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Rolling Rovinj

There’s a little piece of Italy to be found on the coastal tip of Croatia’s crescent. The picturesque Rovinj – part ancient port, part leisurely paced tourist resort – huddles its Old Town on the rocky hill of its peninsular and crowns it with the jutting tower of the church of St. Euphemia (or Sveta Fuma), which respectfully emulates the famous tower of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Jennifer Bradly reports

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Follow the labyrinth of steep, cobbled, car-free streets down from the church through a pretty Baroque archway, and you’ll encounter elegant piazzas, busy food markets, open-air galleries and bustling pavement cafes – some of which serve examples of the best pizza you’ll have tasted outside Italy, if you can be tempted away from the seafood. These only add to Rovinj’s Italian spirit – and serve as a reminder that it is just a two-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea to Venice. The area was ruled by the Venetian empire and belonged to Italy for much of the first half of the twentieth century, and the country has certainly left a legacy.

There’s still something pleasantly old-fashioned about Rovinj (the country itself is sentimentally described by its tourist board as “the Mediterranean as once it was”), but its harbour’s mix of rustic fishing boats and snazzy yachts gives some indication of the new direction the town is taking.

While the whole of Croatia appears to be catching up fast with its Mediterranean cousins as far as leisure and business tourism development goes, Rovinj is leading the way in its region, Istria. The town is not only peaceful and quaint, but is easily accessible thanks to modern road links to Zagreb, Trieste and Ljubljana and five nearby international airports (it takes less than two hours to fly to Pula from London). Developers are beginning to think beyond the hearty Euro-nosh cafés and ubiquitous ‘resort hotels’ and have their sights set on the luxury end of the market – as demonstrated by the opening of the very first five-star hotel in the area, Hotel Monte Mulini.

Although one may hope that those snazzy yachts don’t replace the rustic fishing boats entirely, Rovinj’s aspirations of affluence make sense considering the town’s opulent gastronomic associations. For many years, visitors have travelled to the area to take advantage of its freshly caught seafood; the exceptional, locally grown olives and olive oil; the black and white truffles used to infuse everything from those olive oils to fiery grappa (admittedly with mixed results) or slivered onto pasta; the regional prociutto, bacon, sausages and pork loin; and, of course, the deliciously blossomy local wine (try the fruity, white Malvazija Alba Matoševic or the slightly herbal Merlot Kabola, a red). The fact that you can savour all of this against a backdrop of impossibly turquoise, island-speckled sea and crooked buildings painted in faded apricot and lemon shades makes this ideal for a potential millionaire’s playground.

So Hotel Monte Mulini is aiming high. Forming a substantial part of hotel company Maistra’s 335 million euro investment into the area, this exclusive boutique hotel was designed by leading architects and interior designers WATG to be at the forefront of Rovinj’s makeover. It is perched on the hillside of the Zlatni Rt (Golden Cape) and a century-old wooded nature park – a few minutes’ gentle seafront stroll from the town centre – and its careful design has ensured it makes the most of the fact it overlooks the small, clear-watered bay teeming with bobbing boats. The grand entrance foyer, paved in local stone, has enormously high ceilings with sweeping windows framing the magnificent view, and every one of its 107 bedrooms and ten guest suites faces either the Old Town or the sea. What’s more, the designers have made sure you’ll feel as comfortable in winter as you will in the summer, as the venue’s simple style features a warm colour scheme of burnished golds and deep aubergines as well as generously sized fireplaces in the public areas.

The foodies have not been forgotten, naturally. Croatian chef Tomislav Gratic has been coaxed over from the award-winning Palace Hotel in Dubrovnik, in the far south of the country – where his dishes were sampled by the celebrity mouths of Michael Palin and Roger Moore, apparently – to head up the Monte Mulini’s two gourmet restaurants (one is à la carte, the other is fine dining). Before that, Gratic had launched Dubai’s popular Asia de Cuba restaurant and worked at Zurich’s Dolder Grand. His latest culinary creations, which celebrate the finest seasonal and local produce, are complemented by the work of Emil Perdec, the “best sommelier in Croatia”, and twice winner of the prestigious Trophée Ruinart in France (the European championship for sommeliers). Perdec presides over the hotel’s vast, traditionally styled wine vault situated below the restaurants, which includes a private tasting room, dining room and even a spacious terrace.

