We arrived in Rabac, the Istrian village where we had booked an AirBnB, in the dark. The next morning we woke up to find ourselves in a beautiful location. It poured rain all afternoon and night but was lovely weather for the remaining 4 days we were there.
I worked the first 3 afternoons–we only had time for short trips so I could be online by about 2:00. Thankfully that left plenty of time for visits to two wineries (Istria is the main wine-making region in Croatia). We found out that, unlike in the Okanagan wine region where you can drop into wineries for tastings, the wineries here expect you to call ahead, and tastings can be quite pricey. Many of them deal with large bus tours, which are prebooked. And during the winter months, most of them are closed anyway, with others open only by appointment.
The first winery we visited was a bit of a fluke. We noticed the Vina Romeo sign as we drove by it, exploring the area. Ken reversed, parked at the side of the road, wandered into the driveway, and was greeted warmly by Miriam. As they were talking about the possibility of a tasting/tour, daughter Antonella walked around the corner. Antonella’s English was better and she took over, showing us their small operation (all of the wine is sold in restaurants and shops in Istria), and then providing tastings straight out of the stainless vats. While we were checking out their operation, Grandma walked by, and then finally Great Grandma, bent over at the waist and using two canes, slowly made her way back from wherever she had been wandering. Antonella told us that some of their grape vines, passed down from generation to generation, were over 150 years old. We left with a bottle of wine, but we were not charged for the tastings here.
For the second winery, Trapan, Ken made an appointment via their website. We were with Matea for almost 2 hours. She chatted with us (about wine, olive oil, cheese, and travel), and provided tastings for several of their wines, along with a small plate of sausage (made for them with their wine), local cheese and olives. Matea told us that there were 130 indigenous grape varietals in Istria. We purchased a bottle of wine, but the tasting cost 200 kuna (~$40 CAD for both of us).
One afternoon while I was working, Ken took a walk around the village of Rabac to keep himself occupied, and took these lovely shots.
Once my working days were done, we had two full days for touring the peninsula. We planned a northwestern route for the first day with the main stop being Rovinj, and a southern route for the second day, focusing on Pula.
Our AirBnB host recommended in a text message that we go to Motovun and Grožnjan. We weren’t sure why (and didn’t ask), but added them to our Google map, and off we headed.
Motovun is one of many hilltop villages that dot the landscape in Istria. They just appear as you drive around the valleys–a conical hill with a tall church steeple at the peak, and a cluster of buildings surrounding it. Sometimes, remnants of fortifying walls encircle the church and other structures.
Grožnjan was another hilltop town. We were desperate for a washroom, so took a chance and drove up for a look-see. Thankfully, we found one coffee shop open–the only open establishment in the quaint village.
One of us had read somewhere about Novigrad, so we decided to stop in this tiny seaside village. There were only a couple of restaurants open here, but we could envision it during the summer months with boats of all sizes tied up to the many buoys, and people lounging and playing in the little seawater pools.
Rovinj was our last stop, and the major one. It is a beautiful seaside city and we were able to enjoy it in the last hour or so of light. We even managed a drink on a sunset-warmed patio before we returned to our home in Rabac.
In addition to winery closures, much of Istria, especially in the small villages was also at a standstill. Traveling off season can be a challenge–the lack of restaurants and bars also means a lack of public washrooms for miles on end–it also has its advantages. We have traveled on highways with almost no other cars, making it very stress free. If someone does come up behind Ken, and he’s allowing himself ogling time so driving slower than they would like him to be, he just pulls over somewhere, they pass by, and he continues along at his ogling pace. And many of these villages are likely overrun with tourists in the summer season, making parking a nightmare, and the sites more challenging to see. We can park easily and spend as much or as little time at a site as we want to, without waiting for a chance at clear views.
For our second full day of touring Istria, we headed directly to Pula, and then bopped around the coast a bit before heading back.
Though not running at this time of year, from Pula you can do a day trip via ferry and bus to Venice, Italy. Leaving Pula and driving along the outcroppings in the south coast, we found lots of park areas and car camping sites. And loads and loads of what we assumed were summer houses and condos, all closed up in January.
The season in Istria begins in March or April. Everyone spoke of the 45C+ heat last summer. Spring or Fall might be the best choices for a visit to this area if you want to take in all of the available activities. We thoroughly enjoyed it as it was, but it would be a completely different experience when everything is lively.