Thursday 19 July 2018

A vegan and vegetarian guide to Istria

I've been planning to write this practical guide for some time now. The tourist season is now on so this could be useful for vegetarians and vegans travelling to Istria.

I've been vegan for the past 10 years and was a vegetarian for over 20 years before that. I've lived and travelled in many different countries so my experience living here for the past five years has been that it's not easy being a veggie! Istrian cuisine is dominated by animal products and for most people a meal is not a meal if it doesn't include meat. Also, many people are mostly clueless when it comes to eating plant-based and don't really understand how someone could live on vegetables and plants alone.

I don't know any vegans here and the few people I know who call themselves vegetarian eat fish. Actually many people think fish is vegetarian (from the Catholic tradition of substituting meat with fish on Fridays) so be prepared to explain what you don't and do eat. Indian vegetarians will also have to explain they don't eat anything prepared with eggs. 

Though plant-based cuisine is still a new concept here, people are pretty open and will try their best to accommodate you. Sometimes waiters are a bit clueless when asked for suggestions so sometimes it's better to ask them to check with the chef. At restaurants located in tourist spots this should be easier because they'll have more experience catering to plant-based diners.


There are a few plant-based dishes that you can inevitably find on the menu of almost every restaurant in Istria. Look out for the following:

Pasta dishes like fuži, njoki, pljukanci (note that fresh pasta is almost always made with eggs)
Risotto (rižoto) with mushrooms (gljive) or asparagus (šparoge) (when in season)
Roasted vegetables (povrće na žaru)
Swiss chard (blitva) served plain or prepared in a puree with potatoes
Pizza (vegans can request no cheese - bez sira)


If you're staying in a hotel that's part of one of the large chains like Valamar or Maistra you're in luck because they cater to 'alternative diets' including plant-based and gluten-free, and will have several options on offer as well as staples like dairy-free milk. Smaller hotels will also be happy to cater to you if you let them know your requirements in advance.


This list is very short!

Artha is a vegetarian restaurant in Poreč run by Klaudija, who's super friendly and speaks English, Italian, German, and of course Croatian. The menu here is about 95% vegan according to Klaudija, and there are many gluten-free options too. I was surprised to see vegan pancakes on the menu, and there are plant-based milk options for your coffee. They have many good reviews on Tripadvisor, take a look...

Shanti Raw Bite in Pula serves 100% raw food so this is the only vegan place in town and in the whole of Istria. The menu changes every day and offers lots of raw and delicious goodies like gazpacho, pizza, lasagna, sushi, burgers, spring rolls, and quesadillas. Of course there are desserts too, like fruit tarts, chocolate and coconut cake and sorbets. UPDATE: SHANTI SHUT ITS DOORS IN 2019!


These restaurants are not vegetarian but are notable for their vegan and vegetarian offerings:

Velo Kafe in Labin stands out for its menu with dishes clearly marked as vegan and/or gluten-free.

La Grisa is a small hotel in charming Bale with a pleasant courtyard restaurant. The food served here is exceptional and the chef is happy to suggest off-the-menu vegan and vegetarian options. I've had very good experiences here.

Fresh Sandwich and Salad Bar in Pula serves up soups, salads and sandwiches, including falafel!

Hotel Amfiteatar in Pula has a restaurant that's a good option if you're looking for something more upscale. Celebrity chef Deniz Zembo has the run of the kitchen here and has created what's Croatia's most innovative vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. These tasting menus are quite the culinary experience and can be paired with local wines and olive oils (see my pics below!). Call in advance to reserve and specify which menu you're interested in.


Finding cafes serving plant-based milks is a challenge. The only one I know of at the moment is Barbiere in Pazin where you can get lattes and capuccinos with soya or almond milk.


Most supermarkets carry plant-based milk, including Lidl. But finding other ingredients like tofu or non-dairy yogurt in the usual supermarket chains is a challenge. That said, Lidl now stocks tofu, you can find hummus at Plodine and I've seen vegan ice cream at Konzum. 

Super Konzum has more options, but Spar is a vegan 'junk food' paradise where you can find stuff like vegan mayo, cheese, salami, and ice cream.

bio&bio is a chain of health food stores that stock a great selection of veg foods too. Their only shop in Istria is in Pula.

Zelena is a great little family-run vegan shop in Pula. Try their vegan camembert! UPDATE: ZELENA HAS CLOSED! THIS IS SAD NEWS.

You can also find some vegan and vegetarian products in the health food sections of drugstore chains like Bipa, DM and Mueller.

