Exploring Croatia's Istrian peninsula

Rovinj’s seafront

Rovinj’s seafront

You want medieval splendour, a dramatic coastline and Italianate food all in one place? Prepare to fall in love with Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, writes Emma Sloley.

Rovinj is one of those places that reward early risers. At dawn, with the sleepless, the jetlagged and the morning-shift waiters, I love to wander to the Ribarnica Pescheria, the fish market by the city's harbour, and watch grizzled fishermen discuss business over a caffè corretto ("corrected" with eye-watering local grappa) at Taverna da Baston, the kind of dimly lit old-timers' bar that feels smoky even though no one smokes inside any more. In the square outside skinny cats are beginning their shifts, too, prowling between trestle tables, ingratiating themselves with stallholders, who gossip as they stack wild asparagus and plums, onions and bouquets of herbs around old-fashioned brass scales.

Rovinj's harbout and historic Old Town.

Sometimes I'll take a steep path to the peak of the Stari Grad, the Medieval-era Old Town, where I'll usually find an acolyte sweeping the steps of the grand St Euphemia church in the early morning, or lighting a candle near the slightly creepy sarcophagus of Euphemia herself, the patron saint of Rovinj. In the marina far below, where it seems every Rovinj resident worth their salt keeps a boat, I'll watch overall-clad sailors untangling nets, painting hulls or scrubbing decks. By the time the sun has fully risen, setting the deep-green Adriatic aglow and burnishing Rovinj's old stone buildings, I always feel as though I've taken part in an elaborate establishing shot for a movie.

The city of Rovinj is the jewel of Istria, a large arrowhead-shaped peninsula in the Adriatic Sea shared by three countries: Croatia, Italy and Slovenia. The lion's share of the peninsula lies within the borders of Croatia, where we embark on a road trip for full immersion in Istrian culture, from the northern Italian-influenced cuisine to its fetching medieval hilltop villages.

The medieval hilltop village of Motovun.

Istria's complicated history includes stints under the control of the Venetian Republic (9th century), the Habsburg Monarchy (early 19th century), the Austro-Hungarian empire (until 1918), Italy (post-World War I) and the former Yugoslavia until 1991. Today the Croatian portion of Istria is separated from Italy by a sliver of Slovenia, but the echoes of those eras still resonate, particularly in the cuisine and language. Most Istrians speak Italian as well as Croatian, and many places have names in both languages. Perhaps that's why this part of Croatia feels so different from the more celebrated Dalmatian Coast to the south-east of the peninsula. There's a sleepy, time-warp quality to Istria - particularly in the lushly forested interior - that stands in contrast to the cruise-ship buzz of Dubrovnik and the glamour of the Dalmatian Coast. It even looks different - less of the stark, dramatic beauty of limestone-carved Dalmatia and more like a lush, pastoral Little Tuscany.

Sailing near Rovinj.Sailing near Rovinj.

On this visit to Istria, our third, we head again to Rovinj (Rovigno in Italian), which lies on the west coast of the peninsula. Previous visits were in spring; this trip is in high summer. What a difference half a season makes. In spring Rovinj is a genteel resort town; in summer it's an MTV music video. When we cycle one afternoon along the waterfront that curves from the Old Town all the way south to the Zlatni Rt (Golden Cape) forest, we pass impromptu dance parties on beaches, raucous picnics and audience-participation salsa festivals - a full-tilt European summer bacchanal.

Perhaps in a bid to attract more of the tourists who flock to higher-profile Dubrovnik, Rovinj is undergoing a subtle reinvention. The maze of cobblestone streets and terracotta-roofed medieval buildings of its Old Town feels appealingly lost in time, but the jetset crowd is gravitating to new projects undertaken by the Maistra hotel group, a Croatian company with big ideas. It has reimagined Hotel Adriatic, a crumbling 1913 grande dame on the waterfront in the Old Town, now a super-stylish, contemporary art-filled hotspot. The group has also added a look-at-me pool at the design-focused Hotel Lone, close to the Golden Cape Forest south of the Old Town, and a sexy beach bar at the popular Hotel Monte Mulini, where waitstaff in fedoras, navy blue shirts and grey chinos serve guests lounging in bean bags.

