We crossed back into Croatia mid afternoon and headed to the campsite where we stayed a few days before- bugger closed for the season! We headed up the coast to find an alternative, camp 2- closed, camp 3- closed. We eventually found a small but immaculate site right by the ocean that was open all year, it had a couple of pitches left so we took one. By late afternoon it was full, they had vans in the parking lot and were turning people away!
In the afternoon we drove a little further down the coast to Porec, where the craft beer festival would kick off tomorrow.
We found a camping-platz within walking distance of town, a large parking area next to a funeral home and cemetery, but very convenient.
The next evening the beer festival properly kicked off so we spent the morning exploring Porec and it’s 2,000 years of history... and it’s picturesque harbour, cute narrow streets, medieval architecture, blah blah and its cafes.
The Istrian Truffle festival is held in the small town of Livade over about 10 weekends in Autumn, white truffle season. So that’s where we headed the next morning.
The festival is actually organized by Zigante, the major company in the Istrian Truffle business who manufacture a surprisingly diverse range of truffle products. From fresh white truffle to truffle chips and truffle chocolate!
Motovun is not only a charming medieval hilltop town 270m above sea level, but also the birth town of Mario Andretti who was a bit of a motor racing idle of mine in my youth, though I was certain he was born in Italy! It turns out that in 1940 when he was born, this area was actually part of Italy, it then became part of Yugoslavia after WWII and is now Croatian. It still staggers me how much change has taken place in Central Europe in the recent past. Apparently Mario got the passion for racing haring down the towns steep streets in home made billy carts. Funny how my brother first started in racing the same way and, like Mario, he made it all the way to F1 albeit as a designer rather than a driver.
That night we headed back up to the old town for dinner in the Kaštel Hotel, where we dined beside the cosey fireplace, couldn’t believe we had been swimming less than a week ago!
Between 1902 and 1935 the Parenzana Railway served as a crucial lifeline through Istria, providing producers in the hinterland with easier access the larger market towns and ports. The rail fell into disrepair after its closure but was revitalised from the the middle of the 2000’s as a 116km long walking and mountain bike trail from Trieste in Italy, through coastal Slovenia to Porec, Croatia. The stretch adjacent to Livade is regarded as one of the most picturesque sections and includes several tunnels and viaducts.
In the afternoon we headed back to Opatija, just outside Rijeka where the van was booked in for its makeover in a couple of days time and we needed to give it a thorough clean, including the roof that had 10 years of road grime and mould that needed removing- Tuesday’s chore!
Wednesday we left early, dropped the car off at the salon, then headed into central Rijeka where we had rented a small studio apartment for a couple of days.
We went to head off the next morning but the battery was completely dead! ‘Travelswithmycocker’ tried to give us a jump start but no luck. A few hours later the roadside assist guy came, changed the 10 year old battery and we were on our way, drove an hour or so to a camp that was closed, went to reverse out.. no camera.. bollocks, phone call, a meeting with Autosac in a truck stop, then back to @#v$% Opatija again
The guys at Autosac met us at 8.00am the next morning and got the camera working. Problem appeared to be with the wiring for the original camera that was in the van when we bought it. Fixed and on our way... to Split.
When telling friends of our proposed route and our plan to pop into Slovenia for dinner, some thought we were mad, those who knew us well, didn’t think twice! (Probably still thought it, just politely didn’t verbalise it)
Now she and her restaurant have won many awards, including Worlds Best Female Chef 2017. We were fortunate enough to hear Ana speak last year at the ‘Women in Gastronomy’ event in Bangkok (arranged by the same foodie friend), she came across even more passionate and caring than on Netflix. We got the chance to speak to her at a post event cocktail party where we discussed Slovenia (and ice hockey) and our hope, one day, to visit her restaurant. I’m sure she’s heard it a thousand times, how people would love to get to her restaurant... but we finally did!
Okay, only 5 more hours until our reservation, we drove along the valley taking in the gorgeous views and cute tiny towns as we passed through. Mid afternoon we realised we were right alongside the Italian border so at the next roundabout we took the third exit rather than the second and a minute later we were Italy - time for a coffee - as you do!
We tried to park, but many of the roads were blocked off. We eventually found a spot to park the van and walked back into the town area. It seemed they were setting up for some kind of festival. We sat and had a coffee - yes great coffee, worth the trip all the way to Italy. We took a walk around the town and stopped to talk to one of the vendors setting up. The lady spoke good English and explained to us it was a food festival starting tonight (Thursday) and going until midnight on Sunday. Okay, yes, of course we were going to come back this way!
On the road again we continued our pilgrimage to the restaurant. We came to a nice car park, overlooking a river only about 40 minutes from the restaurant and decided to stop and have a couple of hours rest before changing into our dining attire. (Not that special given it was made up of stuff from our back packs).
