Food Lovers, Take Heed: Rovinj, Croatia, Should Be Next on Your Bucket List
Rovinj, Croatia, is a small seaside city on the Istrian Peninsula that boasts Old World charm, dazzling culinary experiences, and plenty of outdoor appeal. The city's history dates back to Illyrian times, when the people of Istria traded with the ancient Greeks and revolted against the Romans. A Romance language known as Istriot is still spoken by some 1,000 people in the region today, and is just one of the cultural hallmarks unique to this region.
Rovinj's picturesque working harbor, where fisherfolk rub shoulders with hungry gulls early each morning as they’ve done for hundreds of years, is surrounded by chic cafes, trendy restaurants, and modern boutiques. A laid-back vibe ripples through the city like the slowly lapping waves of the ocean; station yourself at a harborside cafe with a glass of wine and watch the sun light up the sky over this postcard-perfect European gem.
Rovinj sits at the heart of a region known for producing the world's best olive oil, remarkable wines, and spectacular truffles. Not far from the city center you'll find beautiful forests: the Motovun, characterized by towering brown oaks, is the celebrated hunting ground of the aforementioned truffles; the Punta Corrente Forest Park, loved by bikers, hikers, and rock climbers; and the stunning Golden Cape, with its pine-lined paths, secluded beaches, and natural charm. Sleek boutique hotels like Monte Mulini and Hotel Lone have popped up on the beach, and outfit excellent expeditions to any of the 14 pristine islands that make up the Rovinj Archipelago. Rovinj's most famous landmark is the towering Church of St Euphemia, a 60-meter monolith that is set to star in hundreds of your best travel photographs.
Culinary inspiration wells up from the bottom of the sea and reverberates through Rovinj's cobbled streets. Bakeries and gelato stalls sing siren songs to passersby, while market merchants crow about their figs and truffles and cured meats. In Rovinj, everyone can have their cake and cook it too, and nowhere is this more evident than at the backstage chef's table in the Monte Mulini's Wine Vault, where chef Tomislav Gretic is happy to put his guests on the other end of a knife in order to exercise their own gastronomic visions. (Rovinj is one of the few places in Europe where haute cuisine is a hands-on, interactive affair.) Tomislav's culinary protégé, Priska Thuring, is a molecular wunderkind of the highest order, and at Hotel Lone's flagship L restaurant, she dishes sweet foie gras magnum ice cream, savory octopus ispod peke (served piping hot from the beautifully antiquated stone oven), and a host of other dishes that you’ve likely never heard of.
Eating your way from one cafe to the next can be good fun, but don't miss out on Kantinon, a chic restaurant built inside a spacious stone warehouse. Fresh seafood is the order of the day; the squid ink risotto is splendid, as is the mussel stew, octopus carpaccio, and local craft beer selection. Perpetually busy Puntulina is beloved by local families; the menu here exemplifies the best of rustic Istrian cuisine. This is one of the most popular sundown spots in Rovinj, so arrive early and then take your time working through the menu.
For one of Rovinj's most charming experiences, head to the marina and hop on the ferry for nearby St Andrew's Island (Sveti Andreij), where Restaurant Lanterna, housed within a 19th-century castle, awaits. Dine under the cypress trees in the open-air courtyard or on the terrace over the sea as you feast on Rovinj's finest seafood.
Rovinj's culinary charms are not confined to the city center; 45km away, nestled in the heart of the Motovun Forest, is the small town of Livade, home to the world's largest truffles. Imagine yourself nose-down in the dirt, cheeks and jowl pressed between a pair of ravenous dogs on the hunt. Their master calls out commands in Croatian as the dogs dig and scavenge, turning up prized truffles one after the next, as easily as if they were digging up bones in the backyard. The truffle-hunter plucks each bulbous fungus from the ground before the dogs can devour them, examines the nuggets with his well-trained eye, and then drops them into your cupped hands.
“Something for the pasta,” he says. “Or something for the prawns.” And in this way, with mud on your nose and a dog's rear end in your face, you are introduced to Croatian haute cuisine at its finest.
After your thrilling truffle hunt, unwind in the country confines of Restaurant Zigante, where you can enjoy the spoils of your efforts. The restaurant is run by Giancarlo Zigante, who owns the distinction of unearthing the largest truffle ever discovered—his 1999 discovery entered the Guinness Book of Records at a staggering weight of 1.310 kg. Feast on duck breast with minced white truffle sauce or grass-fed beef with shaved truffles, and finish with pear ice cream (accented with white truffles, naturally).
Venture next to rural Vonda, where you'll find Chiavalon, a family estate. Spin a fat glass filled with the world's most precious olive oil between your hands, then sip as if you are sampling great old grapes from France. You'll be charmed by spicy notes, and enlivened by the freshness of the oil—this earthy blend is an accoutrement elevated, and tastes unlike any oil you have sampled before. Teddy, the passionate steward of the Chiavalon family farm, will spirit you away on a crash course in exceptional olive oils, and allow you plenty of opportunity to pluck the choicest olives you can find. Chiavalon produces some of the world's most highly regarded oils, all of which are available to sample and purchase on site.
Istria's burgeoning culinary scene is fast becoming one of Europe's most remarkable, and the area’s picturesque fishing villages, Rovinj's old-world appeal, a tremendous cafe culture, and small-batch specialty products—from olive oil and truffles to wine and rakija brandy—combine to make it one of the Mediterranean's greatest hits.