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The amphitheatre looms large from several kilometres out in the Adriatic Sea. Its imposing limestone arches are illuminated as if to highlight the might of ancient Rome. Built in the first century AD, it’s one of the largest surviving Roman arenas in the world, and if you put your mind to it, you can almost sense the vibe of 20,000 spectators gathered here for gladiatorial contests. Things are a little calmer these days. Instead of the shouts of a bloodthirsty audience, Italian chit-chat punctuates the stillness around the venue, which today holds concerts and gentler jousts for tourists. Flowers festoon the wrought-iron balconies, adding punch to facades painted saffron, mint and lemon. Locals linger at café-bars over espressos and people mill about with gelatos in hand. It’s tempting to attribute the scene to Venice or Florence and the pace to la dolce vita, but around here, people refer to this deliberate way of life as pomalo.

Istria olives and waves

In Istria, there are green olives and blue waves for days.

That’s because what at first glance looks, sounds and tastes like southern Italy is in fact Croatia. And this is the town of Pula, in Istria, a diamond-shaped peninsula that juts into the Adriatic. While Italy and Slovenia carve out swaths in the north, Croatia lays claim to most of the peninsula, including the terracotta seaside towns that put it on the tourist map. But Istria’s secret treasures lie in the forested interior, dotted by medieval hilltop villages, rolling vineyards and ancient olive groves. The pace of life throughout the region reflects that on the coast, with Istria more andante than the rest of Croatia. Here, pomalo – literally “bit by bit,” or “taking it easy” in Istrian dialect – encompasses the laid-back attitude and doubles as a handy greeting. And with only about 200,000 inhabitants and far fewer tourists, it’s no wonder the region has been dubbed the new Tuscany – but at a fraction of the cost. Add to that the food, which in and of itself is pomalo.

Rovinj rooftops

The red rooftops of Rovinj.

Leaving the coast behind, I drive inland in search of the holy trinity of regional cuisine – truffles, olive oil and wine – produced in the rural interior, or Green Istria as the locals call it. For three years running, Flos Olei, the annual Italian guide of olive oil, has declared Istria the best olive-oil region in the world. Fifteen kilometres from the coast, the town of Vodnjan, for instance, has since the Roman period been a key point in Istria’s “golden triangle” of olive-oil production. My first stop is Chiavalon, a small family farm that has garnered top awards at international competitions for its organic extra-virgin pressing.

“The olive tree is like a holy tree in Istria,” says my guide, Giorgia Grbac, as we walk through a shaded grove where, in 1997, a 14-year-old Sandi Chiavalon first planted 100 trees in honour of his grandparents. “It’s a tradition here in Vodnjan for every family to have at least a dozen olive trees and press their own oil,” Grbac says. The estate now comprises 7,500 trees on 65 acres and produces 60,000 bottles a year, showcasing the hallmark fruitiness, grassiness and spiciness of the region’s olive crop.

Tedi Chiavalon; extra-virgin olive oil

Left to right: Co-owner Tedi Chiavalon checks the fruits of his labour; liquid gold: extra-virgin olive oil from Chiavalon, a small family farm.

While Istria is farther north than other major olive-growing regions in Greece and Italy, the cooler climate here produces a more polyphenol-rich harvest. Those health-protective antioxidants, Grbac explains, are the primary reason importers prize Istrian olive oil. The essence is also highly aromatic: The local buža olive is sweet and flavourful, while the bjelica adds a piquant punch that is best exemplified in Ex Albis, Chiavalon’s signature blend of five indigenous olive cultivars.

On the other side of town, Brist puts ancient methods into modern practice with sustainable farming techniques and a preservative-free product. Irish ex-pat Paul O’Grady and his Istrian wife, Lena Puhar, joined Puhar’s parents in the olive-oil business in 2010 when demand began to outpace what started as a part-time hobby. Today, Brist’s 22 acres – along with another 18 acres farmed by others – yield roughly 30,000 bottles of oil a year, including the premium Sta. Margherita made entirely from Vodnjan’s fruity buža olives.

Croatian crossroads; amphitheatre

Left to right: At a Croatian crossroads; gladiators have given way to tourists and concert-goers at this 2,000-year-old amphitheatre.

O’Grady, a former Dublin architect, was lured to Istria by the pomalo way of life. Strolling through the grove at Brist, he explains that the nutrient-rich soil along with a microclimate that includes the right amount of sunlight, rain and fresh sea winds make this region ideal for growing olives. But cold winters mean tough love, he says as he ducks between the limbs of a once cracked and frozen tree he rehabilitated by cutting back branches.

By the time we’ve come around to the back of the grove and a 13th-century chapel, the sun is sinking into the Adriatic. The honeyed light accentuates the terracotta red of the soil; silver-green leaves buzz with cicadas. In the distance, I spot a tree-covered island in the sea. “That’s Brijuni National Park,” Puhar tells me. “That’s where you’ll find the oldest tree in the region. It’s 1,600 years old and still bears fruit.”

Baluota (Monte) beach

Rocking out at Baluota (Monte) beach in the fishing port Rovinj.

Istria’s rolling hills also lend themselves to growing wine grapes, especially in the area surrounding Grožnjan, a village located atop a hill an hour northwest of Vodnjan. Cool nighttime temperatures during the growing season and the cold Bora wind that sweeps through during harvest promote high acidity and tannins in the grapes. The limestone-rich white soil imparts minerality and explains the area’s nickname, White Istria.

