Tips and Inspiration for your European holiday

Andrew Villone, owner and tour leader of Savor the Experience and Roads Less Traveled tours, is passionate about introducing travellers to the beautiful countries of Croatia and Slovenia.  With his tours focussing on giving his clients authentic local experiences and introducing them to the fine food and produce of these countries, he has discovered some wonderful secrets of Istria, a region divided between both Croatia and Slovenia, which he shares with us below.

5 secrets of Istria blogHum, Croatia - the World's smallest town. Image © xbrchx / Adobe Stock Photo

5 Secrets of Istria

Danse of Macabre

During the Middle Ages, there was a motif that was painted in churches as far away as German, Estonia, Portugal and the Venetian Republic. It featured skeletons leading folks from all walks of life that got one simple point across - when you reach the afterlife, everyone is pretty much equal. They called it Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

What was Venetian-held territory 600 years ago is now the Istria region, divided between Croatia and Slovenia. Each country has its own small village with a church displaying these wonderfully sly and colorful paintings.

In Slovenia, less than half-an hour’s drive from the Tolkien-esque underground world of the Skocjan caves, is the Church of the Holy Spirit in the tiny village of Hrastovlje. Fitted with defensive measure walls for when the Turks passed by this way, it’s covered in wall-to-wall frescoes. Most are a re-telling of the Bible but one wall has the Macabre motif that dates back to 1490.

Not more than 50 kilometres away as the crow flies, is Beram in the middle of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula which is home to a tiny chapel in the village. The Danse Macabre here is almost naive in style with its colour palate and faces and it was completed nearly 15 years earlier than its counterpart in Hrastovlje.  Strangely enough, both artists came from the same town.

Hrastovlje’s church is open every day except Tuesday and is the easiest to visit. Visiting the church in Beram requires that you get a key from one of the locals in the village.

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In Istria, most destinations are either hill towns located in the interior or Venetian/Roman seaside towns on the coast. Bale kind of splits the difference, located five kilometres from the Adriatic but having a medieval core that feels more like a hill town with a low-key vibe.

Bale remains unspoiled and still undiscovered by Croatian standards. It’s home to the Bale Jazz Festival on the first weekend of August and has other events going on but also works as a great place to chill out and stroll the well preserved town core.

Bale is also great as a base for most sights in the southern half of the Istrian peninsula. In less than 15 minutes drive you can reach both Pula, with its Roman amphitheatre, and Rovinj, Istria’s gem on the Adriatic. Meneghetti, a boutique winery and olive oil producer is even closer and worth a trip, not just for their great oils but for the beautiful property and setting.

What sets Bale apart from some other destinations that might just be a quick stopover, is the La Grisa hotel. La Grisa boasts excellent food that is artfully prepared and a great wine list that expands beyond the local wines to include some excellent choices such as Boskinac’s red cuvee from Pag Island.

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Hum - ‘Smallest Town in the World’

The Croatian Tourism Board and guide books like to tout little Hum as the smallest town in the world. It’s even officially listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as such.

One particular tour operator that prides themselves on going through Europe’s back door calls it a tourist trap. But I think you actually need an abundance of tourists to get that moniker. And let’s say this little place isn’t humming with activity most of the year with the exception of German cyclists stopping for lunch here as they ride from hill town to hill town.

Hum might only have between 17 and 23 people living here (depending on who’s counting) but it has all the proper town requirements: gate with nicely carved bronze doors, intact defensive walls, a medieval church and a handful of stone grey houses.

A little konoba (Croatian restaurant) serves up a great bowl of comfort food (maize and bean soup) and a few boutique shops selling local crafts, foods, wines and grappas, including its own special mistletoe brandy called ‘humska biska'.

Hum also has a link to the now-extinct Glagolitic alphabet. This Cyrllic meets Klingon mashup was used by some of the Croatian priests from the 14th to 19th centuries, against the will of the Vatican of course.

If you are heading to Buzet for truffles or tastings at Piquentum winery or perhaps taking the back roads through central Istria, then include Hum as a stop on your countryside adventure.

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Kumparicka - 'Off The Grid' Goat Cheese Smorgasbord

Ales Winkler used to be a real estate lawyer in Slovenia’s capital city.  Ten years ago he bought property in a tiny hamlet called Cokuni in the southern Istria countryside and opened a goat farm.  A jumble of tiny country roads can take you there but it doesn’t show up on most maps or GPS and is about as off-the-grid as you can get.

About a year and a half ago I brought my guests here sight unseen and untasted. At the conclusion of our two week long food and wine tour we voted unanimously that our brunch extravaganza here was the best overall food experience! No surprise then that they’ve won six gold medals at the Croatian national competition.

Ales and his friends have 200 Alpine goats on pastures stretching across 60 hectares of land near the eastern coast of Istria.  All their products are made from fresh unpasteurized goat milk - cottage cheese, fresh lactic cheese and semi-hard cheeses. Their semi-hard cheeses are aged between three and thirty months.

Istria is otherwise known for its biotic diversity and the goats eat more than 80 types of herbs, medicinal plants and other vegetation that grows on the farm. This gives all their products a special, very local taste which is also helped by the sea breezes coming in from the Adriatic.

If you can’t make it here or attempt to but get lost, rest assured you can find their cheeses at the green market in Pula, Istria’s largest city, about 20 minutes away, and at a few other gourmet shops and hotels in the region. 

Do try to make it to the farm, though, as I recommend an organized brunch or lunch here at the farm. Not only can guests can see the whole process, from milking to cheese ripening and taste between fifteen and twenty cheeses, but there’s also home made stews, soups, Istrian ‘kobosice’ sausages, fresh baked to-die-for bread, local wines and fantastic hosts.

On some days you might even get really lucky and have one of Ales’ chef friends pop by and sample what they’re cooking. Just don’t plan on having much for dinner on the day you visit!

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Slow Food Slovenia at Butul

Tucked away in the Slovenian part of Istria, just a ten minute drive from the Croatian border, lies the unique homestead ‘Butul’ offering a beautiful herbal garden, views to the Adriatic and specially prepared meals.

Here, above the Bay of Koper, is a kind of crossroads of Mediterranean cuisine, where quality wines, herbs, olives and everything that is related to the Mediterranean lifestyle can be found. Guests can take a walk in the garden and learn best how to use herbs in the kitchen.

Tatjana, the owner, can arrange a sampling of their home made cheese, marmalades, olive oil, herbal salts and jellies made from combinations of wine and herbs. Her son Cert is the chef and he can prepare lunch or dinner upon request for individuals or groups.

Tatjana is also the head of Slow Food for Slovenia’s western Primorska region. “At Homestead Butul, we decided to present people how we live and why we find links with the local community is so important. This we realize through thematic culinary workshops, tastings, presentations and lectures.

“A few steps from the house stands our olive grove, from which we annually squeeze our liquid gold. With the growing interest in herbs, we have over the years built also a herb garden.

“We are surrounded by everything a man needs to live,” Tatjana declares.

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