Travel to Croatia - part II
The Istrian Peninsula
I spent a weekend in Split in early 2020, just before the pandemic, to teach a weekend master’s level course. It was my first visit to a country of the former Yugoslav Republic and I was very taken with the culture of that area of Croatia. A year later, I was captivated by an article that was very complimentary of the Istrian Peninsula to the northwest. So, I convinced my wife that we should spend my 60th birthday there, because it sounded like Italy-light without the crowds.
Opatija: gateway to Istria
The trip began with a visit to the northern Dalmatian coastline, which may be a topic for another blog post. After that first part of the trip, we embarked on a marvelous tour of Istria with Opatija as the gateway, via the port town of Rijeka, where we had a fabulous seafood lunch (including smoked sardines) in Mormar before a visit to the ornate exterior of the Capuchin church in town.
Opatija is known as the Austrian Riviera and hosts numerous hotels of resplendent turn-of-the-century architecture, many of which are redeveloped villas built by Austrian and Hungarian nobility in the 19th century. The setting is reminiscent of the cozy French Riviera that is the stage for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, featuring azure waters (this is the Adriatic) and elegant, aromatic pine trees. The hotel we stayed in for two nights was a short walk into town along a promenade and had both an infinity pool, as well as access to the Adriatic Sea for a refreshing swim.
Rovinj and Villa Dobravac
From there we traveled to Rovinj via Hum, which dubs itself the world’s smallest town (with 30 inhabitants). This enchanting ‘hamlet’ is definitely capitalizing on its self-professed status by charging an entrance fee, accepting bus tours, and promoting the treasures of the region – truffles, Eau de vie and olive oil, among other delights.
Our base for the visit to Istria was Rovinj, a charming seaside village on the west coast of the Peninsula. Our host in Rovinj was Villa Dobravac, a stellar estate that offers rooms, apartments and tastings of the Dobravac family wines. The estate is situated on the fringe of the old town with outstanding views to the village and the sea. Because of the views, spacious accommodation and wine bar on premises, this was without question the best of our accommodation in Croatia.
Rovinj is a delightful town and offers so many different outstanding dining opportunities. Our best meal was at Kantinon on the south end of the waterfront, overlooking the harbor and the old town. Not surprising that the octopus was the specialty there and for good reason! Our party also enjoyed the cuttlefish risotto and the pork shank.
Side trips from Rovinj
Other key towns in Istria are a very short drive from Rovinj, which is another good reason to use it as your base. At the southern tip of Istria is Pula, the largest city on the peninsula, and the site of an incredibly well-preserved Roman Amphitheater.
After a visit to Pula, I would recommend driving north to Fazana for lunch and a swim. To the north of Rovinj is Poreč, a popular holiday destination, which has a nice old town center and a very interesting Euphrasian Basilica.
By the way, my hope that this part of Croatia would be Italy-light without the crowds was wishful thinking. I had not realized until we arrived that several seasons of Game of Thrones was shot in Croatia, which has boosted tourism flows considerably to the Dalmatian Coast – particularly Split and Dubrovnik, but also has spilled over into Istria. Keep this in mind for the timing of your visit, which is best off-peak (i.e., not summer).