Rovinj, an old fishing town on the Croatian coast, is a tangle of buildings and alleys with the sparkling Adriatic Sea on three sides. Think Venice on a hill with a Balkan twist …
Tony is treating us to a truffle tasting. He is dipping small spoons into jars of thick truffle oil and parmesan-truffle paste offering a slither of black truffle, then white truffle. Speaking in a spiky Croatian lilt, he recalls how, ten years ago, a man found a truffle weighing 1,3kg in nearby woods. At the time, this monster fungus achieved a Guinness World Records entry.
“It put Istria on the map, of course,” says Tony, adjusting his reflective Ray-Ban Aviators. “The man, his name is Giancarlo Zigante, found it in woods near Buje with his dog Diana. He had the truffle cast in bronze, before making it into a dinner for a hundred guests. Today he is known as our truffle king.”
We are standing at a table stacked with Tony’s truffle wares at a sea-flanking market in historical Rovinj. Fresh fish smells emanate from a shop, the scent of lavender detected from a neighbouring table.
Indeed, truffles – essentially underground mushrooms with knotty potato-like bodies – are the highlight of regional cuisine in Istria, a lush triangular peninsula in north Croatia, bordering Italy and Slovenia. Trained dogs smell the bulbs beneath the soil. The truffles are then harvested and used in dishes ranging from seafood and pasta to ice cream.
It is midday and the Mediterranean heat is sending droplets of sweat down my spine. Tony is sipping from a tall glass of beer, fanning himself with one hand. “You’re from South Africa?” he says, beaming. “Oh, I know South Africa. Nelson Mandela!”
Behind us, Tony’s godmother is selling pomegranates, grapes, cherry tomatoes and figs. She smiles, shaking her scarved head. No, she does not speak English. I buy two plump violet figs and saunter on to a mushroom stand, selecting a few large porcinis in a brown paper bag.
Around the market, tall buildings lean close. Many walls are peeling, with rough stone peeking past plaster and paint. Doors are bright green or blue, with matching window shutters.
Pots with flowers decorate entrances to shops selling home-sewn bags and stuffed dolls, crocheted table cloths, coral jewellery and ceramics. Dogs really are prized in Rovinj; they are everywhere.
All on leashes, waiting next to gelaterias, stretched out in doorways or seated next to their owners at tables overlooking the bolt-blue Adriatic Sea. Beyond the market, a tangle of back streets gradually slopes up – a pleasant confusion of wrought-iron balconies, portals and squares.
A Warm Balkan Heart
Marble stairs lead up to the beautiful hill-top church of St Euphemia. Up here, the views are arresting: terracotta roofs with bursts of bougainvillea against ocean and sky with a sprinkling of wooded islands jutting on the horizon.
Rovinj’s old town used to be an island too, but was joined to the mainland by its Venetian emperors in 1763. Like most of Istria, the town fell under Venetian rule for centuries, with a short stint under Austria before being ceded to Yugoslavia after World War II.
Its resemblance to Venice is noteworthy, with even the church of St Euphemia’s baroque bell tower modelled after St Mark’s Basilica. However, beneath the Venetian facade beats a warm Balkan heart, evident in gypsy notes filling the air as a violinist sways before the church. Inside the building, trademark Croatian hospitality greets visitors in six languages.
“Our church would like to give you a simple word of welcome,” reads a sign. “Welcome in the name of the Lord! We hope that your stay in our country will be serene and restful and do you good.”
The church ceiling is vaulted with painted cornices, the marble pulpit large and flanked by hip-high gold candlesticks. To the sides, statues of men tower in billowing robes, with finely chiselled features. Behind the right altar is the tomb of St Euphemia, the town’s patron saint.
The legend of St Euphemia is quite a story. Apparently, on 16 September 306 AD, this fifteen-year-old girl was thrown to lions in Constantinople after refusing to give up Christianity. Her sarcophagus was kept in Constantinople until 800 AD. According to Rovinj tourist authorities, “it is hard to say what happened next.”
Apparently, her sarcophagus came floating up the coast to Rovinj in a storm. It is said that several Istrians tried to haul it from the sea, without success. Finally, a small boy with two cows managed to pull the sarcophagus up the hill to the church, where it can still be seen today. All in all, 16 September is an excellent date to visit Rovinj, as St Euphemia’s Day brings grand yearly festivities to the town’s main square.
Futhermore, Rovinj’s shoreline offers safe swimming, fishing, sunset trips in glass-bottom boats and wreck dives to ancient Roman galleys and warships. Highlights include lazy sunset splashes off cliffs in front of the church of St Euphemia, or visiting quiet pebble beaches at Punta Corrente Forest Park, a twenty-minute stroll away.
The Punta Corrente Forest Park
Pathways criss-cross the free-access park under sweeping oak branches, alongside holly, wild asparagus and violets; with woodpeckers and owls in woody hollows. It is an ideal playground for runners and cyclists, featuring even a quarry for rock climbers. Interestingly, this very quarry supplied tons of marble for building in Venice across the bay.
The mysterious Austrian count Johann Georg Hütterott landscaped the Punta Corrente Forest Park at the turn of the 19th century but died before realising his dream of turning it into an early European health spa. Walking along a seaside path in the park next to shallow waves, a British tourist can be heard telling his friend: “Well, it’s bloody marvellous, isn’t it?” It sure is.
Venice On A Hill
In Rovinj’s centre, several restaurants and waterholes offer refreshments. Sample local antipasto, such as prosciutto wrapped around Istrian sheep’s cheese, or Brodetto all’istriana, a speciality fish stew with tomatoes. Croatian craft beer is on the rise too. I tried the John Lemon wheat beer from Zagreb Brewery Visibaba, delicious with hints of citrus and coriander.
Rovinj is a fascinating, peaceful and varied holiday destination. Think Venice on a hill with a Balkan twist, but without the Venetian tourist hordes. As they love to say in Croatia: “Hvala!” … a joyous expression often said in greeting and meaning “thanks”.
WHEN TO VISIT: From May to September is best for a summer vacation. Try to avoid peak crowds in August.
SAFETY: Crime in Croatia is minimal, and it is safe for travelling solo. I have done so around Istria, and further down south along the Dalmatian Coast.
COSTS: This is a reasonably affordable destination, even in rand. My spacious double apartment overlooking a lively courtyard in the old town was R900 a night. A truffle and ricotta beef burger with fries set me back R150, a large draft beer R40. A John Lemon wheat beer is somewhat steeper at R66.
TRAVEL TIPS: Travel agency Črnja Tours at the Rovinj bus stop is perfect for making last-minute travel arrangements. Find them online at
GETTING AROUND: Rovinj is best on foot. There are bicycles for rent too, useful for reaching the Punta Corrente Forest Park.
FOOD: A fusion of Croatian and Italian delicacies, from gelato to seafood and pizza drizzled in truffle oil. Highly recommended cocktail bar Valentino spills onto cliffs flanking the old town, offering spectacular sunset views.
FLY There are daily SAA flights to Frankfurt. From there, catch a connecting flight to Venice with fellow Star Alliance member and codeshare partner, Lufthansa.
FERRY From Venice, Rovinj is about a four-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic, an ideal add-on to a trip to the Italian canal city.
RAIL & BUS Alternatively, travel from Venice to Trieste by train (two hours), and from Trieste to Rovinj by bus (two hours).
Words by Biénne Huisman