I found this article online the other day, and after reading it, I realized that I couldn’t describe Istria any better than the author Elizabeth Warkentin. She wrote this article for Air Canada’s in-flight magazine called En Route.
Here it is:
Jump feet first into Istria, Croatia — a wine- and truffle-filled peninsula on the coast of the Adriatic Sea that’s like Tuscany without the tourists.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
May 01, 2019 ·By Elizabeth Warkentin Photos by Ériver Hijano
My husband Alvis and I have spent several months for the last decade, travelling (and mountain biking) throughout many European countries, searching for the perfect place to re-locate to. After living on a Caribbean island for 14 years, it was time for a change.
As we learned after moving to the Caribbean from Canada, we put together our list of criteria that needed to be met in order for a country to be in contention. This practical list encompassed things like a) are we legal to live there (as EU citizens the search centered on EU countries), location within Europe – as we wanted to create a central base from which we could explore Europe easily by car or by air. Cost of living was a huge factor. Our new home needed to be surrounded by nature, which we intended to use as our gym as we both are avid mountain bikers, runners, golfers.
And then we created our second list of criteria- the whimsical list – the wish list, which included things like good weather, friendly people, and that certain je ne sais quoi, that magical feeling of belonging.
We spent many happy hours researching, planning, and visiting places such as Chamonix, France. The mountain biking there was fun, but the weather was atrocious with almost non-stop rain. The price of real estate there was crazy, and so we crossed it off the list.
While we loved Italy, and still love visiting there, the cost of real estate in Italy was also cost prohibitive, with a stone ruin costing near half a million Euros.
Bavaria, Germany was very scenic and the Alps eminently bike-able but it was expensive; Budapest was exotic and gorgeous but it was still trying to shake off the vestiges of the Soviet occupation; Spain, specifically the Costa del Sol, while really lovely felt too far from the rest of Europe; Portugal the same
And then we arrived to Istria, Croatia, specifically to the mountain top town of Pazin, in central Istria. We spent the next 9 days mountain biking all of central and coastal Istria.
We biked up Motovun – this fortified hill-top town….
…with charming passageways such as this….
…with views like this…..
We biked from Rijeka up 1300 meters of elevation to Istria’s highest mountain top called Vojak, with its viewing tower….
…and views like this….
On a clear day, it is possible to see the Adriatic Sea over the entire Istrian peninsula.
We explored the ancient Roman, fortified island town of Rovinj….
The labyrinth of Rovinj’s narrow alleyways and laneways are a joy to explore, while happening upon the many artisan shops and artists’ ateliers.
The rocky coastline around Rovinj is enjoyed by locals and tourists alike – some use the rocks for sun-tanning and swimming, and others to enjoy the sunset with a libation.
One particularly fascinating day, we biked up a steep and narrow road to a tiny village called Ipsi, where we enjoyed our first ever olive oil tasting at Ipsa olive farm. While gazing out at the views, I said to Alvi, ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were in Tuscany.’ Here are some photos:
While exploring the olive farm, I found sights such as these…
…and of course, these….
After an hour of tasting five different types of pure, unadulterated olive oil, which is a culinary experience in and of itself (the olive oil sold in grocery stores is not actually 100% pure virgin olive oil, despite the labelling. It is usually a blend of various oils. Real, pure olive oil costs much more per bottle, and is worth every penny!) I looked at Alvi and said, ‘I think we have just had the perfect day…’
As it turns out, it would be just one of many.
Upon a recommendation of a friend, we visited the town of Pula, located at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Right in middle of Pula is this:
…an ancient Roman amphitheatre….where we enjoyed this….
…a concert by Croatia’s own 2 cellos…
…with their electric cellos, they play contemporary and rock and roll music…
…while the arena was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours….
It was an enchanting evening.
The following day, we biked up to a town called Beram…
…where, while exploring the little village, we came upon an old stone house being restored. In fact, we watched as a gorgeous metal spiral staircase was being installed. As we watched, the owner of the house came over to talk to us. Turns out he was a German fellow, who fell in love with Istria and its Mediterranean climate. After a wonderful conversation, he offered to give us a tour of his house. During the tour, he mentioned that his architect’s office was located in Pazin, the town where we were staying. Both Alvis and I, already in love with Istria, wanted to speak to someone about the cost of construction, the process, the legals of buying a property etc. The homeowner mentioned that the architect usually leaves his office at 5 pm, so we hopped on our bikes, and raced back to Pazin, barely making it, all hot and sweaty to the architect’s office, just as he was departing for the day. He listened to our tale, smiled when we mentioned his German client, and invited us on a short tour of some of his projects. We left our bikes in his office, loaded into his car, and peppered him with questions while he toured us through two of his residential projects. We finished the tour at his own home, in a tiny mountain village, which bore his name and that of his forefathers. He invited us into his ‘konoba’ which is essentially a wine cellar, which does double duty as a place to hang curing ham, and triples as a place to entertain visitors and neighbours. After enjoying a glass of Malvasia from his family’s vineyard, and snacking on some prosciutto, he drove us back to Pazin, where we quickly showered and dined at the local pizzeria.
Sitting on the patio of the pizzeria in old town Pazin, I looked at Alvis and said, ‘I think we might have just had the perfect day – again’. ‘Yeah’, he said. ‘Magical’.
And that was that.
After a easy conversation during which we reviewed our criteria, the decision was made.
The young fella who was owned the pizzeria, also spoke English. When we asked him if he could direct us to the nearest real estate office, he turned to the next table, and introduced us to a fellow who was Pazin’s most intrepid realtor. Translating for us, the young fellow arranged for the realtor to show us four properties the next day.
After viewing all four, we fell in love with this…
….a stone ruin…
Returning to the pizzeria (Peperone Pizza – great pizza and the world’s best fries…!) with the young owner translating again, we learned that due to an agreement between the governments of Croatia and Ontario, we faced exactly zero obstacles in purchasing our stone ruin.
After completing some easy paperwork, and wiring some money to Croatia, three days later, we were the proud owers of our very own pile of stones……which now look like this….
Best decision ever!!!