Croatia has been on my radar for some years - stories of great beaches, stunning Mediterranean islands and pretty towns were somewhat intriguing but whenever it came to choosing a holiday, I always ended up elsewhere.
That was until a few weeks ago, when I finally made it to the picturesque town of Rovinj, in the Istrian Peninsula, North-West of Croatia. Having spent a fantastic 4-day trip there, my only regret is not having visited it earlier.
Rovinj has a rich history dating back to Roman times, and was part of the Republic of Venice for over 500 years until 1797. Unsurprisingly, the old town has a very Italian feel to it, with similar architecture, narrow pedestrianised alleyways, clothing hanging out to dry from many windows, and a buzzing coffee culture with many cafes serving excellent espresso dotted around the town.
The town is dominated by the 18th century church of St Euphemia, and the weekend I visited was the saint's festival, so the place was heaving with locals and visitors. The town can be easily visited on foot, and is a stone's throw along the lovely harbour from the hotel Monte Mulini, where I stayed.
Where to Stay
Opened in 2009, Hotel Monte Mulini is one of the finest 5 star hotels in Croatia. The hotel's location is dramatic, overlooking the bay, and set into a forested hillside, with a sleek modern design featuring a glass wall over three levels with stunning views of the poolside and sea below. The hotel's interiors have a warm, soothing luxury created by the tasteful use of colours, fabrics, bespoke furniture and Croatian artwork throughout.
My room was elegant and spacious, with plenty of natural light and a huge bathroom. I loved the very discreet kitchen concealed inside a cupboard (so discrete I didn't find it until day 2). My room had a lovely view of the sea, and in fact all the bedrooms have a sea view.
The focal point of the hotel, though, is undoubtedly its infinity pool, which overlooks the Istrian sea. A good place to soak up the sun, read a book and relax after the hotel's sumptuous breakfast.
The breakfast buffet is offered alongside cooked options including fried steak and eggs, all washed down with local sparkling Malvasia wine - an unusual breakfast treat typical of the region, which I really took a shine to! Croatians also love their cold meats and hams, and these were offered in abundance along with fresh cheeses, fish, fruit, and cereals.
The hotel's Art Wellness Spa offers a wide range of treatments including hot body wraps, vinotherapy tonification and various massage options. I was lucky enough to be able to try their holistic traditional massage one morning. It left me in a state of utter relaxation for the next few days, and I would highly recommend it.
The hotel has two different restaurants. Mediterraneo serves a la carte meals al fresco on the terrace or indoors. The Wine Vault restaurant in the hotel cellars offers Croatian fine dining, and is where I had one of the best meals of my stay.
Where to Eat
Hotel Monte Mulini's Wine Vault Restaurant
I knew very little about Croatian food before this trip, but suspected it consisted mainly of simple grilled meat and fish dishes. This latest trip has certainly taught me a great deal! Hotel Monte Mulini's resident chef Tomislav Gretic is leading a new wave in fine-dining on a par with many top notch restaurants in Paris and London. His repertoire is primarily French-Mediterranean, using good quality local ingredients, well made and beautifully presented. I would not be surprised were he to be awarded the first Michelin star in Croatia.
Tomaslav put together an impressive tasting menu to illustrate the region's top produce, including truffles, fish, crustacea and olive oil for our first dinner in Croatia. These were expertly paired with Croatian wines selected by Tom Harrow, The Wine Chap, who presented each wine during the dinner - a Herculean task, given that the hotel's list has more than 600 wines, of which over 90% are Croatian!
After an aperitif of Misal Rosé Sec (a fine blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Malvasia) , we had our first starter of Tuna and Avocado Puree, served with a glass of Malvasia, Istarska 2011, Vina Polleti, Istra, Hrvatska. Rather like a Japanese tataki, the tuna was seared on the outside but raw in the centre, served with semi-dried baby plum tomatoes and caramelised onions. It was ultra-fresh and delectable.
Next was Sea Bass Fillet with a Ragout of Cuttlefish, served with a glass of Posip 2009, Vinarija Grgic, Peljesac, Hrvatska. The fish was perfectly cooked, and judging by its fine texture and presentation, I suspect it was prepared sous vide.
