Road-tripping (and eating) our way through western Croatia
Chris and I are firm believers that one of the best ways to experience a country is to drive through it. We’re road-trip warriors and have logged countless miles across countries such as the United States, Iceland, and Croatia. The last of these is one of our favorite places to visit. On our last trip to Croatia, we decided it was high time that we experienced it behind the wheel and on the open road.
With less than a week in the country, we were aware that we would have to be selective about where we visited. We knew that the ideal place to start would be the capital of Zagreb. From there we could rent a car and make our way southwest to the coastal towns of Opatija and Rijeka. Because we had never visited the Istria province, we added it to the itinerary, as well. It helped that we were going to be there during the start of white truffle season, a delicacy for which the region is famous.
Before we delve into our favorite Croatian encounters, let’s discuss a few things to know before you road trip through Croatia.
1. It’s easy.
If you’re from North America like we are, you’ll be able to adapt to driving in Croatia relatively easily, as driving rules are the same (in other words, when you drive, you drive on the right side of the road). Road signs are easy to decipher and there’s very little congestion outside of big cities. Just be sure to keep an eye on the gas tank. There’s nothing worse than getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. And while we’re on the subject of gas stations, be on the lookout for big ones, as these sometimes include large bathrooms with showers as well as delicious food courts.
Viewfinder Tip: When at a fuel station in Croatia, both cash and cards are accepted. Just remember to pay inside.
2. It’s full of toll booths
There are quite a number of toll booths on roads throughout Croatia. Our advice is to always carry a healthy amount of cash on you. When you stop at these booths, you can expect to pull a tab on a paper ticket to keep track of the amount of miles driven on a particular highway. At the next booth, you’ll exchange the tab for a bill. You’ll be charged for the miles (or in this case, kilometers) that you’ve traversed.
3. It’s beautiful
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the most beautiful spots on Earth, and it’s just a tiny taste of what Croatia has to offer in the way of natural beauty. While we didn’t stop by the park on this past trip, we did enjoy it on our first visit. With every trip to Croatia I find myself falling more and more in love with the country’s sheer beauty. As for Plitvice Lakes National Park, it’s completely worth a visit if you haven’t been.
The iconic Maiden with Seagull statue in Opatija
Hitting the pavement
Zagreb-Opatija-Istria. That was the course we plotted for our days on the road. From our starting point of Zagreb, we made our way to my favorite town in the world, Opatija.
Located in the gulf of Kvaner, Opatija is a charming waterfront town that’s known for the healing properties of its air. Opatija also is known for its quiet. We checked into our room at the Milenij Hotel and plotted our course of action for the next few days.
We spent the following days in town with morning strolls along the water and lazy, lingering hotel brunches. For those that want to explore the country through its food, look no further than the aptly named Gastro World inside the acclaimed Hotel Continental. This is a one-stop shop for all things delicious. We gorged ourselves on chocolate from the basement-level “Milenij Choco World” sweet shop, drank freshly pressed juices at the champagne and juice bar, and topped it all off with a scrumptious dinner at Antiqua Osteria da Ugo restaurant.
Truffles in Istria
After a relaxing time spent in Opatija, we packed up, saddled up, and headed farther west to Istria.
Istria is a foodie’s paradise. This province is rich in truffles, wine, and olive oil. To be honest, I only really came for the truffles. I dream about these earthy, aromatic fungi. The region is famous for both its black and white truffles, but we were fortunate enough to arrive just at the start of the white truffle season.
Our visit started at the truffle haven of Karli? Tartufi, located in the quaint village of Paladini. Greeted with a roaring outdoor fireplace and dish upon dish of truffle-laden goodness, we soon found ourselves overwhelmingly full. Luckily for us, we had the opportunity to walk off a little of our meal by participating in a truffle hunt.
With a certified truffle hunter and his three doggy companions, we took to the forest in search of the precious fungus. A mature truffle only can be detected by its scent. Unfortunately for all of us, humans lack the ability to pick up on the subtle smell. That’s where the dogs came in. With their noses at the lead, we trekked behind them until they alerted us to a beautiful white truffle. While it was about the size of a silver dollar, our guide informed us that it was worth some serious coin.
After our epic morning of truffle hunting (and truffle eating), we made our way to the Medieval town of Motovun. Like in a fairytale, this walled village is perched on a hill that overlooks the surrounding area. We spent an hour wandering around inside the village until miraculously we found ourselves hungry again. Of course we didn’t have to look far for provisions. Right outside of the main gate is another truffle haven: Mondo Konoba.
Here, we experienced one of the best meals of our lives. Truffle-laden dishes of all shapes and sizes were set before us. Truffle spread, truffle risotto, and a truffle beef carpaccio. Every dish incorporated truffle in it somehow. If that wasn’t enough, all of the dishes then were topped generously with mounds of shaved truffles. Dessert even featured a truffle honey panna cotta sprinkled with, you guessed it, truffle shavings.
The famed truffle haven of Mondo Konoba
Our day of truffle euphoria ended with us checking into the renowned Hotel Lone in the coastal town of Rovinj. After a day of indulging, we made sure to hit the hotel’s gym, indoor swimming pool, and authentic Finnish sauna before we hit the hay.
Ending near the water
Our remaining two days were spent exploring the picturesque town of Rovinj. Our guided stroll took us along the waterfront from Hotel Lone and through the sweeping alleyways of the city. We took in the sights of the local market, then trekked on to Saint Euphemia’s Basilica, which towers over the town.
Like all of our previous trips to Croatia, our only regret was that we didn’t have more time in the country. If you do decide to road trip in this part of the world, don’t try to tackle everything in one go. Choose a couple of places you really want to visit, take your time, enjoy the sights, and then plan a return trip in the future. This is one place of which we simply can’t get enough.
What are your favorite kinds of stops on a road trip?
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Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube