Unearthing the f lavors of Croatia's hidden gems.
ITOOK ONE MORE TURN AROUND YET ANOTHER GIANT OAK TREE AND WAS STRUCK WITH THE REALITY THAT I WAS COMPLETELY LOST. IT WAS MY FIRST day in Croatia and I was so deep in the Motovun forest that I no longer could have navigated myself out of the steep and shaded terrain if I wanted to. Fortunately, I had no desire to l eave just yet.
I had traveled nearly an hour from my hotel on the western coast of Croatia's Istrian peninsula in hopes of unearthing on the region' s most valuable commodities, the elusive white truffle( the most expensive food in the world, priced at $ 225 per ounce), and I wasn't going to turn around until I had found at l east one of these pricey gems. I was armed only with a shovel and an empty velvet sack as I traipsed through the forest, trailing behind my professional truffle hunting guide from Zigante Tartufi ( zigantetartufi.com) and his two trained Labrador retrievers. The dogs picked up their pace and soon I was hurrying through the woods to keep up as my heart raced with anticipation. My guide and I exchanged glances before hovering over where the dogs had stopped. What lay below was a black truffle (often referred to as a black diamond)
about the size of my fist. I wrapped my fingers around its bumpy flesh, smiling proudly as I placed it in my small sack.
Although I left the forest without a white truffle that day, I drove back to my seaside hotel with a happy heart and a belly full of homemade pasta made with my freshly procured f ind from the forest, eager to uncover Istria's other rare f inds.
It's only f itting that Croatia's northern peninsula i s shaped li ke a heart, as there are so many reasons to fall in love with the region. Located at the westernmost portion of the country, far from the more crowded tourist ports of Dubrovnik and Split, Istria remains one of Croatia's bestkept secrets. The region was once a part of Italy, and the Italian inf luence remains strong with a unified passion for purity
IT’S ONLY FIT TING THAT CROATIA’S NORTHERN PENINSULA IS SHAPED LIKE A HEART, AS THERE ARE SO MANY REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THE REGION.
and simplicity. Many of the locals in the region still speak both Croatian and Italian , and, in 2017, Istria was even named the best olive oil region in the world by the Italian extra virgin olive oil guide Flos Olei .
The coastal town of Rovinj of fers visitors a tranquil taste of the Istrian lifestyle with its pebbled beaches and ancient cobblestoned streets of Rovinj's Old Town that wind up from the shore along a slew of independent shops and art galleries. Rovinj i s one of the l ast remaining active f i shing villages in the world, and there's an air of small- town authenticity that travels from the city 's time- honored traditions on the shore to its modern- day amenities on l and.
The area i s home to a number of seaside resorts, but none compare to the Hotel Monte Mulini ( maistra . com) a prestigious member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and the No. 1- rated boutique hotel in Croatia. This exquisite resort i s perched on a clif f overlooking the azure waters of Lone Bay, where its 113 luxur y rooms and suites of fer exclusive balcony viewpoints for watching the sunset behind the cr ystal clear sea and the resort's four terraced pools. Even the hotel's spa looks out on the Adriatic Sea, where guests can catch the warm sea breeze while lounging in the rel axation room. The hotel's prime position along a protected nature park and Lone Bay make it the perfect spot for sipping crisp Croatian wines at the Mulini Beach
Bar by the bay, where overstuff ed beanbag beds, low lounge tables, and traditional sun loungers are all attended to by attractive waiters with tanned skin and bright smiles.
Th e resort is home to one of the best restaurants in the whole peninsula, Th e Wine Vault, where chief sommelier Filip Savic has selected an outstanding wine list that features more than 550 labels from Croatia and around the world. Savic works closely with the restaurant's talented chef Andrew Gaskin to enhance the chef 's dishes with the perfect pairings. Gaskin, who has worked with world- renowned chefs from around the world and cooked dinners for prominent fi gures including the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as well as Queen Elizabeth II, works with local producers to procure the ingredients for his inspired dishes like his famous cuttlefi sh ink ravioli served with crab veloute, toasted calamari, hazelnut and cocoa soil or his butter poached lobster with scampi foam, mango, and black truffl e shavings.
From the hotel, it's only a 15- minute stroll along the Lungomare promenade to the town center where another locally culinary celebrity, chef Tomislav Gretic, serves up a daily rotating menu based on the fresh catch of the day at Kantinon Tavern. Th e restaurant is housed in a former wine cellar and has become known for its selection of Istrian cicchetti, small plates similar to tapas in Spain or aperitivos in Italy. From the restaurant's front patio, diners can watch as the fi sherman unload their boats and sun- kissed tourists enter back into the harbor from days spent exploring the Rovinj archepelago's sea cliff s, islets and romantic bays on chartered sailboats.
It's only a short day trip by boat to visit Venice from the port of Rovinj, but there's no need to leave the peninsula to fi nd Venetian piazzas and late- Renaissance architecture. Once visitors enter through the 17th century old town gates, Balbi's Arch, they are transported back in time where Croatian men and women bustle up and down the steep stone path that winds its way up to the 60- meter high bell tower at St. Euphemia's Cathedral ( inforovinj. com). Th e cathedral offers the best viewpoint in the city and is worth the hike up for the panoramic views of the peninsula.
Although Rovinj (and the Istrain peninsula for that matter) is not known as a shopping mecca, the shops that wind back down from the cathedral through the old town offer a chance to take home a tangible memory from the town, like a custom bottle of perfume from Profumo di Rovigno ( profumodirovigno. com) or a one- of- a- kind piece of artwork from the Micica Atelier or Atelier Sottomuro art galleries. But when it comes to souvenirs from the Istrian peninsula, none can compete with the sweetness of the memories every visitor leaves with of stunning scenery, delicious cuisine, and a sensory lifestyle that takes its pace with the tide of the sea.
Hotel Monte Mulini is the t oprated boutique hotel in Croatia and is a short 10-minute walk from Rovinj's t own center; Grisia Street in Rovinj is a narrow street that doubles as a public art exhibition filled with painters, sculptors and other artist s ( photos courtesy Maistra , CNTB | Dejan Hren). OPPOSITE PAGE: The Wine Vault's chocolate sphere with macarons, f orest berries and hot raspberry coulis; the old t own street of Grisia in Rovinj ( photos courtesy The Wine Vault, CNTB | Dejan Hren).
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The Wine Vault's main dining room; poolside seating at Hotel Monte Mulini; a seafood spread from Kantinon Tavern ( photos courtesy The Wine Vault, Maistra, Kantinon Tavern).