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Trip Report Cycling and wine-tasting through Italy, Slovenia and Croatia

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In late September/early October, my husband and I took our honeymoon: a week-long cycling trip from Venice to Porec, followed by a (non-cycling) week of wine tasting and relaxing in Istria and Slovenia. This forum was super helpful in planning the second half of the trip, so I thought I’d share!

Please note: This entire trip report is somewhat of a (boozy) comedy of errors, but in a nice way, so I hope it will be entertaining.

Almost anyone can do this cycling trip. I swear. We are neither in super peak condition nor serious cyclists. While we did one 25-mile trial run in NYC parks before booking the trip, the most cycling we usually do is to our favorite hard-to-reach bar and then back. However, we were able to do the daily 20-50mi distances with no trouble. We were tired, but the good kind of tired, where you earn your dinner and then sleep well. Additionally, the directions were so excellent and easy to follow that it was almost impossible to get lost once you got the hang of it.

I’ll post the itinerary below, and then write out details in subsequent posts. As the first week was a pre-organized bike trip, the only part we planned was the second week.

Itinerary
Week 1: Bike Trip from Venice to Porec
Day 0: after work flight from JFK to Venice
Day 1: Find hotel, nap, trip briefing, dinner
Day 2: Ferry/bike from Mestre to Jesolo
Day 3: Bike from Jesolo to Portogruaro
Day 4: Bike from Portogruaro to Aquilea
Day 5: Bike from Aquilea to Trieste
Day 6: Ferry/bike from Trieste to Piran (Slovenia)
Day 7: Bike from Piran to Porec (Croatia)

Week 2: Istria with some surreptitious Slovenia
Day 8: Pick up rental car in Trieste and drive from Porec to Rovinj
Day 9: Hanging out in Rovinj
Day 10: Exploring around Rovinj
Day 11: Pula
Day 12: Brijuni Islands and wine tasting near Motovun
Day 13: Exploring the hill towns around Motovun
Day 14: Ljubljana
Day 15: Fly home out of Trieste

Knowing what I know now, I would have changed the last few days to the following for an utterly perfect trip:
Day 11: Get up early, drive down to Pula to see amphitheater, stop at Vodjnan on the way back, head to Motovun in evening
Day 12: Hill towns around Motovun
Day 13: Drive up to Lake Bled; head to Ljubljana for the night
Day 14: Explore Ljubljana
Day 15: Fly home out of Trieste

Bike Trip Background (for people new to how it works, such as our friends, who all thought we were crazy)

The Concept: We went through a tour company that rents bikes, arranges your hotels, gives you extensive printed directions, and transports your luggage from one hotel to the next. My husband’s bike had a box on the front (instead of a basket) with a plastic sleeve in which you put the directions. The directions are very detailed, so there are a few pages per day. For additional help, there are stickers on signposts all throughout the trip, telling you where to turn or when to keep going straight. We spent 95% of the time on tiny country roads with almost no cars.

Individual Tours: We think the individual tour is the best of all worlds. This means that a group of people start every Saturday, follow the same daily route, and stay at the same hotels every night. However, there’s no leader. Each couple goes at their own pace, and stops where and when they want to. You’re on your own, but it’s reassuring to see the same people at breakfast every morning and pass each other throughout the day. As the days went by, the other (all retired and German) couples started warming up to us oddball American honeymooners.

The Company: We booked through Eurobike.at (if typing into Google, make sure you type that exactly or it won't show up), an Austrian company I saw mentioned on this forum in 2004, and for whatever reason became obsessed with. A couple of weeks before the trip, we were informed that we’d been outsourced to their Italian partner, Funactive.info. This initially fussed my husband, who became paranoid that maybe this weird company I’d found was too inexpensive to be true; however, I think it turned out for the best, as I preferred our rental bikes to the ones I saw when we passed some non-outsourced Eurobike people.

Eurobike and FunActive are at least half as expensive as the American or British operators I checked out before booking, but the service, the equipment, and all of our hotels were lovely, so I recommend these companies highly. Also, the whole experience of going with a non-US or UK company made everything that much more charming, as I hope will come through in the day-by-day details.

The Trip: We chose the Venice to Porec route for two reasons: 1) it was one of the flattest options, and since we were unsure of our fitness level, this seemed like a good idea; 2) the picture of castle Miramare on the website. So, it wasn’t the most informed decision, but I don’t think we could have picked a better trip. There was a wonderful variety in scenery during the week, and a great mix of urban, beach and rural.


Saturday: Settling In

Arrival: We arrived at Marco Polo airport, and made our way via public bus to Hotel Ai Pini, in Mestre. It was a perfectly nice hotel, but I wouldn’t recommend staying so deep in Mestre if you’re trying to see Venice. (We’ve been to Venice before, so we were okay not seeing it this trip.)

On Trip Briefings and Becoming Oddities: After an unmemorable lunch in the hotel restaurant and a nap, it was time to meet in the hotel lobby for a trip briefing and to test our bicycles in the hotel parking lot. We asked the staff that all-important question: what to do for bathrooms along the way? The answer?: “You just take a café.” She said it so charmingly and matter-of-factly that it became our catchphrase for the trip. Clearly, we had not yet unwound enough if we found the idea of casually stopping to relax with an espresso so novel.

