Sunday, June 2, 2013

Road Trippin' it in Northern Croatia

Motovun in Istria Region of Croatia
Adrienne and I had a nice sleep on the overnight train headed for Zagreb. We woke up in time to see the beautiful crystal clear rivers in Slovenia before we crossed the border. Lucky for me it was a glimpse at what was to come in 2 weeks when I headed back to Slovenia.

We make it to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, safe and sound. We check-in to Chillout hostel in the heart of downtown before heading out to explore. Unfortunately it was quite a chilly and wet day out there which makes sightseeing a bit tricky. We decided to make the best of it by browsing through shops, walking through old town Zagreb and sitting outside sipping wine at one of the many popular cafes on Ulica Ivana Tkalčića. Crazy thing about Europe is how much wine you’ll drink...pretty much daily as wine is cheaper than buying a bottle of water.

Ok you caught me...I had a beer and wine too :-)
"Musuem of Broken Relationships" - We didn't get a chance to go in...but was very interested in what the heck this is about.
Old town Zagreb.
Cafe Life on Ulica Ivana Tkalčića
New part of Zagreb...Rainy day but the clouds that night were incredible!
Pronunciation Tips for Balkan Languages.
J is pronounced like a ‘Y’. For example, the port town Rijeka sounds like ‘Riyeka’ to me.
C is pronounced like ‘tz’. For example, Ulica (street) sounds like ‘Ulitza” to me.

Recommendation: Rent a car in the Balkans.
Having a car allows you to discover so many gems that are off the travelers beaten path. The Balkans are not the cheapest or easiest to get around by bus unless you’re sticking to major cities.
Before going to pick up our rental car for the next 3 days, I rack the hostel receptionists' brain  for route and sightseeing suggestions in Istria. Especially what route to take as neither Adrienne nor I had google maps or gps to rely on. We were back to asking people, looking at a map and following signs. I was a challenge but worked out. Anyway I am so glad we talked to the receptionist who is originally from Pula as her recommendations ended up being our absolute favorites: Motuvun, Pula, Rt Kamenjak and Opatija.
Motovun is an adorable medieval village in the Istria region that is situated on the top of a hill overlooking wine & truffle countryside. Italian is commonly spoken in this region and their restaurants reflect the Italian influence. I enjoyed the best pasta dish of my life here, makes me salvate just thinking about it. Absolutely breathtaking. Here’s how the NY Times described this region:
“Istria, the part of Croatia that’s closest to Italy, was under its neighbor’s rule until the end of World War II and was previously occupied by the might Venetians. It’s beautiful, cheap and largely free of the hordes of tourists that spoil so many postcard-worthy views in Italy. Think of it as Tuscany 50 years ago.”
On our way to Motovun we stopped in Božić for some Olive Oil and Wine Tasting.
Loving Cesar's olive oil in Božić
Motovun from a distance.
Restaurant Pod Napun in Motovun - stunning views!
Adrienne savoring her asparagus truffle soup and salad with shaved truffles. It was incredible!
Best past dish of my life at Restaurant Pod Napun. The pasta just melted in my mouth and the meat sauce was full of flavor. mmmm

So happy to have explored Motovun together.

All the restaurants seem to have stunning views.
We continued our drive along Istria’s western coast before stopping to stay a night in Pula. It was a bit to drizzly to see much of the coast but could tell it was beautiful clear water. We were so excited for the weather to warm up so we could take a dip. After getting lost for a while and seeing more of Pula then we wanted, we found our way to our private room for the night. We stayed with the very sweet Miss Viktorija Rade about 10 minutes outside of Pula Stari Grad (Old Town Pula). Miss Viktorija was adorable, even with the language barrier, we were able to communicate we were from USA. She squealed with joy “Ahhh Americans, Mi primero Americans”…we were her first American guests. Renting a private room was a nice change from hostels. It is actually very common to find a private apartment or room in someone’s home in the Balkans. After all many people only live off tourism and it’s a great way to bring in an income.
Pula is the largest city in Istria with heaps of natural beauty from the surrounding countryside and turquoise water of the Adriatic. Pula also has one of the sixth largest surviving Roman Amphitheaters. Pula’s arena was constructed in 27 BC – 68 AD and is the only remaining amphitheater to have all 3 Roman architectural orders entirely preserved. It was a pretty amazing sight. I wish we had more time to spend in Pula as I loved what I saw so far!
My first view of the Adriatic
Sunset in Pula from Miss Viktorija's Home
Old town Pula

Pula Arena

Old Town Pula
View of the bay from Miss Viktorija's Home in Pula
Me, Miss Viktorija and Adrienne

Our next stops were Rt Kamenjak and Medulin for a bit of coastal walking and sun basking by the Adriatic. We left Miss Viktorija’s early, went shopping for picnic goodies for the day and were about to peace out from Pula when a kind man starts waving his hands at us to stop. SURPRISE…flat tire L Lucky for us this wonderful man put on the donut for us and budget rental car came to our rescue to help us get the tire fixed. It all work out but was a bit stressful for 2 ladies who are clueless about cars. Thank you gentlemen of the world for looking out for us! After our slight delay we were off once again.
Cape Kamenjak is a small, isolated peninsula located some nine miles south of Pula. The peninsula is a protected nature reserve only accessed by dirt roads. Kamenjak offers pebbly bays broken up by naturally-occurring terraces of slab-like stone and secluded (mostly rocky) bathing spots lurking behind a belt of pine forest. There were many hiking trails and a few bars spotted along the coasts that are open during peak season. I believe you can also camp and rent small rustic cabins within the reserve. I’ll definitely be back someday to stay for a few days to explore even more.

Opatija is where we ended our lovely day with a champagne toast on the gulf of Kvarner. Opatija is a popular resort town that sits at the foot of Učka mountain. The town is full of trendy bars with delicious restaurants speckled in between. We had dinner at Roko pizzeria and explored for a couple hours before heading to Rijeka to crash for the night.

We both loved our few days exploring Istria. Croatia is a country of many rolling hills, mountains, stunning rocky coastlines and many many tunnels – the longest we went through was 6km! Also a note about renting a car, the toll roads do app up; would be worthwhile to find the scenic, but longer routes off the toll roads.  
Aw I couldn’t believe that I still had nearly 2 weeks left in Croatia. Pinch me! Up next on our road trip are the infamous waterfalls at Plitvice and Krka National Parks. More about all that in my next post!
So happy to be in Croatia I had to dance it all out :-)

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