Hotel Monte Mulini's private beach and free-form pool.

In the five years since our first visit, the city has developed an appealing split personality: a sense of romance and timeless charm in the Old Town on the narrow spit jutting into the Adriatic, and St Tropez-style  cool along the harbourfront. And during our time in Rovinj we enjoy both sides of its character. It's fun to join the svelte crowd preening at Mulini Beach, but just as rewarding to revisit our favourite Old Town haunts. We warm to the sardonic waiters ferrying espresso and apricot-filled croissants to patrons at the touristy-but-likeable cafés facing the marina. We wind along steep, labrynthine streets to the top of the town on stones worn smooth by centuries of footfall. Most are lined with tiny galleries and boutiques, including Atelier Galerija Brek, run by a friend of ours, Ognjen Maravic. The city is full of young entrepreneurs like him, who grew up here, left to have adventures and are now returning to run small businesses and live the good life in a place where, as Ogi says, "there are no traffic lights and you're surrounded by nature, both land and sea".

Not far from his gallery is our favourite wine bar, Piassa Granda, on a square of the same name, run by a pair of ebullient sisters, Helena Trost and Dragana "Mandy" Mandaric. The restaurant is pink, with sweetheart-backed iron chairs, lacy tablecloths, a bluesy soundtrack and hand-drawn signs on the walls: "Sorry! No WiFi. Talk to each other and get drunk!"; "Age and glasses of wine should never be counted".

One of the bars that line Rovinj's waterfront.One of the bars that line Rovinj's waterfront.

We sit on the terrace with Aperol Spritzes and bowls of simple, rustic pasta flecked with shaved truffle, part of Istria's culinary bounty. Gales of laughter roll from the sisters' kitchen. Across the square at the perpetually packed restaurant Balbi, ladies with tiny dogs in their handbags tuck into platters of shellfish.

Perhaps no one has done more to advance Rovinj - indeed, Istria's - culinary reputation than Tjitske and Danijel Dekić at their acclaimed restaurant, Monte. Thirty years ago, when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia and under communist rule, the husband-and-wife team opened their dining room at the top of Rovinj's Old Town, one of the city's first private restaurants. Chef Danijel was born here - the restaurant was once his family home. Today it's a hybrid of modernism and rusticity, with stone floors, 1990s-style track lighting and a burnt-orange feature wall bisected by a gold panel. One side of the restaurant is a rough stone wall overgrown with wisteria.

Tjitske and Danijel Dekić of Monte.Tjitske and Danijel Dekić of Monte.

The menu at Monte bears the mark of various dining trends - farm-to-table, foraging and molecular gastronomy - without being slavish to any of them. The bread is a wafer-thin pastry fashioned to resemble coral and served on a piece of the real stuff. A fillet of John Dory steamed en papillote in paper-thin Croatian oak is unwrapped tableside with a pair of chopsticks. (Tjitske points out the man who supplies the oak having lunch at the next table.) Olive oil is presented in a glass test tube; yellow and red Istrian tomatoes with pesto, couscous and fresh Croatian cheese are served in a bowl resting on a bed of hay.

"We try just a little each year to change things," the self-taught Danijel says. "When you finish cooking school you think you know everything. But when you don't have a degree you never stop learning."

The couple travels for six months a year for inspiration ("Sometimes you need a bit of smog," Tjitske quips) and while experimentation is clearly a hallmark of the Monte style, they're not seeking to over-complicate food. "I don't like to shock people," says Danijel. "People come here to have a perfect day."

Monkfish with squid croquette, zucchini and octopus, caviar and sea foam at Monte.Monkfish with squid croquette, zucchini and octopus, caviar and sea foam at Monte.