At the briefing, we realized we were the only non-Germans (apart from a Belgian couple) on the trip. There was an English-language briefing for us and the Belgians, and another briefing in German for the other five couples. Not to mention that, at 31, we were at least 25 years younger than anyone else. Both the staff and the other couples asked us why on earth we had come all this way to do this random trip with this random Austrian company (curiously, not rudely). General confusion as to our presence became kind of a theme for the trip.

An Amazing Dinner: Since we didn’t know anything about Mestre and were too tired to go into Venice, the concierge recommended a restaurant called La Pergola that he said would be ~80euros for the two of us (he was dead on). We never would have heard of it on our own, but it kicked the entire trip off beautifully. It was in a house with half-timbered ceilings on a quiet residential street a short bus ride from the hotel, and had a nice date-ish atmosphere. Everything was incredible, but the desserts were a particular standout.

Even better, we discovered a new kind of wine! We initially asked for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, but they were out of it. The waiter suggested something called ‘Refosco’ instead. When we asked what that was like, he said, “Red. Like cabernet but… more.” That sounded exactly like what we like, so we got it and it was delicious. It’s a grape they only seem to grow in the Friuli-Giulia region.

Info:
Hotel: Hotel Ai Pini (http://www.hotelaipini.it)
Restaurant: La Pergola (Via Fiume, 42, 30171)
Lessons Learned:
1) Refosco is delicious and hard to find in the US. Drink a lot of it.
2) Cycling in Italy is an extremely Teutonic idea of a honeymoon.


Sunday: A Comedy of Errors from Mestre to Lido to Jesolo (30km of biking)

And So the Adventure Begins!: It was a rough start. We overslept because of jetlag, and then were so excited about the bounteous breakfast buffet that we almost missed the daily 9am ‘put your luggage in the lobby’ deadline. Needless to say, everyone else was long gone by the time we finally tootled off.

Lost In Mestre: Despite never having been in Mestre before, my husband thought he knew better than the directions and took us down some other street that he thought would be more direct. It turned out to be dangerously traffic-filled. We kept taking wrong turns and started to worry the whole trip would be a frustrating disaster.

Finally, we saw signs for the Via Libertá bridge to Venice, showing that we were on the right path. There was a terrifying bit where the directions said to get on the autostrade for 300 meters and then said in parentheses, “Yes, really, but we promise it will be okay”. It was a leap of faith, and we were honked at by drivers who, quite rightly, took us for lunatics. But it was true! After only a minute or two, there was an abrupt turnoff to the bridge’s bike path. The sun came out and Venice was glistening in front of us. All of a sudden, we were on vacation.

A Stop in Lido: Our ferry tickets were included in the tour price and were given to us at the briefing. We took the car ferry from Tronchetto to Lido, which took us by San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs, etc. There were a lot of bikers from other companies on our ferry, and it was by watching them that we learned about putting the directions in the box sleeve. Brilliant! All the other bikers rushed to make the connecting ferry to Punta Sabbioni, but we decided there was no hurry. So we biked around the island for an hour or so looking at the historic hotels and beaches, as well as the mansions. It was time well spent, as the architecture on Lido is beautiful back in the quiet streets.

Punta Sabbioni to Jesolo: We got lost again as soon as we got off the ferry. Once we got back on track, we were hungry, but it was half an hour until we saw a turnoff that looked like it led to a village, hopefully with commerce. I have no idea where we were, but there was an outdoor café serving panini, prosecco and gelato—the three major food groups. We sat there for a long while, just watching the locals. We were finally relaxed.

The rest of the day’s ride, through fields and along canals, was swampy, but attractive and easy to follow. We learned the personality of the directions (obviously translated from German into English), and also noticed how frequent the stickers were. I liked how much the directions used both visual landmark cues and standard kilometer markings. We would (almost) never get lost again.

Jesolo: This is a massive beach resort area frequented mainly by Germans. The beaches were okay, even though it wasn’t quite warm enough for a swim. I’m sure it would be nightmarishly crowded in July or August, but it was peaceful and mostly empty in late September. We kept asking people if they spoke English, getting the answer ‘ja, naturlich’, and then finding ourselves in an all-German conversation. Throughout the trip, our German skills came in much more handy than our English.

We were the last ones to arrive (we could tell by counting the yellow bikes parked outside the hotel) and checked into the tiniest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. But it was modern, sparkling, right on the beach, and had an ocean-facing private balcony. It was great. After a shower, we explored, found a shack selling essential liquids (ie. beer for later that evening and water for the next day’s biking). During dinner at a non-descript but apparently popular pizza place on the main drag we learned the hard way that the swampland between Venice and Trieste is horribly mosquito-infested.

After dinner, we sat on our balcony, drinking beer, reading the next day’s directions and getting excited. We stupidly dropped the directions over the balcony and watched them float onto the one below ours. No one was in that room, so we had to ask the manager to open the door for us. Awkward.

