After a long wait to cross the border from Slovenia (which is part of the European Union) to Croatia (which isn’t), we stopped for an espresso a dozen miles past the border. Sitting in the welcome shade of a chestnut tree, we 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 us 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.”
We were 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. We 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.
We chose to base ourselves at two properties while exploring the region. Overlooking a new marina filled with Austrian- and Italian-registered boats, the Hotel Nautica (86) is the centerpiece of an effort to turn the simple, pleasant little port of Novigrad into a major Adriatic pleasure-boat anchorage.
The seafaring décor of the 38-room property is undoubtedly heavy-handed: framed faux parchment maps, beds with silly captain’s wheel headboards, and ersatz brass-lamp light fixtures. But it’s still a good spot from which to explore northern and western Istria, as it offers a level of comfort rarely found elsewhere. It’s also easier to come and go from Novigrad during the peak summer months than it is from Poreč or Rovinj, both of which are jammed to the rafters and offer little in the way of decent parking.
The rooms are spacious, comfortable, air-conditioned and well-equipped (Internet, flat-screen televisions, etc.). The baths have cheerful aqua tiling and large stall showers, but regrettably feature one of the biggest hotel design mistakes we’ve seen all year — oblong, shoebox-size sinks that tend to soak your toilet kit while you’re brushing your teeth (urgent note to hotel architects: form follows function).
The staff are young, English-speaking and friendly, and there’s also a small spa that offers various beauty treatments and massages. Enjoy a drink on the hotel terrace overlooking the marina, but give the restaurant a miss, since there are many better tables within a short walk.
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 (85), 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 we were lucky to be staying here. But we 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 we 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 we enjoyed the Croatian Sauvignon Blanc recommended by the sommelier, our dinner in the vaunted restaurant had its ups and downs. We 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 us 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.