The business traveller is well-catered for, too, as investors are keen on promoting the area as a high-end destination for conferences. You can take advantage of the superb conference centre offered by the hotel and its nearby sister venues – Hotel Lone, Hotel Park and Hotel Eden – with a total of 30 top-notch halls, two of which are based in the Monte Mulini. Both boast gorgeous views of Rovinj and its picture-perfect 60ft tower, making them ideal for gala evenings or banquets. Then there is the central hall, the largest of its kind along the Adriatic coast, with room for 650 to 700 delegates.

Despite being a five-star trail blazer in Rovinj, the new Hotel Monte Mulini should have no difficulty drawing in wave after wave of visitors. Luxurious hotel facilities aside, the forest reserve surrounding the complex offers a unique opportunity for hiking and cycling – and if you enjoy more watery sports, you can also try diving, snorkelling and sailing in the crystal-clear waters surrounding the peninsular. For those looking for a more relaxing break, there are plenty of chances to take a gentle swim in the warm sea or stroll the cobbled streets, perusing the tiny craft shops, and galleries and sampling the wares of the open-air food market. Alternatively, hop on one of the regular ferries to explore one of the 13 islands and islets that make up Rovinj’s spectacular archipelago – or simply take your pick of the many waterfront trattorias and terrace bars in the Old Town, kick back with an espresso or ice cream and relish the way the Istrians seem to be able to do ‘old Italy’ even better than many Italians can.

Rovinj fact box
Currency: Kuna
(1 kuna =10p)
Time: GMT+1
Population: 14,234

Climate: The climate is warm and semi-arid. The average yearly temperature is 14 degrees Celsius, while the average summer temperature is a pleasant 23 degrees Celsius. The sea’s average temperature in the summer is 24 degrees Celsius.

Getting there: Flights from London airports to Pula (the nearest airport to Rovinj) take about two hours. Pula is a 30-minute drive from Rovinj. Hotel Monte Mulini offers a dedicated shuttle service for its hotel guests for an additional fee. Fly to Pula with Croatia Airlines (croatiaairlines.com) from London Gatwick; Thomsonfly (thomsonfly.com) from London Gatwick, Birmingham or Manchester; Ryanair (ryanair.com) from London Stansted; or FlyGlobespan (flyglobespan.com) from Edinburgh.

Stay: Hotel Monte Mulini is situated at A. Smareglia bb, 52210 Rovinj.Telephone +385(0)52 636 000. For further details or to book, visit maistra.com/en

Contact: Croatian National Tourist Office,
020 8563 7979; croatia.hr.

Did you know? Rovinj started life on the island of Mons Albanus in the third century. It wasn’t until 1763 that the channel between the island and the mainland was filled with earth, creating the peninsula.

Further reading: The Rough Guide to Croatia, £12.99.

Outside Rovinj
Should you decide to venture out of Rovinj itself, through the greenery of cypress trees and olive groves, there is plenty more to see in the vicinity. Pula is just a half-hour drive away along virtually empty roads, dotted with olive-oil stalls. It is home to an impressive amphitheatre, the town’s most popular (and oft-photographed) tourist attraction, built by the Romans on their arrival in 177BC. There’s also an art deco market and – if you’ve tired of gazing upon pretty things in Rovinj – a busy working port that was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s primary naval base. Another scenic local highlight is the 11km-long Lim Fjord, which is not actually a real fjord, I was sternly informed, but a channel or “ria”, due to the way it was formed by a river rather than a glacier. It’s a protected nature area, teeming with Mediterranean flora and fauna, and is perfect for Nordic walking or simply sight-seeing by boat.

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