Travel Across The World to Rovinj, Croatia
I headed to Rovinj, Croatia, just after the peak tourist season (May–September), during the first week of October. Everyone I spoke to who had traveled there inevitably used some of the same words to describe it: “beautiful,” “romantic” and “artsy.” Everyone couldn’t wait to return.
Monte Mulini Hotel (top) is a beautiful, five-star hotel featuring 99 guest rooms and 14 suites many of which have private balconies that overlook the deep blue Adriatic Sea below; Just a 15-minute stroll to Rovinj, sits Hotel Lone (below), a modern designer hotel featuring 12 suites and 236 boutique rooms many with private balcony hot spas that overlook the pool and the Adriatic Sea.
I took three planes (Pensacola to Charlotte to New York and then on to Venice) and then a two-hour car ride to reach this mystical seaside sanctuary from the Middle Ages. I was on the hunt for adventure; I discovered plenty of that … and much more.
Istria is the largest Croatian peninsula situated in Southeast Europe. It is to the east of Italy on the Adriatic Sea. Somewhat like counting stars, no one is quite sure how many islands dot the Croatian coast, but to say there are upwards of a thousand is not an exaggeration. The storied history here dates back to the 6th century. Several civilizations, rulers and regimes crisscrossed Croatia, leaving behind a rich legacy along with amazing mosaics and fascinating frescoes throughout stunning Venetian palaces, fortified Austrian forts and charming old churches. Locals celebrate Statehood Day (June 25, 1991), the day it declared independence from Yugoslavia. And just last year Croatia joined the European Union, so Kuna, not Euro is king for now.
The red-tiled roofs of Rovinj, located on the western coast of the Istra peninsula, are clustered into an oasis next to the deep blue Adriatic Sea that is teeming with sea life and topped with gondolas, sailboats and fishing charters. The feeling in the town of 15,000 is easy and free. All roads lead to the Church of St. Euphemia’s basilica, a Baroque church built in 1736 that sits atop the island and graciously watches over the one of the most photographed places in the Mediterranean.
Rovinj has two stellar Maistra properties. Hotel Monte Mulini is a gracious five-star, full-service hotel with private balconies. The two-story windows in the atrium allow you to drink in sweeping views day and night. Off the atrium, the chic terrace lounge is the perfect place to watch the sunset. Hotel Lone is next door and has a modern, edgy vibe. There are several seating areas to mix and mingle, a convenient coffee bar, a superb restaurant called L and a fun disco that often features live music — making it great for a girl or guy getaway. Both hotels overlook the Adriatic Sea and are just steps from the “old town,” where the adventure begins.
Rovinj is filled with picturesque postcard scenes of lovers sipping cappuccinos in open-air cafes, families bobbing on charter boats and sightseers meandering the labyrinth of narrow stone streets brimming with boutique shops, art galleries, eateries and nightspots — one called Valentino’s invites guests to sip cocktails and listen to music while perched on rocks overlooking the sea.
Meneghetti Winery is a romantic respite surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards in nearby Bale that features four romantic villa suites, a pool and, of course, gourmet wine dinners.
The local white wine of Rovinj is Malvazija, made from the malvasia grape with reds derived from teran, a dark varietal from the 14th century. Wine making has been growing and improving since the 1990s. A visit to the Stancija estate in nearby Bale, home of the Meneghetti winery, takes you back to 1853, when an Austrian admiral decided to build a large naval retreat. Stancija was where the food was produced and where officers would rest and recreate. In 2001, Romana and Mirosalv Pliso purchased and restored the 75-acre rural estate and added new olive trees and grape vines. Businessman and wine connoisseur Goran Hanzek partnered and brought on world-renowned wine expert Walter Filiputti. Meneghetti hand-harvested grapes have since become “international wines that speak the Istrian language.”