Elsewhere in the city, pasta is almost universally fresh, fish is grilled simply, and truffles are abundant and well priced. The Istrian wine industry has evolved from obscure, small-scale family vineyards to the margins of the world stage; serious winemakers across the peninsula are producing high-quality wines from little-known varieties such as malvasia Istriana, an aromatic, gold-hued white grape variety originally from Greece and thought to have been cultivated here since antiquity, and Teran, a robust red grown mainly in north-west Istria. Everywhere from art galleries to roadside fruit stands we're greeted with "Try our rakia!" This fruit brandy, popular throughout the Balkans, is an acquired taste, though the hospitality is easy to embrace.

From Rovinj we drive inland to the town of Bale, once a Roman stronghold built to protect the passage of salt along the road from Pula to Ploče. Pockmarked stone streets run in a jumble, like a medieval Lego set a child played with then abandoned, and most of its lovely old stone houses with wooden shutters are in a state of picturesque decay.

cycling in Rovinj's Golden Cape Forest.Cycling in Rovinj's Golden Cape Forest.

The Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova is said to have visited Bale frequently between 1743 and 1747, and the old rake's spirit seems to linger in certain corners, such as Kamene Priče, a charmingly oddball hotel, restaurant and jazz bar that's part of the town's castle. At check-in we're told there's a naked jazz band playing in the bar tonight. (Turns out the band is called Naked, rather than performing that way.) "Bale gets busy when it rains," the receptionist explains, "because people can't go to the beach."

Who needs a beach in such an idyllic spot? We take a pre-prandial stroll around the town, whose pedestrianonly streets display few signs of the 21st century. Locals sit around at dusk in their gardens, drinking, scolding dogs, smoking and shooting the breeze, while kids kick soccer balls around the remains of stone houses. The weather clears towards evening, and we dine on the terrace at Kamene Priče as the band warms up and thetables fill with an enthusiastic crowd who in another era might have been called beatniks. Wood smoke scents the air as we tuck into cheese and cured meats, including the pršut, similar to prosciutto.

Taverna da Baston, Rovinj.Taverna da Baston, Rovinj.

For lunch one day we head to Wine Hotel & Restaurant Meneghetti, a farmhouse on the outskirts of Bale that showcases a more refined version of the rustic fare found in the region's konobas, the family-run restaurants serving traditional dishes. The property is ringed by forest, olive groves and vineyards - one vineyard in the shape of an amphitheatre, possibly in homage to the magnificent Roman amphitheatre in the city of Pula, further south. Now a Relais & Châteaux restaurant and hotel, and recently expanded from four to 25 rooms, Meneghetti produces an impressive range of wines, including malvasia, merlot and rosé. And the property's intensely fruity olive oils are served on a vine-draped terrace by the farmhouse or in a tasting room in a converted barn. Our host pours a glass of the excellent house sparkling and we take a stroll past a swing hanging beneath an old oak tree to the swimming pool, flanked by cabanas hung with billowing white curtains.

And then there's a long, delicious parade of dishes that plays out like Istria's greatest hits, from line-caught Adriatic fish to seasonal indulgences such as truffles and asparagus, each displaying whimsy and sound technique in equal measure. A perfectly grilled sea bass fillet is served with a single radish and a tiny grater. The ravioli tastes like a Caprese salad in pasta form; a marinated steak from the native Boškarin breed comes to the table on a (smoking) smoker fashioned from a wine crate and stacked with coals and rosemary clippings. We're ready for a siesta by the pool after chocolate mousse laced with house olive oil, salt and chilli.

Meneghetti Winery.

We spend another blazing Mediterranean day at Kamenjak National Park, at the southern tip of the peninsula. From atop the park's striated cliffs we watch a flotilla of yachts and cruisers sail by, and gasp as daredevils launch themselves off the rocks into the water far below. Couples canoodle on towels laid precariously on rock shelves. We eventually head for shade and sustenance at Safari Bar, a clifftop hangout with straw floors, a ceiling of branches and a simple kitchen dispensing burgers and grilled sardines on plastic plates.

Not far from Kamenjak in the village of Banjole is an unprepossessing seafood joint, Konoba Batelina, run by a fishing family. The daily-changing menu features just-caught fish handled with a finesse you'd wouldn't imagine in the basic-looking eatery, seen in the likes of conga-eel mousse, and fillets of sesame-crusted mullet on a bed of dandelions.

