Look­ing for me­dieval splen­dour, a dra­matic coast­line and Ital­ianate food all in one place? Pre­pare to fall in love with Croa­tia’s Is­trian penin­sula.

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With wine, views and more, pre­pare to fall in love with the Is­trian penin­sula

Rov­inj is one of those places that re­wards 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.

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 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.

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. There’s a time-warp qual­ity to Is­tria that stands in con­trast to the cruise-ship buzz of Dubrovnik and the glam­our of the Dal­ma­tian Coast. 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 ter­ra­cot­ta­roofed me­dieval build­ings of its Old Town feels ap­peal­ingly lost in time, but the jet­set crowd is grav­i­tat­ing to new projects un­der­taken by Croa­tia’s Mais­tra ho­tel group. 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 wait staff in fe­do­ras, navy blue shirts and grey chi­nos serve guests lounging in bean­bags.

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-but­like­able cafes fac­ing the ma­rina. We wind along steep, labyrinthine 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”.

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’s – 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 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 stone wall over­grown with wis­te­ria.

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 over­com­pli­cate food. “I don’t like to shock peo­ple,”

says Dani­jel. “Peo­ple come here to have a per­fect day.”

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 are pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity wines from lit­tle-known va­ri­eties such as mal­va­sia Is­tri­ana, an aro­matic, gold-hued white grape 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 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 an aban­doned me­dieval Lego set, and most of its old stone houses are in a state of pic­turesque decay.

Vene­tian ad­ven­turer Giacomo Casanova is said to have vis­ited Bale a lot 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 in 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.”

We take a pre-pran­dial stroll around the town, whose pedes­trian-only 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 the ta­bles 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 pršut, sim­i­lar to prosci­utto.

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 in the shape of an am­phithe­atre. 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 linecaught Adri­atic fish to sea­sonal indulgences such as truf­fles and as­para­gus, each dis­play­ing whimsy and 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.

We spend an­other blaz­ing 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 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 wouldn’t imag­ine – conger-eel mousse, and fil­lets of sesame­crusted mul­let on a bed of dan­de­lions.

Our last stop is the hill­top town of Mo­tovun in Is­tria’s north, ap­proached through a sea of for­est punc­tu­ated by steeples and ter­ra­cotta roofs. One of a se­ries of for­ti­fied me­dieval towns in Is­tria’s in­te­rior, it ap­pears from afar 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 on the ter­race that evening, be­fore we get to the pan­deš­panja – a cloud­light 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 mar­ket um­brel­las 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.


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