Istria Undiscovered: A wonderland hidden in plain sight

At first impression, Istria’s rustic charm leads one to believe it is the quintessential diamond in the rough. A place where, after a few precise cuts are made and a healthy polish applied, the truly magnificent gem within will be realized. But first impressions invariably give way to the second, third, and fourth. When seen from the inside, one recognizes the Croation peninsula of Istria for what it truly is: a brilliant and sophisticated jewel hidden in plain sight on the Adriatic coast. It is an ancient land, rich in history, dotted with picturesque towns, and blessed with a verdant coastline bordered by the clear blue sea. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to journey through Istria, and what I discovered I happily share with you. 

San Canzian Hotel & Residences 

Nestled in the heart of Istria, the San Canzian Hotel & Residences is an authentic boutique hotel with 28 rooms and suites. It is situated in a medieval village near Grožnjan, a 14th-century Venetian fortress reborn as the premier artist colony in Istria. Although the fortress is long gone, the San Canzian hotel remains a secret place and starting point for upscale travelers to explore and enjoy the peninsula. Its interior design is inspired by traditional ways of building, but blended with modern amenities, while its exterior expresses a medieval origin. 

Chef Pavo Klaric and his team at Luciano (Photo by Robert B Richards)

Istria is a wonderland of fine olive oils, truffles, and wines. At the San Canzian, travelers have the perfect opportunity to enjoy an array of delicious creations by chef Pavo Klarić at the Michelin-recommended Luciano Restaurant. Collecting fresh groceries daily from carefully selected sources is the core ethic at Luciano’s kitchen, and it shows in the cuisine. With each dish, Chef Pavo and his team’s creativity shines, leaving a lasting impression. 

At Luciano, we enjoyed the following menu: fermented beetroot, borlotti bean cream, and raspberry coulis; cottage cheese gnudi, pumpkin juice sauce, walnut, and sage; roe deer filet, parsley puree, black garlic sauce, fermented cabbage; fermented plum jam, horseradish cream, plum, and cocoa cream. 

San Canzian Hotel Spa – Wellness Area (Photo by Gunter Standl)

San Canzian Spa

In a quiet corner of the hotel, there is a wellness zone containing a large hot tub and relaxation area with a hot and cold foot bath plus a Finnish sauna. There is also a massage and treatment room where you can request a range of services including: 

  • 60-minute holistic full body massage 
  • Pulpa di Oliva anti-aging face and body treatment 
  • Five Elements Treatment that activates the fire, earth, metal, water, and wood elements within you 
  • 45-minute cupping treatment  
  • San Canzian Welcome Touch 80-minute face and body treatment 
  • 45-minute lavender de-stress treatment 
  • 30- or 60-minute Scent of the Mediterranean therapeutic massage. 

Clai wines (Photo by Robert B Richards)

Clai Winery 

Clai Winery is in the small village of Krasica. The property encompasses 10 hectares (24.7 acres) of vineyards and five hectares of olive trees just 200 meters (656 feet) above sea level. The vines enjoy the sunshine and the cool, salty sea breezes coming off the Adriatic some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to the west. The soil is limestone flysch with low fertility and excellent drainage, providing the perfect amount of stress for the old vines. 

The estate grows mainly native grapes and olives, and all production has been certified organic, using only natural manure as fertilizer and no systemic treatments such as herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides. The grapes are vinified naturally, with spontaneous fermentation on the skins and without the additional enzymes, yeasts, or malolactic bacteria. After nearly two years of aging in wooden barrels, the wines are bottled without micro or sterile filtering. 

Restaurant Stara Škola 

Bites at Restaurant Stara Skola (Photo by Robert B Richards)

Stara Škola, a restaurant in the renovated elementary school in Krasica, Istria, is home to chef Priska Thuring and her rising team of culinary enthusiasts. Their mission is to prepare an evolving menu based on natural ingredients that change with the seasons and give local artisan producers a chance to shine. 

They source unique ingredients from the surrounding landscape, discover products that have yet to be served on the table, and recognize in them the true inspiration for “honest food.” A special emphasis is given to cocktails and teas. The restaurant’s wine list is filled with selected natural and organic wines, mostly from Croatia but from neighboring countries as well. They put a special emphasis on wines from their sister property, Clai Winery. 

Restaurant Stara Škola welcomes guests to a place where food, wines, cocktails, and teas celebrate and connect with the annual cycles of nature. Guests are encouraged to take a moment, relax, and reconnect through a wide range of enjoyable smells, tastes, and colors.

