Tag Archives: Istria


(Here are Part 2 “Impatient to Run Free” and Part 3 “I know one when I see one” of this trilogy.)

“You’ve got a dream job. You’re always on holiday, aren’t you?” is what we at On the Road hear all the time. I love what I do, but one long holiday it is not. So what is it like when we’re on the road? 

Take one day earlier this summer, June 23, as an example. Pei Fen and I were in Slovenia researching our new European itinerary. We left Ljubljana, the country’s capital, at 8am. Our first stop was at the Postonja Caves, although we just had enough time to make a GPS waypoint – the trip down into the cave was squeezed in later in our trip. Our next stop was an hour’s drive away in Lipica, the stud farm for the famous Lipizzaner horses. From there we drove an hour out of our way for lunch in a restaurant recommended by Slovenian friends.

Spot the Ferrari...

Spot the Ferrari…

After an excellent lunch (more on which later), we had a long drive south and into Croatia for a 3pm appointment with Istria’s regional Director of Tourism. By then the temperature had reached 37°C, although we kept the air-conditioning turned off in our car, relishing the dry heat after weeks of wet weather. After the meeting (held in a darkened room with no air-con and cups of room-temperature water, transforming our relish for the heat into a strong desire for a/c), we revved up Little Red – the colour of our VW Up! was a shade of red that made it look as though it was trying to impersonate a Ferrari – and headed farther south to visit one of our selected hotels for an update on the progress of their renovations and a detailed discussion of the arrangements for our first group of guests.

Even the ice cream was salty...

Even the ice cream was salty…

By this time it was 7pm, but we weren’t finished yet! Pei Fen and I went to find the team hotel we had researched and booked. But after bouncing along a pot-holed dirt road, turning left, right, back, and forward again, we just weren’t able to find it. So, to Plan B! “I know of another place, it’s a bit more expensive, but never mind, let’s call them. I hope they’ve got rooms…” We shamelessly name-dropped the Director of Tourism, finagling their last two rooms, drove there***

Miss Daisy's sister in Istria?

Miss Daisy’s sister in Istria?

, checked in, and headed out again, at 8pm, on another 45min drive to a restaurant I had tried before and wanted Pei Fen to experience: “Believe me, it’s awesome…and totally worth the drive!” In the event, though, the dinner took two-and-a-half-hours, because the chef wanted to showcase her best, and each dish was too salty – even the ice cream. By the time we returned to our hotel it was after midnight, and we had to be up by 5:45am for another, even longer day.

What a day! Does it still sound like a dream job? More like a nightmare perhaps. And yet this day was great because, amidst all the busyness, two experiences made it as special as any I can recall in a long, long time. One was seeing the majestic Lipizzaner horses; the other was the trip to find our lunch restaurant. Stay tuned for the stories of each of these magical experiences.

Peter

 

 

 

Miss Daisy in China

Miss Daisy in China…

*** Believe it or not, on the way to our hotel we came across a gleaming yellow Caterham Super 7, exactly like Little Yellow (小黄) which I drove 21,000km across China in 2007.

The Istrian countryside...a small corner of paradise...as Italy used to be...

The Istrian countryside…a small corner of paradise…as Italy used to be…

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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Batelina. The restaurant’s name came up three times in the span of three days while we were preparing for our research trip. A wine maker, an olive oil producer and a business school friend from Croatia, had all mentioned it in response to our enquiries about where we could enjoy the finest seafood in Istria. “Book well in advance”, I was told. A month before our trip, I dialled their number from Hong Kong. Greeted by a recording in Croatian, I decided to call back later. Which I did on the same day, the next day and quite a few more times. Never did I succeed in speaking to a person. “I can’t reach them,” I told one of the referrers. “They’re only open in the evenings,” he told me.  Given that “in the evening” in Istria means midnight or later in Hong Kong, for me, a morning person, that wasn’t going to work out any time soon. I could have asked referrers to help, but they had helped enough already, so I didn’t want to bother them further. I decided to wait until I was in Europe.  When eventually I called around 6pm Croatian time, I was greeted by a friendly voice, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to make a reservation,” I said, adding that there would be two of us on April 4th. “That’s a Monday night,” I tried to be helpful. “At night we sleep,” came the reply, “but in the evening we’re open. Would you like to book?”

Konoba Batelina

Konoba Batelina

While I still love printed maps, when it comes to finding a specific place, GPSs beat maps hands-down. When the GPS said “you’ve reached your destination”, we didn’t concur: finding ourselves on a residential street, we didn’t see anything that looked like a restaurant. We circled the “destination” once. With still nothing obvious in sight, we called Batelina and described what we saw around us. “Park your car on the lawn in front of you and walk around the hill to the house with the lights on…that’s us.” We did as we were told, trudging up the hill, still slightly doubtful that we were heading in the right direction until we spotted a sign leaving no doubt that we had arrived.

Batelina StartersSince it was a chilly evening, we opted for a cozy-looking dining room with a fireplace.  We were served by Ilya, who spoke excellent English. This came as a surprise – we had thought that we were coming to a very local restaurant – and almost put us off. Perhaps Batelina was no hidden gem after all, and that perhaps we were in for a meal of “tourist fare”. As became quickly apparent, this was an unnecessary worry: we had the finest seafood dinner of our lives.