Giorgio Clai is the founder of the vegan and all-natural Clai Wines estate. I sit down with him and his manager, Dimitri Brečević (himself a winemaker with the label Piquentum), on a terrace overlooking the vineyard. We chat as we dig into olives, cheese, home-cured pork and cucumber-and-tomato salsa, washed down with a variety of Clai wines, including a dry white malvasia, the local classic, and a smooth red refosco. Clai is a winemaker by calling. When he learned he had inherited vineyards in his native village, Krasica, five kilometres outside Grožnjan, he left his job as a chef in Trieste and hasn’t looked back since; he hasn’t even taken a vacation in years. “If you love your work, if it’s a passion, it’s not work,” he says. “I’m serene in what I do.” That’s pomalo.

Truffle farmer Ivan Karlić

Truffle farmer Ivan Karlić, the son of Karlić Tartufi founders Goran and Radmila, digs for buried treasure with one of the family’s dogs.

White Istria has an underground food movement, too. Twenty-five kilometres to the east is Buzet, a forested town in the heart of Istrian truffle country. It’s where the world’s largest truffle, weighing 4.8 kilograms, was uncovered in June 2018. The prized delicacies have been hunted here for centuries, but until recently, most of the sought-after white variety were passed off as Italian Alba truffles. That’s been changing as locals catch on to the benefit of asserting their truffles’ Istrian provenance. Take Karlić Tartufi, a family-run truffle farm formally established by Goran and Radmila Karlić in 1994 outside Buzet. “When my grandfather was a child, the farmers didn’t know what the truffle was,” says Ivana Karlić, the owners’ daughter. “They called it the ‘devil’s potato’ because they didn’t know how to eat it.” The Karlićs now supply more than 350 restaurants in Croatia and export a range of truffle pastes and pâtés.

A foot-tapping tune about truffles is playing on the radio while Ivana and her mother, Radmila, serve a belly-busting truffle breakfast. There’s Melba toast with truffle and olive pâté, truffle-topped cheeses and sausages, truffle and porcini pâté, white truffle paste and, one of the family’s newer and more original recipes, truffles with creamy white or dark chocolate. For the main course, Radmila prepares scrambled eggs with grated parmesan cheese and white truffle as well as a vegan white-truffle risotto.

Giorgio Clai’s vineyard; Istrian truffles

Left to right: Winemaking at Giorgio Clai’s vineyard is truly hands-on; tasty Istrian truffles can go tuber-to-tuber with any Italian variety.

Sated, we set out into the forest with truffle hunter Sanjin and two of the family’s 12 dogs, all of which are female, since they’re considered the more focused hunters. Betty and Zara are white, curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, a breed esteemed for sniffing out truffles under oak and hazelnut trees. The furballs are thrilled to be let out for a romp in the woods, but it’s not easy to get them to work in the heat. As a truffler-in-training, Zara gets gently reprimanded for fooling around. Betty, her elder and clearly the teacher’s pet, finds a few dark, golf-ball-size nuggets. Black truffles can be found year-round, whereas the coveted white ones can only be foraged in autumn. Every time Sanjin catches Betty burying her nose in the ground, he rushes to her side. “If I don’t catch her fast enough, she’ll eat it,” he says. “Dogs love truffles, too.”


Istria, Croatia

Stay

Villa Angelo d’Oro – Rovinj

Photo: Heritage Hotel Angelo d’Oro

Villa Angelo d’Oro – Rovinj

Housed in a restored 17th-century bishop’s palace, this antique-strewn hotel offers 23 rooms only steps away from Rovinj’s main square. A stone-paved garden café and bar make for a calming hideaway from the coastal city’s hubbub, and a well-stocked wine cellar offers daily tastings.

Ul. Vladimira Švalbe 40, +385 (0) 52 853 920

 

Hotel Kastel – Motovun

Hotel Kastel – Motovun

This former baroque palace in the fortified hilltop town of Motovun features 33 characterful rooms, three of which have small balconies that overlook the terrace and medieval town square. In addition to an on-site spa and glassed-in swimming pool, a large garden with hammocks and a courtyard restaurant provide views of the surrounding countryside.

Trg Andrea Antico 7, +385 (0) 52 681 607

Eat

Kantina – Pula

Kantina – Pula

Down by the fish market in Pula’s Old Town, chef Marijan Soldo offers fresh takes on traditional Istrian and Mediterranean cuisine in a 19th-century cellar. Family recipes, such as homemade fuži pasta, are paired with seasonal ingredients, including truffles, pine nuts and rucola. Locally grown saffron elevates the Adriatic catch of the day.

Flanatička 16, +385 (0) 52 214 054

 

Konoba Batelina – Banjole

Photo: Manuel Angelini

Konoba Batelina – Banjole

The menu changes daily at this fishermen-family tavern, located eight kilometres south of Pula in Banjole, with specials explained by staff who will help you choose your fish. Having been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in 2012, the place often fills up, so book days in advance.

Čimulje 25, +385 (0) 52 573 767

To Do

Baredine Cave – Nova Vas

Photo: Baredine Cave

Baredine Cave – Nova Vas

It’s estimated that Istria is riddled with more than 1,500 grottos, pits and sinkholes, and Baredine Cave is one of its most impressive geomorphological monuments. Stretching 60 metres deep, the cave’s underground lakes wow visitors, while chambers of stalactites and stalagmites resemble curtains and Gaudíesque chandeliers.

Gedići 55, +385 (0) 95 421 4210

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CROATIA