Rovinj

Rovinj, Croatia

Peter and I landed in Croatia mid-day on a Thursday and spent five nights at a hotel located south of Rovinj. I had been wanting to visit Rovinj (pronounced “row-vinge”, like “hinge” but “vinge”) since we visited Ljubljana in August 2014.

My expectations were high, probably too high.

This vacation was considered a beach vacation for us but we did manage to peel ourselves off of our sun loungers one day and visit the small hillside village of Motovun.

Croatian immigration (Pula airport)

Roughly two hours after departing Gatwick, we touched down in Pula.

The sky was blue and it was sunny, something we’d only seen a handful of times in London this summer. 

It took about 15 minutes for the plane to disembark and for passengers to cram into the bus that ferried us a mere 10 yards / 9 meters to the terminal.

I highly dislike the bus-to-terminal procedures of most European airports. In almost all cases, passengers can walk to the terminal faster than it takes to cram into a bus and drive there. Additionally, cramming into a bus goes against all covid safety protocols. 

It took a significant amount of time to get through immigration even though there were 8 lanes open. We were almost last to get through immigration. It was a combination of choosing the wrong lane, switching lanes to another wrong lane, and passengers not having the necessary documentation required to enter Croatia.

Polite request: Please print your supporting documentation when possible. Presenting paper documentation is infinitely faster than showing documentation on your phone.  

Stamped passports in hand, we passed through the gates to baggage claim, grabbed our bag, and proceeded to the Arrivals hall where we were scheduled to meet a representative from our car rental company. 

Car rental

We rented our car from Active, a first for us.

At the time of booking, Active had a desk in the Arrivals hall of the airport but about a week before our arrival, I received an email explaining that they had closed their desk “due to covid” and that the car pick-up would now be a meet and greet.

This wasn’t our first meet and greet car rental rodeo. We’d done this before in Argentina and slight variations of the standard meet and greet in Mykonos and Paros. The process was no different than going to a car rental counter, so I verified that the flight information on my booking was accurate. I had a somewhat bad feeling in my gut but I was too lazy to re-book with a different company because my sister was visiting from Texas.

Disaster struck as soon as we entered the Arrivals hall and were two of a handful of people in the hall.

No one from Active met us in the Arrivals hall. I called the number on our booking voucher and no one answered. We looked around for a representative but did not find one. 

It had been about an hour since our flight landed, so we decided that we would rent a car from another company and deal with the Active rental problem later.

As we were waiting in the queue for Hertz, a woman dressed in plain clothing was walking around the Arrivals hall and randomly speaking to people. It appeared that she was looking for someone so I approached her and asked if she was from Active and she said no.

I explained our situation and she called the mobile phone of an Active representative and the representative arrived 10 minutes later. If I had not approached the random woman, we never would have connected with the Active representative.

She informed us that they were giving us an upgraded car – an automatic Volkswagen Golf versus a manual VW Polo. I had no interest in the upgraded car, especially since there was almost no difference between a Golf and a Polo. The car was dirty and did not have any USB charging ports!

What I wanted was to have been met at the appointed time, 75 minutes earlier, and already be at the pool at our hotel!

The car drop-off was more fluid than pick-up but it was still annoying. We had to coordinate a drop-off time with Active to ensure a representative would be at the airport to meet us. 

We will never rent a car from Active again.

Istrian roads

Rovinj is located in a northwest region of Croatia known as Istria. The roads in Istria are AMAZING.

From Pula airport, we drove on the toll road (E751, specifically the A9 section) to our hotel in Rovinj. This road was recently upgraded and it’s like driving on a new two-lane highway in the USA. The toll system is super easy – take a ticket when you enter the toll road and pay when you exit. Cash and credit cards are accepted.

The secondary roads that we drove after exiting the toll road to Rovinj and from Rovinj to Motovun were also in great condition.

Unlike Italy and Greece, the roads in Istria were clearly signposted and there were frequent speed limit signs. I didn’t see a single pothole. 