Olive Oil Tasting
Thanks to being the northernmost area for olive growing in the world, there are about 30 olive varietals in Istria. Some are not found anywhere else in the world. Tedi and Sandi Chiavalon are third generation brothers who live and work on their organic olive orchard farm. Some of the 7,500 trees are 400 years old, but if pictures of peasants in overalls are on your mind, purge them. Two young, educated, energetic brothers run
Sandi Chiavalon and his brother, Tedi, have nurtured their family’s 400 year-old olive trees and business to produce one of the top 15 olive oils in the world.
The day I visited was the first of the 20 days of harvest season. I learned that to get two gallons of olive oil you have to press about 220 pounds of green olives. Black olives yield about five times more. Extra virgin is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil classification. It should have no defects and a flavor of fresh olives.
On the grounds is an unexpected treat — an olive oil tasting room. Bottles of olive oil illuminated with soft lights line the entire length of the room. Sleek mahogany tables are set with small stemless crystal glasses awaiting precious liquid gold. Tasting olive oil is similar to wine; smelling it prepares your palate, sipping it with air aerates the oil and is key to enjoying its full flavor. Color, it turns out, is not important.
The Chiavalons make five different blends by hand, which takes a week to 10 days. It’s packaged as Ex Albis and is ranked in the top 15 olive oils in the world.
In Rovinj a glass of Malvazija wine and a dish drizzled, infused or kissed with truffles is a tasty must do.
A highlight of this trip was hunting for truffles in the small town of Livade near the Motovun Woods (about a 40-minute drive from Rovinj). On a misty morning a guide called a tartufalo, along with his two trained hounds, helped sniff out the fragrant black and white ball-shaped treasures from the rich earth. The annual Truffle Days is a festival held here every October. You can fill up on local music, truffle-inspired dishes and shop for truffle and olive oils.
After harvesting and hunting it seemed only appropriate to relax, re-mineralize and revitalize my body at Hotel Lone’s modern, full-service spa with a Mediterranean Spice body treatment utilizing fresh herbs. The 60-minute treatment was exquisite. You can come early or linger after your appointment to relax in a Jacuzzi, sauna or swim in the indoor pool, refresh at the Vitality Bar or simply lounge in the quiet chaise chairs in the Relaxation Zone.
Wine and Dine
Croatia is a world-class destination for foodies. The Adriatic is teeming with sea life and local menus, ranging from casual to fine dining, that celebrate the city’s proximity to the sea with dishes showcasing sardines, cuttlefish, oysters, scallops, prawn and squid. And there are delicious artisan cheeses, Istrian prosciutto, crusty breads for dipping in freshly pressed olive oil and, of course, tantalizing truffles which star in everything imaginable, from pasta to ice cream! These restaurants are definite must-dos:
The Hotel Monte Mulini’s Wine Vault offers a modern take on traditional Istrian dishes in an elegant fine dining atmosphere.
Wine Vault is a swank restaurant located in the cellar of Hotel Monte Mulini. Reserve the Chef’s Table for dinner and enjoy inventive Istrian dishes beautifully designed by revered Chef Tom Gretic.
Restaurant Lanterna is a 10-minute boat ride to the Island of St. Andrew where you will enjoy a romantic dinner in an old castle called Huetterot.
Kantinon serves up stunning sea views and authentic local cuisine for lunch and dinner that celebrates the Rovinj fishing tradition.
Restaurant L is located inside Hotel Lone and serves contemporary cuisine featuring local, fresh ingredients artfully prepared by Chef Priska Thuring.
I experienced an unexpected revelation when I returned home. It turns out that my husband’s family is of Croatian decent. The story, as the European aunts and uncles tell it, is that their parents came from the Eastern European regions of Hungary and Croatia. After a couple glasses of wine, they will admit to being some of “the first gypsies” who eventually migrated to Vienna, Austria. All roads do seem to lead by Rovinj. Like everyone who visits, I too, can’t wait to go back “home” to a place that I would call … “enchanting.”