If you know of any other cafes, restaurants and shops that should be on this list, please share the details in the comments below and I'll update this guide!

Tuesday 8 May 2018

A peek inside Gračišće's Salamon Palace

I have already written about the Salamon Palace, a building that intrigues many visitors to Gračišće. It was built in 1570 (almost 450 years ago!) in Venetian Gothic style. Sadly, this beautiful palazzo has been abandoned for decades and is slowly rotting away.

During the recent wine fair (held every Easter Monday), one of the ground-floor rooms of the palace was used as a wine cellar. The next day I noticed the doors were left open. I couldn't resist a peek inside, so I grabbed my camera and snuck in.

Inside I found a treasure trove: stone steps, intricate railings, walls painted in beautiful patterns, French doors, Gothic windows, stone sinks, an old-fashioned fireplace, wooden floorboards, Venetian shutters, painted ceilings, a view of the village's main church... oh, and old-fashioned toilets!

This is such an achingly beautiful building and it pains me to see it deteriorate by the day. It would be wonderful if it could be restored with all its period details preserved and transformed into a heritage hotel or a museum. Wishful thinking?

See it for yourself... Take a walk through the Salamon Palace:

Friday 6 April 2018

100 years ago today: Kaiser Karl I's visit to Gračišće

A few months ago I was looking for old photos of Gračišće online when I stumbled on the photo archives of the Austrian National Library and found a treasure trove!

I found 10 photos taken here exactly 100 years ago when Kaiser Karl I, the last Austrian emperor, was on an official visit of Istria. He had a whole entourage with him including his own photographer, Heinrich Schuhmann, who documented his travels.

Kaiser Karl I (or Charles) was the grandnephew of Emperor Franz Josef, who he succeeded at his death in November 1916. He was only 29 when he became the head of the Austrian monarchy and he would be their last reigning monarch. His uncle Franz Ferdinand had been next in line to the throne but was assassinated in 1914 in Sarajevo, an event that sparked the First World War.

The photos I'm sharing here were taken on April 6, 1918. It was only a few months before the end of World War I – which would also be the end of the Austrian Empire which had ruled Istria for over 100 years by then. By the end of the year Istria would become part of Italy.

As for the young Kaiser's fate, he would die just a few years later in 1922 of pneumonia while in exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004 and is called Blessed Karl of Austria by the Roman Catholic Church.

These photos are truly fascinating. We see crowds of villagers welcoming the monarch: mostly women and children and only a few older men because most men were serving in the war. We also see many familiar landmarks like St. Mary's Church, Salamon Palace, the main gate, and St. Vitus Church.

My father's late uncle was a young boy at the time and used to talk about this important event. He said that some of the women were asking the Kaiser about the whereabouts of their sons who were away at war.

Take a step back in time exactly 100 years ago...

Saturday 31 March 2018

Gračišće landmarks: St. Anthony's Chapel

Continuing with my series on the village's landmarks, today I'm taking you on a virtual visit of St. Anthony's Chapel.

This must be one of Gračišće's oldest religious buildings because it was built in 1381, much before the Church of St. Mary on the Square and just two years before St Euphemia's church.

What makes this building stand out is its Gothic windows and arched passageway. If you're approaching it from the square you'll see the bishop's coat of arms on the facade. Staring down at you from one of the corners of the passageway is a gargoyle-like figure but he's easy to miss.

A door opens to the chapel. This is usually locked but you can have a peek through the windows. 

The chapel is quite small and sparse but it's dominated by its baroque altar and above this, a painting of St Anthony of Padua. The altar is set against the eastern wall which is a characteristic of churches built in the Middle Ages. Look up and you'll see a vaulted ceiling, also typical of Gothic architecture.

Compared to other historical buildings in the village, churches and religious buildings tend to be taken good care of and St Anthony's Chapel is probably one of the best preserved.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Istria's gastronomic festivals

Happy 1st day of spring!

It doesn't feel like spring yet, but it's definitely on its way. Some trees already have new buds, fruit trees are flowering, and soon we'll have the season's first wild asparagus growing in the woods.

With spring (and asparagus!) come thoughts of food and Istria's many food festivals. I've compiled a list of some of the most notable that happen throughout the year and celebrate a certain food or gastronomic speciality Istria is known for.

This list is only my subjective selection and is not exhaustive: there are many many events like this all year long. The best place to find information on events happening in Istria is on the Istria Tourist Office website.

