Croatia: Istria

If the Istrian town of Rovinj was a person, she would be Dubrovnik’s younger, more socially awkward sister. While beautiful, she is a lot less popular because she’s not a pretentious, cocaine-possessed party demon like her elder sister.

You could even say she’s a bit of a nerd.

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And that was why we chose to visit.

Located on a rocky island in the fertile plains of northern Croatia, Rovinj looks divine from a distance. This former Venetian conquest of five centuries is now a sleepy fishing town, with timeworn buildings on narrow, cobblestone streets that ascend heavenwards.

The old town of Rovinj is a delightful place to wander, unless you’re a 300-pound human who’s allergic to stairs.

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Purrrrdy.

Even if you’re not and all that climbing with two young children hurts you mentally, there are plenty of distractions to be found in the little galleries and hipster cafes along the way.

Whether it’s handpainted pebbles you’re looking for…

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or penis-shaped bottle openers…

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…there are a myriad of souvenirs that you will likely end up with before your walk is over, unless your husband has a vise-like grip on his wallet.

At the very top of the old town stands the Church of St. Euphemia, named after a pious 15-year-old who was brutally tortured and thrown to lions for refusing to give up Christianity. Her relics were then preserved in a marble sarcophagus, which eventually found its way to Rovinj after a big storm in 800 AD. Somehow, a little boy with two cows managed to heave this giant hunk of marble up the hill where it now sits – an object of worship and a cautionary tale about not getting too close to a lion (at least for my sons) – in a corner of the church.

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Top of Rovinj.

Rovinj’s harbour has a rich maritime history, and you could still watch fishermen hauling in the day’s catch on their little batana boats – an ongoing tradition since the 17th century.

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Better than a Vespa.

The harbor is also the departure point for the many dolphin safaris. The excursion we booked online was cancelled due to bad weather, but that doesn’t seem to deter most cruise operators from hawking tickets on the day.

And so, along with dozens of other overzealous tourists, we took a wooden boat out onto the choppy waters, to be rewarded with more gorgeous views of Rovinj.

And seasickness.

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Before it got craycray.

I was about to projectile vomit my breakfast into the Adriatic when I spotted these sleek, turbo-charged creatures.

First, only one.

Then two.

And then a whole pod of them, leaping out of the icy blue Adriatic. It was incredible, except for the parts when we had to cling on for dear life because the boat was tossed around like Seth Green in a wrestling ring.

For lunch, we sampled one of the town’s many great seafood restaurants. A local favorite, Sidro, has been churning out some beautifully prepared Istrian specialties for decades, including truffle pasta, cuttlefish with polenta, and tomato scampi, which resembles a shrimp on steroids.

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Get in my tummy already!

We stayed in Mobile Homes Vestar, a sprawling holiday park a 10 minutes drive from town. Sure, it’s adjacent to a nudist resort and you might run into a hairy bush (or two) on your vacation, but it’s got a massive swimming pool, play areas and a supervised kid’s club for younger tots.

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#funtimes

We stayed in the most expensive unit, with its own landscaped gardens and semi-private swimming pool out front. Evenings were spent outside, on our massive balcony, simultaneously shivering in our sweat pants and setting our mouths ablaze with nana’s homemade curry mee.

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You can take this girl outta Malaysia butttt…

You could also swim at the park’s private beach, which is freezing and windy even in June. Also, Croatian beaches – even way up here in the north – are filled with pebbles that will slice and dice your feet no matter how slowly you shuffle, making it every masochist’s dream.

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Every masochist’s dream beach.

And if hypothermia and permanent feet injury doesn’t get you, the park’s inflatable water course will. The boys especially fancied themselves as Ninja Warriors, but ended up looking like one of those bumbling contestants on Wipeout instead.

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I’ll just chill here, thanks.

We realize we couldn’t tear ourselves away from Rovinj without having one final splurge in town. We chose Scuba, an upscale waterfront restaurant catered more to tourists. The spankingly fresh seafood, as usual, stole our hearts.

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Since Istria is also the truffle capital of Croatia and you can’t say you’ve visited if you don’t get an eyeful – or better yet, a mouthful – of this highly coveted, yet hilariously unattractive ingredient, we decided to go on a truffle hunting tour with Nikola, who’s appearance on New York Times made him a highly-sought after guide.

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Nikola and his two truffle hunters.

A tiny, unassuming village, Livade is the place to go for truffle connoisseurs – the world’s largest white truffle (at the time), weighing 1.31 kgs, was found here in 1999 by restaurant owner Giancarlo Zigante. Although he could easily sell it for tens of thousands of dollars, Zigante had it cast in bronze before sharing it with 100 other guests at dinnertime.

