When we decided to go to Croatia for spring break, we assumed it would be easy and cheap to get from Italy to Croatia. It’s just across the Adriatic sea. We’re practically neighbors. Croatia is part of the EU so there should be no problem, right? Wrong. At least in March. We couldn’t find a cheap flight because most of the budget airlines don’t start routes there until at least April, some not until June. The ferries from Italy don’t operate until April or later, either. So we decided to rent a car. €150 for 10 days. Not bad. Then I read the fine print. You can’t take the car into eastern European countries. So we scrambled to find a car company that would allow you to take the car into Croatia and finally found one. (We went through an American company called Kemwel, in case you’re interested. We’ve had great luck with them during all our travels in Europe.) The car cost about €275, plus gas and tolls, but at least we could get there.
Since we were driving, we decided to limit our trip to northern Croatia. The Istrian peninsula (right at the top of Croatia on the sea) used to be part of Italy and is still largely Italian speaking. The Kvarner region, slightly to the east and south of the Istrian peninsula is home to a national park that I’ve been wanting to see ever since I read about it on the Boots N All Travel website. It turns out that part of the Kvarner region is also famous for truffles (the mushroom kind, not the chocolate kind.)
We set out on Friday morning at about 9:00. The drive to the Croatian border took about 5 and a half hours. Border control was a piece of cake. They didn’t ask us any questions. They just stamped our passports and sent us on our way. We headed directly for the sweet, romantic little town of Rovinj (Roh-veen-ya), right on the Adriatic sea. As we drove the 45 minutes or so to our hotel, we began to understand why there were no flights or ferries here during March. Croatia is covered in deciduous beech and alder forests, so at this time of year, they are still bare. Although the weather was sunny, it was still quite cool. Because Croatia is known for it’s spectacular beaches, the tourists don’t start showing up until June. This worked out just fine for us because it was still very beautiful and quiet.
As we neared our hotel, we got a big kick out of our GPS unit trying to pronounce the names of Croatian streets. We checked into our room and found that it had a balcony with beautiful view of the harbor and a nearby island.
From the dining room, we also had a gorgeous view of the town of Rovinj. This is an enormous and lovely hotel. It reminded me of a cruise ship. During the off season, we paid €44 per night for our room, including breakfast for 2. The breakfast was the biggest buffet spread I have seen anywhere in Europe. It was as if they were trying to satisfy every brand of tourist that might be there. They had eggs prepared several different ways, pancakes, waffles, pastries, multiple kinds of breads, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, cold cuts, olives, cereal, juices, coffee, tea – they even had tofu. My favorite thing at the buffet bar was pickles! Why didn’t I think of pickles for breakfast? I ate sweet and savory delights for about an hour every morning, while looking across the bay at the church on the hill and listening to the sounds of the boats and fishermen on the harbor. Not a bad way to start the day.
The town itself is picturesque and sweet. The people who live there were busy sprucing things up for the impending tourist hoards. We found a great little pizzeria called Marinero with a friendly waiter who spoke fluent Italian, so we could communicate a little. We had a delicious after dinner drink made of sweetened, fortified red wine. (I forgot the name. Oops.) We walked up to the cathedral, enjoying the beautiful views along the way.
On Saturday we visited the nearby town of Pula, famous for its Roman amphitheater.
We then wandered over to the cathedral, which was open, so we went inside. They greeted us in Italian and handed us a concert handbill. A free concert? Why not. We went in and sat down, waiting for the program to start. A choir began to sing and a priest came out and we were all invited to stand. Ok, it will be a quick little prayer and then on to the concert. No. It was a full mass. At least it was in Italian so I could try to work on my listening skills without actually being required to respond. After an hour or so, we gave up on getting to see the concert, snuck out the back door and headed to the bar across the street. I had been wanting to try Croatian beer and this seemed like a good opportunity. George, who never drinks beer, had apparently been done in by the mass, and he ordered one, too. Karlovac`ko (kar-loh-voch-koh) is a light amber ale with an almost citrusy flavor. While we were enjoying this, we chatted with the bartender. He was very friendly and seemed to appreciate that we were trying to speak Italian and even learning a few Croatian words. When we finished our beers, he poured us shot of his private stash of grappa – on the house. I remembered grappa as being vile, but this was actually pretty good. We left a little loopy and a lot happier than when we entered.
The following day we headed to Brijuni (Bree-yu-nee) National Park, located on a small island near Pula. The only way to visit the island is to book an excursion. The only one sailing while we were there was with a group of 250 Croatian women and the tour was all in Croatian. We didn’t understand a word, but the island was very pretty. The former leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito, owned a house there which is now a museum. I had never heard of Tito, though George knew all about him. The exhibits there were in English, so I learned a great deal. Apparently he was a great animal lover, and whenever heads of state would come to visit, they would bring him a new animal. There is a safari park on the island to this day made up of the descendants of these animal gifts.