Part 1 - Truffles in Tiny Towns: Istria, Croatia
Raunaq and I spent 15 incredible days in May exploring Croatia by car. Here we go with Part 1 - Istria!
Rolling green hills and tiny medieval towns. Stone walls alongside peeling pastel, both covered with climbing vines of roses. A land of white truffles, wild asparagus, wine, olive oil, scampi as big as your hand. Italian influence meets Slavic heartiness meets the fruit of the sea. Port towns shuttered against the rainy cold, and tangled webs of cobblestone streets climbing to overlook the Adriatic. The rugged, windy, wild Cape Kamenjak, with its secluded coves of crystalline waters. Layers upon layers of history. That’s Istria, in a nutshell.
The beginning of our great Croatian road trip (as I started to call it) was in Istria. And also, in the rain. We would soon learn that Croatia was having one of its coldest springs in recent memory. Come in the spring, they said. May is the best time to travel in Croatia, they said. Well, I say that the one sweater I brought with me was smelling...ripe...by the time it was all over. I felt like all the tourists I used to see in San Francisco, who thought “Hooray, California in August!” and rolled up to Alcatraz or Golden Gate Park in their shorts and flip flops. What’s that Mark Twain quote again?
But honestly - I would 100% make the same decision to travel in May again, even with the more unpredictable weather. You’ll get the sun eventually, and the lack of crowds makes a huge difference.
I’m not sure if Istria is one of the “best-kept secrets” in the country, but I had certainly never heard about this region before planning our trip. And even then, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Previously, when I thought of Croatia, a couple standard things came to mind: Dubrovnik, the blue blue blue water of the Adriatic, and Plitvice National Park with all it’s waterfalls. Northern Croatia, and the heart-shaped peninsula of Istria, never really even crossed my mind. But I am so, so happy we made it there.
The Istrian Countryside: Hum, Motovum, and Grožnjan
Our first stop, driving straight from the Zagreb airport, was Hum, the (self-proclaimed) world’s smallest town. Population: 30. We bumped down tiny dirt paths, following the handmade signs with “HUM” scrawled in thick red marker. It was pouring rain by then, cold, and not one of the 30 residents was in sight. I got excited to see a little calico cat curled up in a window (I love street cats) and perched next to it for a photo, not knowing that the cats of Croatia would be an ever-present sight on our trip. Croatia, why so many cats? Is it all the seafood? I have a theory that where there are fishes, the cats will follow. And on that note, zero stray dogs.
As charming as it is, there is really not too much to see in Hum, especially when it’s raining and you have a (not yet discovered) hole in the sole of your sneakers. We settled in on the covered porch at the town’s only konoba, Humska. Even in the fog, this first view of the lush Istrian countryside was beautiful. Most of the towns in Istria (and Venice and Dalmatia) are built with Istrian stone - dense, impermeable limestone that is quarried in the region. The stones are originally salt-white or light yellow, and through the centuries the stone ages to a weathered gray, which contrasts handsomely with the green countryside and red brick roofs of Istria. Legend has it that the giants who built Istria only had a few stones left, and that’s what they used to build Hum.
We slurped down istarska maneštra, a hearty Istrian take on minestrone soup, with beans and chunky kernels of fresh maize, and split a plate of fuzi (a chewy Croatian pasta) with truffle sauce. And suddenly, we were surrounded - by 20 members of the National Croatian Accordion group, of all things. A couple of the members who spoke English poured us shots of their biska, an Istrian grappa (“It’s made from the thing young people kiss under.” “Oh, um...mistletoe?!” “Da, da!”) and they nearly convinced us to go with them to the International Accordion Festival. This was one of those moments I truly regret not getting over my shyness and taking a picture.
Inland Istria is all about these slow-paced hilltop towns, and we stopped at a couple more on the way to our destination of Rovinj. This whole areas seems less driven by the needs of tourists, and more by the demands of the land: tending the olive vines, cultivating the grape vineyards, preparing the dogs for the October hunt for truffles. The forests of central Istria, “green Istria” as it’s called, is internationally famous for it’s truffles (especially the prized white truffle) and that distinctive nutty smell really wafts throughout the medieval towns.
Motovun, perched on the top of the hill and surrounded by thick stone walls, rewards with lovely views of the Mirna valley below. It was fortified by the Venetians in the 14th century, and now hosts an incredibly popular summer film festival. Grožnjan, once an important medieval fortress, was abandoned by the Venetians in the 18th century. The crumbling town was “re-discovered” by artists in the 1960s, who built studios and shops in the abandoned buildings, bringing life and color back into the town.
Between the cold rain and the season (shoulder), Motovun and Grožnjan were both nearly empty. I read that these towns have a lively, artsy vibe, but I think that is saved for the sunnier days. I loved the quietness, though. It added a romantic, slightly melancholic, air to the area: the water dripping down the sides of stone houses, slightly peeling paint, slippery cobbled streets and so many bright flowers - on vines, in pots on stairs, on windowsills. There were handfuls of other little villages we passed on our drive, red bricks and a single cathedral spire or castle fortress up on a hillside that marked the spot. You could easily get lost in the rural charm of central Istria for days. But ultimately, we were headed toward the sea.
