Flying into Trieste meant that we had to cross Slovenia before we came to Croatia. It’s beautiful countryside to drive through and with hardly any cars about didn’t’t take too long. Our destination was the newly renovated jewel in the crown of north Croatia The Hotel Adriatic. Built in 1913 its now has bona fide boutique hotel status with 18 rooms. It sits on the harbour front and has views of Katarina Island.
The drive to the hotel covers the same ground as James Bond as he escaped from the Orient Express in the 1963 film From Russia With Love and his drive from Monte Negro in Sienna in the more recent Quantum of Solace. On that journey Mr. White was trussed up in the boot of Bond’s Aston Martin. I am pleased to report that we had nothing more sinister in the boot than our luggage!
The weather in early September is glorious, sunny and warm with long shadows that memories are made of, the perfect antidote to the creeping damp of early autumn in London. The Dalmatian coastline has a rugged beauty peppered with vineyards and pan tiled villages.
The hotel is the oldest in Rovinj and a stature that clearly states, “I’m the best in town”. It is stylish beyond belief. Think Babington House or one of London’s new private member’s clubs with dark grey walls and art everywhere. The art is very much part of the package of The Adriatic they some pieces by Goran Petercol one of Croatia’s leading conceptual artists. Uncompromisingly modern at times but expertly curated, both thought provoking and intriguing.
Our suite (there are only suites here) is über cool; with a corner position it has the best view of the small charming habour that houses a small flotilla of leisure boats and slightly more serious fishing vessels. Molton Brown vies for pole position with Carrara marble in the exquisite bathroom. A shower large enough for an intimate party with quality fittings complete the picture.
Dinner at the hotel was superb. Alan our waiter was faultless and the food (all local) was brilliant. A simple but perfect rack of lamb filled our empty stomachs followed by a gargantuan spread of desserts with a beautifully light cheesecake taking the top prize.
Something of a pleasant surprise is the cost of being on holiday in Croatia. Try £8 for a bottle of wine or £3 for a beer and £1.50 for a coffee. Good eh? There were lots of lovely market stalls around the town selling all sorts of great local delights. One that caught my eye immediately was a truffle. It would appear that Croatia is rich in my favourite food! We would have to investigate further.
The Adriatic became popular over 100 years ago with the Austro-Hungarian rich holidaymakers looking for a bit sun and glamour. Artists have always found it a soothing and inspiring place too. These days’ galleries are popping up all over the town. If your eyes are in need of a rest after a day’s exploration there is no better spot than the bar (or outside terrace) of The Adriatic. It has the largest selection of Whiskies in Croatia.
Breakfast at The Adriatic is an event an event that starts at 7am and goes on until noon. How civilised is that! There are various options available but I went for ‘Englishman in New York’ enough food to set you up for the day, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, and tea all in plentiful supply. It was a splendid start with a perfect view of the harbour.
The cobbled streets of Rovinj are perfect for getting lost in, though you won’t be lost for very long as it’s small with a population of only 15,000. If your inner compass does fail you can always do what the fishermen of the Istrian region have done for centuries and look for the bell tower of St. Euphemia, an 18th century Baroque beauty that has also doubled as a weather station – it’s the highest tower in the locale.
Our visit coincided with a Croatian festival centered on the square. Folk music drifted across the harbour bringing an amplified version of Croatia’s musical heritage to life. With virtually no cars it’s wonderfully safe and easy to wander around the jewellery shops and quality souvenir stalls and second hand shops.
It’s a sleepy way of life with plenty of bars and restaurants to take the weight off your feet and enjoy a drink or two of the excellent local wine or truly superb local ice cream. I guess being a short distance from Italy has its compensations.
The Adriatic is part of a chain of small hotels and a few restaurants and cafes along the coast. The Kantinon on the harbour is one of theirs and we ate there one night. It’s an old building with excellent food. Starting with a meat platter that covered all the bases we moved onto octopus salad (fab) followed by an ox stew with dumplings. This was really good the dumplings in this region are a little like gnocchi. The monkfish in a delicate white wine sauce and local sausage looked a picture and tasted great. The service was good and as ever the local wines were worth investigating.
Outside the hotel the festival continued unabated with grape crushing contests (men vs. women of course) traditional dances and wine tastings until late. The harbour was alive with the spirit of Croatia. It all calmed down in time for a good night’s sleep.
Earlier I mentioned truffles well there is a famous restaurant, Zigante which specialises in my favourite food! We had to try it. The hotel can organise your visit for you either by booking a taxi or making it part of an excursion. This might be worth doing if you wanted to see a little more of the interior than the interior of a restaurant so to speak. We stopped off at the impossibly beautiful hilltop town of Groznjan where the main trade seems to be truffles. You can by them in every form available from pastes to oils to cheeses to pates to the real deal sold like gold with weights. The world’s largest white truffle was found here (it was about the size of a sheep’s brain) Authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records it is a matter of much local pride. Found paradoxically near officially the world’s smallest town Hun, which as a city hall, church etc included in its total of 16 buildings.
Groznjan is certainly worth a visit, it’s full of quirky shops and pretty buildings and the views are amazing. As well as all the truffles there are galleries, jewelry and food shops. One of the shop owners Sandra also hunts for truffles with her labrador. “Pigs are better at finding them” she tells me “But it’s hard to stop them eating them as they love them too” she laughs. Her ‘lottery’ day was when she found a €2000 white truffle, just talking about it brought a smile to her face.
So lunch at Zagante where all things are truffle is a must if this is your flavour of choice. We enjoyed a seven-course menu while it was not cheap but did include such highlights as truffle ice cream. Knowing that cost is paramount on people’s minds they also offer a white or black truffle menu. The black is cheaper but as the white had just come into season it seemed foolish not to try the new offerings.
As a travel and food writer I have learnt not to be surprised by much that comes my way but as I was in our suite at The Adriatic and getting ready to have our ‘finale’ meal of the trip on our last night I looked at the hotel magazine. Could it really be? I knew the name was familiar and indeed not very common, but really here in Croatia, after all these years. Turning another page was a profile. No doubting it now, definitely him!
The front of house staff arranged for a golf buggy to take us to the flagship restaurant The Wine Vault in the Hotel Monte Mulini hotel, part of the group. We were to have a place at the chef’s table. I had heard much about this experience…”did you really have that many courses” … “what time did you leave” etc.
The modern hotel sits on the edge of the promontory and has lots of space. Inside we were ushered to our places at the chef’s table. The sommelier was brilliantly jolly and informative took charge of drinks and didn’t get one wrong all night. M was on a series of super cool non-alcoholic numbers that seemed to flow with the ease of any wine bottle.
Then out came Andy the head chef to the group, he didn’t recognise me so I thought I’d have a bit of fun. We exchanged pleasantries and I commented on his accent being more Parkland Road than Courtlands Avenue. This stopped him dead. “How did you know where I lived” My cards on the table I couldn’t go back now “because we were neighbours our gardens backed onto each other” Andy Gaskin is a couple of years older than me but I was in the same class as his younger brother at school. We hadn’t seen each other for nearly 35 years.
The evening was a delight as Andy and his talented young team kept things rolling along with inventive, tasty and groundbreaking food. Old times were talked over and caught up. The big thing about Andy’s cooking is his modesty. He is almost shy about the clear achievements in his kitchen. They don’t have the Michelin Star system in Croatia but it has been rated as a one star. This is deserved as the sheer energy that goes into producing a meal at the chef’s table testifies.
Without it sounding like a long list of menu dishes where we ate everything I’ll just cover some highlights. Foie gras with chocolate and strawberry jam with smoked salt was a revelation, beautiful tuna, a lobster bisque with truffles, a rich ox tail ravioli, some sea bass with cuttlefish ragout, a refreshing rose sorbet (must try this at home, it was dreamy) some foie gras ice cream with olive oil and salt, try it – wonderful, a few chocolate cigars, a tiramisu in an edible flowerpot with you guessed it edible soil.
The evening was a real blast and at every corner something new and expertly cooked. It took so long that Andy wisely schedules a 15-minute break in the middle to stop customers exploding. We were grateful of a chance to wander around the grounds and take a breather.
So our time in Croatia had come to an end and what a trip it had been. The Adriatic is a must for boutique junkies out there as is the food of the region. Exemplified by Andy’s deft hand and his eager young brigade he has elevated what could be an ordinary hotel into something really special. As he looks after the food at The Adriatic as well it’s no surprise that is outstanding too. So the burning question I hear you ask is how many courses? Answer, 19 and we didn’t eat for nearly 36 hours afterwards. Croatia, you’ve just got to go!