Although a booming tourist trade means a trip to Croatia no longer counts as an ‘alternative’ European break, the crowds in the country’s visitor hotspots are still just about manageable. Along with the sense of exploring somewhere relatively unspoilt, part of the nation’s appeal lies in the fact that it rarely looks like you expect it to, and nowhere is this truer than in the westerly region of Istria. For centuries part of the Austrian Empire, between 1919 and 1947 the peninsula belonged to Italy, whose influence remains apparent to the eyes and palate.
Rovinj – pronounced ‘Roh-veen-ya’ – is the pick of Istria’s coastal outposts. Not only does it offer some of the region’s best scenery, but the car-free old town is as quaint as the narrow streets of Venice (itself less than 70 miles across the Adriatic), while the lush forests inland provide top-class produce to some fantastic restaurants.
Things to do
The mountainous national park south of the harbour is a great place to take pictures of the old town and, given its size and terrain, the best way to explore is by mountain bike. Rental stands are plentiful in the harbour and their rates reasonable, while many hotels have their own private stash. Allow 90 minutes to make your way along the coast (the signposted path will eventually lead you onto residential streets, at which point it’s better to double back), or all afternoon if you fancy taking on the more challenging inland paths. For cooling off, there are numerous pocket-sized rocky beaches dotted along the path where weary cyclists can pitch up and dip their toes in the Adriatic – just be warned that members of local alternative communities may turn up with the same idea.
The old town itself has two must-sees. Any amount of aimless wandering will lead you to the first: the 18th century Saint Euphemia Cathedral, a baroque church perched atop a hill in the town’s north-west corner. For those with energy to spare, a journey up the 60-metre-high Venetian-style bell tower is worth the Dhs10 asking price, with stunning views to be had from the top.
The second is a lively food market near the harbour, where stalls heave with local fruit, veg and other consumables. Chances are you didn’t come to Croatia to gawp at oranges and apples, though, so head toward the truffle traders. The majority of their produce comes from the forests of Motovun just 20 miles away, and forms the basis of oils, tapenades, chutneys, honey and other intensely pungent products. Despite being sourced from just down the road, their wares aren’t cheap – you’ll need to haggle hard to score a jar of white truffles for less than Dhs130.
If there’s a restaurant in town whose menu features neither seafood nor truffles, chances are its days are numbered. Along with grape beverages and olive oil, these are the central pillars of Istrian cuisine and are usually incorporated into Italian-style pastas and rice dishes.
Fish is generally excellent wherever you go, but for something special, take a taxi north and along the coast to Blu (Val de Lesso 9, +385 5281 1265). The remote location means it’s quiet in the cooler months, but come summer, this is where you’ll find locals and clued-up visitors sampling simple but accomplished Istrian classics, such as prawn and black truffle risotto and olive-crusted bream. The restaurant is perched on a rocky beach, so pack your swimmers if you fancy joining the regulars in a pre- or post-lunch dip. Closer to the action, Santa Croce (Sv Kriza 1) in the old town also makes good use of the local produce.
Though hotels in Rovinj tend toward modesty and tradition, the gleaming white Hotel Lone (Luje Adamovica 31, +385 5263 2000) isn’t doing too badly out of being the one big exception. Declaring itself Croatia’s first design-led hotel, Lone (named after the adjacent bay) is a showcase of Croatian creativity, with everything from furniture to light fittings sourced from the nation’s most respected creatives. In-house
fine-dining restaurant L is also fantastic, with an on-site sommelier available to pair glasses of local grape to your meal.
Need to know
There are no direct flights from Dubai to Croatia, although Emirates offers indirect flights through its partner, Croatia Airlines. Flights go via Zurich in Switzerland, or Rome in Italy, with prices from approximately Dhs4,390 return.
Dubai to Croatia
Flight time: Approximately nine hours in the air, plus stopover time (usually three to five hours, depending on route).
Time difference: Three hours behind the UAE.
Dhs1 = 1.58 kuna.