Coastal Istria: Rovinj, Vrsar, Umag
Rovinj was our home base for a few days. We were the only guests at a little family-run hotel about 1 km outside the city - well within walking distance to Rovinj’s old town, although the weather only let us do the walk once. One morning after breakfast, the owner of the hotel suggested a route for us: a stop at the Limska fjord (beautiful, but one of those “jump out to look than get back in” stops), then a drive along “the old fishing roads” up to the border of Slovenia. We’d be back to explore Rovinj in the afternoon. The plan was similar to the day before - drive and wander, but this time along the coast.
And so, the little Istrian town tour continued on along west coast. Vrsar, absent from guidebooks, was a town we would never have known about. It has a nice little marina and an atmospheric old town. Vrsar was even romantic enough for Casanova, who famously fell in love here, and it’s easy to see why. With the white walls, blue doors, red roses and view of the ocean, who wouldn’t fall in love?
The town of Umag was next, about as far north and west you can go in Croatia, jutting out into the Adriatic. Umag had that shuttered, off-season seaside town feel. You know, when you can almost feel the ghosts of summers past? It felt deserted, with the seafood restaurants lining the promenade open but empty, and the wind whipping up the sea. We decided on a quick detour and drove 4 km toward the Slovenian border to Konoba Rustica. I may be pescetarian, but Raunaq is decidedly not, and the famed Istrian beef (cooked on an open grill and smothered in a creamy truffle sauce) here is, according to him, not to be missed. And quite possibly the cheapest, high-quality steak in truffle sauce you will ever find.
Rovinj is a delight, picturesque and irresistibly photogenic. It’s one of the last true Mediterranean fishing port towns, and while it is supposedly the most “touristy” of coastal Istria, those tried and true factors of cold weather + off-season kept the crowds at bay. The city itself is a tangled web of cobblestone streets that all seem to weave upwards, leading to the distinctive baroque Church of St. Euphemia and its looming bell tower.
Every piece of Rovinj fits together: from the white laundry hanging between balconies, the brightly painted houses, the small plazas and tiny alley restaurants, the sweeping marina with luxurious-looking yachts and small fishing boats. The water was a deep, cerulean blue, even without the sun, which only makes me imagine what it would look like in the height of summer.
Southern Istria: Bale, Pula and Kamenjak
On my birthday (where I got some lovely texts and calls - thank you! - but sadly, also a nasty hacking cough that would stay with me the rest of the trip, a result of that pesky hole in the bottom of my shoe the first rainy day that left my feet perpetually damp and cold), we departed Rovinj and headed south to Pula. On the way, we did a quick stop in the town of Bale. I think this was one of my favorite of the tiny towns. The streets were empty and it felt abandoned, but not desolate. Bale tends to draw an artsier crowd, seeking out the town’s apparent spiritual and creative energy.
Pula, on the other hand, was living and breathing. It’s an interesting mashup of a place, known for its ancient Roman architecture, but also for being a workhorse city with an industrial shipyard and busy local life.
Pula is home to an incredibly well-preserved amphitheater that looks like a smaller version of Rome’s Coliseum, used for gladiator fights in the first century. You can go down into the pits where they kept the animals, and sit in the stands where crowds of 20,000 watched the bloody spectacles. We also climbed to the top of Pula’s citadel for an arial view, which was spectacular. Not spectacular were the bitingly cold winds. The infamous bura wind, a dry cool wind from the northern mountains, is most common in the winter but can happen any time. It was NOT warm, to say the least. Brrr.
Wandering Pula, you feel the contrasts. It’s a place where you’ll come across some incredibly old Roman ruins that are smack in the middle of a plaza filled with loud middle-schoolers, who seem indifferent to the fact that they snacking on greasy bureks on the steps of the Temple of Augustus. It’s got that casual, just stumble across a column or arch from the 2nd century BC, type of feel. But at the end of the day, Pula is an industrial city. It still has fun, though. Apparently, at nightfall every evening all the cranes at the shipyard light up in a colorful neon show. The “Lighting Giants.” We missed this both nights, but it seems like a fun thing to check out.
We ate some of the most delicious meals in this area: classic, “nonna” style Istrian pasta dishes at Trattoria Vodnjanka, scampi ravioli in buzara sauce at Konoba Ancora, unique twists on the catch of the day like fried red mullet bones and conger eel pate at the renowed Konoba Batelina.
But most importantly, in Pula I ditched my worn-out Converse for a new pair of Croatian sneakers. Startas is a classic, old-school brand, and I felt very cool wearing my green kicks for the rest of the trip. Happy birthday to me!
The first day we got sun was the day we went to Cape Kamenjak. It was perfect. Kamenjak, an undeveloped nature preserve, is about a 20 minute drive from Pula, at the southernmost tip of Istria. Everything smells like sage and salt, and it has species of flora and fauna exclusive to this little corner of the Mediterranean. Kamenjak has a rugged, windy, wild beauty. There are over thirty coves with water every shade of blue imaginable, water that looks dyed against sun-bleached rocky beaches, crystal clear.