Cliffs at Kamenjak National Park.Cliffs at Kamenjak National Park.

Our last stop is the hilltop town of Motovun in Istria's north, approached through a sea of forest punctuated by occasional steeples and terracotta roofs. One of a series of fortified medieval towns in Istria's interior, it appears in the distance as a haphazard stack of stone. Once inside the walls we navigate a maze of cobblestone streets and sleepy piazzas to Hotel Kaštel, a 17th-century stone castle that once housed Venetian royalty. The motel-like rooms are basic but ours has a lovely view over the hotel's cobblestone terrace, shaded by the canopy of several huge chestnut trees. At dinner that evening on the terrace, before we get to the pandešpanja, a cloud-light traditional Istrian shortcake, a cloudburst breaks overhead. We sit nursing glasses of teran and watch sheets of rain fall over the dark valleys below. Our waiter hurries over, rearranging marketumbrellas to better shield us. "Don't worry," he assures us with typical Croatian optimism. "Tomorrow there will be many suns." To that we raise our glasses.


Getting there

Emirates operates 11 daily flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide to Dubai, connecting to a daily flight to Venice (emirates.com/au).

From Venice, it's a two- to three-hour drive to the Istrian border, or, from late April to early October, take a Venezia Lines ferry to Istrian ports such as Poreč, Rovinj and Pula.

Stay

Hotel Adriatic
Historic boutique hotel overlooking the marina in Rovinj's Old Town. Rooms from $130. Riva Pino Budicin 16, Rovinj, maistra.com

Hotel Monte Mulini
Contemporary 113-room hotel with its own beach. Rooms from $192. Antonia Smareglia 3, Rovinj, maistra.com

Hotel Lone
Design-forward stunner with excellent spa and restaurants. Rooms from $160. Luje Adamovića 31, Rovinj, maistra.com

Kamene Priče
Bohemian hideaway in historic Bale. Rooms from $88. Castel 57, Bale, kameneprice.com

Hotel Kaštel 
A castle in the hilltop village of Motovun. Rooms from $120. Trg Andrea Antico 7, Motovun, hotel-kastel-motovun.hr

Eat

Piassa Granda
Veli Trg 1, Piassa Granda 1, Rovinj

Monte
Montalbano 75, Rovinj, monte.hr

Taverna da Baston 
Vladimira Švalbe 3, Rovinj, tavernadabaston.com

Wine Hotel & Restaurant Meneghetti
Stancija Meneghetti 1, Bale, meneghetti.hr

Konoba Batelina
Čimulje 25, Banjole

Getting there

Emirates operates 11 daily flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide to Dubai, connecting to a daily flight to Venice (emirates.com/au).

From Venice, it's a two- to three-hour drive to the Istrian border, or, from late April to early October, take a Venezia Lines ferry to Istrian ports such as Poreč, Rovinj and Pula.

Stay

Hotel Adriatic
Historic boutique hotel overlooking the marina in Rovinj's Old Town. Rooms from $130. Riva Pino Budicin 16, Rovinj, maistra.com

Hotel Monte Mulini
Contemporary 113-room hotel with its own beach. Rooms from $192. Antonia Smareglia 3, Rovinj, maistra.com

Hotel Lone
Design-forward stunner with excellent spa and restaurants. Rooms from $160. Luje Adamovića 31, Rovinj, maistra.com

Kamene Priče
Bohemian hideaway in historic Bale. Rooms from $88. Castel 57, Bale, kameneprice.com

Hotel Kaštel 
A castle in the hilltop village of Motovun. Rooms from $120. Trg Andrea Antico 7, Motovun, hotel-kastel-motovun.hr

Eat

Piassa Granda
Veli Trg 1, Piassa Granda 1, Rovinj

Monte
Montalbano 75, Rovinj, monte.hr

Taverna da Baston 
Vladimira Švalbe 3, Rovinj, tavernadabaston.com

Wine Hotel & Restaurant Meneghetti
Stancija Meneghetti 1, Bale, meneghetti.hr

Konoba Batelina
Čimulje 25, Banjole

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