Croatia walking tour: ignorance is bliss in the hills of Istria
Tim Jepson avoids the guidebook and is surprised by how much he discovers on a walking tour of northern Croatia
I have written guidebooks for many years, so it has long been a necessity to find out as much about a place as possible before I visit. It’s also basic common sense – travel is more rewarding when you know something of your destination.
Not so in Istria, a peninsula in northern Croatia, hard by Italy and Slovenia, where for once I embarked on a walking holiday with friends without the first idea of the land, the language, the people, the food, the culture, or even the currency.
Was the experience devalued? Not a bit. In this age of information overload, I was surprised to find that ignorance actually added to the business of discovery.
We landed at Pula, on Istria’s southern tip, at a tiny airport, from where most of our fellow visitors were whisked off to the big sun, sea and sand resorts that line the peninsula’s western flank. Not us. We were headed for the untravelled interior, to the hill town of Motovun, whence we’d walk for five days to the sleepier towns on the east coast.
But first we popped into Pula itself and were amazed to find a superbly preserved Roman amphitheatre, the sixth largest in the Roman world. Rome’s former presence was instructional, for as we sped north along new roads through tidy, pastoral countryside, a theme for the week emerged. This was a little like Italy – the vines, the olives. And a little like the south of France, with the figs and the terraces
Motovun, when it loomed into view, looked like an Italian hill town, but more so. I’ve never seen a more impressive position. In Tuscany, it would be heaving. But we had the single cobbled street and ancient ramparts almost to ourselves, ditto the pretty main square, where we drank crisp local wines and ate local ham (none better, even in Italy) under the shade of chestnut trees.
It was so charming, we’d happily have spent a week doing more or less the same. But next day, after an immense nocturnal storm, we set off clutching the well-written notes and immaculately plotted maps of On Foot Holidays, pioneers in this part of the hiking world.
Out first day set the tone: lovely walking through delightful countryside that was pastoral one moment, wild the next, and dotted with picturesque but half-deserted villages that in Italy or France would long ago have been restored and become holiday homes.
Dinner that night, in a bar in tiny Sovinjak, returned us to our Italian theme. The menu involved a choice, essentially, between pasta and goulash, a culinary illustration of Istria’s historical heritage.
The Croats were originally Slavs who descended south from beyond the Carpathians, but who in Istria (and elsewhere) were subject to, among others, the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Italians, again, from 1919 to 1947.
The Venetians ruled for almost 400 years, from 1409 to 1797, so the Italian influence looms large – Venetian dialects are still spoken on the coast and Italian everywhere. The influence of Mitteleuropa is also ever-present. Croatia has been described as a crossroads, a fault line in Europe, between the old Catholic west and the Orthodox and Islamic south and east. In Istria, this cultural mix is at its most complex and interesting, and has left its mark on everything from art and architecture to language and temperament.
All this added lustre to the trip, but as walkers our most immediate concern was the landscape, and here we were never disappointed: it really is wonderful country. We followed paths through meadows dotted with asphodel and bee orchids; hiked tracks into mountains scattered with peonies and gentians; paused by sun-dappled rivers full of swimming holes; wondered at crumbling terraces of olive and vine, the work of generations undone in a decade by emigration; dozed in scented Mediterranean maquis; rested in the shade of verdant woodland; and puffed up tracks into the cool of pine and beech forest.
Journey’s end was usually an inn or rooms – always with fine food and delightful owners – in a fortified hill town. None was as immediately spectacular as Motovun, but we ended up liking all of them, especially Hum, a little fragment of the Middle Ages, where we sat, post-walk, under ancient stone towers drinking briska, Istria’s ubiquitous myrtle liqueur, as nightingales sang and bees buzzed among the roses and philadelphus.
|Did you know?|
|Hum has a population of 17 and is among the world’s smallest official “towns”|
We had our less idyllic moments, of course, which, in the way of such things, also produced the trip’s most enduring memories. On our toughest day we set off breezily unconcerned by the lashing rain, but after five hours in the mountains ended up soaked, despite our expensively assembled kit, dangerously cold, and – in a blow to our self-image as well-travelled and competent hikers – very lost.
