Continental Croatia meets the Adriatic in Istria, a picturesque peninsula where ancient hilltop villages and gastronomic discoveries are among the many surprises.
The light is exceptional in Rovinj. The golden midday sun has ripened to a mellow glow that bounces off the shimmering sea, casting a spotlight on the tumble of red-tiled rooftops in the Old Town. After a day spent paddling in the clear emerald waters that gently lap against the rocky shore of Monte Beach, my skin is a salty, happy blush as I meander back to my hotel through the steep tangle of cobbled alleys, beneath colorful lines of drying laundry. Set just beyond a timber-beamed archway, in a sturdy stone building brightened with blue-painted shutters, The Melegran is a bijou 12-room property that is a delightful base from which to explore this charming fishing port—the star attraction on Croatia’s Istrian coast—and, beyond that, the vast sweep of bucolic land, speckled with picturesque medieval hilltop towns.
A heart-shaped peninsula at the northern end of Croatia’s Adriatic coastline, Istria is a low-key alternative to the better-known coastal destinations of Dubrovnik, Split, or Hvar in the south of the country. With Slovenia to its north and Italy a short ferry ride west across the Gulf of Venice, the region’s position has not only defined much of its turbulent past, but, having swapped countries four times in the past century, it has also resulted in a distinct cultural identity stamped with Roman and Venetian heritage. And so, a magnificent Roman amphitheater takes center stage in the seaside city of Pula; in Rovinj, Balbi’s Arch, once part of the old city wall, is topped with a carving of the winged Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice; and farther up the coast, the architectural landscape in Poreč is revealed through the pointed arches and graceful ornamentation of the Venetian Gothic style. The cuisine, too, has distinct Italian influences, with pasta, cured meats, cheeses, and truffles featuring heavily. Elsewhere, robust sauerkraut-and-bean stews take their cues from the Austro-Hungarian period, while fresh seafood dishes—shellfish particularly—are boosted by the nutty, spicy flavors of Istria’s famed olive oil.
On my first evening in Rovinj, a waterside stroll leads me to Cap Aureo, a restaurant at the newly minted Grand Park Hotel. From its perch above a recently developed marina across the bay, the property has picture-perfect views of the city’s Old Town, its tightly crowded hodgepodge of buildings punctuated by the piercing belfry of the Church of St. Euphemia. As the brilliant pastel wash of sunset begins to fade from the sky, pretty plates—like a smoky chargrilled asparagus flavored with elderflower essence and topped with salty chicken crisps, radishes, and osetra caviar—emerge from the restaurant’s open kitchen and are placed in front of me with a flourish by Marko, a locally born waiter who is enthusiastically talking me through Istrian produce. “Wine, truffles, and olive oil,” he states emphatically. “These are the three products Istria is most famous for. Once you taste them, you’ll understand why.” The olive oil, Marko notes, is particularly excellent. “For the fourth year in a row, Istria has been named the best olive-oil region by Flos Olei,” he tells me with unrestrained pride, referring to the prestigious Italian guide that’s a bible for olive-oil aficionados.
The next day, some 50 kilometers to the northwest in the tiny village of Ipši, I am welcomed by Irena Ipša, a quiet, sensible woman who helps runs the eponymous olive-oil outfit she started with her husband Klaudio just over two decades ago. Now with a few awards under their belt and a burgeoning wine venture to boot, Ipša is often regarded as the best in the business. “We are recognized as one of the top 500 olive-oil producers in the world,” she notes matter-of-factly. “Frantoio, our organic extra-virgin olive oil, has been previously included on the top 20 list. It’s really very good.”
Indeed it is. In the garden, against a dramatic backdrop of olive grove–cloaked hills, Irena guides me through the four oils in her collection, explaining that all of the olives are handpicked and cold-pressed the very same day, and then stored in a century-old stone cellar that’s part of the family home where Klaudio was born. The Frantoio is extraordinary, its dark green color and spicy aroma resulting in a complex taste enriched by subtle notes of basil and rosemary. “It’s a best seller,” nods Irena. “It complements intense foods like mature cheese, venison, and truffles.”
With truffles on my mind, I hop back in the car for the 20-minute drive to Prodan Tartufi, just outside Buzet. Like all the medieval hilltop villages that dot Istria’s hinterland, Buzet was originally settled by Romans in the second century B.C., but it only really came into its own after the Venetians arrived and furnished it with impressive walls, gates, and churches. Today, though, the sleepy town is best known as the epicenter of a truffle-producing region that gained global attention in 1999, when a local hunter uncovered a 1.3-kilogram white truffle—the world’s largest at the time—in the woods of nearby Motovun.
The road to Prodan Tartufi carves a winding path through a gently rolling landscape thick with oak, beech, and hazel trees. On arrival, I am greeted by Višnja Prodan, whose family has been hunting truffles for three generations. “Farmers here used to call truffles ‘smelly potatoes’ and fed them to their pigs,” she exclaims with a shrug. “But Istria is the only place outside of Italy where you can find both black and the more precious white truffles.” An event called the Festival of Subotina is held in Buzet on the second Saturday in September each year to mark the start of white truffle season, which runs until December. The highlight is the preparation of a giant omelet made with more than 2,000 eggs and 10 kilos of truffles. “It’s the most expensive omelet in the world!” Višnja laughs.
But, as I am visiting on a warm summer’s day in early June, it’s the black version we’re after when we set out with the family’s boisterous dogs, Stiv and Brum, who happily scamper through the Prodans’ 2.5-hectare property, noses eagerly at the ground. “We have trained them since they were puppies by feeding them little bits of truffle,” Višnja explains as we walk through the sun-dappled woods. “When they detect one, they alert us by scratching at the ground, and then we give them a treat. It’s all fun and games!” After an hour, we return to home base with a modest basketful of the prized fungus, where Višnja’s mother, Vanda, is waiting to cook us a batch of buttery, cheesy scrambled eggs topped liberally with shavings of our truffles.
The drive back to Rovinj unfurls in a steady stream of undulating hills that lead me to the Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel, just outside the pretty hilltop town of Motovun (Formula One legend Mario Andretti grew
up here). Occupying the village’s former communal wine cellar, the operation is the brainchild of local winemaker Mladen Rožanić, who is on a mission to boost the profile of Istrian wine and gastronomy. This explains the presence of top Croatian chef Mario Mandarić in the restaurant.
I nab a seat on the hotel’s outdoor terrace as the setting sun transforms the sky into a blaze of orange and pink. Tomorrow I head to the Brijuni Islands, a pine-swathed archipelago off the peninsula’s southern tip. But for now, I’m content to sip on a chilled glass of malvasia as I contemplate the many pleasant surprises that Istria has already provided.
Grand Park Hotel Rovinj; 385-52/800-250.
Garzotto 14, Rovinj; 385-52/305-099; doubles from US$100.
Ipši 10, Livade; 385-52/664-010.
Prašcari 43, Sveti Ivan, Buzet; 385-52/662-102.
Kanal 30, Motovun; 385-52/205-700; doubles from US$155.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Istrian Idyll”).