Taver Fakin in Motovun (Photo by Robert B Richards)

Konoba Fakin, Motovun 

On a hilltop overlooking the Mirna River valley lies the most famous and arguably the most beautiful Istrian medieval town, Motovun. This captivating town dominates the surrounding countryside with its Romanesque-Gothic bell tower from the 13th century and the 17th century parish church of St. Stephen. Just inside the city gate, the leafy and shaded town square is home to the Romanesque municipal palace, the largest secular building in Istria of that period. On the surrounding stone walls and buildings, you will find a dozen carved lions, symbols of the Venetian Empire which once ruled here. 

The picturesque town sits in the heart of its namesake, Motovun forest, the center of the Istrian truffle zone where the majority of the world’s white and black truffles are harvested each year. Truffle shops line the approach to the city gate and supply a steady stream of tourists with truffles and truffle products found nowhere else. 

Just uphill from the shops is the tavern, Konoba Fakin, owned and operated by the Fakin Winery. For lunch, we asked the chef to serve a seasonal menu. He served: black truffle soup, fuži pasta with black truffles, Roman gnocco in white truffle sauce with Istrian pancetta chips, grilled vegetables, and beefsteak with black truffles on a bed of mashed potatoes. Along with our meal, we savored Malvazija “la Prima” and Teran varietal wines, both made by Fakin Winery. 

Kazlovic Winery 

Since 1904, four generations of the Kozlović family have cultivated wine in Valle Valley. Their goal? To preserve native varietals, honor the region and heritage, advance their knowledge and technology in the vineyard and cellar, and guarantee the quality of wine with the family name. 

The family operates two vineyards. At their southwest-facing Valle vineyard in the foothills of Momjan, they cultivate Malvazija Istriana, Muscat Momiano, Teran, and, as of recently, Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyard covers five hectares (12.35 acres), and the soil is composed of flysch, limestone, and clay. The second vineyard, Santa Lucia was acquired in 1962 and covers 25 hectares (61.77 acres), featuring Teran, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. As at Valle, the slopes face southwest, and the soil is the same composition of flysch, limestone, and clay. 

Kozlović Winery uses gravity to move juice from the crush pad to tanks in the fermentation hall and aging cellar below. They also operate their own laboratory and bottling and labeling lines. Attached to the winery is a well-equipped tasting room, an elegant wine shop, and a magnificent, roofed terrace with a view of a medieval castle on the opposing ridge. 

Steaks on the wood grill at Konoba Stari Prodrum (Photo by Robert B Richards)

Konoba Stari Podrum  

The Konoba Stari Podrum is a highly regarded, traditional Istrian tavern in the hills not far from the Kozlović Winery. With its unfussy décor and cozy ambiance, it is the perfect place to stop for a relaxing and romantic meal. By local reputation, the menu features tasty seasonal soups, creamy risotto, and the best steaks for miles around. We were more than pleased to get a table inside near the brick hearth where we could watch as the chef fired exquisite cuts of meat. 

After thoroughly enjoying our meal, we concluded that the sterling recommendation from the locals was well deserved. While dining we enjoyed: celery soup with white truffles; risotto with white truffles and crisped Istrian prosciutto; and slices of ribeye steak with white truffles on a bed of seasonal salad greens. We were too satisfied to contemplate a dessert, although several scrumptious options were offered. 

San Rocco Heritage Hotel & Gourmet Restaurant 

Situated in the town center of the village of Brtonigla, the family-owned San Rocco Heritage Hotel and Restaurant was transformed from a neglected, 18th century building into a beautiful and welcoming oasis among a grove of olive trees. The interior is warm with classic wood and wrought iron details representing the traditional design of the area. Thirteen unique rooms provide privacy and relaxation, while the public area features an outdoor pool and comfy sunbeds with parasols. The indoor spa area sports an additional pool, plus a hot tub and sauna. 

The restaurant at San Rocco serves seasonal Istrian cuisine with ingredients sourced from local suppliers. Traditional recipes fill the menu with unique and delicious flavors to be enjoyed in a luxurious and discreet atmosphere focused on quality before quantity. Luncheon here is a delight. 

Karlic Truffle Estate (Photo courtesy of Karlic Tartufi)

Karlić Tartufi 

Karlić Tartufi is a small, family business with a long tradition in central Istria. The father of the company’s director, Ivan Rašpolić, transferred his passion for these underground fungi to the whole family. He began hunting truffles over 50 years ago in 1966, and in 1994, the family hobby transformed into a full-fledged business venture. 

