Istria – where is that Croatian peninsula located again, the one where they come up with the world’s biggest truffles and peddle highly picturesque seaside towns?
In the northern Adriatic Sea, between the Gulf of Trieste and Kvarner Bay, stretching south from the port city of Rijeka is the aforementioned landmass that until now had been terra incognita for me.
For purposes of orientation, it juts out from the Croatian mainland into the Adriatic a scant 135 km by air due east of Venice.
But wait – so unfamiliar is the area not after all, because as a teen I used to watch Winnetou movies, starring Karl May’s fictional Apache chief Winnetou, who, reportedly, didn’t roam across the Wild West after all but was actually seen stalking the Rijeka backcountry and other Croatian regions as we will see.
Nevertheless, the motive for our trip was not to walk in a movie Indian’s tracks (although we did wind up making a side trip to where they shot “The Treasure of Silver Lake.”)
The real reason is that so many of our friends raved to us about Croatia that now we wanted to find out for ourselves if the water is, indeed, as clear as in Sardinia and the sardines are as tangy as anchovies.
Since Edelweiss or Swiss — or whatever the code share partner airline du jour happens to be — have direct flights to Croatia, Katja and l winged our way to Pula.
Having landed there at the southernmost tip of Istria, we round up our rental car and breeze over very well-maintained toll roads to Opatija, the first destination of our Croatia premiere.
Navis design hotel near Opatija
A short distance from Opatija, we arrive at the cliffside Hotel Navis that looks like we will have to rappel down to it. As it turns out, we only need to shift the car into first gear and ride the brakes down the steep ramp to the underground parking garage.
Located between Opatija and the port town of Rijeka, the hotel is perched like a Cubist puffin nest on a steep cliff face. The architect Idis Turato synthesized what is a total work of art in glass and reinforced concrete in 2015 on a building site that gave him practically no level ground to work with.
In a spot where once upon a time the beautiful people and the wealthy cavorted in a disco, this new hot spot grew to become a magnet for aficionados of great design.
On us, in any event, the spectacular design exerted a magic pull…
And the restaurant is also impressive! The 4-course tasting menu, in addition to the local truffles on the pasta and all varieties of fish, also offers the wines to go with them.
My discovery is the Slavonian (not to be confused with Slovenian) Krauthaker. I found this chardonnay matured in oak barrels truly a wine to be savored.
My favorite in Istria: Rovinj
The Istrian port towns of Rovinj, Poreč, and Opatija or Krk on the island with the same name are all very neat and tidy and well worth a side trip.
But it was Rovinj that I really fell for. The fishing village sits on its own little outcrop on the western end of the Istrian peninsula. A peninsula on the peninsula, you could say…
The picturesque narrow streets with their shiny cobblestones are crowded with tourists. But don’t let that deter you; for me at least, Rovinj was the Istrian highpoint. With Opatjia a close second. And all the others also a close second.
Your reward for a walk up to the Sveta Eufemija church through many narrow lanes with quaint shops aplenty will be the fine view.
Poreč – marina with fishing boats
Another fishing village just north of Rovinj is Poreč. It is laid out similarly, but its marina with promenade and uncounted restaurants makes it one size larger.
Also, a bit farther north, lies the fishing village of Novigrad, said to be just as attractive as the others. But, we didn’t manage to make it there.
Opatija – one design restaurant after another
From the Navis Hotel you can walk a romantic and varied beach route along the Adriatic coast to Opatija.
At first, the restaurants you encounter resemble little fishing villages, but the closer you get to Opatjia, the more fashionable the infrastructure becomes: anchored by the Hotel Bevanda by Relais & Châteaux a line-up of designer restaurants tempts you along the way until, at last, you make it to the center of Opatjia with its classic spa town architecture.
For those too tired to tackle the more than 3 kilometers walk back to the Navis, grab a taxi (for about $7 in kuna, the local currency) or let the hotel shuttle pick you up.
More travel tips
You will learn that the taxi drivers speak fluent Croatian, or whatever other language they talked at us with — to be sure, not in English…
But, you will find that driving in Istria is entirely pleasant. In contrast to neighboring Italy, they take it easier here and speed limits are (for the most part) obeyed.
You pay toll on the autobahns. There are toll gates where you can use credit cards, but it pays to have change on you.
Croatia may be a member of the EU since 2013, but it has not (yet) introduced the euro. Be sure to bring Croatian kuna with you. Some shops will only take cash in kuna, and while some restaurants take credit cards, in others you will be obliged to settle the bill in cash with kuna!
So, if you like to travel on credit cards be sure to check the payment method before ordering. Otherwise, you may stay a little longer than planned washing dishes…
We also noticed how clean it is everywhere. Not just are the towns kept tidy, but the allees and autobahns are also very well maintained. Nowhere will you see trash scattered about like in other Mediterranean destinations.