The main east-coast beach town is Rabac, where you'll find everything from private rooms to five-star resorts. Inland there are far fewer hotels and more guesthouses, some open in summer only.
Feature: Istria’s Top Rural Retreats
Agritourism is an increasingly popular accommodation option in Istria’s interior. Some of these residences are working farms engaged in producing wine, vegetables and poultry; some are country houses with apartments to let; while others are plush modern villas with swimming pools.
The Istrian tourist office (www.istra.hr) has a brochure with photos and information about rural holidays throughout Istria. You’ll need your own car to reach most of these lodgings, as many are located in the middle of nowhere. There’s often a supplement for stays of less than three nights.
Casa Matiki Three friendly dogs, a charming hostess and a clutch of chickens (in that order) will welcome you to this large rural property near the small town of Žminj, right at the heart of Istria. There are three spacious apartments in the main house, plus two sweet little guest cottages and a lovely pool tucked behind the olive grove.
Agroturizam Ograde Two separate houses (sleeping eight in one, 12 in the other) are available for rent at this animal-filled farm in the village of Katun Lindarski, 10km south of Pazin. In July and August a minimum week's booking applies. The food is the real deal: veggies from the garden, home-cured meats and wine from the cellar.
Pruga In the village of Lovrinići, 8km south of Pazin, this is a lovely rustic choice for a quiet getaway. Choose one of two beautifully renovated apartments in a traditional limestone Istrian house, each with original details and fully equipped kitchens. Breakfast of local cheese, homemade jams and cakes is served outside among fruit trees.
Hotel Parenzana In the sleepy village of Volpia, 3km north of Buje, this rural inn has 16 simple rooms with rustic wood-and-stone decor, and a konoba (tavern) popular for its Istrian food. It's extremely handy if you're touring on the Parenzana cycle trail.
San Rocco This boutique hotel in the village of Brtonigla, 5km southeast of Buje, is a rural hideaway with 14 stylish rooms. No two are alike, but all are equipped with modern conveniences and graced with original details such as heavy wooden beams and exposed stone walls. There’s an outdoor swimming pool, a top-rated restaurant and a small spa.
Truffles dominate the menus of Istria's inland areas. Eating options range from countryside taverns with real fires in winter and hearty menus of game, truffles and wild boar, to touristy seaside restaurants touting net-fresh Adriatic sea life.
Feature: Magic Mushrooms
The truffle trade is less like a business than a highly profitable cult. It revolves around an expensive subterranean fungus allegedly endowed with semimagical powers, which is picked in dark woods and then sent across borders to be sold for a small fortune. Devotees claim that once you’ve tasted this small, nut-shaped delicacy, all other flavours seem insipid.
There are 70 sorts of truffle in the world, of which 34 come from Europe. The traditional truffle-producing countries are Italy, France and Spain, but Istrian forests boast three sorts of black truffles (summer, winter and noble) as well as the big white truffle – one of the most prized in the world, which sells at around €4500 per kilogram. Croatia’s largest exporter of Istrian truffles is Zigante Tartufi, with its share of the overall Croatian export market being about 90%. In 1999 the company’s owner, Giancarlo Zigante, along with his dog Diana, found what was then the world’s largest-ever truffle, weighing 1.31kg and making it into Guinness World Records. You can see a model of this whopper in the Zigante restaurant in Livade.
The Istrian truffle business is relatively young. In 1932, when Istria was occupied by Italy, an Italian soldier from the truffle capital of Alba allegedly noticed similarities in vegetation between his region and Istria. He returned after his military service with specially trained dogs, which, after enough sniffing and digging, eventually uncovered the precious commodity.
Because no sign of the truffle appears above ground, no human can spot it, so dogs (or, traditionally, pigs) are the key to a successful truffle hunt. Istrian breks (dogs) may be mongrels, but they are highly trained. Puppies begin their training at two months, but only about 20% of them go on to have fully fledged careers as truffle trackers.
Black truffles can be found most of the year, but the white-truffle-hunting season starts in September and continues to January. During this time at least 3000 people and 9000 to 12,000 dogs wander around the damp Motovun forests.
Some people believe truffles are an aphrodisiac, though scientific research has failed to prove this. Conduct your own experiment!