Rovinj – Croatia

This week’s journey takes us back to one of our all-time favorite holiday destinations: Rovinj, Croatia. This charming and historic town, located on the sun-dappled coast of the nation’s beautiful Istria region, was the perfect place for a romantic getaway in the early years of our relationship.

Rovinj (pronounced ro-VEEN) is an old city; archaeological evidence suggests a settlement of Illyrian tribes inhabited the western coast of the Istrian peninsula for nearly 2,000 years before Roman conquest in 221BC. The Roman settlement – known as Arupinium or Mons Rubineus, and later as Ruginium or Ruvinium – was eventually incorporated into the Byzantine and Frankish Empires before becoming one of the most important Istrian ports of the Republic of Venice from 1283 to 1797. After the fall of Venice in the late 18th century, the region became part of the Austrian Empire until the end of World War I, when ownership transferred to the Kingdom of Italy. During this time, the monarchy undertook an extensive Italianization of Istria, banning the Slavic language, press, schools, and culture. The town – then known as Rovigno – welcomed Italian inhabitants in significant numbers as native Croats and Slovenes were driven out. With Italy’s defeat in World War II, the region was ceded to the Socialist Republic (SR) of Croatia, then a federal state of the Socialist Federal Republic (SFR) of Yugoslavia. It was in this transfer of power that Rovigno became Rovinj, and Italians abandoned jobs and property on the peninsula en masse. In the three decades following Croatia’s independence in 1991, Rovinj has developed a uniquely bicultural identity, with Italian cuisine, architecture and art featured prominently. The town officially bears two names – Grad Rovinj and Città di Rovigno – as well as two languages; indeed, more than 90% of the town’s residents speak both Croatian and Italian. While ethnic Croats today comprise the vast majority of the town’s approximately 14,500 inhabitants, 1 in 6 residents is Italian.

While Istria welcomes significantly fewer visitors than the Dalmatian Coast, it remains one of Croatia’s most charming and beautiful places. Rovinj – with its maze of cobbled streets, picturesque harbor, and intimate Adriatic beaches – is undoubtedly the most lovely of the peninsula’s coastal towns. We came to Rovinj for the first time in May of 2012, celebrating our then-anniversary (at the time, one year of dating). We loved everything about our two days here, wandering aimlessly through the old town, sailing to sun-soaked islands, marveling at magnificent sunsets, and indulging in Istrian cuisine (the pasta! the seafood! the GELATO!). It was a holiday we’ll never forget, and we hope you enjoy it every bit as much as we did!

The town’s bustling port and waterfront promenade are among its most endearing features. The former is comprised mainly of traditional wooden fishing boats known as battanas, as well as regional ferries and small watercraft offering sightseeing tours. The latter is lined with cafés and restaurants offering Istrian delicacies in an al fresco setting, many with phenomenal views across the harbor and Old Town. 

We took advantage of the opportunity to board one of the sightseeing vessels on a short tour. The voyage offered sweeping views of Rovinj across the sea, as well as to the nearby islands of Istra and Katarina.

Back in Rovinj, we started our journey through the town on foot. In an effort to gather provisions for what would surely be a long afternoon of exploration, we stopped at Rovinj’s small but noteworthy farmer’s market, located a short walk from the harbor. Here, local farmers and artisans sell handmade crafts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and locally processed olive and truffle oils. 

Our next stop was the main town square, Trg Maršala Tita. Built in the 17th century and featuring a 19th century clock and 20th century fountain, the small but pleasant square connects Old Town Rovinj with its newer quarter to the east.

At the intersection of the main square and the entrance to the Old Town is Balbi’s Arch. Dating from the late 1670s, this arch replaced an old town gate, and is adorned with the Venetian hallmark of the Lion of St. Mark.

The Old Town of Rovinj is built atop the original settlement, on what for many centuries was actually an island. In 1763, the town’s Venetian rulers filled in the shallow channel that separated the island from the mainland, forming a small peninsula. The Old Town is distinctly Venetian in both style and architecture, featuring a dense labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and centuries-old limestone buildings housing apartments, cafés, boutiques and galleries. Like many other European town centers, its narrow lanes cater solely to pedestrians, and offer a glimpse into the delightfully slower pace of life in coastal Croatia. Locals and tourists alike gather under parasols at outdoor cafés, lingering over coffee, gelati, and conversation. Cats sun themselves languidly on doorsteps, undisturbed by strangers passing only feet away. Freshly laundered linens, strung overhead, stir gently in the afternoon breeze. It was a remarkably lovely place to spend an afternoon!

Most paths in the Old Town eventually converge on the Church of St. Euphemia, built from 1725 to 1736 over the remains of older, early Christian structures. A small portion of Saint Euphemia’s relics are reportedly preserved in a sixth century Roman sarcophagus inside. The adjacent campanile was built nearly a century prior to the church itself, and was designed to resemble that of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The top of the 60-meter bell tower can be reached by climbing 192 weathered, creaky, absolutely terrifying interior stairs. This was B.’s very least favorite part of our adventure in Rovinj, but we both readily admitted that the views from the top were well worth the climb!

Going down was even more scary than going up!

A short stroll from both the Church of St. Euphemia and the main town square lies Monte Beach. Its rocky outcroppings were ideal for sun-bathing, and for dipping our toes in the beautiful turquoise waters of the Adriatic. 

Istria is well known for its delicious hybrid of Italian and Croatian cuisine, which Rovinj serves up in ample quantities at virtually all of its seaside dining venues. We selected a quiet restaurant right beside the water, and indulged in every type of pasta in creation. We also gave some of Croatia’s unusual beverages a try, including Ožujsko Limun (a lemon shandy) and bambus, a truly unexpected mixture of red wine and cola. As always, a handful of stray cats congregated around T. as we ate, and lingered nearby as we watched the sun dip toward the horizon.

Do we find the cats, or do the cats find us?

We briefly returned to our hotel (Hotel Adriatic – located directly adjacent to the harbor, and highly recommended!) before wandering back in the direction of Monte Beach. We stopped here to explore a small military pillbox perched on a bluff above the shoreline, and to enjoy a spectacular sunset across the sea.

B. had such a wonderful time here, she returned for a visit with her parents in early 2017! It was significantly less crowded – and more overcast – in the winter months, but no less charming. Below are some photos of their walk along the waterfront, and their visit to Monte Beach.

Thank you for joining us on this adventure in Istria! -T. & B. June

Want to see more of what Croatia has to offer? Check out our previous posts on Pula Arena, and on our two-day journey to Plitvice Lakes National Park!

Next week’s journey: Hopetoun House, Scotland

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