The family now cultivates truffle forests for harvest, conducts truffle hunting tours for visitors, and produces over 20 gourmet truffle-based products using traditional methods and recipes. Among the most popular products are truffle-based spreads, infused olive oils, seasonings, chocolates, and liqueur. 

One of the most enjoyable highlights of our Istrian adventure was participating in a truffle hunt near Lake Butoniga, a reservoir just up the road from the estate. Ben, our expert guide, took us along as he and his playful dogs roamed the forest in search of the elusive subterranean morsels. Our hunt was exceedingly successful: the dogs located three rather large white truffles in a matter of 45 minutes. When we returned to the estate, our hosts graciously cooked up a breakfast of truffle scrambled eggs, meats, cheeses, and toast with truffle honey. One word: scrumptious! 

Meneghetti Wine Hotel & Winery 

Meneghetti Wine Hotel & Winery (Photo by Matej Paluh)

In the heart of Istria, enclosed by vineyards and olive groves and just a short distance to the sea, lies Meneghetti Wine Hotel & Winery. The luxurious and secluded property lounges in an idyllic and pastoral setting. Originally known as the Stanzia Meneghetti, what began as a traditional family estate has since been converted into a boutique hotel with single rooms, suites, villas, and residences, a tranquil spa, a Michelin-recommended restaurant, and a private beach club. A member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux, the property is a true example of comfort, elegance, and luxury. 

As has been true in Istria since Roman times, the Meneghetti produces premium wines and olive oils. Tastings of both are presented in delightful settings by attentive and knowledgeable staff. The outstanding restaurant serves delicious, authentic, and creatively prepared Istrian cuisine with tableside sommelier service. 

Guests can unwind at the two outdoor pools with sun decks or visit the Energy Clinic Spa. The spa offers soothing massages, nurturing body treatments, a de-stress sauna, and a fitness center with an indoor pool. Additionally, a secluded vineyard pathway leads to the beautiful Meneghetti beach where you can enjoy swimming in the Adriatic Sea and sipping cocktails from the beach bar. 

Ten luxury rooms and suites, sized from 270 to 700 square feet, and 48 villas and residences offer views looking out to the property’s extensive vineyards and olive groves. All are designed to offer privacy and complete discretion. 

Cap Aureo Signature Restaurant at Grand Park Rovinj (Photo courtesy of Maistra)

Grand Park Hotel Rovinj: Cap Aureo and Laurel & Berry 

The Grand Park Hotel Rovinj, flagship of the Maistra Collection, sits at the water’s edge among fragrant pines. Vast windows flood the interior with natural light and open to sweeping views of Katarina Island and the enchanting Old Town of Rovinj. Designed by renowned Italian architect Piero Lissoni and 3LHD Studio, the six cascading floors house 198 elegant rooms and 11 sumptuous suites along with six restaurants and bars offering flavors for every taste. 

And since our taste is fine dining, on the first night we supped at their Michelin-recommended signature restaurant, Cap Aureo. The 10-course meal prepared by chef Jeffrey Vella and his team of culinary sorcerers was almost indescribable. From the custard and crab basted in chicken juice and seaweed dust to the Inlands and Shorelines plate of grilled scampi with dandelion, truffle powder, and caviar, the meal was truly sublime. 

Our following night’s meal at Laurel & Berry was no less delightful. I chose the braised Boškarin beef cheeks with sweet potato cream, jus, beer-glazed parsley root, and pickled shallots, while my lovely partner chose grilled Adriatic sea bass with cauliflower variates, lemon gel, and herb oil. We shared the handmade pasta fuži with hand-picked porcini and local black truffles then finished with a light dessert of rocher crémeaux, cocoa crumble, and salted caramel ice cream. 

During the day, we frequented the vast Albaro Wellness & Spa. Spread over two levels and occupying 3,800 square meters (12,467 square feet), it is the largest spa in Istria. We enjoyed swimming in both the indoor and outdoor pools, relaxed in the dry and wet saunas, and rejuvenated with Terra Magica mineral mud and sea salt therapies. 

Sunset at the Grand Park Rovinj – Albaro Wellness & Spa (Photo courtesy of Maistra)

Getting There 

There are many ways to arrive in Istria. One can enter by auto through Slovenia or other parts of Croatia. Pula has an airport with air service from other parts of Europe. However, I would recommend arrival to Rovinj via the 3-hour ferry service from Venice. 

However one chooses to enter, Istria is a welcoming jewel that will surprise and delight even the most thoroughly traveled of souls.