The rolling countryside around rustic Brtonigla, in the far north-east of Istria near the border with Slovenia, is not only picturesque but hides a number of top-quality restaurants. Some also provide rural stays, most notably the San Rocco, where you can relax and let the Fernetich family see to your every need, from spa treatments to high-end Istrian specialities involving truffles and game. Lunchtime dining makes it that little bit more affordable.
Always a fascinating afternoon’s stroll, Grožnjan at first seems like any hilltop hamlet typical of the Istrian hinterland. Look a bit closer, though, and you soon find any number of studios, galleries and boutiques, evidence of the conversion from dying rural retreat to thriving cultural community, from the 1970s onwards. Taken over by artists, Grožnjan attracted many across from nearby Italy, staging regular exhibitions and a renowned summer jazz festival.
Watching sunset from atop Motovun is one of the great experiences Istrian can provide. Looking out from the Venetian fortifications of this lofty, bustling community in the middle of Istria, you soon appreciate the value of the truffle-rich forests that surround it, boosting the local economy in restaurants and boutiques. Unlike many of its fellow villages across inland Istria, pretty but moribund, Motovun feels lively, especially during its famed summer film festival, a cross between Glastonbury and Sundance.
Motorists cross Gorski kotar, the mountainous, forested region that links the peninsula of Istria with mainland Croatia, without stopping to explore what is often described as Croatia’s Switzerland. Inhabited by bears, wolves and chamois, and only 20 people per square kilometre, Gorski kotar contains the tranquil lake of Omladinsko jezero and the lesser-known national park of Risnjak, accessed by footpaths fringed by Alpine flora.
A handy detour before you reach Zagreb coming from the west, Samobor provides a pretty introduction to Continental Croatia, all cobbled streets, traditional coffeehouses and quaint pastry shops. There you’ll find the signature samoborska kremšnita, a gooey creamcake that draws scores of daytrippers here from the capital on Sundays. Samobor otherwise exudes the innocent charm of yesteryear, when writers lingered here to compare their works over a lazy afternoon.
Arrive in Zagreb on any given night of the week and you’re bound to find something out of the ordinary, a wild live act in a small music venue, an exhibition opening or some kind of outdoor festival, even in winter. These days it’s also a gastronomic hub, so you’ll dine well, in cosmopolitan surroundings. It’s practically a 24-hour city, with night trams and plenty of choice where clubbing is concerned.
Heading west past the endless cornfields of Slavonia, you’ll see the twin spires of Đakovo’s famous cathedral a good while before arriving in this pretty town itself. Allow yourself time to visit Ivandvor, on the north-western outskirts, the stables where the renowned white Lipizzaner horses are bred and trained, before many go off to the equally famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
Set where the Danube and Drava rivers meet near the Serbian border, Kopački rit is an area of extensive wetlands, home to some 250 species of birds. Several types of stork, gull and egret congregate here, set on migration routes to warmer climes – autumn is always the best time to visit. Guided tours by boat, or even by horse, are the best way to see the vast range of wildlife close at hand. Also nearby is Osijek, the best place to base yourself.
Being the fourth-largest city in Croatia, Osijek always has plenty to offer. Historic sights reflect its Ottoman and Habsburg past, restaurants its Slavonian heritage – here cuisine has a Hungarian touch, with spicy sausage and fiery fish soup the key products. Much takes place in and around the Tvrđa, an 18th-century citadel where today you’ll find the Museum of Slavonia and numerous bars and restaurants.