I’m glad we had one night in a beachy town on our honeymoon, and we were happy while we were there, but given the delights to come, touristy, generic Jesolo ended up being our least favorite stop on the trip.

Info:
Hotel: Hotel Bali (http://www.balihotel.it)
Tiny rooms, but it’s bright and modern with a great central location and good facilities.
Restaurants: No idea, but in Jesolo, I think they’re all the same.
Lessons Learned:
1) You do NOT know better than the directions. No, not even you, smartypants. If you follow them, you will stay on safe, tiny, beautiful roads. If you ever stray (ex. in order to see more of a town, or make a pit stop, or find lunch, etc.), make sure you go back to a specific spot in the directions before continuing.
2) Keep your eyes peeled for reassuring stickers. They are always exactly where they should be, and once you get used to looking for them, you can’t miss them. If you haven’t seen one in 15 minutes, you’re probably off the route.
3) Always wear pants and closed-toed shoes to dinner.

More soon!

  • Report Abuse

    I am loving this report!

    In the last year I started bicycling and joined a local bicycle club. I'm what they call a "C" level rider (I'll never be an A or B)I can ride for 30 miles easily but I mainly stick to the local pathway network (on Hilton Head Island). My bicycle club has scheduled a Europe bicycling trip next year and I have been hesitant to take the plunge and book it. Reading about your experience bicycling in Europe has started me thinking, maybe I could actually do it! :-)

  • Report Abuse

    Thank you so much for posting this. Lido di Jesolo has never been in my sights - am I wrong to disregard it as it sounds as if parts of it are very nice? Am i mixed up is there both a Lido and a Jesolo?

  • Report Abuse

    Very Interesting. I looked into Eurobike.at a few years back and thought they were expensive, though to be fair anything offered by American companies in Europe tends to be horrible expensive as you say, I had no problem with Brit costs from people like Headwater. What did you pay?

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    Next installment!

    To answer some questions from the first part:
    1) The Lido that is well-known is the island across the way from the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It’s the kind of thing you take as a quick afternoon day trip if you are already in Venice; spend a couple of hours walking around and looking at all the old historical hotels and houses. They even have a bike share program by the ferry station, so you could rent bikes and tootle around for an hour. Very pleasant. But there’s a Lido di Jesolo about 30km away on the mainland that is a nice enough ‘regular people’ (aka German tourists) beach resort; it’s too far away to visit if your main destination is Venice, so I don't know if I'd necessarily make a whole stop of it. I'd just keep going to Portogruaro.
    2) Cost-wise: The trip was, ~730 euros per person through Eurobike. This covers all hotels, bike rental, luggage transport, massive breakfasts, and ferry tickets for the week. This part of Italy (and Slovenia) was pretty cheap, so although we ate and drank like kings, lunch and dinner (which were on us) was inexpensive. Then add the plane tickets, of course.
    3) I don’t think I am coding the hotel websites properly, so if you want to look at them, copy paste instead of clicking.

    Monday: Off into the wilds from Jesolo to Portogruaro (50km)

    Still Lost: We actually got up on time this day, but wasted an hour and 10 kilometers going in a circle. We later realized it was because there was a muddle in the English translation of the directions, since the words for “right” and “straight” are the same in German (explaining why we were the only ones who got lost). Thankfully, this was the only time in the whole week when the directions were misleading. That said, for the second day in a row, all the retirees left us in the dust.

    Stop for a tinkle, stay for the wine: About an hour in, the vast quantities of liquid I’d had at breakfast were creating an emergency. However, we were in the middle of an endless wheat field, with no promise of taking a café anywhere in our future. After awhile, we found ourselves on a road with an abandoned building, a closed ostería, and something whose door was cracked open. We had no idea what it was, but I was desperate. My husband stayed outside with the bikes in the rain while I ran in to beg whomever might be inside to use their loo.

    To my surprise and delight, the building turned out to be an enormous winery, with vaulted ceilings and big tables and a friendly Italian lady doing tastings. We ended up having a whole wine tasting at 11am (you take it when you can get it). We bought a bottle of refosco, stashed it in his pannier, and took off again with a song. There was an option in the directions to take a detour to a beach town called Caorle, but given that we’d never attempted to bike 50km in our lives and had no idea how long it would take or if we could even do it, we weren’t yet confident enough to extend the day’s distance by another 30km.

    The Middle of Nowhere: The rain stopped for a little while, but the damp had brought out enormous clouds of bugs that we kept cycling through because the roads were too narrow to avoid them (I’m not selling this trip very well, but I swear, we were having the time of our lives). Thankfully, the bug issue only lasted for this one afternoon. Now that we were properly in the countryside, the route became unspeakably beautiful. We rode through vineyards and wheat fields on the world’s tiniest road—so tiny that on the rare occasions that a car passed, we had to stop because there wasn’t enough room. The only other human we saw was a shirtless old farmer tending to his tomatoes.

    The directions suggested a trattoria on the route. It was a homey, authentic place where we communicated mostly through Italian cognates and the waitress’s broken German. The food was delicious and the prosecco was cheap and plentiful (.25 liter for only 2 euros!). We rested our legs, and ate our fill of gnocchi, lasagna, and a yummy new vegetable dish called peronata. After so much wine, it was good that we only had 15km more to go for the day.

    It rained a bit again and we had a lovely ride through more vineyards, what seemed like villages of empty summer homes, and a few haunted medieval towns. After a stretch of gravel road (there were a couple of kilometers worth of gravel road dotted through each day’s route, but it was never for too long and wasn’t bad), the route put us on a fantastic dedicated bike path that took us to an adorable town called Concordia Saggitaria. It was there that we caught up with other people from our trip. They had not wasted time boozing themselves at lunch, and were therefore now taking a café on the main square. After that, it was only about 15 minutes to our destination.

    Portogruaro: Is wonderful! Why is it not more famous (not that I’m complaining)? After taking showers, putting our feet up for an hour and drinking the pit stop wine in our room, we explored the town. It’s impossibly charming and well-preserved without feeling at all touristy. There are two entrances to the town, both through a medieval arch. All the buildings are beautiful and have fascinating medieval Venetian exteriors. There’s a leaning tower in the town square, and a sweet canal with swans and a windmill. Our hotel was right behind the windmill on a pedestrian-only street. It was definitely the best (and possibly only?) show in town.

    Since the town only took 30 minutes to explore, we went outside the walls, and spent a gleeful hour at the drug store. Most people go to Italy and buy clothes and accessories. We went to Italy and spent all our money on random stuff at the drug store (there are specific brands of deodorant, shaving cream, etc. that we can’t get at home).

    For some reason, by the time we were ready to eat dinner at 8, everything was closed. We ended up at a pizza place (the only option) with a cute teenage waiter who was clearly very excited to practice his English on us rare Americans (again, there were basically no tourists in this town except for us bikers).

    Info:
    Hotel:
    Hotel Antico Spesotto (http://www.hotelspessotto.it)
    Totally lovely and romantic and hugely recommended.
    Restaurants: La Gasse. This is where we had lunch. I would love to recommend this place to people, but it was literally in the middle of nowhere, and I have no idea why anyone would be there unless they were on this bike trip.
    Lessons Learned:
    1) Buy water whenever you can, because you never know how far away the next store will be.
    2) Padded bike shorts are a necessity for every single day of these trips. You can wear each pair twice, but never be without. Biking gloves and lightweight, long-sleeved sport shirts are also key. I had on long-sleeved cotton shirts until we could find a sports store; it was a damp disaster, and I think that’s why I ended up getting sick later on.
    3) Pretty much every day, we found that if we left at 9am, we got to our destination between 3:30 and 4:30. If we hadn’t always stopped for long, boozy lunches, we probably would have gotten there at 2 (but what's the rush, right?).
    4) Try to eat lunch 2/3 or or 3/5 of the way to the destination, since riding is always harder on a full stomach (and/or after two glasses of wine).


    Tuesday: The absolute middle of nowhere from Portogruaro to Aquilea (75km)

    A Taste of Rome: This was the longest cycling distance of the trip, so, after the next in a stream of fantastic Germany-worthy breakfast buffets, we made sure to be on the road by 8:30. We stopped at the drug store again on the way out of town to stock up on water. Later, our new Belgian friends had said they were concerned when they saw us taking a wrong turn literally two minutes into the route; we’d already developed a reputation for being idiots who easily got lost.

    The route took us back through Concordia Saggitaria, so after that 15 minute warm-up, we stopped for a stretch. Only then did I realize there were some Roman excavations in the town. Lovely.

    The road to nowhere: I can’t say anything specific about the route, but it was all gorgeous. It was the deepest country of the whole trip, with vineyards lining our tiny country roads as far as the eye could see for most the day. This day had some of the best weather. We passed another drug store (it was actually a landmark in the directions). More possibly unnecessary toiletries were bought.

    A Ridiculous Viticultural Experience: On a back road in the middle of deep farmland, we spotted an oil drum on which someone had written “Vendito Vino”. It was a ‘winery’ (quotation marks necessary). We rode into what was basically some guy’s backyard. The dogs barked. An old man came out to see what the fuss was about. His 45 year old-ish son came out to say hello. They spoke no English and no German, and we spoke no Italian. There were a lot of hand gestures. We shrugged and asked, “Vino vendito?” He took us into his barn, where he had a bunch of fermentation tanks set up. He gave us tastings right from the tanks and asked if we wanted anything. He got us some bottles that didn’t even have labels, and wrote a P on the top of the cork for prosecco and M for merlot. He only charged us a couple of euros, and threw the prosecco in for free. After the transaction, he gestured at our bikes, as though to ask what the hell we were even doing on this back country road (in a nice way). We showed him our maps (he was very interested) and tried to let him know that he was missing a marketing trick, because there were kind of a lot of people coming through here on these bike trips. I’m not sure he quite got it, but the whole thing seemed to give him food for thought. This was maybe the most hilariously fantastic half hour of my life.

    By the time we stopped for lunch in a cute but nondescript town called Carlino, we’d gone 48km and were losing our minds with hunger (we should have packed some fruit). We stopped at the first trattoria we saw and were told the prix fixe options were a beefsteak and a hamburger. When that ended up being a chicken breast and a hot dog, we were too hungry to complain. It was not the best lunch, but hunger is an excellent cook.

    The last 25km were through small towns and most of it was along a brand-new, asphalted bike path that sometimes went around the far sides of towns and sometimes went alongside the highway, with a barrier. We saw signs for a turnoff to a grappa distillery, but this was the only day that our legs genuinely felt too tired to go a kilometer more, so we stayed on track.

    Aquilea: The approach is glorious, as the tiny town is surrounded by tall, perfectly pyramidal trees, and the basilica’s tower rises high and white for you to see from miles away. The basilica is pretty much all there is, though. The town was about three blocks big, and our hotel was most likely the only one. When we asked the teenage girl at reception where the ‘center’ of town was, she shrugged and said, “I dunno. Here?” We found out later that Aquilea was one of the main trading hubs of the Roman Empire, serving as the intersection for routes east. You wouldn’t know it from visiting today.

    I was desperate to see the Roman ruins. My husband, who doesn’t share my Classical obsession, was understandably annoyed; after 50 miles of cycling, all he wanted to do was rest in the room, but daylight is scarce in late September. I cajoled him outside, where we passed our Belgian friends, who were having the same tension. Mr. Belgian wryly said to us, “There is apparently still more work to be done!” while his wife dragged him along, excitedly holding the ruins map.

    The ruins were worth it, though. There’s a sweet and well-preserved little forum, a Roman street (really cool!), and an extensive sunken mausoleum. However, the basilica is the real draw. The mosaics on the floor are intricate, enormous and incredibly well-preserved. We had a prosecco in the square and then went back to the room to take a disco nap. We opened the wine we’d bought from our guy, but unfortunately, when drunk in quantities larger than a tasting, it was pretty awful. Ah well. The sights of the town were impressive and well worth a visit, but you only need a couple of hours to see everything.

    An Unlikely Culinary Dream: We walked for ten minutes along the ominously dark highway to a trattoria recommended in the directions. It turned out to be closed on Tuesdays. I spotted a structure of some sort (it wasn’t clear that it might be a restaurant) across the way, so we checked it out, not expecting to find anything of interest. It turned out to be a kind of cooperative celebrating products of the region. There was a large, décor-free restaurant inside that you could tell hosted lunchtime tastings for groups in the high season, but tonight, it was empty. There was only one woman there as the hostess, waitress, and possibly even the cook, to be honest. She was playing the strangest mix of Disney music, Italian pop, and the Titanic soundtrack.

    It was one of the best dinners we’ve ever had. We had plates of San Daniele prosciutto (it’s usually the most expensive prosciutto, and comes from near Aquilea), the best lasagna I’ve ever had, and excellent refosco. The desserts weren’t as good as in the Mestre restaurant, but the food was amazing. No one else came in while we were eating, which was a shame. We stumbled back to our hotel, happy and full, and passed out (we were hardly missing any rocking nightlife in sleepy Aquilea).

    Info:
    Hotel:
    Hotel Patriarchi (http://www.hotelpatriarchi.it)
    Of all the hotels we stayed at on this trip, this was the only one that looked like the granny-run pensions we’d been expecting. It’s a little dated, but clean, comfortable and convenient.
    Restaurant: Hostaria al Parco (Aquilea, via Minut 1) – So much better than it looks!
    Lessons Learned:
    1) 75km is not nearly as bad as it sounds
    2) Never trust a ‘beefsteak’.


    Wednesday: Back to civilization from Aquilea to Trieste (53km)

    So Lost, We Went to the Wrong Country: 20km into the day’s hitherto placid route, we got to the base of the trip’s very first hill. Not only was it a crazy steep hill, but the bike path was basically the shoulder of a highway. We met up with quite a few of our friends on this hill and encouraged one another, taking frequent breaks (we eventually ended up outpacing them, though). However the reward justified the grueling work, as there was a long, isolated downhill on a desolate road through a forest. At this point in the trip, we’d gotten so used to the directions, and were so wowed by the novelty of elevation changes, that we misread another slightly off German-to-English translation. We weren’t supposed to reach Slovenia until the following day, but there we were, a bit confused, at the desolate border. We were so excited (despite having a niggling feeling something was wrong), that we stopped to take a picture at the customs house. Back in the day, I’m sure it was an extremely forbidding iron curtain station, but now it’s just a ramshackle, boarded-up little building. After half an hour of cycling along a desolate road that nonetheless had signs full of suspiciously superfluous J’s, I insisted that we backtrack, because the directions are never wrong (though sometimes they’re oddly translated). And sure enough, we found the right path once we were back in Italy.

    Soon, our sojourn in the interior was over and we were back along the seashore. This part of the trip more like the French Riviera than the lagoons around Venice had been. We skirted along the top of a cliff that overlooked the Adriatic. There's a great lookout where you can take pictures. After a quick stop in Sistiana to buy me a proper sport shirt (I’d run out of clean long-sleeved shirts), we began the most glorious downhill of our lives. A straight 10km of gradual descent on a very generous shoulder of highway, with the impossibly white Castle Miramare jutting out on a peninsula ahead of us.

