After a long wait to cross the border from Slovenia (which is part of the European Union) to Croatia (which isn’t), I stopped for an espresso a dozen miles past the border. Sitting in the welcome shade of a chestnut tree, I fell into conversation with a nattily attired gentleman at the next table.
He was an English professor from Pula, Istria’s largest town, and was eager to give me a tutorial on his homeland. After a lengthy recitation of dates, kings and emperors, he perfectly summed up the delightful peninsula at the head of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast: “In Istria, we have a Slavic heart — we’re passionate and aesthetic — and a Germanic head — we work hard and well.”
I was here because Istria was being hailed as “the new Tuscany” — its beautiful rolling countryside is planted with vineyards and olive trees, and the quality of its food and wine is superb. The local Malvasia grape produces a gently floral, fresh, dry white wine that’s perfect with seafood. Food critics from Austria and Italy (the two countries that have ruled this corner of Croatia off and on for centuries) rave about its restaurants, which prepare freshly caught fish, wild asparagus and white and black truffles with a light hand and a creative touch.
The largest peninsula in the Adriatic has had a tumultuous history. The white stone campanile (bell towers) of popular port towns such as Rovinj and Poreč attest to the fact that the Venetian Republic ruled Istria for centuries before being displaced by the landlocked Austro-Hungarian Empire, which coveted the region as a strategic outlet to the sea.
As the Romans had done centuries before (Pula has one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in Europe), the Austrians developed a major port at Pula. After World War I, Istria was given to Italy, and after World War II, it was included in the newly formed Yugoslavia. I could have spent much more time here exploring Istria’s remarkable architectural history, but four days were ideal for sampling its outstanding restaurants and exploring the seaside villages and verdant countryside.
Slovenia is the logical jumping-off point for a visit to Istria, though it also makes a nice side trip from Venice. From the border, it’s a pleasant drive through olive groves and wheat fields to the little beach town of Novigrad — you can take a rental car from Slovenia into Croatia with no problems.
About an hour from Novigrad, Pula is a busy little port with the Roman amphitheater, an Austro-Hungarian arsenal and a Venetian castle. Many of the old Italian customs still survive here, including a lively café life (with good coffee), the evening passeggiata (promenade) of the locals along the seafront and excellent pasta dishes in its restaurants.
Located in Pjescana Uvala, a pleasant seaside suburb, the city’s best hotel is the 10-room Valsabbion hotel, also known as having the finest restaurant in Istria (and one of the best in Croatia). A modern three-story bungalow, it overlooks a quiet half-moon bay with a small beach and a rocky shoreline reached from the hotel by white stone steps.
The hotel’s slick, contemporary dining room and bar double as reception. Unfortunately, this is one of those places that takes itself rather too seriously; the service seemed to imply that I was lucky to be staying here. But I very much liked room 11, one of the three spacious, well-furnished seaview Premier rooms, all of which come with private balconies.
Tomato-red drapes and upholstery lent some spicy personality to the surroundings, while maple parquet floors and modern furniture mixed with a few antiques tempered the look. The bath was small, with a stall shower and a single sink, but I loved the pool and small spa on the third floor. Quiet, spacious, well-lit and equipped with good air-conditioning and complimentary wireless Internet, this was a very pleasant base from which to explore southern Istria.
Though it was pleasant to sit on the small terrace with sea views, and I enjoyed the Croatian Sauvignon Blanc recommended by the sommelier, my dinner in the vaunted restaurant had its ups and downs. I chose a seven-course tasting menu as a way of best sampling the kitchen, and if some dishes were delicious — a brodet (fish soup served over pearly white polenta in a martini glass), gnocchi with tuna, and chocolate mousse with basil ice cream, olive oil and sea salt — other dishes struck me as fiddly and unnecessarily complicated.
A sandwich-like preparation of fried parsley, fried potato wafers and sea bass tasted too strongly of oil and was served lukewarm, and service was jagged all through the meal. So does Valsabbion merit its reputation? Definitely, but the owner needs to make good service a priority.