While the crowds have well and truly discovered Croatia’s irresistibly unpretentious blend of coastal towns, crystal waters and rich cultural inheritance, fewer venture to its gentler northern region. Nestled against charming neighbours Slovenia and Italy – ferries from westerly ports reach Venice in just over two hours – bucolic Istria doesn’t draw the masses like Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast, but instead offers a gourmet getaway for those in-the-know.
Here, the truffle trade reigns supreme, and there’s plenty of Istrian wine to wash it down with. Stylish places to stay, from beachside boutiques to starchitect-designed resorts, are catching up with the contemporary foodie crowd, and its compact nature – it takes little more than an hour to drive its length or breadth – means you can cover winding old towns and wineries aplenty in a short trip.
WHERE TO STAY
The capital Pula is best enjoyed from boutique villa Hotel Valsabbion along the coast, where 11 airy, tonal rooms have their own stretch of private beach (from £105 per night; valsabbion.hr). Sunny Rovinj is the most compelling of Istria’s coastal spots, and its old town – think meandering, cobbled streets and sun-drenched facades – has a distinctly Italian feel, courtesy of one-time Venetian rule. Its gem is the new Grand Park Hotel, designed by local studio 3LHD and renowned Italian architect Piero Lissoni, whose deft touch lends a decidedly polished resort a playful, modern edge. Views from the atrium to the old town across the yacht-dotted bay are truly breathtaking (from £209 per night; maistra.com).
Maistra’s former flagship, the striking, sinuous Hotel Lone – hailed as Croatia’s first true design hotel – is next door (from £101 per night; designhotels.com). For a gourmet stay, new Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel in historic hilltop village Motovun has richly-hued rooms, plus a vast on-site vineyard and cellar (from £140 per night; roxanich.hr).
BREAKFAST & LUNCH
Eatery Backyard only set up shop in Pula early this summer, but its cosy courtyard has quickly become the area’s most stylish spot for breakfast and beyond. All of the produce is organic, and much is grown in their garden – try the scrambled eggs with prosciutto, cherry tomatoes and paprika (istrianculinaris.com).
Alternatively, combine the café experience with a foodie excursion. Family foragers Natura Tartufi will take you on a truffle-hunting trek through wooded Buzet in Istria’s north, before serving up a light brunch of truffle-infused dishes back at their tasting room (naturatartufi.com). For a heartier lunch, winery San Tommaso – its expansive estate has been a vineyard for 150 years – offers platters of Istrian olives, cheese and meats with homemade fig jam while you sip on fruity Malvazija and more (santommaso.hr).
WINE & DINE
Monte in Rovinj was Croatia’s first restaurant to bag a Michelin star in 2017, and while four others have since followed suit, it’s as popular as ever. Tucked away below the Cathedral of St. Euphemia, the contemporary terrace contrasts with its charming old town setting. Choose from a trio of set menus, enigmatically named ‘Red’ ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’, which offer a selection of artful – and sometimes theatrical – dishes (monte.hr).
Inland, the cuisine at Hotel Peteani’s restaurant might be decidedly Istrian-with-a-twist, but its parquet panelling, curve-backed timber furniture and expansive windows draw on Scandinavian design principles (hotel-peteani.hr). For unexpected charm, try family-run outfit Barba Danilo. A campsite – though a luxury one, with chic new B&B lodges – is an unlikely home for gastronomic excellence, but its reputation as of Istria’s top restaurants is well earned. Don’t miss the savoury/sweet interplay of their truffle ice cream (barbadanilo.com). For a pre- or post-dinner drink, The Melegran’s plush mint green and pink bar offers a fresh spin on art deco, and the cosy space doubles as a reception for a boutique selection of rooms upstairs (melegran.com).
ARTS & CULTURE
The architectural Gallerija Adris on Rovinj’s harbourfront hosts exhibitions on contemporary Croatian artists, and unusually, entry is in the evening; head over after an afternoon wandering the bijou ateliers and art galleries of the old town. There’s more home-grown art on display in Vrsar Sculpture Park, where diverse works by native Dušan Džamonje are given space to breathe among expansive grassland.
For more (free) culture, head to picturesque Vodnjan, Croatia’s unlikely street art capital, to spot its many distinctive murals. Decidedly older delights include Pula’s imposing amphitheatre, one of the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world, which today provides an unrivalled backdrop for festivals and film screenings – don’t miss the modest exhibition and collection of amphoras in its underground passages. You’ll find more Roman rarities in Poreč, in the form of World Heritage site Euphrasian Basilica, where wonderfully-preserved Byzantine mosaics arch over the apse and marble colonnades punctuate rosy pink walls.
The owners of boutique store Galerija Brek have gathered their favourite pieces from local makers to curate a showcase of Croatian creativity in Rovinj’s old town. Its airy, white-washed space provides the perfect backdrop for perusing the bountiful blend of ceramics, paintings and artisanal souvenirs on display.
For something sweet or a local bottle of the strong stuff, head inland. While many estates have supplementary stores in coastal spots, venture into Istria’s heartland and you'll be rewarded with the best pick of Croatian produce. Aura Distillery in Buzet presents its gins, brandies and jams – made from wild fruits and herbs picked from the slopes of the Ćićarija mountain – in a cavernous stone cellar, and there’s plenty to taste on their tours before buying (aura.hr). A silhouetted olive branch adorns the back wall at Brist Olive Oil in Vodnjan, where variously-infused options are free to try and beautifully branded bottles make for the ultimate gastronomic gift (brist-olive.hr).
ESCAPE FOR THE DAY
The largest island of the Brijuni Archipelago, Veliki Brijun, was once a significant, glittering resort frequented by politicians and tycoons (including an infamous stint as the official summer residence of former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito) but today is a curiously compelling estate, with a golf course, safari park, botanical gardens, three museums and several archeological sites. Take an organised tour – each takes around four hours from Fažana, including the one mile crossing – or set out on foot.
Further afield, the rocky, wild island of Cres is one of Croatia's largest – but least developed – and ferries take little more than 20 minutes from Brestova on Istria's easterly edge. Its de facto capital, Cres Town, is a sleepy pastel-hued port which winds round a bay laden with modest boats, and a seat at any of the restaurant terraces offers vistas that feel more than worth the trek.
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