Croatia's Istrian Peninsula: Full of Flavor
Truffles of Staggering Proportions and other delights
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
How does exploring a land of seaside resorts, hilltop villages and great cuisine hit you? It is very possible to do and at a cost around 30% less than the west coast of Italy.
The peninsula of Istria, Croatia lies just across the Adriatic Sea, and even the Romans of yesteryear considered Istria the perfect place to visit and settle. Today people from around the world are rediscovering the incredible land of this part of Croatia.
Be it wine road, olive oil farms or enjoying white truffles, Istria’s pleasures are satisfying. History blends with chic and mild Mediterranean weather merges in an unforgettable mix. In Istria you can move at your own pace with your own agenda and every day is different. What more could a traveler ask for?
You say Abbzia I say Opatija
No matter what you call this Adriatic gem, its beauty will have you sitting in seaside splendor that maintains an Austrian air. Many of Opatija’s hotels have beginnings as homes for the Hapsburgs Empire’s wealthy.
The turn of the century brought a dignified air to this seaside city. Lush parks and waterside paths provide a relaxing setting and the flux of visiting Italians provides its excitement. To them the city is called Abbzia. Most towns in Istria have an Italian name, a legacy from Italian rule in the 1920’s. The Croatian name Opatija stems from the word abbey of which there is a Benedictine version in the city’s center dating from 1420.
Behind the city are the foothills of Mt. Ucka that provide some great hiking trails. The hike to the top of the mountain takes about three hours and the view is superb. Nearby small fishing villages such as Lovran also make for great exploring.
As would be expected from its location Opatija offers all water sports, and seafood is the feature on the menu of many of the restaurants that line the main boulevard. Some stand out dishes I sampled were scampi “na buzaru” and cod filled stew.
There is plenty of nightlife going on throughout the city and walking place to place will fill late night hours. At the Grand Hotel where I stayed the options were plentiful; health club, casino and saltwater indoor pool. Best of all though was the balcony late at night with the moon glowing over the sea.
Leaving Opatija was difficult, but knowing I was headed to one of the best restaurants in the country eased the pain. When Gianearlo Zigante went truffle hunting with his dog Diana one day he had no idea that his life would change forever. He struck gold, white gold! Zigante found a Guinness record size white truffle, and the rest is culinary history. The white truffle weighed 2.89 pounds.
The Restaurant Zigante Tartufi located in the small town of Livade is one fantastic experience. Most of the menu consists of unbeatable quality with white truffles included in most dishes. Some examples are Baby Beef Tagliata with Truffles and Fish Capriccio with Truffles.
To start with I had the Istrian Smoked Ham with Truffles. Even the desert of vanilla ice cream with, of course, truffles was amazing. It is even said that the costly fungi is smuggled over the border to Italy by local hunters where the price is astronomical.
The bonus of a great meal was sitting on a hillside nearby the fortified town of Motovun. Motovun dates from the 14th century and was built by the Venetians, as much of Istria was. Below the town are vineyards and olive oil farms. Quaint doesn’t even begin its description. This is also an area where staying on a rural farm Agroturizam style is a suitable option.
Peaceful just doesn’t cover the night visiting the Toncic Farm and its surroundings. The mountains and hilltop villages provide an unforgettable background for the sinking sun. Istria is pushing this style of tourism big time and all farms are strictly monitored. Most of the food is straight from where you are staying. The olive oil comes from nearby and the wine is local.
It is hoped that this type of tourism will provide income for those living in the Green part of Istria; it seems to be working quite well. My accommodations were very clean and in a traditional stone building. Hiking and biking trails were plentiful and the drive to the nearby sea was short.
After a dinner, sitting with other guests by the huge stone fireplace was a sure cure for stress. Conversation grew as terracotta pitchers of Istrian “Supa” were passed around. Supa is a concoction of red wine, olive oil, sugar, pepper and roasted bread. Sounds bizarre but has worked its magic for centuries.
Insomnia is cured as the sounds of the night settle. Waking up with the roosters was very pleasant and breakfast was hearty.
Heading out to the Sea
The pull of the coast in Istria is powerful and constant. Norvigrad is just one of the classic beauties that beguiled on contact. The town started as a Greek colony, then a Roman colony, and ended up with a Venetian style.
The fishing boats bobbed in the harbor and the narrow streets were easily explored. I thought it was heaven till I ventured on to Porec, bigger and very chic. Porec also has Italian influence with amazing historical sites to visit.
The Basilica of Euphrasius is surely a world standout. The 6th century Apse Mosaics are so powerful, and the whole complex is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It opened in 2000. Galleries and shops fill the narrow streets and the roadways go back to Roman times. The buildings in the city have the Venetian palace style and accommodations range from quaint to magnificent.
While there are many resorts outside of town, I would rather stay centrally and the Hotel Neptun is perfect; harborside cafes and restaurants provide an excellent way to get comfortable! Ferries ply the waters from Venice so a day trip there is possible. Keep in mind that in return many Italians use that same ferry in peak season, so book ahead.
Since all of Istria is doable by short car hops the choices are amazing; be it lodging, eating or exploring, selections are outstanding. I did have a favorite town, however: Rovinj, or in Italian Rovigno, was exactly what I was hoping for. The town is surrounded by hills covered with pines. The old town is a hill with narrow winding cobbled street and very easy to get lost in. It also happens to be a peninsula and as such has water views.
On a hilltop is a huge church named St. Euphemia built in1736. Its tower was modeled after St. Mark's in Venice. From there the view of thirteen small islands is astounding. If that isn’t enough the harbor is filled with fishing boats and boasts fine outdoor seating.
Many of the restaurants serve pasta and grilled fish, simple but superb. The town also has a very Italian influence in look and style. As I sat at Restaurant Cantinon feasting on Involtini di Prosciutto Agli Scampi I felt as if I could never get filled up with too much Istria.
Just the facts:
If traveling to Istria in the months of July and August, try to get advance reservations for lodgings. The choice runs from camping to large resort. Villa rentals are also plentiful and offer some good deals off-season. The Istrian Tourism board maintains an excellent site for checking your options at istra.com
There are several routes to follow in search of food and wine:
I would be remiss to not have a link to one very special restaurant, Truffle heaven Zigantte - zigantetartufi.com
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.