Driving directly west past Zagreb into Croatia was fairly uneventful – the road was long and straight and the landscape was flat. But all that changed right as we approached Istria, the grand peninsula prominently protruding into the Adriatic Sea. Mountains appeared all around us and the highway turned and twisted along through numerous tunnels. The lush green landscape jumped at us and soon we’d find our way into the heart of the peninsula. The Adriatic Sea came into view soon after and the “tropical” feel warmed us up inside.
By late afternoon we made it to our apartment rental in Rovinj, a town situated on the western coast of the peninsula (facing Italy less than 100 miles away miles away). After dropping off our bags, we made our way into the old town which explicitly speaks of its history, tradition and culture. Settled and built up by the Venetians in 13th – 18th centuries as a fishing port, its narrow and glistening smooth cobble stoned streets pulled the carpet right from under us. Croatia or Italy, was the question! The answer as we later found out was.. Istria! or the best of both worlds. The pastel colored houses, the hundreds of boats in the port, the clear blue sea welcomed us to the mini-paradise. We enjoyed walking around town or perhaps following the olive oil infused aromas emanating from various restaurants. Istria is known for its olive oil, white truffles and wines, which together combine for sublime cuisines (as we would find out the following night).
The next morning we headed for Pula, Istria’s largest town and also home to an incredible 1st century Roman Arena or Coliseum (one of the 6 largest in the world). Its capacity was 20,000 but much of the interior stone seating has been removed. It’s also one of the best preserved from its time. Standing inside of it gave us an idea of its magnitude. Entering its underground layer gave us a different perspective. Where an exhibit on ancient amphorae stands today, was the subterranean tunnel through which mortally wounded gladiators ignominiously exited the arena.
After Pula we made our way back to Rovinj where we took a little beach break for a couple of hours. Then we roamed the streets of the city once again taking in the perfect little town’s splendors. Our first pit-stop was at a winebar, sitting at the sidewalk table observing the passersby and hearing a concoction of languages being spoken (Serbo-Croatian, Italian and German). Down by a waterfront we’d find Vile Joze, our dinner place specializing in local cuisine. We both ordered fish as the main course but it was the appetizer that completely stole the show – grilled squid in the local olive oil with chopped garlic accompanied by a potato/spinach side. Un-f’ing-believable! Neither of us could remember the last time we had anything so tasty yet so simple. To wash it all down we went with a bottle of the local Malvazija, a zesty and minerally white wine that’s easy to drink with or without food. There was no room for desert so instead we opted for an after dinner drink at Valentino, an imaginative bar making the best out of the jagged limestone formations that serve as the boundary between the bar and the sea. Soft turquoise colored cushions were sporadically placed on the rock making for front-row seating to the sunset show. Hand in hand we watched the fiery red star give in to the horizon.
In the morning we mapped out our route down south to our next destination. On our way we stopped at a couple of wineries and sampled some of Istria’s white and red wines. Brigitte liked the whites and just as impressive for me were the reds (Teran and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals).