Istria and the Unintentional Search of the Next Tuscany

In a way it’s no surprise that Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula in northwestern Croatia, is regularly called “the Next Tuscany.”

Long under the rule of the Venetian Republic and, more recently, occupied by Mussolini’s Italy, the Adriatic’s largest peninsula has a decidedly Italian feel. In addition to the 11% Italian minority, nearly all Istrians-especially along the coast-are fluent Italian speakers. New York chef/restaurateur and Italian cuisine promoter, Lidia Bastianich, hails form just outside of Pula, a town on the southern tip of the peninsula.

In the last decade, though, there’s been an invasion of foreign homebuyers as well as journalists focusing on the region’s many foodie signifiers: the white truffles! The wild seasonal ingredients! Hence “the next Tuscany.” But is it? Or is this label just a lazy travel writing cliché? Maybe now that Croatia has recently been invited to join the European Union, travelers will start disassociate it with that over-romanticized region in central Italy. I set out to find the answer.

Well, not really. I actually made an impromptu trip to Istria for one specific reason. I wanted to eat at one of the best restaurants in Croatia, an eatery that is way overlooked by the traveling food-loving community. Valsabbion. The restaurant isn’t unknown, but given the high quality modernist cuisine coming from this spot and the fact that you’ll pay less than half you would have at elBulli in Spain, Valsabbion deserves more recognition. The drive from Venice would take me through Istria and at last, I thought, I can see what all the truffle-scented fuss was all about. It would be an unintentional search for the next Tuscany.

Besides, I was in Venice and had a rental car for the day and wanted to go on a drive. I pulled out of Venice, hungry and excited, and followed the signs to Trieste. When I crossed the border from Italy into diminutive Slovenia a few conspicuous changes took place: prices drop by a third and vowels vanished from words (signs in my rearview mirror for Trieste, the Italian border town, for example, became “Trst”). The coast of Slovenia, a short drive from the border (and about three hours driving from Venice), is only 30 miles long, but it packs a cultural and aesthetically pleasing punch. Tightly clenched Koper and Izola, perched out on city block-long peninsulas, are pretty enough, but I kept driving. The same with Piran, a compact seaside town.

The 75-mile drive to Rovinj took me across the Slovenian-Croatian border. The guards insisted on speaking Croatian to me, asking repeatedly in Croatian where I was from. When he finally asked in English, I answered and then he began laughing. “Is this the next Tuscany? I asked. The guard stopped laughing and pointed back toward Italy. “Tuscany, that way,” he said.

It’s impossible to not be dazzled by Rovinj (pictured), the best preserved town on the peninsula. Rovinj is a hilly and tightly packed cluster of Gothic structures and smooth cobbled pedestrian streets that was, a century and a half ago, an island (today a long narrow peninsula connects it to the mainland).

But, with my stomach rumbling and the sun setting, I drove on toward Pula, Istria’s largest town (with a population of 65,000). When I got there, I briefly stopped to gawk at the almost perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater that’s plopped in the middle of the city, the sixth largest in the world (Rome’s Coliseum is the first), an arena that could once accommodate 20,000 blood-thirsty spectators. I took a few glances around the Old Town, where there’s a curious combination of architectural styles (imagine: Gothic meets Fascist- and Socialist-era structures).

And then finally, at last, I made my way to Valsabbion. And how was the dinner? Was it unforgettable? The only thing I won’t forget was the sign on the door informing me the restaurant was closed for the month (it was February). I lost out on eating at one of Europe’s great underrated restaurants. At the same time I missed seeing the coastal towns of Istria. Travel fail, indeed.

Oh, but at a gourmet food shop in Pula a woman convinced me to buy some of those truffles that always get mentioned in travel articles about Istria. “Istrian truffles,” she kept saying. “Is this the next Tuscany?” I asked.

She stared back at me for a long second and said: “This is Istria. No Tuscany. Never.”

That’s probably as satisfying an answer as I’ll ever get.