In the Footsteps of Marco Polo Blog

| January 3, 2016

I’ve always had a serious soft spot for the Adriatic and not just because it is the birthplace and the dramatic old stomping ground of the world’s greatest ever traveller. Yes the romance of Marco Polo is seductive, but there is also the grand old dame of Venice and the sparkling countries of Croatia and Slovenia to explore, all of which I’ve just revisited on a two week odyssey around the Adriatic.

My relationship with the Adriatic goes back to the early 1990s when I backpacked into Venice like countless others. I didn’t really get La Serenissima then, not surprising really. I had no cash and only a stale baguette from Bologna to enjoy as I traipsed the tourist motorway from Santa Lucia station to San Marco. I was also in a dark place as my next destination was the troubled fledgling republics of Slovenia and Croatia where the ghosts of war were very much still stalking as I covered the conflict.

Hotel Lone in Reinvented Rovinj

001This time I flew straight over Venice and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the Croatian port of Pula’s epic Roman amphitheatre. My first three nights were at the Hotel Lone in nearby Rovinj. This graceful cruise liner-esque hotel is Croatia’s only member of Design Hotels and it shows. Proper grown-up design pervades, thanks to Zagreb’s creative and classy 3LHD. The recently opened new outdoor pool complex solidified the Lone’s position as the place to stay in Istria, adding to the superb restaurants, top notch health spa and nightclub.

I first visited Rovinj – easily the most charming town on the Istrian Peninsula – back in 2003 when I was researching the first Insight Guide to Croatia. It has come on a long way since. Mercifully it is not all slick and over-touristy like places such as St Tropez. Here quality and authenticity reign in the small local shops, boutiques and delis. The setting is also sublime with crystal clear waters, swaying pines and protected nature reserves swirling all around.

The most noticeable improvements were in the local restaurants. In town Kantinon (Obala A. Rismondo, Tel. +385(0)52 816 075) is a brilliantly re-imagined old eatery that was re-opened in 2013. Here I feasted on salty air-dried prsut (the local proscuitto) and the gorgeous sheep cheese from the Croatian island of Pag, before enjoying a bounty of fresh seafood. Back at the Lone female head chef Priska Thuring was at the helm for a more dynamic menu of foams, reductions and innovation with a purpose. At sister hotel Hotel Monte Molini, in their wine cellar, I also savoured the stellar work of a famous Croatian TV chef.

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Split – Fit for an Emperor

Pushing on south I swept right around the island studded Kvarner Gulf in search of my favourite city in Croatia, Split. Back in 1993 during the war I’d been unable to get down here as I was trapped at the front line in Karlovac to the north. What I missed out on was one of Europe’s most dramatic cities, whose spectacular old core is founded around the 1,700 year old retirement palace of Emperor Diocletian. It sits right on the Adriatic with the recently redesigned waterfront Riva the ideal place to watch the famously stylish residents strut their stuff.

040Hotels have traditionally been in scant supply in Split, but that is starting to change. My favourite place to stay is right in the heart of Diocletian’s Palace at the Hotel Vestibul Palace. Here I slept in the shadows of Diocletian in a hotel that has been woven around the original palace walls. This boutique bolthole is set on the calmer little explored second level of the palace, and offers respite from the buzzing bars, cafes and restaurants of the ground level. That said its restaurant is well worth staying in for. I enjoyed perfectly cooked local sea bass washed down with a glass of the excellent Posip, a white wine now produced at Kastelet just outside the city. I was in the company of one of the most renowned (and glamorous) of the Croatian Twitterati, Zeljana Udovicic.

Getting Active on Vis with Wear Active

The next day it was off across the unusually tempestuous Adriatic to my favourite Croatian island (there are 1,244!), Vis. Shut off as a naval base until 1979 Vis has been spared mass tourist development and retains the kind of stripped down charm that is often so hard to find around the Mediterranean these days.

My base on Vis was with the perennially impressive Wear Active. This Anglo-Welsh couple (Craig and Xania Wear) have travelled the world and brought their knowledge and superb taste with them when they put down roots in a tiny local village. They brilliantly revamped an old stone house and now run a business that impressively combines a relaxed stay with an active break.

037In the mornings they take guests out kayaking, mountain biking and hiking. Then at lunchtime you savour some of Xania’s carnivore converting vegetarian food. It’s then time for a ‘compulsory siesta’ – trust me not as weird as it sounds and on my two visits always welcome! Then it is on to another activity or maybe just a spot of sunbathing or swimming on a local beach. Dinners are split between dining in and checking out some of the excellent local seafood restaurants and pizzerias. Wear Active say they cater for all ages and I can testify to that as they had my two year old kayaking and mountain biking on my first visit and this time – on my birthday- had me on a rugged hike up to the highest point of Mount Hum and to check out the old caves where Yugoslav leader Tito once hid away from the Germans during World War Two.

