Artifacts, flavors and architecture in the Croatian peninsula


The bell tower of the Church of St. Euphemia in Rovinj is similar to the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. (Anna Mazurek / Washington Post)

The smell of truffles was in the air as I wandered up the steep cobblestone streets to the city walls that lined the edges of Motovun, a fortified medieval hill town on the Istrian peninsula in northwestern Croatia. The view was breathtaking; the green, rolling hills were dotted with vineyards, olive groves and woods, the source of the truffle.

It was the second day of my September visit to Istria – my first international trip in 17 months – and it had already exceeded my expectations. Fully vaccinated, I was dying to celebrate my 40th birthday abroad by joining a friend who lives in Croatia to explore the country known for its picturesque coastline and ancient walled cities.

Our first stop in Motovun was the restaurant across from our Airbnb: the inviting stone terrace of Konoba Mondo. I ordered a delicious penne with Sicilian pistachios and Istrian prsut, an air-dried ham. After taking a bite, my friend exclaimed that the creamy polenta with parmesan and black truffles she had ordered was the best meal of her life.

“Istrian cuisine is very similar to Italian, but heavier,” says Klaudio Ivasić, owner of Konoba Mondo, who uses his grandmother’s recipes and still lives about 20 meters down the street in his parents’ house. The main ingredients are homemade pasta, polenta, Mediterranean spices such as bay leaves and rosemary and the famous truffles, which come from the forests around Motovun and the nearby towns of Buzet and Livade.

The regional cuisine also features some unique local pastas like fusi, a flat, square noodle almost reminiscent of penne, and pljukanci, which are short, thick, twisted noodles. Pasta dishes in coastal areas are often served with prsut, boskarin (beef from local longhorn cattle), wild asparagus, and seafood. Another essential part of the kitchen is wine, which is usually made from Teran (red) or Malvazija (white) grapes.

Since Motovun is tiny, we spent our days exploring the interior of the peninsula and the narrow, winding roads by car. Although each hill seemed crowned by a medieval town or an abandoned castle, I never tired of either. We wandered through the ruins of the Pietrapelosa Castle; the streets of Hum, the self-proclaimed smallest town in the world; and Dvigrad, Istria’s largest complex of medieval ruins destroyed by sieges and the plague. In between, we sniffed an olive oil and wine tasting at Ipsa, a family business with a shady terrace with a view of the vineyards, and got to know the complex identity of Istria.

For example, when I arrived at sunrise to photograph the city of Rovinj, the scene could have been mistaken for Venice. I set up my tripod and waited for the sun to highlight the Italian bell tower on a hill above a row of colorful buildings by the water. The resemblance to Venice (if I had removed the hill and added a few gondolas) was no accident; the Republic of Venice ruled this coastal city for five centuries.

After the end of Venetian rule in the 18th century, their influence in architecture and culture remained. The winged St. Mark’s Lion, the symbol of the Venetian Republic, was a common sight in Rovinj and all over the peninsula. The cobbled streets and clotheslines on the balconies made me nostalgic on my first European trip to Venice, which I visited as a college student in the early 2000s – a trip that would later ignite a life and career of travel. Two decades later, with the same awe of the ornate architecture, I wandered the streets of Rovinj, clicking the shutter on my camera at every corner.

Aside from architecture, the other element that Rovinj shares with Venice is crowd; the streets were crowded with tourists and vendors selling paintings and other jewelry. Every café was crowded at sunset. I naively thought that I would miss the crowds if I traveled after the busy season. Since Croatia is open to travelers who meet either vaccination or testing requirements, this was not the case. As an added safety precaution, I only ate outdoors and wore a mask indoors and focused on outdoor attractions.

In addition to the Venetians, the Romans, Byzantines, Slavs and Austrians also ruled Istria, as well as a large part of the Croatian coast. The only exception was after World War I when Istria became part of Italy while most of what is now Croatia became part of Yugoslavia. It joined Yugoslavia after World War II.

For a deeper insight into the confused history of the region, I turned to Wollfy Krasić, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Demography and Croatian Emigration at the University of Zagreb.

“Today, Istria undoubtedly has a Croatian identity, but also a strong regional identity, which is due to the fact that although the Croatian population predominated in Istria for centuries, Istria was not part of the Croatian state (as part of communist Yugoslavia). until the end of World War II, “wrote Krasić via email.” The most famous cultural monuments were created during the Roman, Byzantine and Venetian periods, although there are exceptions. “

The Italian heritage is an integral part of the regional culture. Krasić points out that seven cities and 12 municipalities in Istria County are officially bilingual, which means “not only bilingual street signs or the presence of schools with Italian language of instruction, but also the translation into Italian of all official documents of the local authorities” administration. “

I have seen these bilingual street signs often in small mountain towns like Groznjan and in Pula, the largest town in Istria County. The road signs along the main roads were also in both languages. One of the most interesting examples of this heritage was in the center of Pula, an important outpost of the Roman Empire known for an amphitheater that was built at the same time as the Colosseum in Rome. On the Forum Square, which has served as the city’s main square since the rule of the Roman Empire, is the crumbling Temple of Augustus, built during the reign of Augustus Caesar. The temple stands next to the medieval town hall, which flies the flags of Istria, Croatia, the European Union and Italy – a visual representation of the identity of Istria.

I spent my last night in Istria thinking about the complexities of the region while looking for the perfect place to have dinner in Rovinj. My boyfriend had left earlier in the day to return to the southern Croatian city of Split and I managed to get a seat at the last minute at La Puntulina, a Michelin-listed restaurant. Its photogenic terrace, stretching over the rocks along the water, is the most desirable place for dinner in town. The fusi pasta with boskarin was one of the best meals of my trip.

La Puntulina is a Michelin Guide restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia famous for its terrace that covers the rocks along the waterfront.

La Puntulina is a Michelin Guide restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia famous for its terrace that covers the rocks along the waterfront. (Anna Mazurek)

Although the historical influences are evident, like the rest of Croatia, Istria has a distinctive culture that shows in everything including the food, wine and the extremely friendly and welcoming people – like the determined hostess who set up a makeshift table for me with a perfect view of the sunset in La Puntulina. As the sun slowly slipped into the clear blue water, I sipped a chilled glass of Teran – a dry red wine – glad to be back in spite of the rush and am already looking forward to the return trip to Croatia.

A colorful door in the old town of Rovinj.

A colorful door in the old town of Rovinj. (Anna Mazurek / Washington Post)


Where shall we eat

Konoba Mondo

Barbican ul. 1, Motovun


A locally run restaurant in the center of Motovun with a large terrace that serves a variety of pasta, meat and truffle dishes. The owner grew up about 20 meters down the street and uses his grandmother’s recipes. Open daily from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed on tuesday. Starters around $ 12-26.

La Puntulina

Ul. Sv. Kriza 38, Rovinj-Rovigno


La Puntulina is a Michelin Guide restaurant on the water. The terrace that extends over the rocks is a popular spot for sunset. Reservations are recommended. Open daily from 1 p.m. to midnight; Closed on wednesday. About $ 17 to about $ 39.


Ipsi 10, Livade


Located in the small village of Ipsi and surrounded by olive groves, this family-run property produces both wine and olive oil. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer. Free tastings.


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