Rovinj and the Istrian Peninsula
Updated: Apr 22, 2022
After climbing the Samobor Castle ruins, we continued west towards the Adriatic. For the next week and a half, we explored the Istrian Peninsula and city of Rovinj, a coastal gem steeped in Venetian history.
Rovinj, Istria, and a Venetian Past
The Istrian Peninsula sits at the far northern section of Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. Shaped like an inverted triangle, the peninsula juts due south into the sea. Rovinj, where we’d spend the bulk of our time in Istria, is located on the western coast about halfway up from the tip of this peninsula.
While a narrow stretch of Slovenia separates Istria from Italy, you can make the drive from the northern reaches to Trieste in just over 30 minutes. This proximity has played a central role in Istria’s history and intractable relationship with Italian - and Venetian, specifically - culture.
From the late-13th to late-18th centuries, Istria fell under the Republic of Venice, with Rovinj’s location and protected harbor making it one of the most important Venetian towns on the peninsula. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, control of Istria passed among the Austrian Empire, Kingdom of Italy, and Yugoslavia. When the latter collapsed in the early nineties, Istria became a part of the newly independent Croatia.
Throughout these transitions, Italian culture and language remained strong in Istria. Even with an exodus of ethnic Italians following World War II, today’s visitors cannot ignore the Italian influence. In fact, the Istrian Province has two official languages - Croatian and Italian. Driving around, you’ll see road signs with names in both languages. So, approaching our destination, we got off the highway at the Rovinj/Rovigno exit, the former the Croatian name, and the latter Italian.
Ascending Rovinj’s Narrow Streets to St. Euphemia Cathedral
Like many Venetian cities, Rovinj was once surrounded by defensive walls. Today, the historic city sits on a narrow peninsula, its walls now incorporated into homes, restaurants, and waterfront cafes.
Rovinj wasn’t always a peninsula, though. Until 1763 - the tail end of the Venetian period - this walled portion was an island, separated from the mainland and outlying districts by a narrow channel. Now, this filled-in channel seamlessly connects the old with the “new” (relatively speaking, as everything in Rovinj seems old compared to the States!).
But, the layout inside the walled city hasn’t changed much, even with this connection. Winding and narrow alleys gradually work their way to the hilltop St. Euphemia Cathedral, which towers over all of Rovinj. Apparently, the eponymous saint was thrown to the lions for refusing to renounce her faith - quite the conviction, regardless of where you fall on the religious spectrum. And, for present day visitors, the cathedral’s tower provides an absolutely stunning view of Rovinj, the harbor, and the surrounding coastline - if you can stomach the narrow, vertigo-inducing staircase to the top!
During our stay, we rented an apartment inside the walled city - a renovated second-level flat in the town’s lower tiers. To avoid the tourist season - and make a little extra cash - the owners move from their city home to a cottage in the country every summer, choosing to lease their flat.
But, unlike many apartments we’ve rented, the ancient city’s narrow layout didn’t allow us to simply plug an address into the GPS and park in front of the building. While local residents can get permits to take cars into the old town, physics prevents all but the smallest, European-style autos (or mopeds) from navigating most of these streets. Instead, our host instructed us to meet her in a parking lot on the outskirts of town. From there, we grabbed our bags and followed her on foot through Rovinj’s maze of back alleys to our building’s entrance.
Doing the Local Thing in Rovinj
Not having ready access to the rental car worked just fine during our time in Rovinj. Everything we needed was a short stroll away (so long as we could successfully find our way through some of these labyrinthine parts of town!). Grocery stores, cafes, little shops, bars, beaches, hiking trails - all a stone’s throw away.
Embracing this environment, we tried to do the local thing as much as possible. Two items, in particular, jump out.
On our first morning, we woke up to just a little instant coffee in the cabinet (hadn’t yet stocked our shelves). While instant gets you a caffeine fix in a pinch, it seemed almost sacrilegious in such a coffee mecca to tarnish our palates with a weak powder (or so Chipp declared to a Jenna eyeroll). So, grabbing a mug from the cupboard, Chipp strolled across the alley to a little cafe, gave the barista a few Croatian kuna, and came home sipping some delicious, freshly brewed coffee. While not exactly Cheers, this little routine still had quite the local feel to it!
We also checked a laundry-related, do-as-the-locals-do box in Rovinj. Up until this point of our travels, all of our apartment rentals had folding drying racks. Washing machines, yes; dryers, no - quite uncommon outside of the US. After doing a load of laundry, we looked around our flat - unsuccessfully - for a drying rack. Then, in true lightbulb-moment fashion, we connected the dots. Every sunny afternoon strolling through old-town Rovinj, old ladies lean out their windows, watching the world go by and drying their laundry. Opening up our window, we solved our problem - drying lines strung outside for us to use.
Though the sun and fresh air may quickly dry your clothes, this approach brings some other concerns into play - namely making sure you have big t-shirts on the outside lines to shield your underwear on the inside ones from prying eyes!
From Promenade to Quarry - A Rovinj Hike
Rovinj’s protected harbor is loosely shaped like a “3.” The old walled city forms the top of the shape, a piece of land juts out in the center, and the Punte Corrente (Golden Cape) nature preserve a peninsula forming the bottom portion. From the top of the “3,” a time-smoothed, marble promenade follows the harbor - outdoor cafes, restaurants, and gelato stands on one side, moored boats bobbing in the crystal clear Adriatic waters on the other.
Looking for a good afternoon hike/stroll, we headed south along this promenade towards the tip of the nature preserve. This cedar- and cypress-covered peninsula served as a medieval-era quarry, supplying the limestone for countless monuments and structures throughout Italy. Centuries later, it was purchased by an individual. Initially meant as a private spa, this idyllic peninsula became a protected area when its former owner died before completing his spa vision. Now, the preserve has miles of shaded trails, climbing walls built into the old quarry walls, beautiful beaches, and plenty of places to find some peace and quiet.
After exploring the peninsula (and getting slightly lost in the thick forests atop the quarry), we decided to relax. We found our “peace and quiet” with a couple drinks at a little cabana-style beach bar - Bar Paradiso. Sitting in the shade, drinks in hand with feet in the gravelly sand so common along the Adriatic, we took in the views back towards Rovinj - hard to imagine a more serene place to spend an afternoon.
Istrian Brandy, Cigars, and Sunset Dinners
While Croatian labels may not have fully pierced the US market, the country’s an absolute wine powerhouse. Each region of the country has its own specialties, with Istria no different. We’d dive more into the tastings during our time in Motovun, but we focused on a related product in Rovinj - Istrian brandy. Whether you want a true grape-based brandy or one made from the countless fruits native to the peninsula, you can find a type of Istrian brandy that gets the job done.
Naturally, we needed to buy a bottle, opting for one produced from the local malvazija grape. And, if you’re going to sip on some brandy, you should probably have a cigar, too, yeah? The logic may not be infallible, but it made sense to Chipp. Posting up on one of the stone beaches beneath Rovinj’s ancient walls, we sipped brandy, snacked on truffle popcorn (another Istrian specialty), and Chipp enjoyed a cigar.
Perfect cocktail hour.
Properly lubricated, we strolled back around the harbor for an open air dinner. Facing west, Rovinj (and Croatia’s entire coast) offers some incredible sunsets. And, when you pick restaurants in the right part of the city, you’re rewarded with an unbelievable dining view - the sun setting just to the left of St. Euphemia’s tower and Rovinj’s walled city. Maestral and Restoran Pastrik jump out as especially delicious Rovinj spots, places we hope to visit again - preferably sooner rather than later!