Want to eat and drink your way around Croatia? Then here's where you should go
Forget France and Italy – if food is your thing, head to Istria.
This compact region of Croatia is a real up-and-coming foodie haven and if you haven’t sampled its delicious delicacies already, a trip to Istria should be at the top of your wish list.
With its warm, Mediterranean climate and laid-back vibe, Croatia is a hugely appealing – and cheap – holiday destination that boasts everything its Italian neighbours have to offer at a fraction of the price.
As the country is still outside the Eurozone and has its own currency - the Kuna - you can easily enjoy a three-course gourmet meal with wine for less than 240K (£30).
From fresh truffles to crisp white wines, Istria has it all. So if your stomach is rumbling at the mere thought of a feed, here are my top dining destinations.
Where should I head first?
For many people, the Croatian adventure starts in Pula and here is as good a place as any to start tickling your tastebuds. The city, which is the gateway to Istria, is famed for its ancient Roman ruins – particularly the imposing amphitheatre, which is arguably in a better condition than the Colosseum itself.
For restaurants serving pizza and pasta, head to Pula’s main square. But if you want to push the boat out, head to Valsabbion (Pjescana Uvala IX/26; +385 (0)52 218 033; www.valsabbion.hr) in the well-to-do area of Verudela.
This fine-dining establishment is one of Croatia’s most famous eateries and a real culinary delight.
The modern and minimalistic Valsabbion pulls out all the stops to impress, and diners can expect to be wowed by clams popping out of salt blocks, meals served in shot glasses and a wine list that is so big, it will make your arms ache.
Mick Jagger and Elton John are just two of the restaurant’s famous fans and I can certainly vouch for its full gastronomic experience (or tasting menu) that will set you back around 600K (£75) – a snip compared to what you could pay at other top restaurants.
About 40 minutes up the coast is the picturesque harbour town of Rovinj. This is one of Croatia’s most popular tourist destinations and rightly so – it’s beautiful.
Scores of restaurants are clustered around the harbour and the surrounding streets and really, they’re all worth a try.
One of my favourites is Trattoria Dream (Joakima Rakovca 18; +385 (0)52 830 613), which was voted one of Croatia’s top 100 eateries in 2007/08. Here, you can tuck in to a wide range of Tuscan dishes with an Istrian twist, such as Manestre (thick vegetable soup) or the very reasonable lunch menu where you can enjoy two or three courses for around 80K - less than a tenner.
Another great place is Monte (Montalbano 75; +385 (0)52 830 203; www.monte.hr) – a top-table destination that serves only the finest local produce.
Run by a husband and wife duo, Monte is ideal for special occasions. Its menu is split into two categories – ‘From the Sea’ and ‘From the Land’ – and includes tasty treats such as locally smoked ham with figs and sea bream with squid ink sauce.
Compared to some of the other restaurants in Rovinj, Monte is quite pricey, but it’s worth it.
Istria is famed for its truffles – a rare garlicky fungus that grows underground and is one of the world’s rarest delicacies.
Truffles only grow in a handful of places around the world and traditionally, people use pigs to search for them because they are particularly adept at sniffing them out. Truffle season runs from September to November and whether you try one of the delicious delicacies grated on salad or served with pasta, no trip to Istria would be complete without sampling one.
One of the best places to dig in is at Zigante, in Livade (Jurisiceva 19; +385 (0)14 817 794; www.zigantetartufi.com).
In October 1999, owner Giancarlo Zigante made it in to the Guinness World Records after finding the world’s largest truffle, which weighed in at 1.31kg. He has since opened up a gourmet restaurant in this tiny town where the main focus is on mouth-watering truffles, but there is also a special shop where you can pick up his locally-produced delicacies.
If you plan to visit during truffle season, it's also worth checking out Istria Gourmet (www.istria-gourmet.com) – a website set up to celebrate local produce. Here, you will be able to find out about the range of ‘Truffle Days’ taking place across the region where you can turn up to taste, buy and even enter truffle competitions.
Other Istrian delicacies include olive oil, ham and seafood.
What about the wines?
Croatian wines are some of the best in the world and two of the most popular types are the crisp Malvazija (white) and the fruity Teran (red), which are both produced in Istria and very drinkable indeed.
Wine lovers should head to Piassa Granda in Rovinj (Veli Trg 1; +385 (0)52 811 374) to sample some of the best wines the region has to offer for around 28K (£3.50) a glass. This warm and welcoming bar boasts more than 250 bottles and friendly, English-speaking staff are always on hand (with insanely moreish nibbles) to help you find the perfect wine for your palate.
In recent years, wine tourism has really taken off in Croatia and if you have your own transport, you can also follow the 'wine roads' and tour the region’s vineyards. Check out www.istria-gourmet.com for further details.
Where should I stay?
If money is no object, a night or two at Valsabbion is a must (see earlier contact details). Several designer rooms are situated above the restaurant and all boast cutting-edge designs and luxurious interiors. Prices start from around 975K (£120) per room per night.
In Rovinj, check out Casa Garzotto (Via Garzotto 8), a traditional B&B set in the heart of old town among the beautiful cobbled streets. With fabulous staff and reasonable rates in the region of 485K (£60) per room per night, hotels don’t come much more idyllic.
How do I get there?
Istria is well served by international airlines and has a flight-time of less than two hours from London.
Pula is the easiest place to fly in to, but you can also fly to Trieste, in Italy, which is right on the cusp of Croatia.
Budget airline Ryanair runs regular services to Pula from London Stansted and you can also fly from London Gatwick with national carrier, Croatia Airlines.
The main train stations in Istria are Pula and Pazin and there are frequent rail services from Italy, Hungary and Slovenia.
If you fancy arriving by boat, that’s also possible with regular Venezia Line ferries from Venice costing around 485K (£60) each way. The journey time is approximately three hours.