    Castle Miramare: That morning, all of our retired friends had been surprised to see our lazy bones at breakfast so early, and had expressed surprise and confusion when we excitedly explained that it was going to be ‘a big day’. We were apparently the only ones who knew about Castle Miramare as a highlight of the itinerary, which is odd, since the picture on the website was what had sold us on this trip. And it didn’t disappoint.

    We’d taken some advice from our Belgian friends and bought lunch stuff at the grocery store in Aquilea in the morning; this turned out to be for the best, as it was the only day we didn’t really run into any good restaurants or even stores (we sort of ran out of water, which was a bit of a problem). We ate on benches overlooking the castle and the river, and then took the tour. It’s a great little castle, full of quirky yet opulent interior décor. It reminded me a bit of the castles in Bavaria, in that it was a relatively recent construction (19th century), and therefore had more modern equipment than you usually find. The history of the residents was surprisingly rich, given its relative newness.

    The Shock of Big City Lights: Shortly after Miramare, we were taken aback to find ourselves quite suddenly in eight lanes of traffic around Trieste’s train station. The transition from hillside coastal road to the middle of the city is very abrupt, and I’m pretty sure I rode the last five minutes of the day spewing expletives under my breath. Those were the only semi-dangerous five minutes of the whole trip.

    Our hotel was on a quiet side street, but because of its relative proximity to the train station (which is not at all charming), I decided early on that I didn’t like Trieste. We walked around looking for something to drink (we were hysterically dehydrated after not having found a store to buy more water from all day). Of course, the answer to all our prayers shone like a beacon of joy: the drug store. We somehow dropped even more money (seriously, I don’t know how we found so much to buy, but we couldn’t stop).

    As soon as we’d quenched our thirst and stumbled across the pedestrian-only area east of the Grand Canal, our impression of the city changed entirely. Trieste was gorgeous and grand, with countless outdoor gelato places and happy hour spots. We walked up and down, trying to find the best of the many busy outdoor cafés, and finally settled on a place near (but not on) the canal—not outdoor, but still cool. After four hard days of cycling, our muscles were finally crying. It took a few drinks and rounds of hors d’oeuvres to rouse us from our window seat, and even then, we ended up only dragging ourselves next door to a German restaurant that had Augustiner (my husband’s favorite Munich brewery, which only rarely exports to the US). The goulash and beer were delicious, and we sat outside with a view of the canal (the restaurant wasn’t directly on the canal, but it still had a good view of the goings on).

    Info:
    Hotel: Hotel Italia (http://www.hotel-italia.it)
    It’s central and convenient, and the room was big, but the whole thing was sort of sterile and bland inside.
    Restaurant:
    James Joyce Café (on Vis Vincenzo Bellini) & Al Vecio Canal (Piazza del Ponterosso, 2, 34121 Trieste) -- both fantastic (and the German food was a nice little break from Italian)

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    Great report! I'd love to give something like this a go. We've done a little cycling but never more than one day. It sounds very carefree which is just what a holiday (especially a honeymoon) should be.

    As I neared the end, the penny dropped about the drug stores. I thought you meant a pharmacist and were stocking up on drugs - proves you don't need to have a foreign language to have translation issues!

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    I was just starting to wonder "are there any hills?" as this would be the thing that would suck the fun out of it for me. So thanks for including descriptions of both the up and the down hills. And I am fully in favor of your boozy lunches!

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    Next installment!

    Questions from the last one:
    1) Yeah, by 'drug store', I just mean the bits and bobs sections of a Walgreens. We didn't need any actual medicine. Think of the (now bankrupt) Schlecker chain in Germany. Really cheap toiletries and things. This was our unexpected weakness.
    2) I'll point out all the hills. There honestly weren't many in the whole trip. That's why we picked it! The idea for the trip had started out as me wanting to do the classic Danube trip from Passau to Vienna that Eurobike offers, because it's supposed to be the flattest, easiest, and booziest of all; however, my husband said he was 'over' Austria, so we chose this one instead because the Eurobike people assured us it was one of the next-flattest.
    3) And just to reiterate for any casual cyclists considering this... DO IT! I cannot stress enough that it is not that hard. We didn't train or anything beyond our regular occasional gym visits.


    Thursday: The Greatest Day Ever and Falling In Love with Slovenia from Trieste to Piran (ferry + 30km biking)

    Really Good Life Choices: The was the only day with an option: you could bike 30km in some mountains near Trieste before biking another 30km along the Slovenian coastline, or you could take a ferry from Trieste to the last town in Italy, and just do the Slovenian 30km. We were one of only four out of the nine couples on the trip to choose the ferry option. Our retired friends teased us for being young and lazy, but taking the ferry was one of the best decisions we made on the entire trip. The Slovenia portion was the most beautiful stretch of the trip, and it was nice to be able to enjoy it in a leisurely fashion. The ferry dropped us off in Muggia. We stayed only long enough to buy some water for the day, but it was adorable, and worth more exploration than we gave it (even now, I’m not sure why we didn’t linger). The fact that it was real and bustling while being cute and Renaissance-like made it even more interesting, as opposed to a precious jewel.

