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.
Trg Portarata 1, Pula, Croatia, 011-385/5-221-9158
Pula, Croatia, 011-385/52-219-028, $7
Not everyone ventures into Istria's hilly interior, but they should. The family farms, small towns, and churches—many of which have stunning frescoes—make it the heart and soul of the region.
For every 100 tourists in the resort towns along the coast, there are maybe three in the Istrian interior. It's not that there's nothing to see—the rolling hills, small vineyards, and fields flecked red with poppies make it nearly impossible not to think of Tuscany. It's just that for some reason, the area really hasn't made it onto the tourism radar yet.
There are a few hotels scattered about, but I decide to go for one of the more than 75 agroturizams, or farmstays. The Gologoricki Dol makes the cut for the most basic reason: I'll only be here for one night, and unlike some of the other agroturizams, there's no minimum-stay requirement. I'm glad it worked out that way. The clutch of stone buildings is at the end of a road that winds past vineyards, a stream, and a field with horses, goats, cattle, and one very noisy donkey. It doesn't get much more authentic. A lack of English doesn't stop the friendly owner, Slavko Stojsic, from inviting me down to the cellar to taste his homemade wine and share some eager conversation translated by his English-speaking daughter, Ana.
Meals at the farm are comically ample. For dinner, we eat corn soup with beans, potatoes, and carrots, followed by njoki in a venison ragú; breakfast the next day consists of scrambled eggs with chunks of cheese and strips of ham, coffee, and fried dough rings called fritula. They're delicious and clearly bad for me, and I insist that Slavko's wife stop bringing them out after the second basketful. She obliges.
It doesn't take more than 25 minutes to get from one hill town to the next, so it's easy to tackle several in a day. I start with the provincial capital of Pazin—an oversize cow town with a 10th-century castle—and move on to Motovun, 12 miles away. It's picture-perfect from afar, but when I get there, I see that it's packed with souvenir shops and tour buses. Similarly, Groznjan, a village of 80 residents and 37 galleries, feels a little fabricated, so I keep moving. In tiny Beram, I learn that to see the floor-to-ceiling medieval frescoes at St. Mary of the Rocks, you first have to find the person with the key, or kljuc (pronounced "klyooch"). Here's what I can tell you: Sonja, the key master, lives at Number 38 on the town square and is not shy about dropping hints regarding tips ($2 should make her happy).
In the medieval hamlet of Draguc, I ask the two women outside the lone bar, "Kljuc Sveti Roka?" ("Key to St. Roch?"). They help me track down the old woman with the skeleton key for the Chapel of St. Roch, a minuscule church at the edge of town. The interior is swathed in frescoes—worn and faded in places, but still spectacular—featuring scenes from the Massacre of the Innocents and the Baptism of Christ.
Hum may not have any charming, hidden frescoes, but it does claim world-record status as "The Smallest Town in the World." I ask Aleksandra Rigo, who owns the Etno Butiga souvenir store with her brother, Elvis, how Hum got the title. "It has everything a town requires," she explains. "From the Middle Ages, it had the prefect—like a mayor—two churches, and the council of wise men."
Apparently it was the concept of electing a mayor that made the status official. "Every June, we pick this guy, who is like the boss for one year," says Aleksandra. "We have a party, and we drink a lot of biska."
At Humska Konoba, I have a sunset dinner: prsut and truffled cheese followed by a noodle, corn, and chickpea soup with sausage. For dessert, I go for the Istarska supa, an "Istrian soup" of mulled red wine over toasted bread, along with pepper, olive oil, and sugar, served in a ceramic jug.
As I'm walking to my car, I hear strains of a guitar, an accordion, and voices singing. People have gathered on the main square and are passing around big earthenware jugs of biska (mistletoe brandy). Then the crowd starts rehearsing what looks like a play. Members of the audience toss what are clearly verbal insults at the performers. I don't have the slightest idea what this is all about, but then someone produces a voting rod and it all becomes clear: They're rehearsing for the upcoming selection of the new mayor.
I watch for half an hour and can't figure out whom they're planning to elect, but it doesn't really matter. I'm sitting under the stars on a medieval stone wall in the world's smallest town, watching what could charitably be called the world's worst actors keep up a 1,600-year-old tradition of democracy. Someone passes me a jug of biska and I take a sip. Now this is what I came for.
Gologoricki Dol cerovlje
Golgoricki Dol 6, near Cerovlje, Croatia, 011-385/52-684-625, from $52
Hum 2, Hum, Croatia, 011-385/91-600-3456, hum.hr, from $4
Hum 9, Hum, Croatia, 011-385/91-888-9608