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Amazing Istria

Background: found some cheap flights to Krakov in July and requested my husband put in for those dates, but after our last trip, we wanted something more relaxing and beachy than a city trip. We'd been to Dalmatia (Cavat/Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar) in 2012 and it wasn't a highlight of our larger Balkan trip, so it took a little convincing to get my husband on board. But it's hard to argue with 25 euro return flights to Pula. So we were off for 5 nights.

Once again we flew Laudamotion, which I've taken to Majorica twice and Naples once in the last year or so. They're reliable as always and a good value. (They've never weighed our bags or given us any of the issues that EasyJet and RyanAir , despite being owned by the latter.

On the recommendation of people on this board, we picked up a rental car from Sixt, 140 euros for 5 days. A good price, and we got upgraded after listening to the canned spiel about their insurance, which would have doubled the price. We have USAA and a good travel credit card, and at first it seemed nice that we were upgraded to a literally brand-new small SUV for the price of an economy car, but in retrospect, it kept us from going to a couple places we might have been interested in because any damage from gravel roads.

The Pula airport is tiny and so we were in Pula's old center within an hour of landing. Pula was busy and parking was difficult - we ended up parking way past the car ferry terminal, and started to doubt the wisdom of traveling in July (we usually travel in May/June and September/October). We had limited time due to dinner plans in Rovinj, so we opted to just do a relatively quick walk through the old city, admiring the very impressive Arena, having a falafel lunch in a park near the Zerostrasse underground passage, sharing a small beer at "Uliks" an art-noveau bar in the building where James Joyce lived for a couple years, quickly toured the Temple of Augustus, and headed back to the car within less than 3 hours, with a quick stop to see the famous floor mosaic unearthed by the damage of an Allied bomb in WWII.

My husband is big on Roman sites and history, and Pula's arena is certainly grand, but we didn't feel we missed anything personally by making this stop relatively short. We've done lots of Roman stuff in the last 8 years and a relatively quick glance felt fine. Pula was appealing enough but I'm not sad we didn't spend more time there.

From there it was 35 minutes driving to Rovinj, or rather, the suburb outside Rovinj where our holiday apartment was located. The owners were not yet there, so a neighbor was checking us in, and she was lovely, but spoke no English. Throughout our stay in Istria, Italian and German were the two languages we heard most, so luckily speaking a bit of German to people who also spoke just a bit of German came in handy.

Apartments Sarc Rovinj are run by a lovely family from Slovenia in their own holiday home, and I can say that these modern, clearly recently refurbished apartments may have had the most thoughtful touches of nearly anywhere I've stayed at. Great lighting, electrical outlets everywhere (!!!), extremely effective air conditioning, a real fridge, basics like salt and vinegar in the pantry. I felt the price (about 107 euros/night) was a little high for the location, a 15 minute walk from the beach and 25 minutes walk from the old town in a residential area, but the hosts, who invited us to a BBQ and made a plate for us when we couldn't attend, and invited us into their home for homemade walnut liquor, and provided extras like bikes free of charge, made up a bit for the cost. (Similar flats in the area and elsewhere were half as expensive but didn't have AC - and it was in the mid-90s during our trip. AC was necessary.)

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We didn't have much time to relax after checking in, because I'd booked us for a unique experience through the Batana Eco-Museum in Rovinj. A Batana is a flat-bottomed local fishing boat, and the museum about the culture of fishing in Rovinj is considered one of the best museums in Croatia. The museum offers on Tuesdays and Thursdays in summer an experience where for just under 40 euros per person you get admission to the small but well-done museum, a sunset ride on a Batana to a special wine cellar restaurant (which only opens for these events or groups of 25 booked in advance) for a fisherman's dinner, while being serenaded by traditional fisherman's songs in the local Rovinj dialect.

This was an AMAZING experience. I felt a little bad for my husband, who was coming off night shift and was quite tired, but the experience of being rowed around beautiful, Venetian Rovinj with the incomparable light by an 82-year-old fisherman to this special restaurant for one of the best seafood dinners I've ever had was really something else. On our boat we had a photojournalist who took what is perhaps the best picture of my husband and I (and rowing fisherman) ever. The food was simple but amazing. Anchovy filets in Istrian olive oil (I'm addicted) and whole fried mackerel to start, followed by a giant pot of mussels in local white wine and garlic, which was just a precursor to a giant plate of fried seafood including whole fish, calamari, tiny octopus, and whole shrimp, accompanied by bread and the best tomato salad I've had outside of Greece. (The tomatoes and olive oil in Istria are divine and I'm saying this as a Californian!) A 1/4 liter of wine and water and bread was also included. It was a ridiculous amount of food, all very fresh and amazingly prepared.

