CROATIA: The kate moss
of the adriatic
Not everyone enjoys a bus tour but I don't mind them. This one, with Peregrine Adventures, made its way from Venice, through Slovenia and down to Split, where I, er, split (so sue me) and left my companions to carry on to Game of Thrones territory.
CROATIA'S COASTLINE, from Vitaljina village in the south (next to Montenegro) to the border with Slovenia in the north, is 1777 kilometres long. It’s said, by people who collate this stuff, to be the most indented coastline in the Mediterranean.
In terms of geography, the country as a whole looks like an inverted L, with the upper, far eastern reaches bordered by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and Serbia and the western, coastal regions looking long, slim, beautiful and willowy, the Kate Moss of the Adriatic, if you will.
In recent years the southern parts of the country have become famous as the setting for many of the locations in the Game of Thrones TV series, with Dubrovnik in particular falling victim to its role as the series’ capital, King’s Landing.
Already a popular destination for European tourists, the addition of so-called ‘set-jetters’ visiting in ever greater numbers has brought the city to the point where local authorities are considering banning the opening of new restaurants, and newspaper and magazine articles are loaded with words such as ‘overwhelmed’, ‘threatened’, ‘hordes’ and ‘buckling’.
This is not the case in the coastal north, where the only game of thrones we come across on our eight-day, seven-night coach trip from Venice to Split is whether the toilets at the motorway service station stops are all occupied.
After a night in Venice and a few days in Slovenia, we enter Croatia at top of the Istrian peninsula and 45 minutes later are in the pretty village of Motovun. Perched 270 metres above sea level on the top of a prominent hill, this medieval village, with its church tower, terracotta roof tiles and whitewashed houses clustered around protective walls, brings Tuscany very much to mind. Indeed, many of its 500 or so inhabitants speak Italian as their mother language.
It was the Venetians, in the final years of the 13th century, who took over the town and built the city walls. Inside, today, there are a few shops, cafes and restaurants - nobody is going to ban more of them any time soon, that’s for sure – and the architecture is a gentle blend of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.
I am particularly taken with the fact that racing car driver Mario Andretti and his twin brother Aldo were born in Motovun and used to race through these narrow, ancient streets in hand-made wooden cars.
I stroll around the ramparts to gaze out over the four compass points of the Istrian countryside. It’s a gently rolling vista on all sides, with the Motovun Forest sitting just on the other side of the Mirna river below.
The forest is just 10 square kilometres in size but is specially protected because of its wildlife and, possibly more importantly, the moist soil which provides the perfect growing conditions for the black-and-white truffles (tuber magnatum) for which the area is known.
This, I’m afraid, brings us to the one event on the tour which I have been dreading; lunch at a truffle farm.
For many people just the word ‘truffle’ brings them to paroxysms of delight. It is one of those comestibles that you’re not allowed not to like, up there with Champagne and oysters. For me, it’s like trying to eat a particularly funky fart.
That said, lunch is a pleasure. We are ensconced around an al fresco table at Miro Tartufi, a farmhouse restaurant in the valley with views up to Motovun, and where Mirjana Kotiga, the wonderfully genial matriarch, is happy to find
non-truffled victuals for the foreigner who, quite obviously, has no taste and no taste buds.
In the afternoon, we drive to Pula, a working port just an hour away at the bottom of the Istrian peninsula, arriving in what I imagine is a sulphurous, garlicky miasma, a giant truffle on wheels.
Pula is the largest city in Istria and one of those places that the Romans left carelessly littered with buildings when
"After the Romans came the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine empire, the Venetians, the Franks, the Genoese, Hungary, the Habsburgs, the French, Saruman, Sauron and Smaug the dragon."
they pulled out. The most famous of these is the Pula Arena, the evocative, large and amazingly well-preserved amphitheatre we finish in after a walking tour of the city.
How it escaped in such good shape is anybody’s guess
because Pula has been ruled over, defeated, pillaged, sacked, attacked and destroyed by pretty much everyone – after the Romans came the Ostrogoths, the Byzantine empire, the Venetians, the Franks, the Genoese, Hungary, the Habsburgs, the French, Saruman, Sauron and Smaug the dragon.
It’s a beautiful little place is Pula, touristed but not touristy, and peppered with ancient ruins. In the evening we stroll a little way from our hotel, have dinner in an open-air restaurant and then wander back under Roman gates and through buzzy streets and piazzas.
The rest of our journey down to Split, where some of us will leave the tour while others continue on to Game of Thrones country, includes stops at Opatija, a pretty resort town on the coast, and the UNESCO World Heritage Plitvice Lakes National Park with its 16 cascading, colourful lakes, innumerable waterfalls and disheartening crush of visitors. Go early.
But it’s Zadar, a small city on the Adriatic Sea about a two-hour drive north of Split (and just 90 minutes from Plitvice Lakes), that is a revelation. This is the place, I later discover, that London’s Daily Telegraph called Croatia’s “coolest city” and “Croatia without the crowds”.
Like Motovun and Pula, Zadar is a hotch-potch of architecture from all periods of history. Here you’ll find the remains of a Roman forum cheek by jowl with thick Venetian fortress walls and medieval churches woven through a frightening picturesque Old Town like shot silk.
Fish is big here in the restaurants (as is the evil truffle), and late at night the higgledy-piggledy streets are alive with al fresco dining and eclectic bars where tourists and locals alike stop for just one more rakia before heading home.
But it’s also a city with one foot firmly in the now, as we discover while walking along the modern seafront promenade just before sunset. Here, two modern artworks take advantage of the magnificent sunsets and the waterfront setting.
First, there’s architect Nikola Basic’s Monument to the Sun, a 22-metre solar disc which soaks up the sun’s rays during the day and at night puts on a coloured light show as night falls.
Right next to this is Basic’s Sea Organ, a system of pipes under the very ground we are standing on which are open to the ocean and which sound gentle musical notes when filled with water. This installation includes a section of marble steps which lead down to the water so you can sit and listen as the waves and the tides play a soothing and random symphony of nature.
Keith Austin was a guest of Peregrine Adventures (peregrineadventures.com).