Meet Old Masters and modern locals
Founded by a group of local artists in 1954, the Rovinj Heritage Museum (www.muzej-rovinj.hr) houses Istria’s prime collection of Italian art from the 1400s onwards. Renaissance gems by the great Venetian Giovanni Bellini and the school of Bonifazio de Pitati share second-floor space with Baroque painter such as Nicolò Grassi, Antonio Zanchi and Marco Ricci. One flight below is a floor of Croatian art from the later 20th century and there’s also a section dedicated to Rovinj artists from the same period – some of whom would have helped set up this very museum.
Take a taxi boat to Red Island
Just off the coast of Rovinj, Crveni otok (‘Red Island’) is a handy and easy getaway from the crowds thanks to a boat that heads out from the town harbour every hour. Crveni otok is, in fact, two islands in one, St Andrew and Maškin. The larger St Andrew was where Benedictine monks opened a church in the sixth century, rebuilt by the Franciscans 900 years later. After Napoleon chased them off, the island was pretty much deserted until the well-to-do Habsburg Hutterotts erected a family mansion and surrounded it with hundreds of plants and trees from around the world – these you still see, and smell, today. The family mausoleum can also be visited. Most come here for the secluded beaches, though, backdropped by scented pine trees and facing clearer waters than found immediately around Rovinj itself. Although your boat over will invariably be crowded, it’s easy to find your own space for that real away-from-it-all feeling.
Browse Trg Valdibora
Essentially a fruit-and-vegetable market, allowing you to pick healthy fresh produce for your beachside picnic, Trg Valdibora has expanded its remit to offer plenty of items you can take home with you. Stalls groan under the weight of local wines, honeys and lavender oils, not to mention grappas in all kinds of varieties – mistletoe included. After 1pm, most of the fresh-food and fish vendors go, leaving mostly souvenir shops, hawking knick-knacks made from shells, Croatian-flag beach towels, paintings, postcards and other non-essentials.
Go the whole seven courses at Monte
Shellfish, suckling pig and that day’s catch, the seven-course menu at recently Michelin-starred Monte takes in the bounty of Istria on land and sea. Closer to home, Dutch-Croatian restaurateurs Tjitske and Danijel Đekić raid nearby Rovinj market on a daily basis for the finest, freshest produce to supply the most versatile kitchen in town. There’s a five-course menu, too, and carefully conceived main-course options. There’s a choice from more than 100 wines to accompany. Set on a steep cobbled slope in Rovinj’s historic centre, considering the quality of fare on offer, Monte could be starched and stuffy but it’s anything but – all feels funky and informal, just the right combination for a relaxed, top-class dining experience.
Stroll the Golden Cape
For serious, pine-forested beaches, head south of Rovinj, past the marina, to the wooded peninsula of Zlatni Rt, or Golden Cape. The stroll along the waterfront is a little more than a kilometre from town. There’s also a cluster of resorts around here, but they’re uphill, so the beaches are mostly undisturbed nature. Here shade-providing pine forests grow right up to the shore, ending in rocky beaches. You’ll need sandals to wade on the jagged shore, but the lack of sand means the sea is incredibly clear, great for snorkelling or diving. Walking further round, past Kurent Bay, with its public changing cabins, smaller coves have shallow, calm waters ideally suited to paddling toddlers.
Visit Baron Guatsch
Known as the Adriatic Titanic, the Baron Guatsch was a Habsburg passenger ship that hit a mine laid by the Austro-Hungarian navy off the coast of Istria at the start of World War I. Nearly 150 passengers and crew lost their lives and the ship sank to a depth of 35 metres. The wreck, discovered in 1958, now provides divers with one of Europe’s most fascinating sites, and a popular for trips from Rovinj. Based at the Hotel Istra on Crveni otok, the Puffer dive centre offers escorted dives to the old ship, as well as courses for children and beginners.
Setting off from Rovinj harbour, Ozren Božić and his crew take out their boat Abyss especially adapted for big-game fishing out for charter trips in the waters around Istria. Starting at the crack of dawn, fishermen will be taken out for up to 12 nautical miles on the hunt for bluefin tuna – bait, equipment, traps and travel insurance are all provided. The Abyss is also used for sport fishing and cruises of the islands and Limski bay nature reserve.
Amble along Grisia
Always bustling in summer, stone-paved Grisia is a colourful thoroughfare of ateliers and artists’ galleries that leads up to the Church of St Euphemia. Its role in the lively artistic life of Rovinj dates back to a first exhibition here in 1967 – look out for 50thanniversary events in 2017. As well as paintings, mounted for display in doorways and on Grisia’s stone walls, stalls proffer all kinds of artisanal artefacts. If you’re here on the second Sunday in August, an outdoor festival allows anyone to set up and sell their art. Among the amateur seascapes, you might find the odd gem.
Sip champagne at Valentino
‘A world of its own’ is the motto of pricy Valentino, Rovinj’s most celebrated drinkerie, opened way before the boom in Croatia – way before an independent Croatia itself, in fact, in 1989. Back then, the owners knew that Valentino’s dramatic location, washed by the waves near Rovinj harbour, would bring results. Keeping things classic and old-school, they gradually encouraged customers to plonk themselves down on the rocky waterfront, offering brightly coloured cushions and ever more authentic – and expensive – mixed drinks. These days, Valentino is officially a ‘cocktail & champagne bar’, bubbly accounting for as much trade as bloody Marys. Step off the seaside street, lose the crowds and commune with nature, your cocktail and your companion.