Experience prevailed. We bailed out and descended thousands of feet to a village, where an old couple chivvied us, dripping, into their tiny front room to huddle around an antique but very efficient wood stove. Briska was brought out (absolutely the wrong thing to drink when cold, but what the heck), followed by piping-hot hibiscus tea.
On Foot Holidays’ man on the ground, the remarkable Vlado, somehow got us to our isolated and rather battered mountain hotel (now replaced in the itinerary), but we forgave it everything as we sat in front of its open fire, which we garlanded with steaming boots and jackets, the more so the next morning when the mist lifted to reveal its beautiful setting and the prospect of a glorious walk.
We set off on this, our last day, with the air crisp and the sun slanting through beech woods, the spring green of new leaves contrasting with brilliant patches of late snow, the sharp blue of the sky and the aquamarine of the distant sea. Climbing steadily, we reached Mount Ucka, at 4,596ft (1,401m) Istria’s highest point, which offered a vast panorama that embraced Venice, the arc of the Adriatic, the snowy peaks of the Dolomites, and many of the villages we’d visited en route.
The descent to the coast was long, but in keeping with the walk as whole: pretty, varied and empty, save for three locals – our first fellow walkers – out for a stroll.
Having the sea and the mountains always feels like a bonus on a walk, and so it was here. There are doubtless more glorious stretches of Croatian coastline than Moscenicka Draga and nearby Lovran, but the little fish restaurants, the markets, the quiet coves, the quaint Italianate squares and the touches of grandeur provided by the villas built for the great and good of the Habsburg empire made for perfect, gently paced places to relax for a couple of days before home.
It had been not only a perfect week of walking, but also an object lesson for me in an alternative way to approach travelling. You don’t always need to know everything, I realised, to get the most from a journey. In Istria, ignorance, for me at least, had been bliss.
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Croatia summer holidays guide: 2014
Croatia is now definitely “in”, with some 400,000 arrivals from the UK in 2013, up 25 per cent on 2012. The newest member of the EU, all but forgotten for almost a decade following the war (1991–1995) that saw the break-up of Yugoslavia, is firmly back on the summer destinations map. And with its stunning coastline, unspoilt nature (including eight national parks) and beautifully-preserved centuries-old harbour towns, it offers a less commercial take on the sun, sea and sand holidays you would expect in Greece or Spain. So where exactly should you head for?
Fly to Pula in the north-west to explore Istria, a green peninsula with close cultural ties to northern Italy. Popular with both Italians and Central Europeans on account of its accessibility, it’s also the most highly organised region in terms of tourism facilities and infrastructure.
The region is best known for its Venetian-era port towns on the west coast, including its top seaside destinations, Porec and Rovinj. The undulating hills of the interior are planted with vineyards giving forth the rich red Teran wine, and pungent truffles are unearthed in its woodlands. Ideal for a low-key foodie holiday with some hiking and culture included, Istria also attracts festival-goers with open-air electronic music bonanzas by the sea at Fort Punta Christo (fortpuntachristo.net) just outside Pula.
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World’s 10 Most Romantic Places To Retire
The editors of Live and Invest Overseas have named the 10 most romantic places on earth for retirement living. Retire to one of these beautiful, historic, charming, colorful spots, and your heart will sing, your imagination soar…
The cobalt blue of the Adriatic Sea off Istria’s coast is almost otherworldly. This is a sailor’s paradise, and all up and down this coast you see flotillas of white yachts offshore from ancient towns hidden behind thick walls. This is a fairy-tale land of fortresses and bell towers that so attracted and impressed the Romans that they invested in some of their best building here, including a large and largely intact coliseum at Pula where lions and Christians once entertained. Later, this region was ruled by the Venetians, who also left an architectural legacy. In Istria, both nature and man have worked together over many centuries to create something very special, almost magical. In fact, the ancient Romans named it Tierra Magica.
The hinterland is a beguiling patchwork of meadows, vineyards, and olive groves, plus carefully tended gardens where trees hang heavy with ripening cherries, figs, and walnuts. This fertile land also grows wild asparagus and truffles, for which it is becoming famous. High in the hills, behind more medieval walls, are yet more toy-town settlements of fountains, chestnut trees, and frescoed churches. Frankly, I defy you not to fall in love with Istria.
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10 HOLIDAYS FOR THE FOOD OBSESSED
Foodie travel ideas for 2013
Istria, in Croatia’s north, has been part of four different countries in the last century and has the history, and the food, to show for it. A rugged, sun-drenched shoreline gives way to countryside flecked with charmsoaked villages. In contrast to beachy Dalmatia in the south, it’s relatively quiet and, for the moment, cheaper than neighbouring Italy – Croatia joins the EU in July, and won’t adopt the Euro for at least another year. Expect the food you would of Italy – cured meat, sheep’s cheese, pasta (gnocchi and ravioli), risotto, olive oil, grappa and golden malvasia wines. But most of all, expect truffles – the town of Buzet is devoted to the fragrant funghi. When you’ve had your fill, sample the culinary wizardry at Valsabbion in Pula, or retreat to the seaside towns of Opatija and Rovinj to feast on Kvarner prawns.
STAY: Monte Mulini in Rovinj has a spa and bedrooms with sea-facing terraces. From £146. montemulinihotel.com
MUST-EAT DISH: Restaurant Zigante specialises in truffle dishes from truffle-laced tagliatelle to truffled cheese. zigantetartufi.com
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Budget flights and B&Bs, Croatia
20 of the best bargain holidays in Europe for 2013
The launch of new flights from Heathrow to Zagreb with BA, Edinburgh to Dubrovnik with easyJet, Liverpool to Zadar withRyanair, and Leeds to Pula with Jet2, will make Croatia more accessible than ever. Many of the newer hotels are at the bling end of the spectrum, but a burgeoning B&B scene is giving budget travellers some attractive alternatives – places such as the quirky Studio Kairos, which opened in the old town of Zagreb at the end of last year with just four themed rooms, friendly communal lounge and bike hire, and rooms from €48 a night.
The best-kept secrets in Croatia
For rural romance and countryside cuisine, with the coast close at hand
The Romans knew Istria as terra magica. Its interior remains terra incognita for most Brits, despite it being tagged as ‘the new Tuscany’, and autumn sees its northern rump, an hour from Trieste, come into its own. Each morning, hilltop medieval towns sail on seas of mist above river valleys. Each night crisp skies boil with stars. The coast remains close at hand, but with a decent map and a full tank of petrol, you can lose a happy week pootling along sunny lanes you’ll share only with antique tractors. You’ll find places like Motovun, the region’s medieval pin-up, or nearby Groznjan, an improbably pretty village given over to artists. You’ll discover medieval frescos the colour of red-wine stains in the village churches of Beram and Draguc, and more gutsy good food than seems probable as harvest festivals get into swing and fresh local truffles appear on every menu; Toklarija, a gourmet restaurant in the wine-growing hamlet of Sovinjsko Polje (11 Sovinjsko Polje; 00 385 52 663031) and lovely Konoba Mondo (1 Barbacan; 00 385 52 681 791) in Motovun have two of the best. There’s a chance you’ll get lost at times, of course. Then again, maybe that’s half the point.
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Magical Istria tour: A family fortnight on Croatia’s Adriatic coast
With miles of coast, sunshine, easy flights and bargain prices, 2013 is the year for Croatia, says James Tute
As our guide rattles through his geology lesson (a dizzying cocktail of English, Russian, bad jokes and subtle-as-a-breeze-block chat-up lines) I realise I’ve found it… the perfect place for a sunburnt, slightly hungover holidaymaker to escape the relentless heat.With our hire car’s thermometer creeping closer and closer to 40C, we’d clambered down countless iron steps deep into the spectacular Baredine Caves near Porec innorth-west Croatia.
The temperature fell with every step and after pausing to check out a frog the size of my fist and marvel at the stalactites, stalagmites and “statues” of rock – a decade per millimetre in the making – we were 60m down enjoying the finest air conditioning nature has to offer.
