Croatia’s coastline has been on the tourist radar for years, attracting suntan oil-covered beach goers to its pristine islands and rocky turquoise coves. But food and wine lovers might want to consider an oil odyssey of a different variety. Head north to the country’s arrowhead-shaped Istrian peninsula, jutting into the Adriatic Sea, and discover family made olive oils, prolific truffle trees, and award-winning vineyards producing the famed Teran and Malvazia wines amidst the undulating green hills and valleys speckled with warm-hearted people.
A local legend says that giants used to roam the area, including one named Veli Jože from the perched medieval village of Motovun, said to be so strong he could shake the bell tower of the town’s church with his bare hands. Whether it’s the legend or the situation, 277 meters (over 900 feet) above the Mirna River Valley, Motovun, today, lures tens of thousands of visitors each year to its pitched cobblestone streets, and is among the most picturesque villages in Istria. At the heart of Motovun is the the Hotel Kaštel, a perfect pied-a-terre for getaway guaranteed to have your camera, and your knife and fork, working double-time.
The terra cotta façade of the Hotel Kaštel reflects the warmth of the welcome inside by a friendly and efficient, and multi-lingual staff. The hotel holds court over the main square, which is covered in shade trees sheltering tables where wine sipping and coffee drinking are the activities du jour.
There are 33 rooms—3 Single rooms, 22 Standard double rooms, 3 Superior double rooms, 3 Exclusive double rooms with balcony, 2 hotel Suites and 1 apartment located away from the hotel. On the lower level, a brand new wellness center and spa has recently opened with gorgeous indoor pool, outdoor sun garden, and a host of treatments to pamper travel weary souls. An onsite restaurant and small bar are located off the reception area.
Almost every room has a view over the valley or the famed Motovun vineyards that hashmark the hillsides. I stayed in one of the Exclusive Rooms with a balcony above the main square. It was quiet when I was there, April, save for the owl that sang me to sleep at night, but I imagine in the summer this room would be noisy with late night crowds and the clanking of empty wine glasses, so I’d probably request a room in the back of the hotel where views are spectacular. The rooms themselves are comfortable and simple; not “luxury” by Ritz Carlton standards, but then this is not New York or San Francisco. This is the heart of rural Istria, and you’ll find everything you need. The beds are large and comfortable, the linens are soft, and the bathrooms are well-equipped with nice touches like bathrobes,slippers, and in hair dryers. Each room also has a TV and free wireless internet access.
But what really sets Hotel Kaštel apart from the rest is the address.
These days, when the legendary church bells shake each morning, the cobble stone streets of the village fill with normal sized locals and tourists out for early morning walks and Istrian discovery. In the surrounding countryside local Konobas (small bistros) run by generations of families serve authentic Istrian cuisine at fair prices. Come April, wild asparagus is in bloom and bundles are sold along rural roads and at markets. The Parenzana, a defunct railway turned public footpath, lures hikers and bikers eager to explore endless miles of bucolic landscapes, and vineyards and olive oil makers open their tasting rooms to share their award winning elixirs.
Summer in Motovun is brings in masses when a popular film festival sets up in just outside the church in late July and early August. Black truffles make their appearance on menus in summer. Fall is the peak of the region’s famed white truffles and “Truffle Days” festivals abound, including one of the best known in near by Livade.
Whatever your reason for travel—gastronomy or giants or getting off the beaten track—Istria is one of those rare places that satiates your hunger while nourishing your curiosity for the new and undiscovered.
What better place to start an edible adventure in Istria than atop an ancient hilltop, over-looking a verdant valley where giants once ran amok and rang church bells.
Go to the hotel’s website.
Standard from €48 — €77 per person, per night, including breakfast.
Half-board (with dinner) from €60 — €89 per person, per night.
There are myriad spa package options (I was given six pages worth) that include a mix of treatments, room and board. Check directly with the hotel.
Good To Know
There is hotel parking all the way up at the top of the village, but you’ll still have to drag your bags about 200 meters over cobblestones to the front door.
Motovun is small, and there are limited restaurant options. Konoba Mondo, right in the village, was one of my favorites.
There is an ATM and a post office in the village.
Use of the pool is included in the room price, even if you don’t book spa treatments.
The streets are steep and cobbled. Leave your Manolos at home.
All Photos by Kimberley Lovato