Contact A new breed of Croatian villa retreats 26-04-2008

from: Times online

 Forget the concrete package hotels. A new generation of luxury villas is putting Croatia on the map, writes John Bungey


John Bungey

MY WIFE and I have learnt to love Croatia - for its shimmering green-blue waters, its dramatic coastline, its unhurried pace of life. And our teenage girls love other things, too - the availability of fake Gucci handbags and cheap havianas (the flip-flops, not the cigars) and an ice-cream called Slag.

In a rare example of familial harmony, the country has become the summer destination of choice for the past three years. The only problem has been accommodation. Once we rented a flat on the sun-burnt island of Ciovo that was advertised as 100m from the sea - yes, but all of them were steeply uphill and it took my knees two months to recover.

The kids took to venturing out just once a day. There was the sulky landlady on Hvar who spoilt her goodbyes by suddenly accusing us of taking the remote control from her ancient TV. Then there was the family hotel in Split that I cancelled after someone claimed on TripAdvisor that there was a strip club in the basement.

This is not all my incompetence. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatia was left with a lot of lumpy concrete package hotels that don't hold much allure in post-Communist times, and only slowly have the sort of villas you would expect in France or Italy begun to appear. Which is why there were considerable Brownie points from the children when this year they found themselves, to their surprise, in a wonderfully appointed house complete with pool, plasma TV and three bathrooms - plus the sort of sleek furniture and comfortable mattresses you would like in your own home (surely the real test).

The villa, newly built in traditional style, is among about 80 being established by Istrian Experience, a luxury villa company. It aims to provide a hotel level of service in a house, so staff will change your sheets daily, sort out excursions, even deliver your food should you wish. If you want to live like an Abramovich, in one of their grandest properties, the company will sort out a butler. Oh, and you can also take a spin in the company's 50-knot speedboat.

We, though, were in search of more bucolic pleasures. The area was new to us. We have headed to Dalmatia before (Dubrovnik, Split, etc) but the peninsula of Istria is emptier, greener and, in its way, just as inviting. From our house on the edge of the village of Mofardini, a patchwork of tiny fields and wildflower meadows rolled down to a silver sliver of the Adriatic, 12 miles away. Take away the wheelie bins and dusty Fiat Unos, and the village seemed lost in time. Little traffic passed on the road, save one day a meandering pig. The children, hardened suburbanites, were convinced that it was heading either for the pool or their pizza. To my son's disappointment, it did neither, mooching off into a potato patch.

To the north, the rolling countryside, dotted with olive trees and small vineyards, resembled northern Italy. But where every last cowshed in Tuscany has been snapped up by enterprising property developers, here there is space. About 220,000 people live in a peninsula as long as Greater London is wide.

The area is stuffed with history - probably too much. Locals tell of grandparents who lived under four flags without moving village - the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy, Yugoslavia and now Croatia. The sense of community is evident in a cultural event unrepeatable in Britain. Imagine the chaos if we opened our breweries for a day and let in all-comers for a free tipple. But the winemakers of Istria do much the same on their annual Vineyard Day. Accompanied by a village band and folk songs, we visited the Coronica, Kozlovic and Kabola vineyards. Croatian wine-making, organic and small-scale, has come a long way, and the whites are particularly good. However, by the tenth tasting (nobody seems to spit anything out here), my ability to distinguish between oak-aged malvasia and the amphora-stored version was dwindling. It all seemed marvellous.

The evening ended in a blur of pasta topped with truffles (another big speciality) and back to snooze in front of MTV Austria, which was the children doing their version of cultural exploration.

With so much high-quality food production, Croatians are keen to promote their homeland as “a destination for all the senses”. In other words, don't come just for the seaside, sample the olive oil. We sniffed, slurped and swilled some award-winning oils refined by Klaudio Ipsa. Like other growers, he holds regular tastings at his farm on a remote sun-dappled hillside.

But the children wanted seaside, so it was off to Porec (that's Porridge if you're under 12) for snorkelling with shoals of tiny black fish. In the town we climbed the bell tower of the extraordinary 6th-century Euphrasian basilica and looked down on the pink-brown roofs and pellucid sea. At Pula we visited the Roman amphitheatre, the sixth largest still standing. For long nobody understood why, with Romans being short, the steps to the seating were so big. The answer, according to the guide, was that this was an early form of crowd control - a way of slowing down 23,000 people rushing to see wild beasts and luckless Christians come to grief.

Was the holiday a success? Undoubtedly. Given a giddy mix of weather - hot sun interspersed with intense showers (very untypical of May, we were assured) having good accommodation made all the difference. And for a reluctant foreign driver - keen on neither left-hand drive nor hire cars - the empty roads of Istria are almost relaxing. We got lost only once, on the day of our arrival, when we overshot Mofardini by four villages. Up a farm track under a moonless sky, we managed to find a house with an English speaker. In a display of outstanding helpfulness, this woman not only made phone calls for us, but also guided us back in her own car to our destination.

To thank her, four days later we returned with a bottle of finest malvasia wine. She wasn't there, but an ancient non-English-speaking grandmother in traditional black garb opened the door. She stood baffled as we pressed the bottle on her and drove off. We'll never know whether the rightful recipient received it, or whether, distrustingly, the elderly woman poured the contents into the pig feed. Or perhaps she opened it herself, sat down on the stoop and quietly got sozzled watching the sun go down. In that lush, verdant country there are worse ways to spend an evening.

Need to know

Getting there John Bungey and family travelled to Istria with Hidden Croatia (0800 0217750, http://www.hiddencroatia.com/). A three-bedroom, self-catering villa for a week in August starts at £3,588, including return flights from Gatwick to Pula for six people.

Getting around The villas are about one hour's drive from Pula airport. Car Del Mar (0905 8480102 - 25p per min, http://www.cardelmar.com/) offers one week's car hire in August from £163.

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