I should stop going on about this but I loved this so much that even if you're visiting Rovinj for one day, I'd try to do it on a Tuesday or a Thursday just for this. One of the most memorable meals of my life.

Afterwards we walked around the southern side of the Rovinj peninsula, stopping for a scenic espresso and wine at the posh La Puntalina "beach bar" and restaurant, by which "beach" is a series of rocks and steps you can seat yourself on, overlooking the lapping waves. The amazing location of this place led us to believe the food wouldn't be particularly good, but guidebooks and Google reviews state otherwise. If we'd had more time in Rovinj we'd have booked a table. We moved on to a nightcap at Monte Carlo Bar, with a similar location on a cliff with multiple rocky terraces down to the water, and witnessed a local in bright orange swim trunks and a big Croatian flag tattoo on his midsection scamper down into the water for a midnight swim. Despite the "no swimsuits" sign at the bar, the staff didn't decline him service after his little swim.

We were about 30 minutes walking from our flat at this point, and my husband had blisters from before the trip that had been exacerbated by our walk down, so we went to Tito Plaza (former Yugoslavia is weird, yo) and got a cab back to our place for about 15 euro with tip. Worth it. Stayed up a little later, enjoying the warm night on our flat's patio.

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The next day we made use of the car to hit a chain bakery for some bread and burek (the thing we missed most from our 2012 Balkan trip) and then went to a mega-Konzum, which is pretty close to Kaufland in Germany, a big supermarket. The same shopping center also hosted a Lidl, but I'm on vacation, I'm not going to Lidl! We stocked up on breakfast supplies, beer and wine and water, coffee, cheeses, and even premium cevapcicci from the butcher counter. Between the sad state of my husband's feet and the distance of our flat to any restaurants, we actually ate in quite a bit and I didn't feel deprived, as the local cheeses, meats, and wine were all fantastic.

Once home, after eating disappointing burek, we headed to our local beach, Cuvi. It had two parts: a cove with rocky sides, separated by a small rocky point from a larger bay. The cove's mouth was small pebbles with a sandy bottom, so popular with families with small children. The larger bay beach was large pebbles and rocks, but gorgeous crystal water and a bit more in terms of waves. Both were shaded by pine forest. Anyone wanting solitude or more could go a little further to two different rocky shelf points where "FKK" was in full effect - nudists sunning themselves on the rocks away from the more family-friendly areas. The smaller cove had a tolerable beach bar, the further one had a better one that served decent burgers and grilled chicken. They were connected by a level gravel road that is a popular bicycle path that on the the right lead to the protected "Golden Cape" park, full of beautiful rocky beaches worth exploring and less people.

I was afraid, given that it was July, that this beach would be overrun, but it was fine. There were people, sure, but it wasn't overly crowded. We spent two afternoons on the beach until dark, first day in the cove area, the second on the larger beach enjoying the waves the wind had whipped up, taking small walks to explore and chilling on the totally reasonable beach loungers (5 euros per lounge per day). This is considered a "natural" beach so the beach bars/services closed when it was dark, where we'd go back to our flat and pig out on cheese and prscut and tomatoes dressed in nothing but olive oil and freshly ground salt, watching dramatic electric storms on our balcony.

Unfortunately my husband isn't as much a beach bum as I am, and the weather was getting iffier, so we agreed that on our 3rd full day (out of 4) that we'd walk into Rovinj after a lazy morning to explore the city properly and have a nice dinner. The day predicted bad thunderstorms starting around 3pm, and it was overcast as we walked into the city, but the skies cleared up and we had a surprisingly hot afternoon wandering around this medieval town, climbing up to the church, and finding hidden squares and dodging truffle hucksters at the market (not worth spending time at unless the actual market is going on).