I believe that one’s enjoyment of any experience in life depends at least as much on the setting, the circumstance, and your expectations as it does on the raw nature of the subject itself. The subject in this case was, first, the recommended starter selection – on this day, ten small dishes featuring the day’s catch, each one a culinary jewel coming out of the treasure chest of the chef’s imagination. For our main dishes, we chose scallops and clams. For desert, we picked mascarpone cream with wine-cooked figs and homemade biscuits.

Batelina - MainWhat made this evening such an utter delight? Was it that every bite enchanted our palates? Yes, indeed. Was it the complete absence of pretension? Was it that there was no Michelin, no Gault Millau, no Falstaff, no accreditation whatsoever in sight?  Was it the story of Danilo, the fisherman owner of Batelina, and David his motorcycle-loving son and the current chef who joined us after dinner for a chat? I don’t know except that this evening has engraved itself forever in my memory.

“How do you find a place like this?” I’m often asked. In our world of search engines, there is a belief that “you can find anything on the internet”. By now, I assume you will have googled “Batelina” and, voila!, there it is, you found it and with that “About 46,700 results (0.73 seconds)”. But Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

Batelina - Desert“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The magic of travel is that of turning some of the world’s unknowns – whether known or unknown – into knowns, the process of discovery that begins with a hunch, stops along the way at points of reference, and ends with an experience you’re dying to share. It’s that feeling of wonder about what “lies around the corner.” The hunch gives you the feeling that there is something out there waiting to be discovered. The points of reference, otherwise known as “friends”, are lighthouses that guide you along.  And the discovery ends with your personal experience, which is when you know whether your hunch was right, whether your friends know you well. Sometimes, the answer is no and you move on. At other times – at times like Batelina – the answer is a resounding yes and you linger to tell the story.

Come and visit Istria while I feel it to be true that “rarely have so few known so little about a place that offers so much.”

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

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Something seemed different here. The previous evening, we had crossed the border from Slovenia into the Croatian region of Istria, a triangular peninsula that points south into the Adriatic. After driving south for a little while, Angie and I stopped at San Rocco, a small hotel in the small town of Brtonigla in the triangle’s northwest corner.

Brtonigla

Brtonigla

A friendly receptionist greeted us and helped us check in. The receptionist turned porter and helped us carry our bags to the room. Then, when we came down for dinner, the porter had become our waiter, expertly explaining all the dishes and, to Angie’s delight, how each of them was made. He went on to recommend superbly matched glasses of wine for each course. When Angie observed that had she rarely met a waiter who knew so much about the dishes he served, we discovered that, in fact, our receptionist-porter-waiter, Teo, was also the chef.  And, as it turned out the next morning, he is also the third in a story of four generations.

Over the years, I’ve lived in quite a few different countries: Austria, France, America, Japan, and China. Living in each meant, of course, moving from place to place. There is, as we learned after breakfast, another way of living in different countries.  Teo’s grandfather was born in the same house in Brtonigla, then part of Austria-Hungary. By the time Teo’s father was born, Brtonigla had “moved” to become Italian in the inter-war years. Teo was born in the same place, which was then part of Yugoslavia. His son, net yet a teenager today, came into this world when Brtonigla had become part of Croatia.

San Rocco Familiy

San Rocco Familiy

With the family’s youngest generation playing in the dirt of a shallow pit that is destined to become the hotel’s new swimming pool, as we sat and talked with Teo and his father, Tullio, two things became evident: one, clearly stated, was that the family is more optimistic about the future than they can remember; the other, not stated but felt, was that they were filled with tremendous pride in their homeland, and in particular the produce that springs from Istria’s fertile land and surrounding sea, and the traditions that turn the harvest into culinary treasures.

The sea provides excellent langoustines, oysters and fresh fish; while the land offers asparagus, truffles, olive oil, wine, and ham – all of which are the pride of Istria’s inhabitants.  This strong feeling of pride is tinged with a sense of injustice. Talk to Istrian truffle hunters and they will tell you, without any hesitation, that their truffles are at least as good as the ones from Alba: “In fact, some Piedmontese truffle merchants come to Buzet to buy our white truffles!” Talk to an olive oil producer – in our case, the producer of one of the world’s best olive oils, as ranked by expert Marco Oreggia – and he will say that in Roman times the best olive trees were moved within the Roman Empire from today’s Istria to Italy. Everyone seem to be saying that little Istria has battled for centuries against overwhelming odds to put itself on the culinary map.

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

But put itself on the map it will. In preparation for the trip, I read a charming article, entitled “Istria is not the new Tuscany”. It seemed to suggest that Istrians needn’t look to Italy to learn how to attract visitors and that their culinary heritage is worthy of recognition on its own terms. However I disagreed with the author’s conclusion that “No, Istria is not the new Tuscany.” Instead I feel that it’s more like the old Tuscany, devoid of crowds and brand names and redolent of “how things used to be”. Not to mention – though this is a story for another time – the peninsula’s traffic-free roads and back roads are a pure joy to drive…

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

 

 

 

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