We came across a handful of beach bars and kitesurfing spots still closed until summer. Most spots were virtually empty. We hiked and drove from cove to cove, marveling at how the color of the water was different at each place. Along one path, we stopped to let a herd of ranging sheep pass by, and the friendliest little black and white sheepdog came straight up to Raunaq for a quick head-scratch. Raunaq braved the freezing waters for a dip while I snoozed off my cold in the windy sunshine. We stayed until the clouds rolled back in.
Our waiter at dinner that night told us that in the summer, over 4,000 cars (just cars, mind you, not counting people on foot or bicycle) enter the reserve every day. Thinking about sitting on the beach at one of our own private coves an hour earlier, I couldn’t imagine this.
An aside on Istrian food…
Istria has been a gourmet foodie destination for a while, but just now seems to be gaining the attention of the masses. You’ll eat your heart out.
The Istrian countryside is known for truffles, olive oil, wild asparagus, and wine, while “Blue Istria” is blessed with all things from the sea. It’s Italian, but not Italian. It has central European heartiness, but with a coastal flair. Think thick chewy pljukanci pasta with an Istrian ox goulash sauce, or scampi in a tomatey-garlicky-wine sauce. Their Adriatic scampi is particularly famous. However, don’t be fooled like me, and think of “shrimp scampi” like the US-style of shrimp scampi: just a normal, shelled, cleaned sautéed shrimp. In Croatia, scampi is a huge red prawn served with the whole shebang - head, shell, everything (The eyes! The long antenna!). I was not prepared. It’s work to eat, but truly, truly delectable.
This will be a trend throughout all of my upcoming Croatia posts, FYI. It’s pretty difficult to find a bad meal in Croatia. The one exception was the food in Plitvice National Park. And same goes for the wine. You can never go wrong with the house wine, of course, but there are so many unexpected wine-regions in Croatia, especially in Istria and in the Kvarner region (Krk particularly). Try them all and find your favorite.
And a bit of Istrian history...
Istria has a long and complex history, as one of the earliest inhabited areas of Croatia. Istria likely got its name from the prehistoric tribe Histri, who lived there from about 2000 BC until they were finally conquered by the Romans in the first century BC. The Romans built up and urbanized the region, and then power bounced to the Byzantine Empire to doges of Venice, then from the Austrians to Napoleon then back to the Austrians, and then to Italian rule until it was finally united with the Croatian territory in 1954. And after the fall of Yugoslavia and Croatia’s independence in 1991, Istria was officially a part of Croatia. A quick and incomplete 4000-year history for you. Oh - and Istria was one of the centers of the Glagolitic alphabet, an ancient Slavic language and script. How one small region can hold so much history without bursting at the seams is beyond me. I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s fascinating.
This complex history, of course, isn’t limited to Istria. It’s what you start to see all throughout Croatia. A land that empires fought over and conquered and split and united again and again and again, a nation of people that incorporates and preserves elements of the past while holding on to what makes them uniquely Croatian. Istria may be a living microcosm of the country’s history, but in some way, so is nearly every city in Croatia.
I may have never heard of Istria before this trip, but I will certainly never forget it.
More about the Great Croatian Road Trip:
Day 1: Zagreb —> Hum —> Motovum —> Grožnjan —> Rovinj
Day 2: Lim Fjord —> Vrsar —> Umag —> Rovinj
Day 3: Rovinj —>Bale —> Pula
Day 4: Kamenjak —> Pula
Where we slept and more importantly, where we ate:
Villa Monsena (Rovinj) - Lovely owner and huge homemade free breakfast included.
Apartments Vasic (Pula) - Basic studio-style apartments. Nothing special, but equipped, clean and a 5 minute walk from the amphitheater.
Da Sergio (Rovinj) - Pizza! Raunaq says it’s the best pizza he has ever had. I thought it was great..but we were also ravenous.
Gelateria Italia (Rovinj) - You’ll find gelato everywhere, but this was a good one.
Maestral (Rovinj) - Mussels drowning in a garlic wine sauce, pizza bread, pistachio cake, and house wine by the liter. All with a view of the Rovinj skyline.
Safari Bar (Kamenjak) - Crazy “adult playground” bar in Kamenjak
Konoba Ancora (Prematura) - Scampi ravioli in a buzara sauce. The BEST.
Batelina (Pula) - Reservations only, cash only. Really inventive seafood dishes, such as fried fish bones, different types of fish carpaccio, shark liver mousse, and the like. The chef is a fisherman and their ethos is to cook what is fresh and local, and to not let anything go to waste (hence the fish bones).
Konoba Rustica (Umag) - Mainly famous for their steak, but delicious homemade pasta and pizza, too.
Trattoria Vodnjanka (Pula) - Classic, homemade Istrian fish, meat and pasta dishes.