Croatia: Keep calm and carry on up Istria's coastline
Still off the radar for many holidaymakers, Istria's unspoilt coastline looks unlikely to remain a secret for too much longer. Tanya Sweeney finds out why.
To those who have been to Croatia, the mere mention of the 'C' word is enough to invoke dewy-eyed affection and wails of nostalgia. Many have long known that Croatia – only three hours away from Dublin by plane – is a divine marriage of Mediterranean influence and exotic Balkan charm.
Split and Dubrovnik have proved fashionable for holidaymakers, but the northern peninsula of Istria still remains a well-kept secret. Istria is certainly tourist friendly, but here's the good news: the chips-with-everything brigade has yet to get their grubby hands on the place.
For those tiring of careworn hotspots in Spain and Italy, the unspoilt and serrated coastline of Istria is a delightful discovery. Landing into the tiny airport at Pula (one of Aer Lingus' newest routes for summer 2014), the experience already gets off to a promising and easy start.
Within 19 minutes of the aircraft wheels hitting the tarmac – and trust me, I timed it – we're already through baggage claim and careening through the Croatian countryside, disturbing the endless stretches of balmy calm and marvelling at how azure-blue the sea is.
"The Mediterranean as it once was," says the Croatian National Tourist Board motto, and this certainly holds weight in Istria. The Med influence is present and correct, from the Venetian-style architecture and rolling hills reminiscent of Tuscany, to its vibrant winemaking and olive oil scenes.
Yet eclipsed by its Adriatic neighbour on the culinary front, Croatia's own gastro-culture has remained largely off-radar to the rest of the world. I certainly wasn't expecting to enjoy some of the freshest seafood and best wine I'd ever tasted here, but it seems the idea of Croatia as a global gastro-hub could easily gain traction. Its passionate but unpretentious scene of restaurateurs, producers and winemakers is small, but perfectly formed.
Olive oil production is big noise in Istria, making up a notable portion of the local economy. It's a bit galling to realise that the olive oils I've been enjoying at home are tantamount to using Frytex, but a tasting at Chiavalon Olive Oil in Vodnjan (Ulica Vladimir Nazor 16, Vodnjan) – a small, family-run setup – is a real eye-opener. Bursting with earthiness, fruit and with a nicely bitter aftertaste, this home-made olive oil makes everything taste better (locals even pour it on ice-cream).
Like most Irish people, I could give or take truffles (far from them I was reared and all that). Yet I can say with certainty that the truffle-doused breakfast I had at the Karlic Estate in Paladini (Buzelt 52420, Paladini 14) was so eye-wateringly divine that it will doubtless flash before my eyes in my final hours on earth.
Our hostess, Radmila Karlic, explained that white truffles can cost up to €5,000 a kilo, while black truffles sell at around €300 a kilo. Initially, I baulked when I saw 'truffle hunting in the woods' on my Istrian itinerary (I'm not normally one to forage for breakfast). Yet gallivanting about a sun-soaked forest with our guide Ivan, and a clever hunting dog who can sniff out and unearth pricey breakfast treats buried in the earth, turned out to be surprisingly, endlessly gratifying.
Things turned out to be just as delightful and down-at-heel at the Istrian wineries we visited. It's only a matter of time before some hipster restaurateur in Hackney or Williamsburg decrees Croatian wine to be the next big thing, but for now, many hidden wineries are still waiting to be discovered. At the Trapan winery (Giordano Dobran 63, 52204, Sisan), Bruno Trapan explained how he had started making wines as an enterprising youngster (he's still in his 30s). Running a modern and innovative winery, Trapan's enthusiasm and love for his work is immediate: some of his wines are named after his daughters and wife.
Better still, the winery is slowly but surely garnering attention beyond the borders of Croatia ('Decanter' magazine recently gave Trapan its seal of approval).
At the Degrassi winery in Savudrija (Basanija bb, 52475 Savudrija, Croatia) a feast of Istrian prosciutto, pecorino cheese and olive oils were the perfect accompaniment to their fruity and lively wines, each one better than the last.
Honey is perhaps a little less famous in the region, but our guide Aleksandar had hinted that over at Medea Honey Products (Livade, Istarska), a group of Paris-based Chanel representatives had been so impressed with their honey-based face products that they cleaned the place out. Naturally, we followed suit ... but not before stocking up on lemon – and chocolate-infused honey, too.
Suffice to say that with this bounty of local delights on offer, the peninsula is something of a feast for the senses. And, despite a lack of sandy white beaches, the rugged coastline is a feast for the eyes, too.
Further up the coast from Pula lies the picture-perfect fishing town of Rovinj. Laid-back and serene, the town is a hive of art galleries, whitewashed buildings and cliffside bars and eateries. At the Puntulina restaurant (Sv. Kriza 38, Rovinj), the vibe was deliciously relaxed (indeed, we went straight from the sea to the table, practically still in our bathers). Yet this chilled-out atmosphere belied a refined menu, packed with seafood delights like tuna, squid, anchovies and seabass. Nearby, at the stylish Valentino (Via Santa Croce 28, Rovinj) – a bar effectively carved into the cliff face – couples, holidaymakers and hip young locals enjoy sunset over brilliantly ostentatious cocktails.
As day trips go, a trip to the idyllic island of Brijuni (brijuni.hr) takes some beating. A 20-minute boat ride from Pula, the island's myriad delights – from the safari park to the museum exhibition dedicated to Yugoslavian president Josip Tito – have been untouched by time. As Tito's summer residence, the island has had its fair share of venerable visitors, from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.
Visitors happen upon the Neptune Hotel right off the boat, and this art-deco wonder is a flashback from the soviet '70s. Take a golf buggy or bike, and it's easy to shake off the crowds and cover much of the island in a morning. At the island's safari park (the island became a national park in 1984, after Tito's death in 1980), you'll encounter not only zebras and llamas, but Lanka the elephant, a state gift bequeathed to Tito by Indira Ghandi.
Speaking of visitors, James Joyce was another notable short-term resident of the region, albeit not strictly by choice. The way local legend tells it, Joyce was so bored in the town – he was posted there for six months as a teacher, along with his new wife Nora Barnacle – that he began to write to while away the time, eventually putting together 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. He described the town as 'a back-of-God-speed place', and 'a naval Siberia' ... yet while there appeared to be no love lost on Joyce's part, the town celebrates their onetime inhabitant. It's possible to enjoy a drink in Uliks ('Ulysses' in Croatian, Trg Portarata, 52100, Pula), which is situated in the apartment block, which once housed Joyce's school.
Families looking to sidestep history, olive oil tasting, wineries and cliffside bars needn't be left out of the fun, either ... the Istralandia water park (istralandia.hr, at the Istrian Ypsilon highway, Nova Vas exit) is box-fresh after a June 21 opening. Boating over 20,000 square metres of water surfaces and 20 slides and chutes, this €10m development has a capacity for 6000 daily visitors. Water fans can also enjoy a pool with artificial waves, foam parties, diving lessons and synchronised swimming.
The opening of a project as sizeable as Istralandia hints that this part of Croatia is bracing itself for an influx of holidaymakers from near and far. Whether its original maxim – 'the Mediterranean as it once was' – will stand firm amid these changes remains to be seen. Still, the smart money says that whatever the future fortunes of the region, time-honoured local traditions will win out in the end.
Restaurant Milan (Stoja 4, Pula, beccaccia.hr, +385 52 300 200) Traditional fare, including sea bass and local bean soup. Be sure to ask for a table outside.
Alla Beccaccia (Valbandon Pineta 25, Fazana, +385 52 520 753) A restaurant complete with plenty of garden and a cooling outdoor pool. Quail, Istrian beef and game are the specialty dishes.
Villa Meneghetti (Stancija Meneghetti 1, 52211, Bale, meneghetti.info croatia.hr, +385 91 245 1600) Hire the villa's private chef as you stay in this sumptuous villa complete with kingsize bath, indoor pool and four-poster beds in the garden.Couples' packages start at €280 per night for two people including dinner and champagne.
La Puntulina (Sv Kriz 38, Rovinj, +385 52 813 186) Breathtaking sea views, a chilled atmosphere and a bounty of local seafood prepared traditionally.
Konoba Buscina (Sveta Maria Na Krasu, Umag 52470, konoba-buscina.hr, +385 52 732 088) Don't let the traditional décor fool you – the food here is cutting edge and top-notch ... and reasonably priced to boot.