We had an aperitif at the Hotel Spirito Santo Palazzo Storicio, apparently the fanciest hotel in all of Rovinj, and our Campari royales were appropriately pricey. We made it in time for our reservation at Gracianio, which was recommended in our guidebook and had a decent rating on Google. It was a little strange, as it didn't look like a nice restaurant and the menu felt dated, but it seemed like a good hybrid of the location of La Puntalina and the food of Giannino, without the fear of being rushed out of the latter.

Overall it was a good choice for the setting alone. The predicted thunderstorms had finally arrived.

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I have to say, this timing worked out perfectly. Once the weather had gotten sunny and hot I spent plenty of time looking at the forecast and it seemed like bad weather would arrive right around 7pm, then pass by 9pm. Our restaurant had a covered rooftop right over the water, so we literally got to watch the front come in while enjoying local wine and truffled cheese. We'd ordered a whole seabass cooked in salt, filleted at the table for 2, but just before they could serve it the storm hit, and I'd never seen anything like it outside of Florida. It was like a hurricane. At first the servers reassured us that the mechanized roof and sides would be fine, but as the rain was blowing on our feet and the whitecaps were rolling over the sea, they moved us first into the interior of the restaurant, which was hot, then into the covered patio, which was a little wet but better than the upstairs, while apologizing profusely.

I was having a great time, taking video, enjoying the spectacle of the families confused about the fish fillet procedure happening in the casual, downstairs pizzeria part of the restaurant. The storm did pass after about an hour of dramatics, leaving us with a picture perfect Rovinj sunset that I traipsed across the puddle-filled parking lot in my sandals to get the right photo.

And we got free local digestiv liquor on the house because of all the fuss of moving us twice! The food was simple, but good - perfectly cooked fish with a side of local chard and potatoes. A bottle of wine, water, and the fish with the cheese starter and veg side set us back about $100. A pretty decent value. Oh, and everything was drenched in local olive oil, which again, is amazing.

The old town was totally cleared out after the storm, which made for some nice wandering. Overall I was also pleasantly surprised at how uncrowded the city was - I'd feared Venice-like crowds, but even on a Sunday in July it was manageable, and after the storm we felt pleasantly alone. We found our way to the highly reviewed Cafe Bar Limbo, which was one of the greatest pubs I've found in any old city center, anywhere. Covered in amazing artwork and highly atmospheric, with relatively friendly owners this is a place well worth stopping in for a coffee, but they had a large selection of Croatian schnaps, too, including Istrian mistletoe schnaps which we really enjoyed.

On the way back to Tito square to pick up a cab we stopped in at the local Irish pub, which is highly reviewed but i didn't think much of it. It took 20 minutes to get a drink and was full of obnoxious party kids. If it hadn't been damp we would have headed back up the hill to Monte Carlo instead for a seaside tipple instead. Because we had a big day ahead we caught a cab relatively early and went home.

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Because we'd rented a car we felt somewhat obligated to go explore inland a bit, although honestly, I would have been perfectly happy on the beach, even if the weather wasn't as sunny as our first two days.

We first headed to the medieval ruin of Dvrigrad, just 20 minutes or so from Rovinj. The town was abandoned after outbreaks of plague and pirate raids (who knew pirates went inland?) and they're very accessible and atmospheric. Unfortunately a large and boisterous German family were uprooting protected areas and generally being obnoxious, but they were the only people we encountered at this beautiful site.

It was another 20 minutes to Svetvinčenat, which our guidebook was effusive about, for reasons unknown. It does have a castle and keep right in the center, but it wasn't open until 16:00. The church was closed, too. Well, it was on the way to Vodnjan, which was far more interesting.

We parked in a public lot near the Vodnjanka restaurant, where we had lunch. We'd read that the service could be slow, and wow, it really was. The food was good - I had an omelette with local prosciutto, and my husband had cheese ravioli with wild asparagus. This wasn't what we'd ordered, but it was the food we got and we were happy for it. Very reasonable price, but nearly 2 hours for lunch makes it hard to recommend. We then went in to explore the city, which was very atmospheric, but I was here for dead people.

