We would go on to deepen our affair with all of Istria. But in the moonlight on that first night, we only knew we were falling in love with romantic Rovinj.
Our plan was less than definitive. We were making our way by land from Germany to Istanbul. Our train took us south from Munich, through Slovenia and into Zagreb. Somehow we heard about Rovinj, and booked what looked to be charming accommodations. Nowhere in this process was the slightest clue as to how we’d get there, and no idea that we’d refer to this place months later as “romantic Rovinj.”
Fortunately for us, the travel gods have been overwhelmingly beneficent. Despite our randomness and overall ignorance, in every part of the world we have been routinely delivered an experience so superlative that we can scarcely believe our luck. Or serendipity. Or both. Still, we were unprepared for just how romantic Rovinj would be.
Humans have inhabited Istria since Paleolithic times. Evidence has been found only 9km from Rovinj in a cave filled with bones of species which were hunted by prehistoric man. Stone tools and artifacts from the Neolithic era show a shift from hunting to agricultural pursuits, including raising cattle. One of the best preserved of more than 400 Istrian prehistoric hill forts, Monkodonja, is located near Rovinj. Local Histri tribesmen clashed with Romans at the end of the 3rd century BC. In turn, Goths defeated the waning West Roman Empire in 476, only to be conquered by Justinian thirty years later.
During the Byzantine era, Istria flourished, but in the early Middle Ages, it suffered invasion by barbarian tribes. Falling under the auspices of the Franconian feudal system which diminished individual town autonomy, the region changed hands between the Italic Empire, and the duchies of Bavaria and Carintha. In the 11th century, Istria was designated independent under the joint jurisdiction of the Catholic Church and German feudal families, whose interests were threatened by the Republic of Venice.
Towns throughout Istria were positioned with safety in mind. Perched on top of hills, or on natural promontories such as Rovinj is, they fortified with walls, towers, and drawbridges. Interior streets circled inward to a central church and square. Urban life revolved around central loggias and squares where the public could meet.
Coastal cities like Rovinj developed as trading centers for olives, wine, fish, salt and boat-building during the Crusades. In the 15th century, Venetians realized the strategic advantage of controlling navigable waters and seized the entire coastline of what is now Croatia with the exception of Dubrovnik.
Consider the quintessential medieval town, whose lone church bell tower – that of Saint Euphemia (martyred by Diocletian, whose Palace we visited in Split) in Rovinj – points skyward from the center of a spiral of red-tiled roofs. Like a beacon in a pointed cap, it dominates a pile of sun-bleached stucco buildings. These are punctuated with wooden shutters and doors painted in deep primary colors. They inhabit a labyrinth of narrow, pedestrian-only streets, criss-crossed by overhead laundry lines, dotted with single stoops or an occasional chair from which a resident might pass the time. Life happens here amid the cry of gulls and fishmongers, neighborly chatter, the clatter of dishes, and aromas from cooking so good you could weep.
Winsome, romantic Rovinj has all the charm you might expect from a Medieval Mediterranean coastal fishing village and more. Add in a lively complement of restaurants, shops and simple entertainments, and you have an under-the-radar mecca for Italian and other Euro-tourists. On the cusp of high season when we visited, all this was easily managed, delightful in fact. Rarely, if at all, did we encounter another American during our stay.
While there are many uber-expensive hotel options in Rovinj, our accommodations – a generously sized studio apartment in a vintage home on a narrow street just outside Old Town proper – were reasonably priced and convenient once we’d deposited our luggage.
To come would be plenty of history, gastronomy and other cultural attributes which would elevate our love affair with Istria, but for a first dance? We don’t see how much more romantic Rovinj could be.
Tips and Practicalities:
We think the best place to eat in Rovinj is Da Marcello Pane vino e non solo (De Amicis, 1, Rovinj, tel.+385 91 170 1563). Unlike the waterfront restaurants – which are fine for a cocktail overlooking the view, but seem to serve tired, touristy entrees from menus which all have the exact same pictures – this place has a tented sidewalk area, but even better, a tiny dining room tucked away on a side street next to its kitchen.
And from there, they bring on the most incredible dishes, each better than the last.
We were happily content on more than one occasion to let the staff boss us around, demanding that we try this or that, and refusing to let us leave before we ate “just one more” of something else. By the end of our stay, we were family.
If you are considering a stay in romantic Rovinj, we highly recommend Apartment Crveni Mak, Vladimira Gortana 44, Rovinj. Our large studio apartment with ensuite bath, kitchen facilities and dining area overlooked one of the only remaining gardens in old Rovinj, which was a lovely place to relax over a coffee or glass of wine.
Everything in the apartment is like new. Mother and daughter Natalia and Anastasia will meet you upon arrival for the walk from depot or car park to the apartment. Be aware you’ll be dragging luggage down stone streets and up narrow stairs. Price per night as of this writing begins at an affordable 35€ and will vary by seasonal demand.
Free, reliable wifi and great location within a few minutes walk of Carera Street. Please note: payment is cash only (as are many transactions in Croatia). Personable host Natalia Marcelja or one of her agency employees can arrange visits to Motovun, Opatija, the Pula Roman rooms, wine and truffle tastings, and other Istria experiences: Solen Travel Agency, Strossmayerova ul. 2, 51000 Rijeka Croatia. Tel. +385 51 371 587. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Zagreb, we took a train to Rijeka, and then a bus to Rovinj. With the benefit of hindsight, we would have been better off renting a car. The Croatian train was slow and the tracks were under repairs. While the bus and train stations are close together in Rijeka allowing for a nice lunch or coffee while you wait, the bus ride to Rovinj meanders all over southern Istria with multiple stops. If you’re flying, RyanAir takes you into Pula, about 30km from Rovinj.