The Esplanade – My Favourite City Hotel in Mitteleuropa

It was time now to head back to the mainland and push north to Zagreb in search of my favourite city hotel in Mitteleuropa. If I add all my stays up I reckon I’ve spent about a month of my life at the Hotel Esplanade. I’ve watched her struggle to recover from her war role as a sanctuary for refugees to regain her crown as a luxury oasis that oozes both class and romance. The old art deco clocks in the lobby – that date back to when the Esplanade housed passengers from the legendary Orient Express – sets the tone perfectly.

The Esplanade’s signature restaurant, Zinfandels, is also for me still the finest place to dine in Zagreb. I feasted on their epic five course tasting menu, which came complete with matching domestic wines. Croatia produces some of the most seriously underrated wines in Europe. The culinary highlight for me was a ridiculously delicious Adriatic langoustine risotto laced with shavings of Istrian black truffle.

Zagreb was never designed as a capital city, more a provincial Austrian-Hungarian town, but it has warmed to the role since Croatian independence in 1991. I write regular restaurant updates for easyJet on Zagreb and it keeps me on my toes! Stand outs on this visit included Agava. Set just up from the epicentre of the city’s lifeblood café scene – Tkalciceva – this assured and consistent restaurant hits all the bases. Service is slick without being fussy and ingredients fresh, many from the local market nearby. Lari and Penati is much less formal, the sort of breezy gastro pub you get in London. The bonus here is you get superb fresh produce and well priced Croatian wines. It’s great value too. Book!

Lovely Ljubljana

163Curling back west it was time to head across the border into Slovenia and it’s bijou capital of Ljubljana, another of my easyJet cities. I also wrote the Bradt Guide to Ljubljana, easy as it is one of my favourite cities in Europe. It is also home to my favourite PR person in the whole Adriatic region (polymath and constant source of knowledge and new ideas Petra Stusek).

Petra and I met for dinner at a typically well chosen venue, the new Valentin (Vodnikov Trg 5) just by Ljubljana’s main market. The fishmonger as you enter is a good sign and what follows is ideal for fish lovers. You choose exactly how you want your fresh Adriatic fish, shellfish or crustaceans prepared. They’ve got some excellent wines too. Slovenia’s wines are seriously underrated and I’m a huge fan of the crisp, dry Sauvignon Blancs from Jeruzalem in the country’s east.

Ljubljana’s city centre these days is a pedestrian friendly oasis alive with cute little squares, a gorgeous riot of medieval and baroque buildings, beguiling churches and an endless array of cafes, bars and restaurants. I headed back to my favourite restaurant in Slovenia, JB (www.jb-slo.com), named after its head chef and one of Slovenia’s real culinary pioneers Janez Bratoz. He treated me to a multi-course fiesta that championed all the seasonal ingredients that have always trademarked his cooking. The highlights were roasted beetroot with horseradish foam, goat’s cheese and beetroot ice cream, as well as slowly cooked foal cheek. Again the Slovenian wines to match the courses were superb.

The last culinary stop on this visit to Ljubljana was the restaurant at the Vander Urbani Resort, where I was staying. Here head chef Benjamin Launay eschews fancy foams and pointless experimentation for ingredient-centric cooking, the starter of langoustines and asparagus followed up by a perfectly cooked steak in a Teran wine sauce reduction. Delicious!

A Venetian Climax

It was with a typically heavy heart (and a heavy belly too) I left Ljubljana, but the prospect of the climax of this trip awaited in Venice. I’ve probably arrived in Venice about 20 times now by train, car, bus, ferry boat and cruise ship, but its staggeringly unique nature never ceases to snatch my breath away and put me immediately in the Venetian moment.

054My base was the Palazzo Giovanelli, a touch of real Venetian class right on the Grand Canal. It was a haven of classically Venetian style. Housed in a graceful old palazzo right on the Grand Canal the solid stone and marble have been given a makeover that, like Venice over the years, has helped this dame retain her class and elegance. I turned my windowsill into a makeshift terrace and hung out with my legs dangling over the famous waters and lost an hour watching the vaporetti chug by and gondolas ease in and out of the side canals.

Venice for me has always been a place of transit, where once the spices and silks of the East met the more prosaic produce of Europe. Venice has always been a place of transit for me too, a way in and out of a war zone when I was writing about the conflict and now a way in and out of two of my favourite countries in Europe, those dazzling countries of Slovenia and Croatia. Countries that the great traveller Marco Polo himself would no doubt have enjoyed visiting.

 

Further Information

Croatian Tourist Office

Ljubljana Tourism

– On this trip I used the Lonely Planet guides to Slovenia, Croatia and Venice, all of which were ideal for day to day practicalities and some excellent new eating and drinking tips too.

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