If anyone is planning a trip to Slovenia (and you should), you definitely need to make the effort and treat yourselves to dinner at Hisa Franko. They also have rooms were you can stay the night - worth the splurge! https://www.hisafranko.com/en/
The next morning we woke to a beautiful scene of green farmlands and rolling hills over which a light mist had settled. We went inside, had a coffee and said our goodbyes before making our way toward Ljubljana. The drive was truly spectacular. The scenery was breathtaking, large hills and valleys, winding rivers, fly fishermen and cute towns. We fell in love with Slovenia.
We arrived in Ljubljana mid morning, found a campsite about 20 minutes walk from the centre. It was basically a gravel parking area across the road from the restaurant who owned it. They charged 10 euros to stay or free if we had a meal at the restaurant. So we had lunch there then walked into town.
The next morning was AFL Grand Final day. Unfortunately for us, the game started at 6.30AM... needless to say, despite best intentions, we didn’t get to see much of the pre-game entertainment. We laid in bed watching the start of the game with a coffee, then at half time Pete made some pretty damn good breakfast burgers - of course we had to have some form of “footy food”. Just before three quarter time, our data ran out on the SIM card!! No Wifi in this camping spot either. Too basic for that! We made a quick dash outside to see what wifi we could get, we knew the restaurant over the road had free wifi but it was too early for them to be open. We found that, if we sat in a certain spot, we could get the City Free Wifi but only strong enough to use on the phone. So we sat on the sidewalk by the restaurant and watched the last quarter of the game on the phone. A memorable experience I suppose! In the end the Tigers flogged GWS so it wasn’t really a great game.
Time to head back to Italy for the food festival.
We crossed the border, with just a short interruption while the Italian border police checked out our papers. From our previous visit we knew it would be difficult to find a place to park, we eventually managed to find a car parking spot in a very large car park near the border crossing.
Every year for the past 16 years, the town of Gorizia in Italy has held the “Gusti Di Frontiera” food festival. For 4 nights and 3 days, from 10am to 3am, the majority of the streets of the old town are all shut down and divided into 20 distinct geographical villages. Over 400 stands representing 50 countries.
We walked to the start of the festival area. OMG it was massive. There were so many streets lined with food and drink stalls. Every turn brought another full street, everywhere as far as the eye could see lines of stalls and heaving with people, we had died and gone to foodie heaven!
Whilst walking around we found the tourist bureau and asked about a campsite, as we intended to come back to the festival in the evening and wanted somewhere close that we could walk home to. The staff were apologetic saying during the festival time it was almost impossible to get parking. The only place they knew of was a very large car park near the border. Score!! That was where we had parked the van. We could continue our food adventure.
We walked a bit more surveying the stalls thinking about what to have that night. We came across the Great Britain section and stopped at the Rugby tent to check whether they were telecasting the Australian game the next day. The couple who ran the stall were super friendly and spoke good English. They told us about a county touch Rugby event happening just down the street so we headed to the ground to watch before heading back to the van to rest recharge before tackling the festival in the evening.
By 11pm we were stuffed so decided to call it quits stopping for a night cap on the way out, there was a funky, jazz band playing then a DJ, so a couple of night caps later we were still there. A group of locals about our age, were partying at the end of our table, the girls were dancing on the street, the guys were standing around chatting. One of the guys bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and presented us with a glass - well who are we to be rude and not accept! I ended up joining the girls dancing on the street, whilst Pete chatted to the guys (one operated a hotel). Just after 1am we stumbled back to our van. Leaving the girls to dance the night (morning) away.
We woke to find our car park was still dotted with the cars of those who didn’t make the drive home. We planned to visit some sites, grab some lunch at the festival and head off. We walked into the festival area as the cleanup continued and the stalls were re-firing and the hunks of meat were already on the grills.
We sat down for a coffee, picked up a pastry at the “French” section of the festival then headed up the hill to visit the castle. During the festival the council had waived the entry fee for the tourist attractions. The castle is accessed by a steep walk up the hill. You are greeted by a wonderful view of the town and the hills across to Slovenia.
It was time to say goodbye to the festival... ok, one last bite.... a cannoli. We couldn’t leave Italy without trying one of these traditional deserts could we? It was so good, crispy, freshly filled with a vanilla custard cream and dusted with pistachios.
Schengen, days were ticking down, time to head back to Croatia.
Having finally arrived in a non-Schengen country the plan was to slow down, just because we could! We found Val-travel Camping, a small campsite just outside Zagreb. What a find. The extremely friendly hosts, including the dog, came out to greet you. The campsite is a small, set up in the grounds of their home with room for 15 campers at the most. Once we were parked, the hosts welcomed us with a platter of smoked meat and cheese. They had free tea & coffee in the small kitchen and you could order bread or pastries which would be delivered fresh to your van the next morning. The hosts friendly nature was infectious and created a friendly, community atmosphere amongst the campers. Everyone was chatting to each other. Cannot recommend this place highly enough. https://www.val-travel.com/campen.htm
We had done some research and discovered a small fishing village Veli Losinj on the southern tip of Losinj island just off the coast so that’s where we headed the next morning. The plan to just stop and chill out for about 5 days. We had no idea what the area or town was really like, so we were going to suss it out, if all good we would treat ourselves to a small apartment. If not we would drive back up the coast to a better area.
