Istrian region of Croatia feels like Italy but without all the tourists

The Croatian city of Rovinj is an Adriatic fishing village on the Istrian Peninsula, which also includes Italy and Slovenia.
The Croatian city of Rovinj is an Adriatic fishing village on the Istrian Peninsula, which also includes Italy and Slovenia.

ISTRIA, Croatia — Forget the "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" slogan. In less than an hour, I had gone through three countries. Landing at the airport in Venice, Italy, I motored through a tiny slice of Slovenia before arriving in Croatia.

The three countries form the Istrian Peninsula, nestled between the Adriatic Sea and Bay of Kvarner — the largest and loveliest stretch being in Croatia.

With its landscape of rolling green hills, fertile valleys, vineyards and hilltop villages, this part of Croatia has a distinctly Italian feel — think Tuscany without the tourists (or at least without as many).

As my base, I chose the fishing village of Rovinj. With its harbor the size of a postage stamp and rainbow-hued buildings hugging the hillside above the harbor, it was, in early June, blessedly crowd-free.

Visitors linger over espressos in outdoor cafés or wander through Balbi's Arch, an ancient city gate with a late Renaissance clock tower, to prowl the Old Town. Some even make it to the top of the town's hill to the baroque Church of St. Euphemia. Legend has it that the martyr's coffin washed ashore here in 800 A.D., and her feast day is celebrated every September.

Euphemia's elevation to sainthood might be justification for the townsfolk to kick up their heels. But most of the year, Rovinj encourages visitors to explore at their own pace. Happily obliging, I set sail one morning on a cruise of the lovely islands of the Rovinj archipelago, with their hidden coves and deserted beaches.

I'm not sure whether it was the hypnotic effect of sunlight dappling the turquoise water, the rhythmic rocking of the boat or the shot of the captain's homemade grappa (a traditional start to every boat ride), but by the time I got back to port, I was as limp as a jellyfish.

If the grappa took some getting used to, the Istrian wines didn't. Some 60 wineries dot the Croatian part of the peninsula, mostly producing a grape used for Malvasia, a white table or dessert wine. With a flavor profile ranging from white peaches and flowers to white pepper and thyme, the wine is excellent as an aperitif or to accompany meals.

The wineries themselves provide a spectacular setting for sampling the vintages. At Kozlovic Winery, the tasting room overlooks a hill crowned by a medieval castle, while the Kabola Wine Estate evokes images of the Tuscan countryside. The stone buildings, with electric blue shutters and window boxes planted with red geraniums, are postcard-perfect.

Thoughts of wine automatically lead to thoughts of food. Those who know me know I'm a fan of the long, leisurely lunch — a two- or even three-hour respite where the wine and food are accompanied by good conversation. Istria, celebrated as Croatia's "foodie capital," allowed me to indulge in long lunches.

On the first day, there was a tantalizing feast on the poolside terrace at San Rocco, a boutique hotel in the village of Brtonigla. Small plate after small plate appeared, featuring local delicacies, from fresh fish to truffles (sniffed out here by dogs instead of pigs), all accompanied by local wines and San Rocco's hand-crafted olive oil.

The next day's lunch was at Stancija Meneghetti, another boutique hotel nestled among vineyards and olive groves. At a lavishly appointed table beneath an arbor groaning with wisteria, I savored an appetizer of prosciutto and goat cheese, followed by selected dishes of Blue Istria (the bounty of the sea from crabs to octopus) and Green Istria (beef, pork and free-range chicken.)

Back in Rovinj, Male Madlene proved another delightful find. The cottage on an Old Town side street is large enough for only a few tables. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in the creativity of the owner/chef. A former art historian, she lovingly presents each dish as if it, too, were a work of art.

Finally, I found new meaning to the concept of slow food during a lunch at Toklarija, a restaurant in a converted olive mill. Beginning with an aperitif of thyme and to the accompaniment of a Sinatra CD, I made my way through a three-hour, five-course lunch.

A turbulent history

But a traveler cannot live on leisurely lunches alone, and Istria has much to offer the intrepid sightseer. For a place so serene today, Istria, along with the rest of Croatia, has experienced its share of turbulence. Perhaps no other part of Europe has had such a complicated history.

The region was overrun with Romans, Goths, Lombards and Franks before becoming part of the Venetian Republic in the 13th century. It remained so until it was ceded to the Holy Roman Empire, and afterward conquered by Napoleon.

For more than a century — from 1814 until the end of World War I, Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following a brief return to Italy after the war, it was folded into the new nation of Yugoslavia in 1929.

A period of stability ensued under the "benevolent dictatorship" of President Josip Broz Tito. The charismatic leader of the Yugoslav resistance against the Nazis during World War II, Tito governed from 1953 until his death in 1980 and is revered by most Croatians.

During the early 1990s, a series of violent political upheavals led to the breakup of Yugoslavia into six republics — Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro —and the autonomous province of Kosovo.

This compelling history can be traced throughout Istria. If it's ancient history you want, a quick stop in Pula is in order to see its famous Roman amphitheater, one of the six largest in existence.

Constructed from 27 B.C. to 68 A.D., it was enlarged by Emperor Vespasian in 79 A.D. for use as a gladiatorial arena. With room for 23,000 spectators, today it is a popular concert venue.

If Pula is associated with the Romans, Vrsar, with its steep cobbled streets and shaded squares overlooking the sea, is linked to notorious 18th-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova. Fleeing here after publication of his scandalous memoirs made him persona non grata in his native Venice, Casanova proclaimed Vrsar a place of "great wine, good food and nice women."

For a foray into more recent history, take a boat from the resort town of Fazana to the Brijuni National Park, a group of 14 islands in the northern Adriatic. Only two of the islands may be visited, with the largest, Veli Brijun, being the most popular.

It has some impressive archaeological sites, including a Bronze Age hill fort, a Roman villa from the second century B.C., a Byzantine palace and a church built by the Knights Templar during the 13th century. However, the island is best known as the former summer residence of Tito, and a museum showcases his remarkable life.

Remarkable is the word to describe Istria. History, culture and natural beauty abound, and of course, there are those long, leisurely lunches.

If You Go


Where to stay: Lone Hotel, Rovinj. Croatia's first design hotel is in a forest park, a 20-minute walk along the sea from the town center. Its 236 rooms are spacious; the spa is excellent, and the public areas are decorated with quirky art.

■ Hotel Vela Vrata. A boutique hotel in the mountain village of Buzet, famed for truffles found in the surrounding forest. Rooms are on the smallish side but charming, as is the über-friendly staff.

Where to eat: Istria is known for its excellent food (check out, but splurge on a dinner at Monte in Rovinj. It's worth the climb up the steep hill in the Old Town, and the equally steep prices. The décor is movie-set gorgeous; the staff gracious (you'll be greeted by the chef's wife), and the food exquisite. Opt for the seven-course tasting menu, and let the sommelier choose the appropriate Istrian wines.

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