    Lovely Koper: Our first stop in Slovenia was a medieval town called Koper. The directions wanted us to ride by the town along the outskirts, but we decided to go off the directions and navigate the labyrinthine streets towards the town center. The only café in the main square was a little too posh for two sweaty people, but there was a great little side piazza off the main square that had a great café serving our favorite Austrian coffee (Julius Meinl, which is almost as much fun to say as it is delicious to drink). Even though it was still morning, at this point in the trip, we were pretty exhausted, so this was the only day we actually ‘took a café’. It ended up turning into ‘taking a prosecco’, too, since we sat there for so long.

    Picture-Perfect Izola: The ride from Koper to Izola was a dream: a dedicated bike path right along the sea---without even a barrier keeping you from the four-foot plunge into the water (that sounds scary, but it wasn’t). Castle Miramare was still visible behind you, with the orange roofs of Izola around the bend. Those five or so kilometers along the coast tied the previous day’s glorious downhill as the best stretch of the trip.

    Izola was picturesque but empty. We rode uphill to the top, but there were too many buildings to get a proper view, so we went down again without doing anything or seeing anyone. The only activity seemed to be around the harbor—down the hill and around a bend—which was much bigger than the town and full of fishing and pleasure boats. There was a string of restaurants along the water that probably would have been full in high season, but they were mostly empty today (especially since none of the bike companies actually suggest you stop for lunch in Izola). We had a nice but nondescript lunch with a great waterfront view.

    The only problem with lunching in Izola was that directly afterwards was a massive hill that our full stomachs balked at. I actually stopped, looked at it, and said, “No.” We feared for the friends we met at the bottom of it, as they were the oldest of the bunch. We ended up walking the bikes up the hill (no shame!), but were rewarded with a postcard view of Izola from the top. Wow. We decided that these Istrian coastal towns were actually much prettier to look at from up above and outside than they were from the inside. (Piran would prove the exception in another couple of hours.) The reward for the horrible hill was another phenomenal downhill into a valley. The weather this day was outstanding and the valley was covered with little vineyards and farms. It felt like we’d wandered into a fairy tale.

    The Parenzana: I’d read about The Parenzana before we left and had randomly become fascinated with it, much to my husband’s confusion. It’s a bike route running from Trieste all the way to Porec (though this isn’t what we were on most of the time for the last two days of the trip). It’s a repurposed railway route turned bike path that has been dubbed “The Route of Health and Friendship”, which I found charming. The wonderful valley downhill took us to an apparently famous tunnel that’s part of the Parenzana between Strunjan and Portoroz; it’s 550m long and illuminated. We were so excited that we missed a turn and got lost again after coming out the other end.

    Portoroz is a fine, resorty beach place with giant hotels; nothing to write home about. I don’t know why anyone would stay there when perfect, peerless Piran is so close. The two towns are separated by an even more massive hill than the previous one (my second time walking the bike for the day), but what a town once you get there! Clanging fishing boats and narrow streets and basically paradise.

    Piran Wins the Entire Trip: I have rarely seen a more beautiful town (tied with Rovinj and Motovun in a few days). Piran is small, so it was only a minute between coming down the hill and arriving in the main square, where our hotel was. Our room had a view over Tartini Square (when we first arrived, I worried that the square would be too noisy for sleeping, but by eleven, everyone is gone and it’s really quiet). I took the best photograph of my life out the window. All of Piran is asking you to take your very prettiest pictures, with zero effort.

    After our daily afternoon shower and hour of putting our feet up, we wandered through impossibly narrow streets, getting lost and not caring, until we were spat out on the other side of town, on the seaside (on the way, we passed another little drug store that had great chapstick, just fyi). There’s a string of cafes offering up Ožujsko and terribly prepared Aperol Spritz’s. There are a lot of touristy places on the side of Piran closest to the entrance, but this side was much better, with bars that were basically just clusters of patio furniture. While we sat and watched the sunset over the Adriatic, someone in the party next to us took off his shirt and shoes, and climbed down one of the handy pool-like ladders lining the unbarricaded sea wall (seriously, no fences anywhere along the Slovenian seashore as far as we saw) and went for an impromptu little swim. This was one of my favorite happy hours of the whole trip. We stayed until they kicked us out (these places all seem to close at dinner time).

    We didn’t want to go to the fish places on the touristy side of the coast, so we went back to the hotel and asked the savvy-looking college-aged receptionist where we should go. She recommended a restaurant called Neptun. She said it wasn’t on the coast, but it was really good, and since it was now drizzling and dark, it’s not like we wanted a view anyway. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation (it was good that she gave us good directions, though, because it was a bit of a maze despite only being a few blocks away). It was slightly more expensive than we’d been used to in Italy—and so far, Slovenia in general had turned out to be delightfully cheap—but it was worth it for the freshly caught seafood and cute atmosphere. It was more of a standard date place than we’d been to since Venice, so that was nice, since we were on honeymoon and everything.

