Croatia: Fine food, a stunning sealine and beautiful landscape find favour with Mark Casci, who gets his first taste of the country on the back of a horse.
A MIXTURE of excitement and fear fills my body as our guide Marija shouts out, “OK guys, let’s trot!”
I am on horseback in the beautiful countryside of Croatia, it’s incredibly hot and before I know it my steed gathers pace and begins to trot up the hill.
I have been on a horse only once before in my life, a sedate walk under heavy supervision on a beach in Ireland. This, however, is the real deal. I feel like I am charging down the final stretch at the Grand National.
For years now, Croatia, with its stunning countryside, rich and varied history and utterly superb food and wine, has been the Mediterranean destination of choice for the discerning traveller.
Referred to by the tourist trade as the New Tuscany, the region is trying to market itself as the ideal choice for a family holiday.
The words “family holiday” in my mind usually equate to somewhere which is fantastic for children but less appealing for adults. However, my visit to the Dolina Konja horse riding centre in the Croatian province of Istria, shows that you’re never too old to have fun or to try something new.
Run by the region’s former Endurance Champion, Marija Berkovi, it is an exact case in point. Whether you are a complete beginner like myself or a seasoned horseman or woman, the centre holds a perfect day of fun. Youngsters as young as two or three can enjoy riding donkeys and Marija and her staff are fantastic at giving you the confidence and knowledge you need to enjoy yourself. Situated near the town of Buzet, a quaint Mediterranean place with narrow streets and friendly locals, it is real treat to spend time at.
The horse ride takes place on our first day in Croatia, having flown in the night before from Heathrow.
Our hotel is the Valamar Club Tamaris, based near the beach at the city of Porec. While no-one in their right mind would fly across Europe just to spend time at a hotel, one would be more than capable of doing just this given the breadth of activities on offer. A large pool, play areas and sports facilities make the resort-like hotel a perfect place to set up camp in Istria.
After our horse-riding we travel back to Buzet for a lunch in a traditional Istrian konoba. The food is what we in Britain would class as comfort food.
You’re looking at a sumptuous stew with top-quality bread, preceded by a fantastic pasta topped with glorious truffles. I am going to eulogise a great deal about the food I enjoyed in Croatia and rest assured this but the first of many fine meals.
Afterwards we go back to our hotel before heading to our base for the evening, the konoba Astarea at Brtonigla. I can say hands down the fish dish prepared at this restaurant is the best I have ever eaten. Period.
The next morning we head to the centre of Porec, enjoy coffee on the marina before taking to a speedboat for a quick blast around the harbour.
It is here you really get to take in the splendour of the Croatian coastline. As we move closer to the seafront one can regard the gun turrets which have been used in so many wars over the years.
A beautiful country it is without question, but one that has seen much bloodshed and tragedy in its history, a series of chapters only put to bed in very recent history.
Back ashore we head off to the city of Pula further down the coastline, stopping off en-route to visit the Futana Dino Park. Set up as a dinosaur-themed adventure park it is bound to provide youngsters with much entertainment as they pass lifesize models of various dinosaurs, some of which hide in the jungle and only make themselves seen when you approach.
Next is lunch at the Restaurant Lim Fjord before we head off to meet Igor Drandic, who for the last few years been living without money on a patch of land he inherited near the town of Bale. His power comes exclusively from solar panels, his food from his garden, water from harvested rainwater and he has recently opened up his land to like-minded people who share his ecological and spiritual outlook. So popular has Igor’s lifestyle proved that he has welcomed visitors from the world over.
Our lodgings for the night, however, are the very new and very plush Park Plaza Histria. Dinner is at the wonderful and unforgettable Batelina, a family-run fish restaurant that again showcases what under-rated and highly-skilled cuisine is on offer in Croatia.
Next morning takes us round the imposing coliseum in Pula city centre. Remarkably well-preserved it gives a much fuller feeling of what Roman era was like than its more famous, crumbling namesake in Rome.
Today it is used for rock concerts but still provides a fascinating insight into the Mediterranean history and afterwards we head to the town of Fazana where we board a boat and head to the Brijuni Island National Park. Again its history dates back to the Roman-era but it is more commonly known in modern times as the holiday getaway venue of choice for former Yugoslavian president Josip Tito. The island’s main building houses a museum to this period, complete with pictures of him meeting world leaders from his time in power, a veritable who’s who of world history over the last half a century.
In total more than 100 foreign heads of state visited Tito on his islands, along with film stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Today it also continues to house the zoo of animals that were given to Tito as gifts by foreign dignitaries.
It is sad to leave as we head back on the boat and return to the mainland where we dine at another traditional konoba and watch a display of traditional Istrian dancing by local children. Dinner for the last night is held at the Park Plaza Hotel in one of its two restaurants.
Justifiably proud of their culinary prowess, the hotel is a wonderful place to end our short but memorable trip to the country.
Valamar Club Tamaris, Lanterna, Pore: A Family Fun Package, which includes free entry to Pore Aquarium and Dinopark, extensive buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner and full programme of activities costs from £100 per room per night. www.valamar.com
Park Plaza Histria, Pula: Rooms for two people on a half-board basis start from £200 per room per night. www.parkplaza.com/croatia
Flights: Ryanair fly to Pula from London Stanstead from £59.98 return; Jet2 fly weekly to Pula from Manchester (on a Saturday), from £87.98 return.
For more information on what to see and do in Croatia go to www.croatia.hr