Festival of Wild Plants
Where: Kršan
When: 28 and 29 April 2018

This festival celebrates all the edible plants that can be found growing in the wild in Istria's forests and countryside at this time of year. Many of these plants were eaten in times past but may no longer be part of local cuisine. Visitors can sample a variety of dishes specially prepared using these wild plants or buy seasonal foods and products from local vendors.

Where: Kaštel (near Buje)
When: 6 to 8 April 2018

Wild asparagus is one of Istria's highly prized seasonal specialities that finds itself on the menu of every restaurant come spring. The plant's long thin shoots grow abundantly in dense forests and is much appreciated for its sharp, slightly bitter taste – an indication of its nutritional properties. The name of the asparagus festival, Šparogada, takes its name from the Croatian word for this springtime vegetable: šparoge. Taking place over three days, visitors can sample a variety of dishes prepared with the wild plant and even go on an asparagus hunt – the person who finds the longest asparagus shoot wins a prize!

Where: Porec
When: 11 to 13 May 2018

This annual international wine exhibition will celebrate its 25th year in 2018. Wine connoisseurs flock here to sample the many high-quality wines produced in the Istrian region and beyond. The three-day event includes wine tastings, presentations, and a competition awarding prizes to the region's best wines.

Festival of Istrian Maneštra
Where: Gračišće
When: 16 June 2018

Taking place right here in the village, this annual festival celebrates maneštra, a typical Istrian soup-like dish that's very similar to Italian minestrone. Local chefs cook up different varieties of this hearty soup of vegetables, grains and pulses on wood-fired stoves set up on the village square which visitors can then sample and vote for their favourite. In addition to the public's favourite maneštra, a jury awards prizes to those they judge to be the best.

Festival of Istrian Pasta
Where: Zminj
When: 30 June to 1 July 2018

Fresh homemade pasta is a staple of Istrian cuisine. During this festival, celebrity chefs prepare innovative pasta dishes at live cooking shows, which can then be sampled and paired with a local wine. Cooking demonstrations offer the chance to learn how to make the different types of fresh pasta traditionally prepared here that take the form of different shapes, like fuži, njoki and pljukanciThere are plenty of other local specialities for sale here, including olive oil, gourmet cheeses, honey and other locally made products.

Truffle Days in Istria
Where: Buzet, Livade and Motovun
When: Every weekend from September to November

Autumn is the height of the truffle season and during this time there's a string of fairs and festivals celebrating this highly-prized tuber. Starting in September and continuing until the beginning of November, these truffle-focused events are centred around the towns of Motovun, Livade and Buzet. There are plenty of opportunities to sample both black and white truffles prepared with different dishes, and witness cooking demonstrations. There are even demonstrations of truffle-hunting: only specially trained dogs can sniff out and dig up this expensive gourmet food.

During the annual Subotina Festival (8 September 2018) on Trg Fontana in the centre of Buzet's old town, a giant omelette is prepared in a huge pan with over 2000 eggs (this year 2018 eggs will be used) and 10 kg of truffles.

On 20 October 2018, Motovun's Andrea Antico Square will be the setting TeTa: Teran and Truffle Festival, a one-day exhibition and tasting event featuring local Teran wine and truffles.

Other truffle events happen in Livade: Tuberfest on October 20th and 21st, and Dani Zigante Tartufa from 15 to 18 November 2018, while another event in Buzet is the annual Truffle Weekend on the 3rd and 4th of November 2108.

Chestnut Fair
Where: Oprtalj
When: 14 to 17 October 2018

October is when chestnut trees provide their autumn fruit and naturally there's also a festival dedicated to the humble chestnut. At the Chestnut Fair in Oprtalj there are all kinds of specialities to be sampled: not only roasted chestnuts but also breads, cakes, sweets and desserts prepared with chestnuts, and other delicacies like chestnut honey. These can all be downed with the new wine of the season provided by local producers.

Istrian Grappa Fair
Where: Hum
When: 28 October 2018

No visit to Istria is complete without a taste of its homemade rakija (grappa or brandy). The Istrian Grappa Festival will be in its 18th year in 2018, held in the tiny charming town of Hum, known as the smallest town in the world. Here a huge variety of homemade brandies can be sampled and bought, prepared with different types of herbs, nuts, fruits, honey and plants like mistletoe.

Days of New Olive Oil
Where: Vodnjan
When: 16 to 18 November 2018

The city of Vodnjan in southern Istria is one of the centres of olive oil production in the region, and home to several award-winning producers. At this annual festival, visitors can taste the new olive oil of the season and meet local producers while chefs whip up dishes paired with newly-pressed oil prepared with different local olive varieties.

Dobar tek!

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