Our legwork was rewarded, and not only with our guide’s repartee, the spectacular geology and an escape from the searing temperatures. My daughter Emily, seven, wife Rebecca and I were also mesmerised by the blind albino salamanders who make this underground wonderland their home. They are so rare they’re only found in this particular corner of Europe. Entry is about £6 for adults, £3.50 for under-13s.The caves are just a few miles from my family’s base for the fortnight, a well-equipped Eurocamp mobile home at Camping Lanterna on a beautiful stretch of the Istrian coast.
Eurocamp mobile home at Camping Lanterna. This sprawling site, one of the biggest in Europe, has it all in terms of sporting, leisure and eating and drinking facilities but, best of all, we could roll out of bed, pull on our swimming gear and five minutes later we were swimming in the warm, clear waters of the Adriatic. We spent most days on the beach or by one of the site’s swimming pools, not remotely tempted by the opportunities to play tennis or volleyball, hit the gym or try aerobics (we did manage a game of crazy golf but I’m too modest to say who won).
Camping Lanterna has so many facilities a lot of its visitors never venture out. It would be easy to spend your entire holiday on site, drinking in the sun by day, eating, drinking and enjoying the evening entertainment by night. The on-site restaurants are good value, especially Adria, where even a big, blow-out three-courser came in at 533 kuna (about £50) for the three of us.
Expect lots of pizza and pasta, great seafood plus meaty dishes to please the Germans who flock here in summer(I switched from “thank you” to “danke” on day three).
Determined to sample Istria rather than just Camping Lanterna, after a few days by the pool we drove out to the nearest town, Porec. We started at the heavily advertised aquarium where for a tenner or so we met some residents of the Adriatic, from hideous moray eels to cute crabs and a stunning octopus. An hour later I was eyeballing his less fortunate cousin on a skewer alongside perfectly cooked and seasoned monkfish, scampi, crab and sea bass on a bed of red chicory and vegetables.
After browsing the shops and exploring this 2,000-year-old harbour town we’d picked the Restaurant Gourmet at Eufrazijeva 26 for lunch. Three of us ate very well for about £40 including a couple of glasses of wine.
At the Euphrasian Basilica, a Unesco world heritage site, we gazed in wonder at a vast mosaic which has been dazzling worshippers and (more recently) tourists since the 6th Century. It gave me my first inkling of what this fascinating region has to offer. So back at the site I sat on the decking with a glass of wine, half watching the gorgeous sunset while getting stuck into the Istria guidebook I’d picked up in Porec.
This beautiful triangle-shaped peninsula was part-conquered by the Celts, then the Romans moved in and planted acres of vineyards and groves (they’re still turning out wines and olives). Next up were the Slavs… or was it the Turks?… or the Franks?
Anyway, suitably inspired we decided to visit the historic city of Pula, an hour or so’s drive along straight Roman roads.Follow signs for the Arena through the rather run-down centre and you’ll find the sixth largest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world, nestled among modern shops, homes and offices.Head round it towards the sea and there’s a very cheap long-stay car park.
The amphitheatre may be Pula’s A-lister, but the B-list is impressive too. So before you go in, face the sea, take a left and you’ll find a 1st Century temple and victory arch plus sections of Roman wall. Then, after a pulse-quickening uphill stroll, there’s a hilltop fort with a fantastic view of the city, and a small Roman theatre beyond it.
If you’re ready for lunch, you’ll find dozens of restaurants vying for your custom down the hill… some a little too pushily. We settled for Momentto in vl. Artukovic Ivanka, where the service was terrific and £25 bought us a tasty pasta dish each plus a large beer, soft drinks and a litre of mineral water.
Skip dessert and on the way back to the incredibly well-preserved Arena treat yourself to a gorgeously creamy ice cream for about 70p. It’s a few pounds a head to get in, then you’re free to roam this vast 2,000-year-old circle of archways and imagine how a 1st Century Roman felt watching gladiators fight for their lives below.
I could almost smell the blood and hear the screams of those unimaginably brutal spectacles.And while watching men and wild animals fight to the death doesn’t appeal, I can agree with the Romans on one thing. After rolling into Istria in 177BC, they stuck around for six-and-a-half centuries. Which suggests they rather liked the place… and after our blissful and fascinating fortnight there, I rather liked it too.