The star of the dinner, for me however, was the Risotto with Black Truffles and Foie Gras, served with a raw egg yolk, and partnered with Cuvee Nevina 2009, Saints Hills Winery, Istra, Hrvatska. I loved the unctuous creaminess of the risotto and egg yolk, and the heady flavour of the black truffle combined wonderfully with the top quality foie gras.
I thought the presentation of the main course of Duck Breast, Cream of Potato and Mushrooms was dramatic and creative. The duck was tender and beautifully cooked, and I also enjoyed what the waiter described as 'edible earth' - I suspect this was toasted, ground rye bread or at least I hope so, as I cleaned my plate. To accompany our main, we had a glass of Modri Pinot 2003, Vina Movia, Gorkska Brda, Slovenia.
For dessert, we had Chef Tomaslav's take on the French classic Tarte Tatin, but using local Istrian plums rather than apples. Described as 'Plum and Butter', this was a light and refreshing dessert, partnered very appropriately with a glass of "Allegro" Muscat 2009, Vina Dobravac, Istra, Hrvatska.
Lone Hotel's Restaurant
Another great meal on this trip was at the Lone Hotel, sister to the Hotel Monte Mulini. The hotel opened in July 2011, and is Croatia's first member of the exclusive lifestyle brand Design Hotel AG. It is a strikingly modern building in the shape of an ocean liner, a playful reference to its Adriatic location.
Its restaurant offers a mixture of traditional Croatian and Mediterranean fusion-style food, with an impressive local wine list. The executive chef is Tomislav's wife, Priska Thuring. The restaurant has an a la carte section, and a seafood bar, as well as a Vinoteca offering wine and olive oil tastings and sales.
For our meal, we started with a trio - tempura asparagus, grilled scallop on black lentils, and pan-seared tuna on a salad of julienned peaches and radish. Next, we had a deliciously creamy but light bowl of cauliflower foam, with local truffle shavings and sashimi scampi which were totally delectable.
For main course, we had a fillet of dentex (a Mediterranean and Baltic deep-water fish), polenta with sun-dried tomatoes, prawn souffle and a brochette of monkfish wrapped in pancetta and spinach. I enjoyed the many elements on this plate - a pleasing array of small eats.
The dessert was mascarpone cream topped with fresh figs in a red wine reduction. It was light, refreshing and a delicious end to a tip-top meal.
Zigante Restaurant (specialises in truffles)
Following an afternoon of truffle hunting, we headed to Zigante, a local restaurant that specialises in truffle dishes. I am a sucker for truffles, so enjoyed this meal tremendously. I had a four-course dinner, each one with a truffle element. I kicked off with a quenelle of soft cheese seasoned with truffles, followed by a plate of fettucini pasta served with a cream and truffle sauce. The waiter was very generous with the sliced truffle topping, and for me this was the best dish of the evening.
The main course was, unfortunately, disappointing. We had chicken stuffed with truffles, wrapped in ham and roasted, with Parisienne potatoes and pan-fried mushrooms. Sadly, the chicken was a little dry, and the strong flavour combinations overwhelmed the fresh truffle. Dessert was an oddity of vanilla ice cream with truffles. I personally did not think this was a successful combination, although my dining companions seemed to have enjoyed it.
What to Do
Wine Tastings (Roxanich and Trapan Vineyards)
With so much to do in Istria, if you like your food and wine, it may be hard to find time to do anything else. I was only there for four days, and got to do a lot, but still felt I only scraped the surface. Croatia is a sizeable producer of quality wines, using interesting native grapes such as Croatian Malvasia and Teran. I was lucky to be with Tom Harrow, The Wine Chap, who took us to a couple of his favourite local wine producers.