We crossed to the first island by bridge then followed the coast road to a small harbour where we caught the ferry to the second island. We then followed the coast road winding our way down to the southern most point. It was beautiful scenery. Blue waters, sailing boats, cliff faces - just magical. Truly Mediterranean.
We unloaded what we needed from the van (they arranged a parking spot for us about 200m away - as the roads were so narrow, there was no way the van would get down them) and settled into our 1 bedroom, ground floor apartment. It was huge compared to what we were used to. The decor was nothing special, but it was homely. We had a large kitchen, dining area, lounge area, bathroom, bedroom and courtyard.
On another day we decided to hike up to a view point on top of the mountain, taking a picnic lunch with us. It provided a pretty spectacular 360 degree view of the town and coast.
On the fifth day it was time to get back on the road. Pete had been in email discussions with a guy in Rijeka about getting a partial wrap done on the van to repair the paint issues and provide added protection. He had been very responsive, as opposed to everyone else, and he seemed to know what we wanted. We met up and after long discussions with him, decided to go ahead, it was going to cost half of what we were quoted in Central Europe. Unfortunately as we wanted a specific colour, that needed to be ordered, it was going to be couple of weeks before we could get the work done. Time to visit the Istra Peninsular.
The Istrian peninsula reaches down into the Adriatic Sea and known for its Mediterranean charm. It is has great views, cute medieval towns scenic coastal drives and rich farmlands. This is Croatia’s answer to Margaret River, known for its wine, olives, olive oil, truffles, honey seafood and meat. (Or maybe its the other way around, as yet, Margaret River doesn’t have any thousand year old villages and cute medieval harbours) We decided to start our investigation of this region in the south west corner at Pula. Here we found a campsite right at the end of the peninsula. Went for a late afternoon swim and dinner back in the van.
We walked the cute cobblestoned streets and saw various sites such as the James Joyce statue, Triumphal Arch, the Pula Fortress, the Forum, the Cathedral and of course the market. It was starting to get overcast so we made our way back to the van where I cooked up a lasagne for dinner (and given the size, it was going to do us for 3 dinners!).
We found 2 small pastel coloured, wooden stools and a small table (it appeared they were all taken from the nearby kindergarten) right at the waters edge, we sat down just before another couple took it. Feeling a little guilty we moved over and they shuffled their stools to the water edge beside us. Now when I say ‘water edge’ I mean... stone floor> short drop> water! So close that as boat passed the waves would splash up at us. As we contemplated the cocktails selection, we heard the couple speak, no doubting that Australian accent. Pete asked them where they were from... Perth, Australia! City Beach in fact.
They didn’t have alfresco waterfront seating but the food just sounded too good to pass up. We had spied a table in a large open archway right at the front, overlooking the promenade, though unfortunately it was reserved It was a bustling restaurant and they only had space available in the back room, no problem. As we waited to be seated the waiter glanced at his watch 7.16 walked to the ‘reserved’ window table, lifted the reserved sign and ushered us over! Score!!!
Kantinon specialises in 100% local produce. I had smoked mackerel with burnt lemon, beetroot purée, marinated beetroot followed by ‘foraged’ (ie I think the chef was out with his fishing line this afternoon) baked local white fish with garlic potato purée, oven roasted olives and tomatoes. Pete had lemon marinated sardines followed by an Istrian squid stew. Washed down with a splendid bottle of local wine recommended by the waiter.
Whilst we were sitting savoring our dinner, we noticed almost everyone that passed by were eating ice creams. The area being close to Italy, there is some seriously good gelato! So after dinner, well... of course we just had to! I think I had the best ice cream I’ve ever had!! It was peanut pie - OMG to die for!
The next morning we continued north, stopped at a little winery for a wine tasting and of course walked out with a bottle wine, olive oil and jar of olives! The weather had turned and the rain set in so it was a good opportunity to do some errands, buy a critical piece of equipment (that we had mistakenly left behind at a camp site earlier in our travels), get new data SIM card and fill up the gas bottles.
We arrived in Umag, in the north west corner of the peninsula, near the Slovenian border, mid afternoon. Took a walk into town about 5kms away. It was an easy walk around the port and water front. The town itself was pretty quiet, nice, but lacked the atmosphere of its neighboring towns. It was however, hosting an international seniors tennis tournament on at the time, so we bumped into many people in their country tracksuit tops on. Didn’t inspire us though, to seek out the tournament.
Back to the camper for a relatively early night. The next day we were booked in for a very special dinner!