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By DANIEL LEWIS
A FRESH breeze off the Adriatic sailed into my room, filling the curtains like spinnakers, and I was instantly awake. If I rose before dawn, I could explore the cobbled streets of Rovinj at first light and watch by the harbor while sunrise caught the old town in high relief: the ancient stone houses, all mass and texture, and the steep Venetian ones, all line and color, under the equal protection of a copper St. Euphemia, poised on her bell tower 200 feet in the sky.
That there was a serious gap in this mental picture didn’t hit me until I actually went outside. I had imagined, out of tourist’s innocence or vanity, having this town on Croatia’s Istrian coast to myself. Instead, all of Rovinj (pronounced roh-VEEN-yah) was awake in the half-light, ready to draw me into its own, more purposeful version of the morning.
The town mascots, a family of wry little dogs, were going someplace with their quick feet on. People dressed for work had begun talking the day into focus outside three or four waterfront cafes.
At the bread shop, an old woman in black read a bulletin board that says ”death notices” in Hrvatski and Italian; among these notici mortuari was the beautiful name of Sonia Caterina Curvo, who was only 51.
Up the street, two kids in baggy jeans were transfixed by a movie poster: ”Star Wars, Epizoda I,” here at last.
St. Euphemia herself — patroness, beacon, weather vane — had apparently been on duty all night, and at this hour still glowed in the spectral light of flood lamps. In a darker quarter below, the fish market was open, and the produce market next door was already doing a good business — here, in one block, were all the required ingredients for good Istrian cooking. Besides fruits and vegetables, the stalls had local olives, fragrant green olive oils, walnuts, dried fruits, wines, grappa, honey, cheeses.
But the big food news this third week of October was native truffles, black and white, in outrageous abundance. We had lucked into the heart of the truffle-hunting season. For the next couple of days, my wife and I could hardly order a meal that didn’t involve some dish full of fungi, sliced, diced and, relatively speaking, underpriced.
Istria, the bit of Croatia that dangles like a heart pendant in the Adriatic Sea, plays to a wide range of tastes. In the fall and spring, life runs more nearly true to the old maritime-agricultural rhythms. These are good times to enjoy the countryside and its food and excellent wines. If you’re partial to stone and mortar, there are some impressive Byzantine and Roman monuments, too, including an amphitheater in Pula that’s still very much in the business of spectacles.
Istria, a five-hour trip by train and rental car from Venice by way of Trieste, was an easy fit with our travels in northern Italy. It is about a six-hour drive from Munich. Because of this general accessibility, Istria is the most-visited part of Croatia.
It’s also perhaps the least typical in its outlook. In the national elections of 1993, when Croatia’s xenophobic Franjo Tudjman was at the height of presidential power, his political party essentially had to concede Istria County to the local opposition; the Istrian Democratic Assembly got 73 percent of the vote.
Geographically, Istria was too far away to hear a shot fired in the brutal disintegration of Yugoslavia. But its economy was affected and has yet to recover. Big British travel packagers, who once supplied 20 percent of the tourists, took their business elsewhere. Today, only 2 percent of foreign visitors are British (even fewer are American).
Coming in from Italy, through a little piece of Slovenia, we got a robust greeting as we drove into the Istrian hills: billboards for Super Bingo, and for the seaside resorts of Umag and Porec, where tens of thousands of hotel rooms and camping sites are strung along miles of shoreline. We weren’t going there, having already decided not to spend our three-night visit hopping from point to point. Besides enjoying the sea, air and historic architecture in Rovinj, which would be our base, all we had in mind was a day in Pula, Istria’s principal city and repository of its epic history, and part of a day in the uplands around the medieval towns Groznjan and Motovun.
These hills of north and central Istria — actually, foothills of the Julian Alps — recall what ”rustic” looked like before the term became self-conscious. You will get the inevitable photo op of the Mercedes blowing past the grape-laden donkey cart.