Roxanich (www.roxanich.hr) is a biodynamic wine producer in the nearby town of Nova Vas. The founder, Mladen Rozanic, was kind enough to show us around, and give us an extensive barrel tasting of his latest vintages. His wines are aged for at least 3 years (whites) to 4 years (reds). According to Mladen, the white wines they make are orange wines due to their long maceration period (the time in which the skin has contact with the grape juice while fermentation begins), and in addition, being a biodynamic producer, his wines undergo no filtering or fining which give them a lightly cloudy finish. I really enjoyed these wines, his white Malvasia was stunning, but my favourites were the reds - particularly the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2008 Super-Istrian (a witty reference to the 'Super-Tuscan' label that indicates a blend of classic French - in this case, Merlot & Cabernet). Mladen is happy to accept private bookings for wine tours.
Trapan (www.trapan.hr) is run by a young producer, Bruno Trapan, who barely ages his wines. His wines are well made, and more immediately appealing, being made in a modern, international, easy-drinking style. His reds are made from the native Teran grape, or from 100% Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, or a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Teran. Trapan's whites as well as roses are made from Croatian Malvasia and Chardonnay.
Truffle hunting (Livade)
Besides wine tasting, there are some other interesting foodie activities to be experienced. One of these is truffle hunting in the nearby town of Livade. The registered truffle hunter and his dog took us deep into the forest, and we (or should I say the dog) were lucky enough to find two sizeable truffles within the first hour. The Hotel Monte Mulini can arrange a truffle hunting trip for you during the season. We followed this truffle hunting with dinner at a restaurant specialising in truffles, Zigante, as reviewed above.
Olive Oil tasting (Chiavalon)
We were treated to a very educational olive oil tasting at Chiavalon. Interestingly, there are many similarities between the techniques of olive oil and wine tasting. Bouquet, flavour characteristics and length are also considered when tasting olive oil. However, unlike with wine, colour is no guide to the quality of the oil, because this is predominantly determined by the colour of the earth. We learned that olive oil cannot be kept for more than two years from production, otherwise it will go rancid. Top quality Istrian olive oil does not come cheap, and the ones we tried at Chiavalon retail at £13 for 500ml.
Non-foodie activities not to be missed while in the region include a boat trip to nearby Lim Fiord, visiting or cycling around Rovinj, visiting the neighbouring town of Pula and its magnificent Roman amphitheatre, and one of the many spa treatments at Hotel Monte Mulini.
Having spent a fantastic 4 days in Rovinj, Istria, I cannot believe it has taken me so long to visit this country. Four days are really not enough to take in all that there is in this north-western corner of Croatia. I cannot wait to return but next time for a week or two. Highly recommended.
Hotel Monte Mulini - room rates from €276 including breakfast and VAT for a premium double room, including free WiFi, complimentary parking, use of spa facilities, and complimentary refreshments on arrival. For further information or reservations, please visit www.montemulinihotel.com or call +385 (0)52 636 000
Hotel Lone - room rates start at €150 for a double room, including breakfast and VAT. For further information or reservations, please visit www.lonehotel.com or call +385 (0)52 632 000
Restaurant Zigante, Livade 7, Livade is at www.restaurantzigante.com
Roxanich D.O.O (Mladen Rozanic) is at Kosinozici 26, 52446 Nova Vas, HR. Website www.roxanich.hr
Trapan Winery (Bruno Trapan) is at Giordano Dobran 63, Sisan 52100, Croatia. Website www.trapah.hr
Truffle hunting costs €120 per hour, or €350 per half day, and participants get to keep the truffles
The Art Wellness Spa at Hotel Monte Mulini has an extensive menu of treatments, but for example the holistic traditional massage I had lasts 60 minutes, and costs 420kn (approximately £42).
Hotel Monte Mulini organises a wide variety of half or full day private tours in the area, including Pula and its amphitheatre, the Roman colony at Porec, day trips to Venice by car, boat or hydrofoil, the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Plitvice Lakes National Park, and a full day motor boat tour of the Brijuni Islands National Park. Prices are available direct from the hotel. If you have your own or a hire car, you can do many of these trips by yourself.
Rovinj can be reached from the UK, by flying to Trieste, Ljubljana, Zagreb or Rijeka, but the closest airport is Pula (served by Ryanair), an easy half-hour transfer from Hotel Monte Mulini.
Many thanks to Louise Rogers of Quatro PR and Tom Harrow (The WineChap) for their kind invitation and hospitality in Croatia.