Is­trian Ideals

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 ( zi­gan­te­ 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


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).

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