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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 April 2018

A different outlook on Croatia’s Istrian coast

Shirine Saad visits Istria, Croatia.

Rovinj, on the Istria Peninsula, is positioned on a steep hill that overlooks the sea. The town is full of narrow cobblestoned alleys and bell towers, with plenty of activities for travellers across a wide range of energy levels. Jose Fuste Raga / Corbis
Rovinj, on the Istria Peninsula, is positioned on a steep hill that overlooks the sea. The town is full of narrow cobblestoned alleys and bell towers, with plenty of activities for travellers across a wide range of energy levels. Jose Fuste Raga / Corbis

After two days of museum hopping in cloudy Zagreb, I set out to explore Istria’s coast. A smooth, three-hour drive takes me to the bright hills of the Istrian peninsula. I check into the sprawling Park Plaza Histria resort in Pula and take in the views of the quaint bay, sailboats and rocky beaches from my balcony at sunset. I’m enjoying this restful moment before I head out to Outlook, an independent music festival that takes over the city for four days, headlined by big-name acts such as Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Pharoahe Monch, Jay Electronica and Grandmaster Flash.

Savvy travellers and bon vivants alike have all visited Dubrovnik to luxuriate and island-hop – and the charms of the southern coast of Croatia are many. Yet the quainter, less-explored Istrian peninsula, on the border of Italy and Slovenia, is lush and peaceful, rich in history and less popular among boisterous tourists.

Just a ferry ride away from Venice and a direct flight from major European cities, the Istrian peninsula overlooks the Adriatic from a long and windy coastline. Inland, its rolling hills are warm in summer and cooled by crisp winds at night. Nature and sports lovers treasure its unspoilt beaches and untouched bike and trek routes; gastronomes revel in its fragrant olive oils, truffles, wild asparagus, robust cured meats and fresh cheeses.

Civilisation in Istria dates back at least to the Bronze Age. The peninsula is named after the Histri tribe. It has also seen Roman, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian rulers, who all left architectural traces throughout the region. The Italians took over the area until 1947, when it was incorporated into Yugoslavia; after the break-up of the country in 1991, Istria became one of the 20 counties in the newly independent Republic of Croatia. Now, despite its turbulent past, it’s a tourist-friendly region; most locals speak several languages, especially Italian and German, and are happy to talk to visitors and show them around.

I have a day before Outlook begins, so set out to explore the old town and coastline. I rent a bike at the hotel and rush down the snaking road towards the city, inhaling the crisp scent of the pine trees. I stop at the market for a lunch of fresh goat’s cheese, bread, arugula and – my favourite – plump figs as sweet as honey, which make most of my meals in Croatia. I bike past the pastel facades of the ancient city centre and head to the water for a plunge in the sea.

At night, the festival opens at the Roman amphitheatre, built between 27BC and 68AD. Organised by a British entertainment company, it brings together hip-hop, reggae and electronica fans from across the world, most of whom are camping on festival sites on the hills and along the sea. At dusk, as the flame-red sun sets behind the masts of the sailboats in the nearby port, its limestone facade is washed in a bright orange hue. The crowd fills its arena and stairs, cheering and dancing under the starry sky.

In the morning, I head back to the amphitheatre for a daytime tour and explore the city, from its fascist facades and Romanesque and Byzantine churches to the triumphal arch and temples of Rome and Augustus – a trace of Augustus’s fierce rule on the region in the first century AD.

My new Croatian friend Didi, who helps organise the festival, insists that we take a trip to the pristine islands of Brijuni, where, in the national park filled with more than 600 plants, the former Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito entertained Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren in his summer mansion. We hop on a boat and land on the island in less than half an hour, exploring its zoo, forest and quiet beach strips. The shore is lined with small cafes and restaurants serving tourist food. We lie on the dock near the sailboats, then settle on a terrace and sip fresh juices, watching people wander by.

After the festival, I head to Rovinj, farther north on the coast, a town with charms that far exceed Pula’s. Perched on a steep hill, it overlooks the sea and 18 green islands of the archipelago with its colourful facades, narrow cobblestoned alleys and bell towers. The day begins at dawn, as fishermen carry their daily catch back to the port, surrounded by screaming seagulls. After a refreshing morning swim and coffee by the port, I hike up the hill towards the Church of Euphemia, an exceptional baroque landmark built in the 18th century. I follow the souvenir shops down the road all the way back to the coast, where a series of beachside restaurants serve fresh seafood and salads. One of the finest tables – and views – is Puntulina, where, in the scorching sun, I order sea-bass carpaccio and prawns cooked in fragrant local olive oil – fresh, simple and perfect for a hot day.

I personally prefer afternoon beach naps with a book, but for those who enjoy vigorous activity, I note offers for biking, sailing, scuba diving or windsurfing. At sunset, I admire the vivid colours of the seaport from a cafe, then head back up the hill to the gastronomic restaurant Monte – one of the many tables in the area focusing on local ingredients and avant-garde techniques.

The presentation for the seven-course tasting menu is inventive: the amuse crackers are served on an olive branch, the olive oil and butter in pebble stones, and every dish involves its own ritual and an artful contrast of colours, shapes and textures. The young chef, Daniel Dekic, roams the Istrian coast and countryside to find the freshest ingredients, with which he makes creative dishes such as trout caviar sushi in dashi broth, quail, liver and apricot, foie gras and vanilla ice cream.

Rovinj is home to several upscale hotels, such as the five-star Monte Mulini and the hip Lone, making it particularly attractive to selective travellers. I’m staying at the Lone, a stark, white, curvilinear building facing the Adriatic Sea. While the massive concrete building reminds me of brutalism and Oscar Niemeyer’s sensual lines, the sleek interior gives off the vibe of a very trendy nightclub. My room, however, is private and peaceful, with a wooden balcony that overlooks the greenery and sea.

After the weekend, I head out to the quaint Porec, a tight agglomeration of pastel-coloured facades where elegant Venetian palaces overlook the bay, and explore the sixth-century Euphrasian Basilica’s striking Venetian architecture. Then begins the journey inland. An endless succession of undulating hills gives way to small towns, vineyards, olive groves and farms. While the spring season is the moment to forage for the rare and exquisite wild asparagus, used by locals in frittatas and pastas, the autumn is the much-celebrated truffle season. Around the medieval towns of Motovun and Buzet, the fungi grow in the humid, grey soil of the forest, irrigated by the Mirna River. Buzet dubs itself the “city of truffles”, and hosts two festivals in the ­autumn, including the Subotina, where a 2,000-egg omelette is cooked with 10 kilograms of truffles.

My trip ends at the truffle empire Zigante, just below the hilltop village of Motovun, where both the white and black prized fungi are prepared in a variety of pastas, fish dishes and even ice creams – and sold at the boutique alongside local delicacies. I stock up on truffle honey, bottled white and black truffles, cheeses, sweets and olive oils, and head back to Zagreb rejuvenated and inspired.