02 May 2009

Istria - cultural crossroads and land of wine


The Istrian peninsula - mostly in Croatia now, but also including the areas around Piran in Slovenia, is a mixture of wine, truffles, Venetian ruins, and coastline all waiting to tempt you. The coast may not be as stunning as some part of southern Dalmatia, but the inland is possibly even more stunning (think Tuscan hills near the sea), and the whole peninsula is so small that nothing is far – you can day trip in Motovun from Pula or vice-versa, thus enjoying inland hilltop towns, truffles, Venetian peninsular outposts like Rovinj, and still get home with a great tan. Even more, you can easily combine Croatian Istria with Slovenia and northeastern Italy – think Ljubljana, Udine, Motovun, and Bohinj all in a long weekend. Or if you take a hydrofoil you can even get a day in Venice in as well. Extra thanks to our quasi-resident expert on Istria, Tammy, for extensive consultations on this section.

Istria has a cuisine which is possibly the most varied in the region, and given its small size it certainly has a high number of exceptional spots to eat. This is certainly in part due to the availability of that diamond of foods, the truffle, but at the same time the mix of Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Croatian, and Slovenian influences certainly haven't hurt.

The Istrians are equally proud of their wines - you will be unable to miss either Malvazija (Malvasia or Malmsey) the local white, or Teran, the red. Although certainly drinkable, they are a bit of an acquired taste, but some of the smaller family vineyards are producing ever-improving wines for competition on the world markets - two you might check are the Matošević and Pilato labels.

Getting there

Located as it is, Istria can be reached by flying into Pula, Trieste, Ljubljana, or even Zagreb. It is an ideal spot for those who like touring the countryside by car, as there is lots to explore, and given how close things are you can really see a lot very easily. Personally I like mixing Trieste (Maximillian’s palace and bit of shopping) with a stop in Piran, then continuing on into Croatia hitting Novigrad, Rovinj, Pula, Bale, and roaming the interior (Svetvinčenat, lunch in Motovun, dinner in Brtoniglia, and drinks at Vitriol anyone?)

If, on the other hand, you absolutely want to avoid a car rental (or can’t drive a stick), then consider flying to Pula and getting on a bus for Rovinj after taking in the Coliseum and downtown Pula. Or mix it with Italy: fly into Venice, and catch a boat over. Venezialines runs hydrofoils between Venice, Umag, Rovinj, Pula, Poreč, Rabac, Mali Lošinj, and Piran (in Slovenia). For most of the destinations you can travel every day but Monday.

As a side note, the Istrian "Ipsilon" - the Y shaped main highway system on the peninsula - has only one toll both - just south of the Novigrad exit on the left side of the Y – apparently hitting primarily those coming via Slovenia. The toll is a flat 2 Euros/14HRK for regular cars, but if you exit before the booth, no toll at all. And you get to cruise the "vinska cesta" (roads of wine) a bit.


Food

Istrian cuisine is best known for its extensive use of that delicious mold known as the truffle. White and black truffles infect all manner of food here, as does wild asparagus when in season in April and May. Otherwise, the cooking is noticably influenced by Italy (Istria was part of Italy until WWII, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that). Inland you will encounter wild game with fuzi, and on the coast a plethora of seafood, but either way you will encounter some of Croatia's best food here.

Svetvinčenat/Savicenta

Adorable. And under 30 minutes from Rovinj. Visit Dvigrad, then swing through Svetvincenat for coffee and a stroll around the 16th century Grimani castle, the best-preserved in Istria (but still, only the exterior walls and towers). Maybe you'll catch one of the dance festivals if you are lucky, or is that the other way around?


Trieste, Italia

Aeroporto Friuli Venezia Giuliana
This small regional airport has really pushed to become a regional hub serving not only northeast Italy, but parts of Slovenia and Croatia as well. It could be your best point of entry for your Istrian holidays; certainly worth checking.

Urban Hotel
via Androna chiusa, 4 Trieste
+39 (40) 302065
Design hotel with 40 stylish rooms including two junior suites, well-located in central Trieste off the Jewish quarter and about half a block from Piazza Unita d’Italia. Free DSL internet in the rooms, wi-fi in the lobby, and available garage parking. Rack rates from 170Euros, but check online for deals. All major credit cards accepted. If Urban is a bit out of your range (shame that) then check their more budget conscious sibling located just behind Urban in the old Jewish quarter, the Hotel James Joyce.

Albergo Citta di Parenzovia degli Artisti, 8
+39 (40) 631 133
The "city of Poreč" is a medium class hotel in Trieste, with no touches of Croatia, but the staff are friendly, and it is clean, inexpensive, and centrally located.

Gelateria Zampolli
via Ghega 10, Trieste
+39 (40) 364868
The best gelato in Trieste. Lines at all hours, but absolutely worth it. Located a few blocks from Stazione Centrale.

Circus
via S. Lazzaro 9b
+39 (40) 633 499
Wine bar where your beverage comes with mini bruschetta, tiny cous cous salads, and other nibbles.

La Boheme
via S. Lazzaro 9
Just next door to Circus, La Boheme is a bit trendier with funkier music, but similar concept of wine and nibbles – mini piedini, etc.

Shopping

Urban
via Dante Alighieri, 8
Armani jeans, other similar casual youth gear

Corner
via S. Spiridione & via Mazzini

Sephora
Via Matteo Renato Imbriani, 7

Taurus
Via Dante Alighieri, 2a
Armani, Versace, Roberto Cavalli, etc

Mase
Panini novita or classical wines by the glass 2.5 to 5 Euros/glass – “fast food” Italian style

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