Yes, the church of St. Blaise hosts what signs informed us in English was "the attraction of the world". Very exciting! Upon entering the church it took a bit of stomping around and coughing to get the attention of the priest so we could see the "attraction" - 5 bodies of saints, "preserved" in various states of decay through what the awkward and inadvertently hilarious audio recording described in halting English as "unexplained by modern science". If you're into the macabre or strange religious stuff (and I very much am) this church is not to be missed. We always try to be respectful but looking at what appears to be a hunk of wood but is supposedly St. Sebastian's arm and torso while hearing his torture being described as "shot with arrows, until he was like porcupine" was hard to not giggle a bit. The very friendly and flamboyant priest initially thought we were visitors from the UK, when I told him we were American he said, "God bless Trump! or....maybe not. But Melania, she is from here! Or close enough." He alone was worth the relatively high cost of admission (50 kuna per person).

We'd hoped to have time to stop in Bale, but after getting a parking ticket on our car (whoops) we realized we didn't have time because we'd made reservations for a boat trip! Shortay....

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Our boat trip was through the Stupica family, and I'd inquired about another trip via their website and heard nothing back, but managed to book this trip for 12% cheaper via Booking.com. Sorry fam for your lesser profits, maybe hire someone to handle the internet requests? I prefer to book direct when possible.

The dock was located not in Rovinj, but about equidistant from our flat in the Villas Rubin resort/camping complex, which is huge and slightly terrifying. It's just a lot of children. And a FKK beach in the middle, because why not?

The Booking.com deal was a sunset cruise with swimming and (maybe) dolphin sightings, 3 hours for 24 euros a person with unlimited drinks. That was not only the best deal going by far, but also the highest reviewed boat excursion and I have to say, if you are near Rovinj, just take a trip with Stupica. I wish we'd been able to do the half-day trip to the Lim Fjord, but they were already booked up a week in advance.

For starters, the crew - which is literally the dad piloting the boat and his two kids - are awesome. The swimming break was in a beautiful area, I was the first one off the boat while everyone else seemed shocked, but they gave us plenty of time. They did manage to find us dolphins, we saw them breach several times relatively close to the boat. The views of the various islands and Rovinj were great, and they weren't lying about the unlimited drinks - the kids kept the chilled beer and wine (and soft drinks but whatever) coming and also offered us pear schnapps. At 24 euro this was a great value and there's a reason why they're highly rated and their trips sell out.

My husband, who is suspicious of anything touristy and was internally not really on board with the Batana fish dinner the first night or the boat trip on the last night couldn't stop raving about either. So that's pretty high praise for both experiences.

We had a very early flight scheduled the next morning, so after watching the sunset near the boat dock we grabbed a taxi back to our place and packed and enjoyed some more thunderstorms until rain forced us inside and into bed.

Takeaways:

Istria is very different from Dalmatia, and I liked it more. People were a bit friendlier and the food was amazing.

Not sure if the car was that useful for our kind of trip, which was based around relaxing. We wouldn't have visited the inland sites without one and while they were cool, I could have survived without that. But if you want to see more in this area, a car is vital.

I love rocky/pebbly Croatian beaches like I love Greece. Sand is overrated. Good watershoes are a godsend. Let me know if you want recommendations.

I second-guessed my location the entire time leading up to the trip (we'd considered locations in Novigrad, Porec, and the eastern side) but Rovinj wasn't the tourist hellhole some people made it out to be, it was actually possibly one of the most stunning old cities I've seen in Europe and I'm glad we were based nearby.

Everyone assumed I was German on this trip, and I'm not sure what that means.

I really liked the apartment/family we stayed with, but I'm a little mad they are dishonest about the distance from the beach/old town. Driving/biking to be closer to either isn't really a great option, as both are downhill and pedestrianized after a certain point that just makes walking the better option.

For 25/return I'd go back in a heartbeat. Rovinj is a magical place.

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I loved this report! I’m ready to go for the seafood feast and see the porcupine saint. In fact, I’d love to retrace your entire trip. Thanks so much for sharing this report.

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289 posts

We also loved Rovinj and your review makes me want to go back, stay longer and take both of the boat trips you recommended. Wow!

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3616 posts

Great write up on my favorite place. There is so much more to see. Yeah, Burek is definitely not an Istrian thing.

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15 posts

Sarah, could you please provide some specific information on how to book the Batana museum trip?

We’d love to go. Wonderful trip report. Thanks.