It’s cherry harvest time in Rovinj, Istria. Many town gardens boast at least one tree, and my landlord has urged me to help myself.
A land of forests, vineyards, and lost-in-time hill towns, Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is lovely in early summer. The weather is hotting up, the Adriatic ripples turquoise, rosemary and lavender perfume the air, and swallows swoop over the town’s jumbled roof tiles. This is rapture for any artist, but thankfully there are no pretentious airs and graces about Rovinj. Tourism is important, but this is also a real town with around 12,000 inhabitants and a tobacco factory.
Complete with winged lion sculptures, Rovinj is one of a clutch of medieval harbor towns dating back to when Istria was under Venetian rule. If somebody told you this was the Italian Riviera, you probably wouldn’t argue. Or at least not until you discover that a coffee costs a dollar, half a liter of house wine is $5, and a two-course lunch of seafood soup and fried fish is $9. In a restaurant like La Perla, where locals eat, a plate of homemade pasta smothered in shaved white truffles sets you back only $13. As you know, truffles-or “white gold”-are a gourmet delicacy, and you’d pay a small fortune for such a dish in Italy.
Pizza, ice cream, and architecture all betray any denials of an Italian influence, as do the street signs that are in Serbo-Croat and Italian. A square is both a trg and a piazza; a street is an ulice and a via, and Rovinj itself is also called Rovigno. During most of the year, car license plates suggest that most foreign holiday makers are from Germany and Austria, but Italian visitors arrive in droves in August, upping the pace a notch.
Expecting the same rook-the-tourist mentality as I found in Dubrovnik for meals, drinks, and shoddy accommodation, it’s a pleasant shock to find Istria so affordable. In early summer, the chatty owner of the modern apartment I’m renting charges $33 weekdays; $40 at weekends when short-breakers arrive from Zagreb. At a push, it would sleep four.
Blue-mauve hydrangeas and hot pink geraniums turn even the humblest stone house into the kind of place a romantic might dream of living in. But how much would it cost to have a home here? Istria isn’t undiscovered and I haven’t come across any obvious bargains yet. The town has numerous real estate agencies, but the cheapest Rovinj property I’ve seen advertised is a $130,000 studio, with living space of not quite 400 square feet.