Also unlike Italy and Greece, other drivers did not speed and were not aggressive. Drivers even stopped at stop signs! It was a completely different driving experience than my past experiences.

As I reflected on our driving experience in Istria, I thought back to a prior trip to Croatia where we had taken a bus from Zagreb to Plitvice National Park.

During that bus journey, we passed through a toll booth and I remember how scary it seemed at the time and even though the bus journey totally sucked, I was happy I didn’t have to be the driver driving through the scary toll booth.

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel Monte Mulini which is located south of Rovinj. There is a new and beautiful promenade that connects Rovinj to the Golden Cape/Forest Park.

The promenade also links three Maistra Collection hotels to Rovinj, Mulini Beach, and Golden Cape/Forest Park: Grand Park Hotel, Hotel Monte Mulini, and Hotel Eden.

I detailed our experience at Hotel Monte Mulini in this post but in a nutshell, we did our trip all wrong. We should have stayed in a villa or B&B or somewhere in the countryside and visited Rovinj as a day trip. 

Rovinj old town

Our vacation in Rovinj took place post-high season but you would have thought it was high season given the number of tourists and difficulty getting tables at restaurants. If we did not have a restaurant reservation for dinner, there was almost no chance of us getting a table, and restaurants were fully booked days in advance.

This was our first travel experience since the pandemic began where it felt like a pre-pandemic travel experience and we were not prepared, as far as dining goes.

A few days after we arrived, we participated in a wine and olive oil tasting at our hotel and the guy leading the tasting told us that Istria booked 3 million nights in 2021 which is more than they booked in 2019.

This was not surprising to me. Croatia and Greece have been the only countries that have openly welcomed tourists this summer, and with little to no restrictions or obstacles.

The bulk of the tourists (~95 percent) were Germans and Austrians. The Croatians in the service industry in Rovinj spoke German, English, and Croatian. German was so heavily spoken that we were handed German menus at one restaurant. The surprising thing was that I could understand about 80 percent of the German menu. 

Due to the location of our hotel, we only visited the old town twice.

We ate a mediocre dinner in the old town on the night of our arrival and we spent a couple of hours walking the city (including a mediocre lunch) one morning before driving to Motovun.

The old town is small, smaller than I thought it would be. I found it underwhelmed and due to my high expectations, disappointed. It’s no Margarites Village!

Our walking tour started at Augusto Coffee Shop and continued up the north side of the headland past Atelier Charm. The stairway leading to Atelier Charm (a clothing shop) is one of the most photographed sights in the old town. 

I don’t want to say I hated the Atelier Charm stairwell but I hated it. It looks like a swap meet or car boot sale.

Continuing up the hill, we passed vacant building after vacant building. I thought this one was cute with its letter slot to nowhere.

A few minutes later, we arrived near the top of the hill. I snapped a couple of un-noteworthy photos of the sea that I later deleted and then we made the final push to the Baroque Catholic church at the top of the hill.

The Church of St. Euphemia was built from 1725-36. So, it’s pretty old and it’s also pretty tall and located on a tiny plateau which makes taking pictures of it impossible without a wide-angle lens. I didn’t even try to photograph it.

From the church, we began our descent. 

Protip: The walking route we took along the north side of the headland was an incline – no stairs. The route we took down through the middle of the headland (from the church) was all stairs. Consider yourself warned if you choose to do your lap of the old town clockwise.

Nothing on our walking route wowed me. After touring the old town for a couple of hours, I concluded that the old town is prettiest from afar, like across the harbor.

Istrian food

We struggled with cuisine in Rovinj, similar to how we struggled with cuisine in Dubrovnik and Hvar. My food soul definitely does not reside on the Croatia coast.

Along the coast of Istria (including Rovinj), the regional dishes hail from the sea. Rovinj’s close proximity to Venice also lends a Venetian touch to the cuisine. Think pasta but with mussels, prawns, and mixed seafood. 

