The perfect trip: Croatia
St John’s fort guards the entrance to the harbor of Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Mark Read)
Croatia's epic coastline has inspired rhapsodic praise from time immemorial - strike inland and you'll find landscapes just as worthy of exploration.
Istria: Best for food and drink
With aviator sunglasses, a customised 4WD and a stash of Cuban cigars in his tasting room, Bruno Trapan says that he’s recently been dubbed the ‘rock star of Croatian winemaking’. Bruno’s curiosity led him – a party animal turned horticulture student – to build a DIY winery in his garage after inheriting a vineyard from his grandfather. A few years and a cabinet full of awards later, Bruno is among the most acclaimed producers in his native Istria – a tooth-shaped peninsula at the western corner of Croatia.
‘This isn’t marketing bullshit’ says Bruno, glugging on a glass of cabernet sauvignon. ‘We’re at the end of a peninsula, so we’re exposed to winds from the east and the west. This is good for the vines, and makes for great wine’.
Wine production is old news in the region. The Romans once considered these vintages among the best in the empire – one empress was said to have lived to the age of 86 after insisting on only drinking Istrian wine every day. Even today, scraps of smashed up Roman wine containers are periodically found in the earth, relics of messy nights out a few millennia ago.
Ever since, Istria has been synonymous with Epicurean living: plentiful seafood and fine wine, late nights and mid-afternoon naps. It’s become one of Croatia’s classic seaside destinations – a miniature Côte d’Azur on the Adriatic, with grand hotels interspersing fishing villages along the coast, and local trawlers competing for moorings with oligarchs’ yachts.
Holidaymakers may come and go, but Istria’s gastronomic traditions have endured. To the north, the town of Buje claims the world’s biggest white truffles – hunted, until recently, with pigs on leashes. To the south, centuries-old olive groves are still harvested by hand – their branches rattled by generation after generation of the same family.
Bruno takes me across the Istrian countryside to his vineyard. It feels like a place where life goes on in slow motion – with sluggish creeks meandering through the biscuit-coloured earth and tall cypress trees swaying in the breeze. We arrive and Bruno wanders up and down rows of vines like a schoolteacher inspecting his class. He shows me a chunk of vine, recently mangled by an intruder. ‘Sometimes wild boar get into the vineyard and start nibbling at the grapes, so we have hunters come here to shoot them for us.’
It seems the boar are turned into sausages for their sins – so they, like Bruno’s wines, inevitably wind up on Istria’s dinner tables.
Bruno’s vineyard, Vina Trapan, is set just outside the city of Pula in southern Istria.
Where to eat
Close to Rovinj, a fishing town on Istria’s western coast, Restaurant Blu offers an experimental take on Istrian cooking (evening mains from £8).
Where to stay
A boomerang-shaped hotel at the southern edge of Rovinj, the recently opened Hotel Lone has fashionably sparse rooms arranged around a central atrium. Most rooms have large balconies offering superb sea views (from £120).
Plitvice Lakes: Best for waterfalls
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is a place of such otherworldly beauty, you get the feeling that a CGI artist would be proud of it. Spread over a green valley in the Croatian interior, a series of waterfalls tumble down from one spectacular cascade to the next, pausing in the occasional turquoise lake before slipping down a sheer karst canyon and out of sight.
As geology goes, Plitvice is still breaking news. These lakes took shape only 12,000 years back – mere moments ago in geological terms – when subterranean rivers flowed out of the hills and began depositing limestone to form natural dams. Even today, Plitvice’s landscape is one of Mother Nature’s ongoing construction sites. Watercourses regularly switch about: as one waterfall dries up, another roaring cataract will spring up unannounced nearby, like a burst water main.