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Off the Beaten Path: Croatia

With its beautiful medieval villages, sapphire coastlines and still-affordable prices, it’s no surprise that Croatia is quickly climbing the charts as a vacation hot spot. Unlike the Greek Islands, Croatia has the advantage of being easily accessible by car from most of central Europe. The Istrian Peninsula in Croatia -- a charming region known for its coastal villages and wine -- is just a five-hour drive from Munich and Salzburg, making it an easy (and warm!) weekend getaway.

Knowing that, I visited Croatia for four days in late September during a larger trip to Austria and Germany. The ride down to Croatia is beautiful as the Austrian Alps give way to Slovenia’s rolling hills and later, Croatian vineyards and coastline. Enjoy the scenery and take your time.

On a side note, a small warning: Be mindful of what border crossing you choose and confirm that it is open to international travellers. All drivers coming from Austria must pass through Slovenia first, which, being an EU member, is no problem. However, many borders between Slovenia and Croatia (not an EU country) are closed to everyone except locals. And of course, remember to bring your passport -- you will be checked at the Croatian border as you enter and exit.

The easiest way to plan a weekend trip to Croatia from central Europe is to just head down Croatia’s Istrian coast. We chose to visit the western side and made our first stop in the touristy but charming town of Porec. Germans and Austrians have been vacationing in Porec for decades so it definitely has a well-worn, tourist feel. That said, its cobblestone streets, outdoor cafes and sparkling harbour are well worth a stop. Porec’s harbour also services daily ferries over to Venice (just an hour away by boat) for those interested in seeing a bit of Italy during their trip. Because of its proximity to Italy, much of the Istrian peninsula’s food and landscape feels much like Tuscany. Olive oil, wine, truffles, grappa and honey are local mainstays (and, I might add, are just as tasty as Italy’s but at a fraction of the cost).

Those choosing to stay overnight in Porec have the option to stay in a 4-star hotel (costing around $150 a night), a budget hotel ($80 a night) or in locally owned apartments ($60 a night). We chose to stay in apartments throughout our trip and greatly appreciated the home-like amenities and the cost savings.

Once you’ve had your fill of the Porec crowds, drive 30 minutes down the coast to the tiny village of Vrsar. Unlike its northern sister, Vrsar has very few tourists but equally striking views. The city is perched high on a hilltop with many of its tiny streets offering breathtaking glimpses into the nearby sea. Nightly apartment rentals are plentiful and significantly cheaper than Porec. While there’s not as much to do or see in Vrsar, roaming the quiet streets offers a welcome respite from bustling Porec. We chose to continue on to Rovinj in the same day and stay overnight there.

Rovinj, in many travellers’ opinions, is the “golden child” of Istria. It captures the charm of Porec and the calm of Vrsar. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes perched right on the water and an equal number of hotels and apartments in similar locations. It seemed that every single place in Rovinj had a view of the sea. Even though it is still visited by a large number of tourists each year, Rovinj felt authentic and cozy.

To round out the weekend, we made our final stop in Motovun -- a medieval hilltop village with just 500 residents and spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards. The climb up to the town centre is steep (and no cars are allowed) so be sure to wear comfortable shoes for this trip. In the town centre, you’ll find just over a dozen shops and restaurants, most of which feature dishes and souvenirs centred around the truffle. Truffle “hunting” is a longtime Istrian pastime and in autumn, the mushrooms are abundant. We enjoyed a long lunch overlooking the landscape and later strolled through the winding streets. It was truly amazing to see streets and buildings that date back to the ninth century and likely haven’t changed much since.

If you have more time, the Dalamatian Coast (especially Hvar and Dubrovnik) easily rival the Greek Islands but are at least an eight-hour drive from Central Europe. When time is limited, a trip to Istria will awaken all five senses as a weekend getaway or, if time allows, is certainly worthy of a longer vacation.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, San Francisco
Monday, October 18, 2010
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Sarah Roos