Europe's All-purpose Peninsula
Longing for the beach? Join the Europeans summering on Istria's west coast. Need a city fix? Sip espresso at a café in Pula. Prefer the countryside? Stay on a farm in the hilly interior. But hurry: Come 2010, the area plans to switch to the euro. The beauty will still be there, but we're not so sure about the bargains.
Stjenkova 1, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-676-2100, hoteli-piran.si, from $107
Vrata Pod Zidom 1, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/99-680-1101, portaantica.com, from $115
Trg 1 Maja 10, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-673-3275
Presernovo Nabrezje, Piran, Slovenia, 011-386/5-674-7101
Vladimira svalbe 34, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/52-818-089, ulika.hr
Konoba Veli Joze
Svetog Kriza 1, Rovinj, Croatia, 011-385/52-816-337
All of Istria is deeply rooted in history, and the biggest city, Pula, at the south end of the peninsula, is no different: First-century ruins abound. But a glitzy boutique hotel shows that there's a modern side, too.
The distant buzz of the scooters in the streets is the only hint that I'm anywhere near the center of a city. I've climbed a hill to check out a Roman theater just above Pula, and I seem to have found a locals-only spot. Teenagers recline on the ancient seats, and occasionally someone walking a dog passes through. Roman ruins are scattered around the historic center, too: A temple to Augustus stands on the main square; a floor mosaic has been excavated next to a parking lot near Ulica Sergijevaca, the main drag; and at the end of that street, a Roman city gate is decorated with reliefs.
One of the first sites any visitor sees—partly because its sheer size makes it impossible to miss—is the amphitheater, from the 1st century, left over from the days when Pula was the epicenter of Roman rule. The Arena, as it's called, is the sixth-largest in the Roman world—in its prime, it could accommodate more than 20,000 people—and it's still in remarkably good condition. Just inside the city gates, I sip a spiked coffee in honor of James Joyce at Caffe Uliks (Croatian for Ulysses), where a life-size bronze statue of the writer kicks back at an outdoor table. As any local will proudly tell you, Joyce moved to the city to teach English to Austro-Hungarian diplomats at the Berlitz school. (The fact that he only stayed in the city for six months and didn't write anything significant during that time usually doesn't make it into the story.)
To call Pula a city is to be somewhat generous. It only takes me a little more than an hour to explore the pedestrian squares, cafés, and bars in the center. Before long, I drive a couple of miles south to the seafront suburb of Pjescana uvala. I would have booked a place in Pula proper, but I couldn't resist the Valsabbion, an ultra-stylish boutique hotel and restaurant owned by sisters Sonja and Sandra Peric. There are 10 guest rooms—four with sea views—and each has its own look. In one, a deep-blue Louis XVI-style armchair sits next to a bed with a blue-and-gray-striped silk comforter. In another, modern, plush red-leather chairs nicely contrast with an antique cherrywood dresser. On the hotel's third floor is the ultimate retreat: a 26-foot-long hydromassage pool in a glassed-in rooftop spa.
At Valsabbion's restaurant, menus change seasonally, with à la carte dishes starting at around $16—a price that will get you a full meal in much of Istria—and tasting menus for around $75. I go for the Menu d'Autore, a $92 marathon of 13 courses that are paired with glasses of five Istrian wines. The dinner lasts almost four hours, and each course is more wonderfully odd than the last—a single clam baked inside a huge cylinder of black salt, and raw steak pounded into a pâté and cooked by blowtorch at the table. I shouldn't be surprised at the experimental approach here: Sonja has worked under Ferran Adrià, a pioneer of molecular gastronomy and head chef at Spain's elBulli, and she does an impressive job of taking traditional Istrian ingredients and reinterpreting them in her own way. What would otherwise be a hearty peasant dish of njoki, for example, comes tossed with smoked tuna topped with a dollop of BB-size tuna roe and has a sauce made from samphire, a local sea plant that tastes like a cross between spinach and asparagus. Would Istrians recognize it as resembling anything they grew up eating? Doubtful. Would they eat every last bite? Absolutely.
Pjescana uvala IX/26, Pjescana uvala, Croatia, 011-385/52-218-033, valsabbion.hr, rooms from $165, meals from $16