Restaurant menus in Rovinj were 90 percent fish/seafood based. The remaining 10 percent was typically a vegetarian pasta dish like spaghetti aglio e olio (spaghetti with Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil) which would have been fine, except I’m intolerant to garlic and onions.

Rarely, the remaining 10 percent of menus was a selection of regional grilled meats like ćevapi which is best described as a meatball but shaped like a Jimmy Dean sausage. Ćevapi is similar to the Turkish dish, köfte, which is a favorite of mine.

Istria takes “eat local” to a new level whereby traveling only a few miles inland will yield more konobas (tavernas, simple restaurants). Konobas are typically more pork/beef/chicken-based than the fish/seafood-based restaurants along the coast. 

Konobas can often be identified from the road by the spit roast contraption in the front of the restaurant.

When I wrote earlier that we did our trip all wrong, this is one of the reasons why we feel that way. We are grilled meat type of people and therefore should have booked our accommodation inland where grilled meats were more accessible. 

Finally, the region is famous for truffles. You can even go truffle hunting which I considered but not because of truffles. I considered it because I could spend a few hours with a Golden Retriever and hopefully get to taste some wine.

If truffles are your jam, then this region is one you should probably visit. I personally cannot tolerate the smell of truffles and the closest I got to eating truffles was through accident. They were in one of the cheese on our charcurterie plate.

With all that said, we did actually have a couple of great dining experiences in Rovinj. Both were at restaurants that are attached to the Grand Park Hotel that are open to non-guests and accessible from the promenade.

Our first great dining experience was at Primi Terreni which has a large terrace sprawling out onto the promenade. We ordered ćevapi, bread, a salad of some sort, steaks, and maybe fries. I can’t recall because there were a couple of espresso martinis and a whole lot of wine involved too.

Our second great dining experience was at Katarina’s Patisserie. Now, this is technically a coffee shop and bakery but in the afternoons and evenings, they serve cocktails/wine/beer, wood-fired pizzas, and charcuterie plates.

Protip: Primi Terreni and Katarina’s Patisserie are excellent spots to watch the sunset. The two photos in this post of the headland were taken at or near Katarina’s. 

We spent two sunsets at Katarina’s and would have spent more sunsets there but they were suddenly closed Sunday and Monday. This was a theme of our vacation, actually. Operating hours and days of operation are a bit of a mystery in Rovinj, even at restaurants attached to high-end hotels.

At Katarina’s, we ordered the charcuterie plate and wood-fired focaccia along with some wine for our first sunset. Later in this post, I may state that I can’t see how any meal in Rovinj would be a knock your socks kind of meal, however, the charcuterie plate at Katarina’s was the best charcuterie plate I’ve ever eaten.

Our second sunset at Katarina’s was a combination of sundowners and dinner. We ordered wood-fired pizzas and they were very good. Similar to operating hours/days, the menu at Katarina’s was a bit of a mystery. The pizzas were no longer offered after the day of our visit. Poof! Gone.

Eat, drink, and shop recommendations

Finally, a few recommendations for Rovinj.

Business nameTypeNotes
Konoba JureRestaurantReservations recommended
Katarina’s PatisserieRestaurantGreat pizzas and best spot to watch the sunset
Primi TerreniRestaurantReservations recommended
Augusto Coffee ShopCoffeeExcellent espresso

Conclusion

I have two main takeaways about Rovinj as a destination.

First, Rovinj is one of the most touristy destinations I have ever visited. It’s on par with Bruges, Belgium.

Second, I have trouble understanding why Rovinj is considered a foodie destination. Perhaps our experience with cuisine would have been better if we would have indulged in other regional specialties like fish, seafood, and truffles.

However, with it being so touristy, I can’t see how any meal in Rovinj would be a knock your socks off kind of meal.

As with every tourist destination, there are restaurants that are authentic and restaurants that are not and cut corners (i.e. use truffle oil versus high-quality truffles).

Sometimes, it’s difficult to decipher between authentic and non-authentic and this was definitely the case in Rovinj. 

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