Among the hill towns, Groznjan, especially, has enhanced its blunt charm and long pastoral views with a cultural life that includes music camps, art galleries and an international film academy. But there are many places where you can still look across a valley that’s been worked in the same cycles for a thousand years, or buy a bottle of wine from the family that picked the grapes. Distance from the noise and cultural flattening of mega-Europe is not the least of Istria’s off-season charms.
A good vantage point is the high town of Motovun, overlooking the Mirna River valley: a steep walk up stone-paved streets, rewarded by a 360-degree view from the ramparts. The town square includes the Renaissance St. Stephen Church, with a tower you can climb for 5 kuna (roughly 60 cents); a cafe; the tidy Hotel Kastel, and a delightful old movie house, Motovun’s own cinema paradiso, refitted for the inauguration of a mini film festival last summer.
Pula, Istria’s largest city, is near the southern tip of the peninsula — only a 45-minute drive from our Rovinj hotel, it turned out. Pula is a haven for Adriatic yachtsmen, but more notably a ship-building center, and over all a business-minded place. It’s well worth a day’s visit seeing what the Romans built there after their subjugation of the Illyrians — the first in a series of occupations by Byzantines, Slavs, Celts, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians, the French, Italians, Germans and the Allies, among others, before Istria was awarded to Yugoslavia in 1947.
We were tooling around the city in a five-speed Fiat, following the harbor, when the thing we were looking for seemed to find us: Pula’s amphitheater, rising in a leafy, relatively quiet district of the old city.
Big, to be sure: it’s supposed to be the third largest Roman amphitheater. More impressive are its lofty design and sound condition.
The amphitheater was built of white limestone in the first century. Except that its tiers of stone seats were later taken for use in other construction projects (replaced with wooden benches), it may look nearly as good today as it did 2,000 years ago, when guys bashed heads to the cheers of 20,000 spectators.
Modern Istrians have kept the amphitheater working with film festivals, operas and rock concerts. But for a part of this mild October afternoon, we were alone there, scaring ourselves with thoughts of what it must have been like to stand in the way of a people that could build such a thing wherever they pleased.
From the amphitheater, it’s a block or so to Ulica Sergijevaca, a busy, pedestrian-only street that follows the ring layout of the original Roman city. Several blocks along, on the northern rim, is the Triumphal Arch of Sergius, whose unexpectedly intimate scale and integration into the daily flow of life were a pleasant surprise. Michelangelo, among many others, came to study the arch’s famous classical proportions.
A footnote for Bloomsday-trivia types: the handsome old building a few feet from the arch was once the Berlitz school where James Joyce taught English after running away from Ireland with Nora Barnacle in 1904. While a plaque on the building briefly notes its association with the ”great Irish author,” the story is worth a bit more than that.
During his stay in the town, then called Pola, Joyce wrote the so-called Pola notebook, laying out the esthetic principles that his character Stephen Dedalus later elaborates in ”A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” The down side was that Pola, the main base of the Austro-Hungarian navy, was oppressive and suspicious of foreigners. Joyce called it ”a naval Siberia,” and before long he was sent to Trieste, a more cosmopolitan outpost of the empire, where he stayed until World War I.
No one traveling to Pula should pass up the chance to eat at Valsabbion, located somewhat oddly in an upscale suburban yacht harbor a few miles south of the central city. We considered our two meals at Valsabbion, prepared with a spirit of invention and a respect for fresh local ingredients, to be among the finest we’ve had anywhere.
From the fish menu alone, we sampled baked fresh sardines with cornmeal crust, tiny oysters served with sea bass carpaccio, a whole giant prawn, sea bream baked in salt, a delicate fish soup with vegetables, and baked squid. Then there were two risottos, served in scooped-out ewes-milk cheeses from the island of Pag; turkey breast with a sauce of wild berries and sour cherries; and, of course, truffles, with roasted potatoes and beef carpaccio. The more expensive of the meals came to less than $70 for both of us, including first-rate Istrian wines.
The food was fine at less exalted restaurants just a few hundred feet from our harborside hotel, the Sol Inn Adriatic, which only strengthened our impression of Rovinj as an ideal place to stay.
Besides being very picturesque, at least in the old-town section that juts out into the sea, Rovinj has a comfortable way of balancing its own day-to-day life with the needs of visitors. Stores are open late. Everyone speaks Italian, and to judge by our experience, German and English as well. Rovinj also seems particularly child-friendly — it has an aquarium and boat trips to nearby islands.
As for the Sol Inn, the sunny charm of the stucco exterior didn’t quite prepare us for the utilitarian renovation of the interior, and the lack of an elevator might be a problem for guests on the third and fourth floors. But we would happily stay there again.
Outside the old town, Rovinj, like some other parts of Istria, is growing. Big two-story houses are going up. There are real estate ads on the Internet with prices in dollars and marks, a trend likely to accelerate under the political loosening that followed the death of President Tudjman last December. ”Luxury” hotels from the Tito era of industrial tourism are being upgraded.
In short, there’s a feeling in the air that Istria is about to be invaded for the umpteenth time in 3,000 years — this time, with any luck, by the kind of people who just want to unwind with a few drinks, a few laughs or a few truffles.
A jewel of a peninsula on the Adriatic
Lots of information on lodging, restaurants, festivals and landmarks is available at www.istra.com (Istra is the native spelling of Istria). Searching can be confined to a particular town by adding a slash and the name of the town, as in www.istra.com /rovinj. These pages link to forms for making hotel reservations, but be sure to get a confirmation.
There is a Croatian National Tourist Office at 350 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10118; (800) 829-4416, fax (212) 279-8683.
Most sizable towns in Istria are reachable by public bus, but the practical choice for any short-term visitor is a car. If renting a car in another country, make sure the rental agency gives you a verifying document including the agency’s phone number since the authorities sometimes stop drivers, looking for stolen cars.
Where to Stay and Eat
Rovinj has a sterile-looking luxury hotel, the Melia Eden, on Luja Adamovica, (385-52) 800-400, fax (385-52) 811-349. Rates, including breakfast and dinner, range from $52 to $63 a person in July and August, at the exchange rate of 8.5 kuna to the dollar. In spring and fall, rates fall to about $40 a person, and the hotel closes in February and much of November.
We preferred the more picturesque location of the less expensive Sol Inn Adriatic, Piazza Maresciallo Tito 5, Rovinj, (385-52) 815-088, fax (385-52) 813-573, right on the harbor in the old town. We got a big room with a sea view and a private bath for around $40 a night, sumptuous buffet breakfast included; in summer, a double, with breakfast, is about $70. The hotel is closed from early January to Easter.
There are several hearty restaurants (fish, pasta, lamb) a short walk from the Adriatic. We sampled Amfora and the funkier Veli Joze, which makes fine stews, and paid less than $30 for two, including wine or beer.
There’s probably no compelling reason to stay overnight in Pula, but you could do worse than the Hotel Riviera, a properly impressive Old World place a few blocks from the Roman amphitheater at Splitska Ulika 1, (385-52) 211-166, fax (385-52) 219-117. Doubles cost $35 to $56, including breakfast.
On a more intimate scale, in the neighboring suburb of Pjescana Uvala, Valsabbion (which houses a superb restaurant of the same name) is a sunny inn with several contemporary Mediterranean-style rooms, spa services, a fitness center and a small rooftop pool at Pjescana Uvala IX/26, telephone and fax (385-52) 218-033; www.valsabbion.com. Depending on the season, doubles range from $36 to $106.
Things to Do
In Pula, the Roman amphitheater, on Falvjeska Ulica, (385-52) 219-028, is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer, to 4:30 in the off-season; admission, about $2, $1 for children and seniors.
The nearby pedestrian street, Ulica Sergijevaca, is a trail of history, including the Triumphal Arch of Sergius and the Temple of Augustus.
Also close by, on Ulica Carrarina, is the Archeological Museum, (385-52) 218-603, fax (385-52) 212-415, which has artifacts from all over Istria. It is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday (till 8 p.m. in summer) and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Admission is $1.40 and 70 cents for children and seniors.
In Rovinj, the baroque Cathedral of St. Euphemia, has a commanding view of the town and, inside, the sarcophagus of St. Euphemia, which according to legend disappeared from Constantinople around 800 and miraculously washed up on the Rovinj coast.