Sail over to Sveta Katarina
The closest island to Rovinj harbour, Sveta Katarina was the playground of various counts and dukes in the Habsburg days, the forerunners of today’s pleasure seekers. The photos you may have seen of foolhardy tourists leaping from high rocks into the sea were taken here. More sedate holidaymakers make do with catching the frequent ferry over, wandering around the verdant pathways, past vineyards and ancient olive trees, to find their own spot at a deserted and invariably rocky part of the coast. If you haven’t brought any refreshments, you’ll find the bar and restaurant open at the island’s namesake hotel, a family-focused resort complex with tennis courts, swimming pools and water sports.
Trek around Rovinj on horseback
Surrounded by unspoilt greenery just outside Rovinj, Macerlongo Ranch is an open-air stable that lays on trekking tours and horse-riding lessons for all ages and abilities. Tours last for up to three hours and taking in the natural beauty surrounding Rovinj, dotted with archaeological sites whose history and significance will be explained by your guide. Back at the ranch, qualified instructors provide tuition from basic level upwards.
Go Istrian at Veli Jože
Named after a friendly giant in a popular tale set in Istria, Veli Jože (‘Big Joe’) is an Istarska konoba, a typical local tavern. Istrian dishes flavour the menu of this quaint spot near the harbour that has a high-ceilinged interior crammed with antiques and seagoing kitsch, as well as seating for 50 on the pavement terrace. Specialities include lasagne with fruits de mer, crab with truffles, cod in white wine and pasta with goulash. The seafood won’t be cheap but it’ll be fresh, authentically prepared and caught close to where you’re eating it.
Discover Rovinj history by rowboat
Batana House is perhaps the first multi-media museum around the Mediterranean specifically dedicated to a fishing boat. The vessel in question is the batana, the traditional wooden boat of this region. It is still very much in use today – as you will find out should you head out at sunset in a batana expertly rowed by the one of the museum staff. As both sit in the romantically lit batana, they will explain the importance of the boat to Rovinj’s history and economy, from the intricacies of night fishing to the construction of the vessel itself. If you’re here in daytime, the museum uses film, music and interactive exhibits to tell the same story – creative workshops allow you to try your hand at making fishing nets or plaiting demijohns.
Admire brave St Euphemia
Thrown to the lions in AD303 though apparently mauled to death by a bear, poor St Euphemia is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox faith. How her relics came to be placed in a sarcophagus in Rovinj is not entirely clear – legend has it that her coffin washed ashore here, though other remains are still placed in the Church of St George in Istanbul, where she met her fate. The Rovinj church that bears her name, built in Baroque style in 1736, stands on the site of an earlier one also named after St George. Euphemia is represented in statue form, somewhat prosaically converted into a weather vane, while the mural of her martyrdom feels more reverential, the pious saint soon to join the heavenly chorus as lions devour her limbs.
See Rovinj by Segway
From the seafront Hotel Park, Segway Rovinj hires out electric bikes for two-hour tours around the adjoining esplanade and verdant pathways. Those who haven’t Segway’d before can have a half-hour practice run before scooting out. Minimum age is 14. For more experienced riders, there are also city tours around Rovinj’s historic streets and off-road jaunts that take in the surrounding countryside.
Tucked down hidden-away Veli trg amid Rovinj’s winding historic quarter, Piassa Granda is a formidably well-stocked wine bar established by two smiling sisters, still in charge today. More than 200 labels, the majority of them Istrian, pay tribute to the successful revival of the industry around this Italianate peninsula, Helena and Dragana also keen to promote fine domestic prosciutto, salamis and cheeses, tastefully presented as accompanying platters. Most varieties are available by the glass and a friendly waitstaff is happy to recommend. Alfresco seating is another plus.
Zooming out from Rovinj by skippered speedboat, up to eight holidaymakers can plunge into the clear waters of the open sea to observe the wealth of colourful marine life that swims close to the surface. Your guide will point out the brightest creatures to look out for – the yellow-streaked peacock wrasse, bright pink beadlet anemones, purple sea urchins, red-mouthed gobies – as you snorkel around calm waters. All gear is provided and you can shower down once you clamber back on board. Tours are organised by Rovinj-based Adistra.
Cycle a pirate’s trail
This part of Istria is said to contain the ill-gotten gains of legendary pirate Captain Morgan, a strange fable that may help explain why Mrgani is both the name of a local village and a seemingly unusual surname. Whatever the case, a cycling trail that sets off from close to Rovinj allows you to follow Morgan’s trail, taking in panoramic views of the Limski Canal where is treasure is allegedly buried, a Bronze Age site, a solar observatory and an ornithological reserve. Cycle tours, running for 60km in total and taking about four hours, are laid on by Istra Bike and also include lunch at a typical Istrian farmhouse on the way.
Perched by the Church of St Euphemia atop the Old Town, Caffe Bar XL is the perfect spot for a bar. Wicker chairs and wooden tables overlook fields, then the Adriatic beyond, streaked with amber beams of sunset if you find a spot at the right time of day. A cocktail would seem apt, and there are plenty of choices, or there’s Istrian Favorit beer on tap, affordable house wine and juices for the kids. There’s no food to speak of but that can all come later.
Tour Rovinj’s islands by kayak
Sea kayaking is the perfect way to discover the unspoiled, mainly uninhabited islands that dot the waters around Rovinj. Half-day tours start out at Punta Corrente park just outside town and take in nearby Crveni otok and the Sv Ivan islands before rounding the lighthouse at Sv Ivan na Pucini and heading for home. Kayakers also stop for an island picnic and swim. No previous experience is required, beginners are given a quick lesson in the easily steered kayak beforehand. Children above the age of five may take part, with adult supervision. Tours are organised by Adistra.