That’s the thing about the Istrians: though some of the loveliest, most genuine folks around, they make terrible businessmen. That’s why Croatia’s truffle industry is somewhat overshadowed by its other European neighbors. Real connoisseurs know that, for years, Italians have been sourcing their white truffles from this region and passing it off as their own.

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Check out these babies.

Anyway, Nikola and his two canine companions were waiting for us in his pickup truck – as truffles grow underground, it is common for families in this area to train their pet dogs or pigs to hunt for these tubers. Nikola brought us to the edge of the forest where truffles were easily found, only not in summer and certainly not when there are literally hundreds of pesky mosquitoes around.

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All set.

I envisioned the entire process to be like a treasure hunt, whereby the children and I bound spiritedly through a lush green forest with two dogs in tow. Since truffle hunting season is still several months away however, the reality couldn’t be far more different: we were sent into a sweltering, mozzie-filled scrubland with a spade and told to bury some black truffles for a game of ‘hide and seek’.

If we were successful in hiding them, Nikola said we could bring the truffles home.

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If only we could hide it in our pockets.

 

I was tempted to escape into the forest with hundreds of dollars worth of truffles at this point but I didn’t. So when the dogs emerged from the bushes with the truffles in their mouth, I was crestfallen.

My disappointment dissipated the moment we stepped onto the crumbling pavements of Motovun, an enchanting hilltop town. We were greeted by a lady who offered Mika some fritule, a traditional dessert resembling little doughnuts.

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Look at that face!

Everywhere else in town were little shops selling truffles in all forms. There is truffle oil, truffle chips and truffle pasta…and plenty of free tastings so you could have truffle-smelling poop by the end of your visit if you so wish.

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Truffles and more truffles.

There was nothing particularly exciting happening on the day – unless one finds truffle-flavored rice exciting – but the town apparently fills up with over 20,000 film enthusiasts and B-, C- or D-list Hollywood celebs like Jason Biggs during its annual Film Festival. If showering in the same toilet as Mr. Biggs sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to you, then the town’s only proper hotel, Hotel Kastel, is where you’d wanna spend the rest of your evening.

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Photobombed by a rubbish bin.

We were, however, a much bigger fan of No Reservations than American Pie and therefore headed for Konoba Mondo instead, where photographs of Anthony Bourdain dining and schmoozing with the restaurant owners back in 2011 decked the walls of its pastel blue dining room. Serving up Sicilian-Istrian fusion cuisine, it was hailed then – by the grace of Mr. Bourdain’s visit – as the best restaurant in town.

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Oh, my heart.

Our waiter – a sweaty but pleasant young man – has not met Bourdain. He only started working here a couple of years back, but he was happy to regale us with stories of the man, related to him by the owners.

Our soup, tagliatelle, and steak arrived and it all came with generous shavings of black truffle gathered by the family’s five truffle-hunting dogs.

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Too much truffles? NEVERRR!!!

The meal wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great either. The sheer ordinariness of it all blew me away, and I was reminded of Bourdain’s quote.

“I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find a perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one.”

And I’d like to believe he was in heaven at that very moment, smiling ironically down on us.

 

STAY

Mobile Homes Vestar A massive holiday park a 10 minutes away from Rovinj’s old town. It has everything you need for a great family vacation, including swimming pools, spa, playground, water sports, a supervised kids’ club and a private blue-flag beach (certain activities like the trampolines or inflatable water course come at an additional cost). It can be a tad busy in the height of summer but you can always stay in the well-equipped deluxe chalets for extra privacy. $$

TIPS

  • There is no driving / parking inside Rovinj’s old town area. It’s best to call your hotel for help in advance so someone can wait for the luggages when you arrive. Otherwise, there are plenty of great holiday parks several minutes drive away.
  • Boat cruises are available at Rovinj’s harbor and there is no need to book in advance, unless you’re looking for a specialist cruises. It’s a great way to take in the town at sunset and – if you’re lucky like us – spot some dolphins. The town’s Batana Museum also offers special excursions every Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer (www.batana.org/hr). In The Batana Experience, visitors are shuttled to a traditional wine cellar via these UNESCO Heritage-awarded boats and plied with music, wine and dinner.
  • Istria is the gourmet capital of Croatia so be sure to budget for several nice meals outside. Even the most expensive restaurants are generally kid-friendly.
  • Truffles are readily available in town markets, but the best place to sample them are from Livade, where they originate. Restaurant Zigante is the place to splurge for truffles if money is of no object.
  • Apart from Rovinj, Livade and Motovun, there are other Istrian towns worth your time, including Pula (with its well-preserved Roman amphitheater), Groznjan (with its art and olive oil) or the almost-deserted hill town of Zavrsje.
  • It’s best to have your own transport and spend at least 3 nights in Istria if you are planning to see more than just one town. One could also spend a week here without seeing it all.

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