Croatia Guide Part II: The Istrian Peninsula Adventure

Rijeka

From Zagreb (See Croatia Part I) we headed west towards the Istrian Peninsula after a quick lunch stopover in the cute fishing town of Rijeka. At a random restaurant we happened upon near the river serving up some traditional Croatian sea fare, we encountered our first real language barrier of the trip. The no-nonsense establishment was delicious and made Cory and I figure out how to pronounce the Croatian words listed on the menu (not an easy task). We discovered that while most Croatians speak English, it’s hit or miss among the older generation.

The Buzet Region/Central Istria

Buzet is the central town in what is called Green Istria. This is the region that is the gastronomical and agricultural center of the region. This region, the town of Motovun (just 15 minutes from Buzet), specifically, was our jumping-off point for our Istrian 

Motovun

After lunch and a quick walk around the small town, we drove another hour-and-a-half to our final destination, Motovun, where we’d spend the next three nights. It was this short part of the drive where I started to become giddy because we passed lush olive groves and vineyards and forests dotted with small, quaint towns with paint-peeling shutters and laundry flapping in the wind out of stone-homed windows. I had heard that this part of Croatia, “Green Istria,” was compared to Tuscany. But it was devoid of all the crazy tourist activity. It was lush and quiet and completely idyllic.

It got even better as we turned up a steep road towards Motovun, a medieval hilltop town – one of many in the region. While we were traveling there during the coveted white truffle season, it felt super quiet. We saw a few cars as we navigated the steep road and parked looking out over a steep drop-off. Stepping out of the car, there was a beautiful September chill in the air. As we began lugging our bags up some steep stairs (directions as noted by our Airbnb hosts), our host, Milan, met us to show us the rest of the way. He then led us a short distance on carless, cobblestoned streets to the quaintest Airbnb we’ve ever stayed in. Seriously, I would go to Motovun just to stay in this space and have a little retreat for a few days. It was like living in a design magazine. It was probably the most expensive rental during our two-week trip, but still incredibly reasonable for what you’re getting. (I go on and on because if you go to Motovun, you should rent this place).

Exploring Green Istria

Motovun proved to be the best jumping off point to explore the region. Our first day in the region we set off on an excursion to taste the region’s olive oil and wine. When we stopped into Buzet, the town that serves as the tourist center of the region, the woman at the tourist office led us to believe that we could just show up at most places on their wine and olive oil map given that it’s prime season. Although we saw tourists here and there, I admit I was a little dubious especially after we couldn’t find the first olive oil place she recommended. The next one on the list, Torkop, run by Sergio Černeka, we pulled up to a house with a nondescript building and a faintly visible sign sitting in front of a vast olive grove. No one was around for a few minutes. I got out of the car and kind of peaked around the laundry flapping in the wind on a line.

29_Motovun Istria

After a couple minutes of hemming and hawing, Cory and I decided no one was around until a man came out of nowhere carrying buckets of water towards the house. “Olive oil?” I enunciated shrugging my shoulders. He nodded without stopping or changing his expression. Then there emerged two middle-aged ladies from the house. They looked at us briefly and then just walked to the nondescript building. We deduced we were supposed to follow them.

From there, we endulged in about a half-hour of pantomimes and attempted conversation about their olive oil as she showed us their barrels and presses and then poured us several tastings. And then she brought out the wine (I understood this one at least!) – all without labels. The olive oil was incredible. The language barrier maybe made it even better. I didn’t learn much about the differences, but we decided to buy the one that had a slight peppery bite.

After this awkward encounter, we still felt compelled to take the tourist office’s advice and ate lunch at Konoba Vrh, named for the town, where she recommended the ox[1]. This was a good choice! The restaurant sits quietly across from the main plaza bearing a monument with the names of the local World War II veterans’ names. If these were all losses from this tiny town, I can’t imagine how many people were still left after the war. It felt like a faraway time nonetheless.

We sat on the quiet patio as a table of 15-20 men sat chatting in Croatian, drinking copious carafes of wine, and dining over family style platters of food. This turned out to be something that happens in rural Croatia (we saw it again at a rural Konoba in Korcula). We have no idea if they were family or friends or what brought them to this town in the middle of nowhere on a weekday. But it was a fun backdrop to my truffle-topped ox.

We did make one more stop at a winery and had a less awkward experience and ultimately buying one of their Malvajia wines.

Going into the trip, I had expected a bit more fluidity in the oil and wine tasting, but the awkwardness kind of added a bit of charm to the trip. Plus, the last-minute recommendations from the tourist office (aided by the handy GPS we rented – seriously get a GPS there) brought us through some of the most beautiful farmland and landscape I’ve ever seen. It was so incredible to see people living their daily lives in these medieval towns surrounded by lush landscape.

However, if you’re more inclined to have a more organized outing, I would recommend a tour of some sort. That’s something that you’ll likely have to book ahead. While we didn’t opt to do this, the one I’d recommend is Eat Istria. They offer cooking classes and wine tours in the region. I had inquired about a truffle tour as well. It didn’t end up working with our schedule, but it would’ve been really cool to get more insight into the truffle hunting aspect of the region.

Truffles

Speaking of truffles – called tartufi locally…that’s pretty much the entire reason I was drawn to Istria in the first place. All stemming from that No Reservations episode where I pined over the simple pasta topped with fresh shavings of the vaguely troll-like tuber. September (when we were there) happens to be white truffle season. Honestly, I didn’t really know the difference between white and black truffles before we traveled to Croatia. In fact, it wasn’t until our last day there that I really understood the difference. So, if you go, here’s the lowdown.

