Croatia’s popularity as a holiday destination has been growing steadily since 2013 when it joined the EU. The 11pm curfew on outdoor music in Ibiza has also raised the appeal of the summer-long music festivals on the Dalmatian coast. But with popularity comes predictability, and a trip to Croatia always includes Dubrovnik, Split or Hvar. But it doesn’t have to.
Last summer, we toured the northern and less-explored part of this beautiful country, a region known for its hilltop towns, magnificent countryside, Italian influence and, in August, the truffle season.
But first, a little culture in the form of the city of Zadar. An easy two-hour flight from London, Zadar is a delightful, unspoilt, uncommercialised city, full of charm, which completely comes alive at night. We stayed at Hotel Bastion, from where we ambled through the streets past the Sea Gate and the Land Gate, a square with five fountains that once supplied water to the city, and the imposing Church of St Donatus, now used for concerts.
We chanced upon an Andy Warhol retrospective at the Rector’s Palace and
a surprising number of really good menswear shops. There are loads of outdoor bars and lounges, which create a superb buzz, and lots of places for ice cream.
Best of all is the unique ‘sea organ’ – a construction of stone pipes under the sea causing the water to play music. Crowds gather there at sunset and it’s magical. At Pet Bunara restaurant, on a perfect-for-people-watching terrace in the Old Town, we feasted on stuffed turkey breast with apricots and almonds and discovered the joy of Croatian wines.
From Zadar, we drove inland to the Plitvice Lakes. This is Croatia’s most popular National Park and can be summed up in three words: Mag. Nifi. Cent. The lakes are jaw-droppingly beautiful, with see-to-the-bottom water in shades of blue never achieved by Farrow & Ball and forestry to rival California’s Yosemite Park, with theatrical waterfalls and walking trails, which have views that leave the Highlands of Scotland wanting.
This is daytripper/hiker territory, and accommodation choices are limited. Dinner options even more so… we stayed in a small lodge where we were offered ‘meat or fish’ to eat, ‘red or white’ to drink, and schnapps on tap.
Istria is a four-hour drive west, along winding narrow mountainous roads, tunnels as long as six miles, and gravity-defying bridges. The route took us through miles of nothingness and lots of villages until we arrived at ours, Brtonigla, home to the pretty San Rocco boutique hotel.
Everything about this family-run idyll consisting of comfortable bedrooms, friendly service and pretty gardens with trees laden with ripe figs is reminiscent of Italy in the 1990s. It also houses what is widely reputed to be the best restaurant in Istria.
We ‘fine’ dined on the pretty terrace, dipping fresh bread in the hotel’s own, rich, peppery olive oil, harvested from the olive trees that surround the pool, and enjoying course after course of truffle-enhanced dishes, plus a simple sea bream steamed with herbs from the little herb border we could see from the table.
During the day, we lazed by the pool, and when we got hungry we ambled
into the sleepy, ramshackle village for a simple lunch of truffle frittata. From this base, we visited a host of hilltop towns. Groznjan, a haven for artists, is full of little galleries, cobbled streets and alleyways. It is reached by twisting roads up mountains and through valleys, before you leave the car outside the medieval walls and proceed on foot into the 16th century. Views from these heights take your
In Oprtalj, an almost abandoned medieval hilltop village – only 55 people live here – we feasted on tagliatelle in a creamy sauce. We ate dinner at Konoba Mondo high in the hills in Motovun, a village whose ancient history is evident in every cobblestone, watching the sun set over the valley to the strains of a lone saxophonist – quite the most romantic spot I’ve ever eaten in.
We had beautifully tender beefsteak at Stari Podrum, a lively, modern restaurant totally at odds with its location in countryside so remote that there is no phone signal and no other building for at least 2km. (We drove back from here on pitch dark roads in a thunderstorm with lightning that brilliantly lit up the sky – terrifying but thrilling.)
Rovinj, the largest and best known of the hilltop towns, climbs up from the sea and is highly reminiscent of the Italian Riviera. Here we dined at La Puntulina, watched the magnificent sunset, tucked into seabream and sipped cocktails on the rocks – and by that I mean our table position, not the ice in our drinks.
We ended our stay with two nights in sublime luxury at the Meneghetti Estate, a winery with a 25-bedroom Relais & Chateau hotel at the end of two miles of rocky dirt track.
This nirvana offers peace, solitude, acres and acres of vineyards and olive groves, two beautiful swimming pools, vast bedrooms and magnificent bathrooms all in an elegant, rustic style. There’s a shuttle to the (rocky) beach a mile away, bikes to hire and spa facilities to indulge in.
Dinner is a six-course tasting menu featuring a wonderful summer ceviche, sublime artichoke and truffle tortellini and tender beef cheeks with dumplings, plus wines to match from grapes that are grown a few metres from your table. Breakfast is a lavish affair laid out in the country style kitchen.
Our final meal in Istria, at Barba Danilo, was in the hands of an endearingly passionate restaurateur in an idyllic spot in the middle of a campsite – incongruous but true. Black truffle ice cream anyone?