 1991, became Croatian.
This peninsula in the northern Adriatic is made up of about 90 percent Croatian territory (the rest is Slovenian with a tiny sliver going to Italy). Istria may be a microcosm of 20th-century southeastern European history, but it’s also a magical, 21st-century playground for those who like sun, beaches, hill towns, Roman ruins, local wine, truffles and top-notch dining. Italophiles will feel at home here as most of the population is still bilingual, speaking Italian and Croatian. The stunning seaside towns of Rovinj, Porec and Pula may attract most visitors but the inland medieval hill towns of Motovun and Groznjan and their artsy communities and restaurants serving truffle-laden pasta dishes are certainly worth a visit.
When the San Servolo brewery first began producing beer, or pivo, in 2013, little did anyone know that people would be soaking in it five years later. The newly opened San Servolo Resort and Beer Spa, next to the brewery, just outside the hilltop town of Buje, offers guests and non-guests the chance to have a 45-minute soak in hoppy beer while drinking unlimited amounts of lager from the bathtub-side tap. For this reason, it might be a good idea to book a room at the hotel. After a beer bath, spa guests can sweat it out in the sauna or go for a swim in the pool (which is filled with water, not beer). The spa (including the beer bath) is 525 kuna for guests (or about $82), 700 kuna for non-guests.
Hidden down some steps on the southern side of Rovinj’s Old Town is Valentino, a cocktail bar that mostly attracts a foreign clientele. The appeal here is that seating is on lounge chair cushions situated on rocks just above the Adriatic Sea. Add some cocktails and you’ve got a recipe for possible disaster. Yet once you take in the view and ambience, you’ll be happy to pay more than you like for a drink. The average drink — the Aperol spritz is very popular here — costs 90 kuna. Steer clear of the recommendations of the servers who have a proclivity for voluntarily recommending some of the most expensive options on the drinks list.
It’s no surprise that Croatia’s first Michelin star was awarded to a restaurant in Istria. There’s the Italian influences in various pasta dishes, and the longtime emphasis here on local, artisanal products (long before it became fashionable). Monte, in the Old Town of Rovinj, is proud of its star. The restaurant makes its own olive oil (a few miles away, near the Lim fjord), and sends out creative Italian and Istrian-inflected dishes from one of three multicourse options that might include Adriatic tuna tartar, oxtail and lobster dumplings, and fennel ice cream. Most of the wines from the excellent list are from Istria. Six courses are 849 kuna, not including wine.
4) 9 a.m. TRUFFLE HUNT
Croatia, specifically Istria, wasn’t always on the truffle map. Italians from Piedmont would cross over the border to buy white truffles from Istrians, then quietly transport them back to northern Italy to sell them as “Italian.” But all that changed on Nov. 2, 1999, when a local Croatian truffle hunter, Giancarlo Zigante, and his dog, Diana, unearthed a nearly three-pound white truffle, at the time the biggest one ever found. Suddenly, the world was aware that the prized white truffle could be found — and purchased for much cheaper prices — in Istria. Get a taste of these white truffles and go on a truffle hunt at Prodan Tartufi, near the town of Buzet, where the Prodan family and their dogs take visitors on an hourlong hunt and then cook up a truffle-laden meal that includes truffles with eggs, truffles with sausages, truffles with cheese, and more truffles. The experience and meal costs about 475 kuna a person.
Housed in a 600-year-old former olive mill at what is basically a countryside intersection, the 17-seat Toklarija is an essential stop on a fine-dining tour of Istria. The eccentric chef and owner, Nevio Sirotic, puts the “slow” in “slow food,” with lunches lasting for three or more hours. But the rustic, fireplace-lit dining room invites you to stay a while. Sirotic sources nearly all his ingredients locally, including in the restaurant’s back garden. The multicourse meal might, depending on the season, include dishes such as wild asparagus salad, prosciutto-filled ravioli, and a super-slow-roasted suckling pig that is so tender you can leave your knife on the table. They don’t take walk-ins, so reservations are a must, as they only prepare enough food for diners they’re expecting that day. The six-course tasting menu is 450 kuna.
Groznjan still has an abandoned feel to it. After World War II, many of this hill town’s longtime residents fled for Italy, leaving few inhabitants. By the late 1960s, artists and bohemian types had settled in. Today the charmingly ramshackle village, with its chunky cobblestone lanes, is crammed with galleries. At Galerija Il Punto, the artists Gordana Kuzina and Edvard Kuzina Matei sell their handmade jewelry and paintings of local land and seascapes (including images of Groznjan). “We moved here 15 years ago to sell our work,” Mr. Kuzina Matei said. “We couldn’t afford Zagreb anymore so we settled here and love it.” Galerija Gasspar sells the work of several local artists, including Burhan Hadzialjevic’s intriguing, otherworldly glass sculptures and bronze and stone sculptures by the English-born local artist Gail Morris.
Just 10 miles across the lush Mirna River Valley from Groznjan sits Motovun, possibly the most picturesque hill town on the peninsula and the birthplace of the racecar driver Mario Andretti. The diminutive walled town is mostly filled with shops selling local products but it’s a delightful pit stop to walk the medieval walls (20 kuna) and pick up some local products. Try OPG Vivoda, just before the town gate, a small shop run by the family of the same name who produce olive oil (one liter bottles for 110 kuna) and herb-infused brandy called travarica on their nearby farm (one liter bottles cost 130 kuna).
Celebrating its 20th year in 2018, Damir i Ornella, in the seaside town of Novigrad, is one of the great Istrian dining experiences. The menu focuses mostly on crudo. Damir works the front room, carving up raw branzino and de-shelling scallops at a tableside cart and then sprinkling the just-pulled-from-the-sea morsels with local olive oil, squirts of lemon and dashes of salt and pepper before serving. Ornella is in the kitchen cooking up the occasional seafood-laced pasta dish. The menu changes daily based on what their fishermen catch that morning. The five-course tasting menu at this seven-table spot starts at 500 kuna a person before wine.
Hit the beach in Pula. Saccorgiana, south of the city center, is a quiet cove beach. The pebbly beach — you won’t find any sand strands around here — is more comfortable than it seems for sunbathing. There’s also a waterside trampoline, and Zeppelin Beach Bar, for beer, wine and soft drinks. The free parking near the beach is also a plus.
Set on a pleasant marina in the old fishing village of Fazana, about five miles north of Pula, Stara Konoba is good place to sit outside and watch the boats rock and the fisherman walk by. The Old Tavern, as it’s translated, has a menu that leans toward the sea, as one would expect. Grilled sardines, fried calamari, fish soup and pastas sprinkled with clams, mussels and shrimp are menu standouts. Expect to pay about 250 kuna a person for lunch.
There’s more than one reason to drive out to Pula at the southern tip of the peninsula but you really only need one: the first-century A.D. Roman arena is the world’s sixth largest ancient Roman amphitheater of the more than the 200 that still exist, once holding more than 20,000 gladiator-loving spectators. Its sibling in Rome may inspire more oohs and ahs because of its size and majesty but Pula arena’s exterior ring is still fully enclosed. The entrance fee is 50 kuna. Elsewhere, the well-preserved 2,000-year-old Temple of Augustus and other ruins of Rome are scattered throughout the town. Another reason you might visit Pula: It’s home to Istria’s main commercial airport.
Hotel Lone (Luje Adamovića 31, Rovinj; hotellone.com; doubles from 1,400 kuna), a 248-room property whose past life was a drab Communist-era hotel. But the talented Croatian architecture firm 3LHD got ahold of it in 2011 and transformed the property into one of the sleekest spots to lay one’s head in the country, adding clean lines and modern art installations. Some rooms have private hot tubs on balconies. Lone (pronounced Loh-nay) is about a 15-minute walk from the center of Rovinj.
Meneghetti (Stancija Menegeti 1, Bale; www.meneghetti.hr; doubles from 1,400 kuna), is an old homestead set on 30 acres (much of which are vineyards for the property’s own wine) down an unpaved road. The nine rustic rooms and 15 suites have ceiling beams, antique furniture and wine refrigerators.
Villa Tuttorotto (Dvor Massatto 4, Rovinj; villatuttorotto.com; doubles from 740 kuna) is a seven-room hotel smack in the center of Rovinj’s compact Old Town. Service is attentive and warm and most rooms have a view of the sea.
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