TRAVEL: Sampling a taste of Istria

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Urged on by a series grunts and whistles, Joseph’s two long-haired dachshunds raced into the sun-dappled Istrian forest and within minutes had helped unearth a small black truffle.

Seven-year-old Gejar and her daughter Cheeta, four, were instantly rewarded with a tasty treat by their owner, one of Croatia’s many truffle hunters who dig around the oak woodlands in Istria’s Livade region in a bid to supply the areas restaurants with this much sought-after and highly-prized delicacy.

Bordered to the north by both Slovenia and Italy, I recently travelled to Croatia’s attractive Istrian peninsula with Adagio (www.adagio.co.uk), a subsidiary of the newly-named Ramblers Walking Holidays – formerly Ramblers Worldwide Hiolidays – which prides itself by offering relaxed gentler walking breaks.

Surrounded on three sides by the aquamarine Adriatic, Adagio suggest that Istria offers a gastronomic adventure… and they’re certainly not wrong when it comes to sampling something new!

However not everyone in our party of 16 tasted all the local delights, for some drew the line at eating live clams and oysters in the Lim Fjord while others side-stepped tasting olive oil, cheese or drinking homemade wines and liqueurs at several other locations.

Following a two hour British Airways flight and then a three hour coach transfer from Zagreb Airport, we finally arrived at the comfortable four-star Grand Hotel Palazzo in Poreč where we got to know our Adagio tour leader, Peter Parnes and his charming wife Angie.

The Hotel Palazzo – with its wellness centre, spa, outdoor pool (which was freezing!) and sparkling new casino – is located right on the waterfront at the far end of this old historic city.

Once checked in and unpacked, we took the short walk to Restaurant Divino where we had a lengthy four course dinner which sadly offered no alternatives… unfortunately ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t actually work!

Following an excellent hotel breakfast, our first full day meant an early start as we strolled around the headland to this coastal city’s magnificent 6th century basilica in the company of local guide Maslinka.

The basilica is Istria’s only official UNESCO World Heritage site with admission costing 40 kunas (approx £5). The Croatian currency comprises 100 lipa to the kuna although plans for the country to join the euro are supposedly scheduled for 2020.

The basilica’s admission price really is worth every penny for besides the ancient mosaics of Christ and the Apostles and the Virgin and Child, it also has a magnificent bell tower which offers wonderful views across the rooftops and out to sea, that’s if you decide to climb the many levels of the steep ancient wooden staircase.

We also learned of Poreč’s Roman and Slavic past, viewed the remains of three ancient temples then wandered the narrow cobbled streets, many lined by former Venetian palaces still painted in their soft pastel shades.

Poreč itself has around 17,000 inhabitants although during the summer months this more than doubles, magnificent yachts and tourists by the coach load pour in to soak up the atmosphere and to enjoy the dozens of bars and restaurants which line the town’s attractive quayside.

During the early afternoon we travelled by coach to visit Ograde Farm (the name means fence or wall), a traditional self-sufficient farmstead where we enjoyed homemade liqueurs plus a tasty pasta lunch after watching its owner work her magic in the kitchen.

In fact we all had a go at making a twirly kind of fusili on a stick which seemed to get the nod from our host who then disappeared to cook up our offerings – along with some of her own – while we wandered off to spend time visiting the farm’s turkeys, goats, chickens, geese, deer and pigs beneath the shady trees.

On the way back to Poreč, we called in at the village of Beram, thought to be one of the oldest settlements in Istria. There we visited the remote Church of St Mary of the Rocks to see its highly-decorated frescoes painted as far back as 1474 by a local artist featuring scenes from Adam and Eve, The Wheel of Fortune and The Dance of Death. The small Gothic building is actually a cemetery chapel known locally as Sveta Marija na Skrilinama.

The following day we were back aboard the coach, our jovial driver Darko taking us to the attractive Venetian town of Rovinj further along Istria’s west coast where the pastel coloured houses drop right down to the water’s edge.

With no planned walks on this our second full day, we climbed the steep cobbled streets which are lined with artists’ shops and hillside restaurants before reaching the huge Baroque Church of Euphemia at the very summit of the town.

After a brief look around this magnificent church, we descended for much-needed refreshment as the temperature soared in the high 20s. Once refreshed, we then climbed aboard MB Orseka, a traditional wooden Turkish-style gulet to meet Captain Drago who immediately set sail for the Lim Fjord.

Plying us with his homemade schnapps and a tasty strong Merlot wine, the skipper entered the ten kilometre estuary lined on both sides by 150 metre high limestone cliffs, the fjord itself being home to dozens of fish farms where sea bream are the main residents.

However it was the oysters, clams and mussels that we – well some of us! – had come to sample. There was certainly plenty of white wine to help wash them down and they couldn’t have been fresher. But I have to admit that I would never chose a plate of salty oysters, liberally doused in lemon juice, over any other kind of seafood which we also had for lunch at the fjord’s Restaurant Viking.

Sadly for the second time that day, we had another starter of fish soup back at Hotel Palazzo that evening while it was also evident that vegetables were not high on the chef’s offerings. And as my rump steak was really under cooked – I usual say please cremate it! – it was only accompanied by two tiny ‘blobs’ of potato.

Our first proper walk started the following morning from the stunning hilltop village of Grožnjan which is more than 900 feet above sea level and overlooks the Mirna Valley. It is also a mere 30 kilometres from the Italian border town of Trieste and the local joke is that you can see as far as Venice from the top!

Grožnjan really is a hidden gem, its cobbled streets are a real joy to the eye (and camera). We really enjoyed looking around the town which is reputed to have around 30 artists’ shops and these seemed to fill every available corner.

Now ready for the walk, we set off to find our starting point on the Parenzana Trail, also known as ‘The Route of Health and Friendship’. The trail is actually a former railway track which once linked Trieste to Poreč, the trail winding it’s way downhill towards the village of Završje some 5.9 miles away.

Interestingly the train tracks were ordered to be removed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini when this part of Croatia was under Italian rule before the Second World War. He deemed the tracks should be taken to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and relaid – but en route, the ship carrying them strangely sank, never to be seen again!

The walking trail (which is also shared by mountain bikers) is beautiful with stunning views back to Grožnjan across the valley. Then just as we reached the road to Završje, our driver Darko arrived with his Mercedes Benz coach waiting to whisk us on towards the beautiful Kabola Winery – www.kabola.hr – close to the town of Momjan.

Famous for its delicious Momjan Muscat production (it’s called Moscato Momiano) and extra virgin olive oil, the Kabola Winery stretches as far as the eye can see, its vines all perfectly trimmed while the property is lined with tall poplar trees reminiscent of a Tuscan landscape.

Lunch at Kabola was taken in the shade of a huge oak and naturally consisted of local produce; cheeses, olives, smoked meats and bread plus some wonderful small donuts… and of course several excellent white and rose wines, each described in details by our pretty hostess Sandra.

Each year there are around 10,000 visitors to the vineyard, many taking the road-going ‘Parenzana Train’ – www.parenzana.hr – on a special wine tour which runs between the town of Motovun and the village of Vižinada, the road-train naturally dropping in at Kabola for a tasting session.

Dinner that evening saw us visit the remote Konoba Milena, a restaurant some two kilometres from the village of Visnjan. The best way to describe the food is ‘rustic’ with huge platters of meat on the bone being washed down with locally produced wine. However our group reported some very strange pricing as we left the restaurant, a glass of red cost just 6 kunas while a bottle of the same could be as much as 150!

Next morning we visited Veliki Brijuni, the largest in the Brijuni Archipelago courtesy of the hourly ferry from the small port of Fažana, know locally as the ‘town of sardines’.

The Brijuni group comprises 14 individual islands with Veliki having been the favoured residence of former Yugoslavia’s president Marshal Josip Broz Tito who would spend up to six months a year there where he enjoyed entertaining famous visitors – from film stars, foreign dignitaries and politicians to various heads of state, Indira Ghandi even brought him two Indian elephants to add to his growing menagerie!

We walked some four miles around the beautiful parkland which is still home to zebras and herds of deer while there is also an 18-hole golf course, a couple of quayside hotels plus several interesting archaeological sites denoting the island’s former Roman occupation.

The next day we headed to Hum (pronounced ‘Whom’ and officially the world’s smallest town) which is full of medieval urban architecture. In Hum there are either 19 or 21 residents depending on who you believe – but as we spotted a mother with a small baby, maybe it’s now 20 or 22!

It was then off to Livare for the truffle hunt with Joseph and his two eager dogs. Lunch followed at Zigante Restaurant whose owner Giancarlo Zigante is credited in the Guinness World Record archives as having unearthed a prized giant 1.3kg white truffle back in 1999.

As white truffles can fetch more than £2,000 per kilo, it’s no surprise that so many Istrian menfolk start digging and searching the verdant oak woodlands for the prized tubers in a season which runs between October and January. It’s also said that the best truffles are shipped abroad, yet every restaurant and shop seemed to have them, so clearly there’s plenty to go round!

Lunch comprised of beef carpaccio to which our white-gloved waiter added shavings of black truffle. This was followed by a pasta dish with added white truffle flakes... and even our ice cream sweet dish had a truffle topping!

The truffle smell is akin to a strong mushroom and it seemed to hang in the air everywhere we went and especially in the hilltop town of Motovun some 1,000 feet above sea level which boasts incredible scenic vistas.

Catching a local shuttle bus, we then climbed the slippery cobbled limestone streets and walked around Motovun’s outer wall, the smell of truffles seemingly coming from every restaurant. We might have climbed the lofty tower of St Steven’s Church but I chose instead to visit the birthplace of the town’s most famous son.

Mario Gabriele Andretti, the 1978 World Formula One motor racing champion, was born in Motovun in 1940 when Istria was still part of Italy. His house is frequently visited by motor sport fans even though he emigrated to the USA back in the late-1950s. As an impressionable youngster, Andretti’s sights were always firmly set on a future in the fast lane after he visited Monza with his father and saw Juan Manuel Fangio win the 1955 Italian Grand Prix.

Our final day in Croatia was spent visiting Pula, Istria’s largest city, where we met up with tour guide Branka. First we visited the impressive 1st century Roman amphitheatre – the world’s sixth largest after Rome’s mighty Coliseum. Home to Pula’s annual International Film Festival, the amphitheatre has also hosted numerous classical and pop concerts featuring the likes of late opera star Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John.

Orginally there were 23,000 seats from which the Romans watched all manner of unsavoury contests while Branka went on to explain that while Pula’s acoustics are not as good as some other amphitheatres, she explained that the organisers have learned how to place the speakers to get the very best results.

Branka’s own family was of particularly interest as she explained: “My grandfather was born in Austria, my father in Italy while I was born in Yugoslavia and my daughter in Croatia… yet we were all delivered in the same Pula hospital. It just shows to how the country’s borders have changed over the past 100 years!”

Our last outing on this Adagio gastronomic holiday was to Kumparička, the home of a former Croatian lawyer who walked away from his profession at the age of 40 to become a goat cheese producer, having first purchased a 14th century farmhouse seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Aleš admits that he had no background in farming yet today he has 250 goats, most of whom need milking twice daily. “I’d never really seen a goat until I bought my first one,” he said. “But I was really determined to make it work and with plenty of help from family and friends, I think we’ve made it.”

Today his farm produces several types of specialist cheese and yoghurts – which we naturally sampled! – while our lunch also comprised a thick vegetable soup containing goat and pig meat sausages along with a tasty homemade bread.

However that was topped by a huge dish of tasty spare ribs. “First we boil the ribs in a bag, then smoke them before putting them on the grill and topping them with a special sticky barbecue sauce to which we add goat’s milk,” explained Aleš. More details at www.kumparička.com

So summing up, on the last day we had the best and the worst of meals, the final one at Konoba Ćakula back in Poreč comprising two thin slices of pork mounted atop two squares of yellow polenta, most of which was actually sent back barely touched by the majority of our group.

After that disaster, we strolled from the restaurant to watch the start of the Croatia Rally, the event being part of the 2016 FIA European Rally Trophy Championship which has been staged in Istria for the past four years with Poreč as its base. This year’s 473 kilometre event received an entry of 53 rally cars all geared up to cover 12 special off-road plus the Croatian television cameras on hand to cheer the rally crews on their way.

With Pula Airport just 45 minutes away from Poreč and being served by several budget airlines, it seemed rather strange that Adagio used a British Airways flight into Zagreb which constituted a three hour coach transfer. As one wag suggested: “It’s a bit like visiting Edinburgh but then flying into Cardiff.”

TRAVEL FACTS

Alan Wooding and his wife Jo were guests of Adagio, the gentle walking holiday company based at Lemsford Mill, Lemsford Village, Welwyn Garden City, AL8 7TR – tel 01707 386700 – www.adagio.co.uk

Flying with British Airways to Zagreb, he stayed at the Grand Hotel Palazzo, Obala Maršala Tita 24 52 440 Poreč – www.hotel-palazzo.hr or email info@hotel-palazzo.hr

For 2017, Adagio will be running their ‘Istria – A Gastronomic Adventure’ holiday on the following Friday dates: 28 April, 19 May and 29 September with prices starting from £1,599.

Special thanks to Tony Maniscalco of Ramblers Walking Holidays/Adagio for organising the trip and to Istrian tour leader Peter Parnes for helping make it an enjoyable and unforgettable week.

** The RWH group recently announced a new Chapters Experience Holidays (www.chaptersholiday.co.uk) collection which takes small groups to many different parts of the world with activities ranging from walking, cycling and sailing to painting, photography and mindfulness.