Croatia: Never Never Land
Rovinj, Motovun, Plitvicka
For our last extended trip before the holidays, we decided to embrace the fall weather and head to the northern part of Croatia for some outdoor and culinary adventures. We've visited southern Croatia in the past and loved the lack of crowds, gorgeous water and rugged beauty, so we were excited to check out what the less-visited regions of Istria and Plitvicka had to offer.
We flew out of our favorite warehouse hangar airport in Frankfurt and landed in another warehouse-style airport in Pula called Zračna luka. We initially chose to rent an SUV but were informed that we were upgraded to a head-turning luxury Mercedes, which wasn't ideal for tooling around the war-torn Croatian countryside. The car was a looker, but came without a working horn, which we discovered during a face-to-face standoff with a giant truck on a one-lane, cliffside road.
We headed about an our from Pula to our first stop, a seaside Adriatic town called Rovinj, which was initially settled by the Venetians and later the Romans. The town is comprised of several islands, a few of which have been incorporated into the mainland over the centuries. The result is a series of Venice-like buildings condensed together along miles and miles of coastline, winding, hilly stone streets and a bustling seaside dining scene. The bays are filled with fishing boats and the seafood is outstanding.
We chose one of the few design hotels in Croatia and spent our first day exploring the town on foot. The cuisine in Rovinj and the surrounding province of Istria is world-famous for its truffles, olive oils, seafood and wine. The conditions are very similar to Italy and Istria is becoming a well-known rival to the traditional gastronomic powerhouses of Italy and France. Our first night's dinner certainly gave credibility to that trend. We feasted on fresh-caught fish grilled to perfection and topped with shaved black truffles, oysters, homemade bread, local olive oil, regional red wine and a chocolate ganache for dessert. For this type of cuisine, this was one of our best meals ever and certainly matched anything we've had in Italy. We took a sunset stroll around town to cap off the evening.
The following day we headed back into town to visit the hilltop church, only to find that it was closed for the day. Undeterred, we decided to pick up our Merc and head out into the countryside for truffle hunting. Truffle season is famous in Istria. Some of the largest truffles found on record were discovered by well-trained pigs and dogs in the Istrian forests. A truffle is a species of fungus that grows underground, so they are very difficult to find (hence the pigs and dogs) and are known as "diamonds of the kitchen." In Istria, truffles can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, so we treasured the chance to taste and learn about freshly discovered truffles.
We headed out of Rovinj to the hilltop village of Motovun, which is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. Motovun is a medieval town nearly 1000 feet above sea level which features Roman fortifications, a Renaissance-era church and a market selling local wares including lavender products, honey, hand-knit caps and socks, and, of course, truffles. After hiking up to the town, checking out the city walls, experiencing an impromptu performance by a senior citizen church choir and shopping for local products, we headed to lunch at the famous Konoboa Mondo for a truffle feast. While our table was being set we played with a local cat who feasts on leftovers from restaurant guests - undoubtedly the cat with the most sophisticated palate in Europe.
At the direction of the waiter, we started with soup made from tomatoes picked that morning from the restaurant's garden simmered with olive oil and topped with shaved black truffles. For our main courses, we went with handmade tagliatelle topped with white truffles in a local olive oil sauce and a delicious red wine radicchio risotto. As the plates were placed in front of us, a white-gloved waiter came by with a giant truffle and shaved slices atop our pastas. We washed all this town with some local red wine and, as if it couldn't get any more decadent, finished it all of with a chocolate soufflé and panna cotta with local honey, both also topped with truffles. We were completely stuffed and in a truffle trance, and floated happily downhill to the car for our ride back to Rovinj. In the evening we rode bikes to check out the sunset from the other side of the city and headed back to our hotel to catch up on the Sunday NFL action.
The following morning we headed out early on our three-hour drive away from the coast, almost to the Bosnian border, to check out Plitvicka and its famous national park. Most of our drive was through the Croatian countryside, dotted with simple villages and bombed out buildings - vestiges from war in the 90s. Simply dressed residents hung out along the road taking in the fall sun and staring at us as we zoomed by in our too-fancy jet-black sedan.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for its 16 crystal clear, turquoise lakes connected by hundreds of cascades surrounded by a lush valley and miles of wooden plank paths set at water level. On Easter Sunday in 1991, the first shots of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia were fired in the park. The Serbs occupied Plitvice and the surrounding region until 1995, though now there is no hint of any tumultuous past. We were both struck by the vivid colors of the lakes, pristine smoothness of the waterfalls and wild, natural surroundings. There are no garbage cans, bathrooms, snack bars or other signs of humanity along the park paths, which makes for a totally immersive experience.
We started our first day in the park by dropping our car off at Plitvice Lodge, a family run inn with less than 10 rooms. The daughter of our proprietor offered us shots of house-made brandy, which neither of us could get down despite best efforts to be polite. Dave played with the rowdy house Huskie dog named Bingo while we bundled up for a few hours of hiking in the park.
We spent the next four hours hiking along uneven wooden planks lying only inches above the vividly colored lakes and waterfalls. We wound around through moss-covered cascades, reed-filled lakes so clear that we could see fish swimming along the bottom 20 feet below and through caves and tunnels. This place really is Never Never land. Most tourists come in summer and even in fall the tourists leave in the early afternoon, so we stayed until sunset and enjoyed taking in the epic natural site.
We were pretty whooped when we made it back to our lodge, but as there were no restaurants anywhere nearby, we fought sleep to make it to the 6:30 pm classic Croatian dinner prepared by our proprietor Ivan and his family. We were again offered shots of brandy, but this time politely declined. We enjoyed homemade bread, tasted some local cheese, and ate whole grilled fish, vegetable stew, cabbage salad and warm vanilla cake. We enjoyed the jovial family atmosphere but were completely knackered, so we headed out of the dining room before the brandy began flowing more heavily.
Outside the lodge was pitch black, so we bundled up and walked less than 10 meters from the hotel to check out the best stargazing we've ever seen. Without any light or air pollution, we saw thousands of stars, and even dust along the Milky Way. Erin saw a shooting star and she claims she saw a UFO. In any case, we were both stunned by the overwhelming number of stars in the sky and saddened that we don't get to see them more often. It really puts in perspective just how big the universe is and how tiny we are in comparison and is a great way to frame life's little problems.
The following morning, we enjoyed a hearty Croatian breakfast and headed back into the park. This time, we were there before any tourists so we did some naughty bouldering and free climbing off the paths, scoped out some caves and climbed winding stairs to the top of the highest waterfall. It was breathtaking to have the entire park to ourselves - especially when the sun shone over the valley illuminating the lakes and waterfalls.
After another 3 hour hike, we hopped back in our car, drove 3 hours back through the countryside and then along the Adriatic coast to Pula. We flew an hour and half at sunset back to Germany, and were back in our place in Lux by 8pm. We were completely entranced by the food, drink and nature in Croatia and would recommend our trip to anyone seeking a gastronomic hiking adventure.
Check out this throwback post to our first transpacific trip to Seoul, Kyoto and Tokyo.
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