4_Motovun Istiria iphone

On the menus, you’ll notice black and white truffles. Black truffles are slightly less expensive, so out of habit, I tended to order those dishes at the beginning of the trip. I was a little confused when they came chopped up and cooked rather than grated raw over my dishes like I had seen in the No Reservations episode. Well, turns out, that’s how black truffles come. Also, they’re available year-round in the region and are easier to preserve. So you need not travel in September to taste the truffles. And they are delicious. But they aren’t as coveted as the white truffles.

It wasn’t until about our last day that I started to order the white truffles. For a couple dollars more than the black truffles, you are truly getting a bargain. These white truffles are worth around $50/ounce back in the States. They have to be eaten within a few days of when they were foraged. While cheaper than truffles from Italy, they are a coveted gourmet ingredient and they are way better than truffle oil (which, apparently, is a chemically manufactured flavor). Also note that truffles can’t be farmed, per se. Rather they grow at the roots of oak trees – these came from the Motovun forest just beyond – and are found by specially trained dogs. You can partake in a truffle-hunting excursion if you so choose. Just check in with the tourist office (way way at the top of the hill in Motovun old town) to schedule something.

While pretty much every restaurant in the region serves truffles, I highly recommend Konoba Mondo. This little place is quaintly unassuming with its whitewashed walls and turquoise shutters. Because I’m always inclined to dine al fresco with a view, we passed by it numerous times as we headed to the restaurants with outdoor seating overlooking the valley. Then one evening as Cory and I headed back to our Airbnb, we passed by Mondo and noticed how full and cozy it looked inside. So Cory suggested we go there the next evening.

When we showed up, it turned out it’s best to make a reservation to sit inside (which you can do just by stopping by the day before or a couple days before you want to eat there, I believe). Luckily, a couple sitting at a six-top offered to share their table and we were happily dining inside the cozy warmth of the establishment. And that is where I had one of the best meals of my life. It also turned out that this is where Anthony Bourdain dined after his truffle-hunting excursion in that episode of No Reservations. We discovered this by the framed picture of the scene (with our waiter serving him no less) among the historic pictures of the restaurant’s family.

General Tips About Motovun

In the end, I can’t recommend using Motovun as the jumping off point for touring Istria. I would even go so far as to making Motovun and Istria the center point of your trip to Croatia. We loved the coast and we’re so glad we went there (see Parts III and IV), but this was truly idyllic.

Also, make sure to rent a GPS, or at the very least ensure that your phone’s GPS works. This region is full of lots of twists, turns, and windy roads. It’s what makes it incredibly quaint, but it’s easy to get lost just by looking at the map.

In September, Motovun and the region has some tourists, but it does not feel overrun. It was a place where you can spend a leisurely week of activities. It’s ripe for outdoor adventures and cultural excursions. And, of course, for gastronomical explorations.

The Istrian Coast

As I noted, Motovun was our jumping-off point, but we still wanted to check out the coast known as “Blue Istria.” In about an hour, you can check out the southern coastal town of Pula and then drive up the coast to the touristy Rovinj. Each has their individual charms.

Pula

Pula was merely a quick stopover in the morning before heading up to Rovinj. But I didn’t want to miss the ruins of the Roman Amphitheater smack dab in the middle of the city. If you want a taste of Italy, there you definitely have it in Pula. It’s hard to miss when you get into the center of town.

We wandered around the amphitheater and spent some time just sitting and admiring the ruins imagining the gladiatorial events back in its first-century glory. Apparently during the summer they have weekly Spectacvla Antiqva where they recreate the fights.

Don’t miss the small museum located in the downstairs chambers below the amphitheater. That was pretty cool to learn more about Croatia’s part in the Roman Empire as well as numerous artifacts from that time.

Rovinj

From Pula we drove up the narrow coastal highway to Rovinj. This beautiful – and decidedly touristier – town is the place to go (and stay) in coastal Istria. The old town sits on top of a rounded peninsula that juts out from the main town. Like Motovun, the streets are well-worn cobblestone. But the town also feels a bit more polished.

What’s also pretty cool about Rovinj is that, while still touristy, it still maintains a strong fishing industry. Our Lonely Planet says it “remains one of the last true Mediterranean fishing ports.” Many of these fishing boats sit right along the water in old town. Walking towards the town is a beautiful and quaint site.

If you’re planning a trip to Istria and prefer staying on the coast, Rovinj is the place to stay. While on the coast, you can’t beat getting the seafood wherever you go. We had a delicious meal sitting on one of the outdoor tables watching tourists gaze up at the beautiful 17th-century buildings. I can’t remember exactly where we ate, but the guidebook had some great recommendations.

Some Notes about Coastal Istria

In September, the coast was also notably warmer than central Istria with its higher elevation. While not as hot as the southern coast, it was a lovely warm and dry Autumn kind of feeling that I adore.

The summers are apparently very touristy with all of the resorts built along the coast north and south of Rovinj. The Buzet region (where Motovun is) is also touristier in the summer as well, but I’ve heard (outside of the Motovun Film Festival in July), it’s a little quieter and more bucolic.

Croatia Part I: Zagreb

Croatia Part III: The Southern Dalmatian Coast

 

 

[1] You’ll find that many restaurants have Konoba in their name. A konoba is essentially a tavern (often family-owned) that serves up traditional Croatian fare in a traditional environment. Once we discovered this, Cory and I tended to lean towards the Konoba, especially if we wanted something leisurely and traditional. It pretty much always paid off.

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