    Info:
    Hotel: Hotel Tartini (http://www.hotel-tartini-piran.com/en)
    Restaurants: Restaurant Neptun (Župančičeva ulica 7, 6330 Piran)
    Both amazing! I guess hotels that have a sea view are nice, too, but we really liked our view of the square; we could watch the goings on while we put our feet up.
    Lessons Learned:
    1) Piran is perfect, but stay away from the touristy places on the main stretch of coast. The bars around the other side of the town are so much more relaxing and outdoorsy, especially on a nice night.
    2) If doing this bike trip, definitely take the boat to Muggia in order to enjoy the most time in Slovenia, which was a highlight.



    Friday: The Last Stretch from Piran to Porec (60km)

    Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about this day. I had finally succumbed to the world’s worst cold (I think because I hadn’t realized I should buy a fast-drying sport shirt for this trip, and had been wearing cotton ones, which held the damp on the occasions when it had drizzled a bit). There was a terrible confluence of illness, heavy rain, hills, and inappropriate footwear that made this, our last day of biking, rather a trial. I’d been wearing some not very sporty sneakers that had been fine on the drier days; but in the rain, they were too slippery to stay on the pedals.

    We passed some interesting salt flats on the way out of Slovenia. There was also a very gradual 3km incline on a gravel road section of the Parenzana in the drizzle that sounds infinitely worse than it was. My most distinct memory of the day is a sudden downpour that began just as we reached the foot of the steepest hill of the entire journey. Great. Northern Istria has beautiful countryside (we passed the Splitvice Salt Flats, and had a glorious downhill with a beautiful valley view), but we wouldn’t fully appreciate it until later in the trip. All week, we kept our raincoats in my pannier (my husband kept our wallets and water in his), so we were prepared.

    The nice thing about pretty much all the hills on this trip (except the gravel Parenzana one) was that they were all super steep, but quite short in distance, which made it easy and quick enough to push the bike up them if you needed to.

    I had my one and only wipe-out at the base of a hill town called Brtonigla (not a typo), because, while turning a corner on wet roads, I was stupid enough to try to wave at a group of now-familiar bikers from another company who had been doing mostly the same route as ours. It was a pretty spectacular wipe-out; I was shaken, but okay. We walked the bikes up the hill into the town to collect ourselves, take a café, use the bathroom and hit an ATM, since we needed some Croatian currency.

    Later, we foolishly stopped to take a triumphant picture by the sign at the entrance to Porec, getting slippery mud on our shoes and making it very dangerous to pedal for the rest of the trip. I spent the last 20 minutes of our otherwise perfect week-long bike ride whispering expletives to myself as I rode through four lanes of traffic with only the barest connection between my feet and the pedals. It wasn’t technically dangers except for the fact that I had made it so.

    After that harrowing journey, we were rewarded by the most luxurious hotel room yet—like all the others, it was a nice but viewless room in a great location. All we had to do to finish the trip was stash the bikes in a designated corner out back, no final debrief or anything.

    Cleaned up and exhausted, we celebrated at a somewhat fancy cocktail bar at the top of a medieval tower. It was a lovely place to watch the sunset and stare at the boats.

    All the restaurant options were startlingly expensive, and gave us our first inkling that Croatia was not quite as cheap as we’d been expecting. Uh-oh. We ended up at Ulixes, simply because we couldn’t find another place that seemed less outrageous. It was a nice place, though, with great food and a multitude of different little corners. We sat in a romantic little alcove, just the two of us. My husband figured we’d be in Croatia for a week, so he should learn what beers were on offer; he’d learned about Ožujsko already from Slovenia. When we asked the waiter if he had it, he looked at us like idiots asking a bartender in the US if he had Heineken or something. “Ožujsko? Obviously.”

    Info:
    Hotel: Hotel Mauro (http://www.hotelmauro.com/web/en)
    The most modern and stylish rooms of the whole trip, in a well-situated building on the harbour. We felt bad tracking mud all over their nice lobby.
    Restaurant: Konoba Ulixes (Decumanus 2, Porec) -- Delicious. We walked around for almost half an hour looking at all the options and really thought this looked the nicest.
    Bar: Torre Rotunda (Narodni trg 3) – go for the terrace!
    Lessons Learned:
    1) Porec is a bit like Disneyworld. Very pretty and medieval, but a little fake-seeming. Unless you're a basilica junkie, I’d skip it and just go to Rovinj or Piran, which are the same sort of thing, but much prettier and without the gross commercial feeling on every block.
    2) Watch out for the red dirt/mud. You won’t be able to pedal once it’s on your shoes.

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    Saturday: An education in wine on the way to Rovinj

    My husband was a doll and caught the 8am bus from Porec back to Trieste to pick up our rental car (since we were flying out of Trieste, it was much cheaper to pick it up at the rental place in Trieste city and drop it off at Trieste airport than to do an international pick-up and drop-off). He says it was a bit of a wrench to watch two days of itinerary fly by in a couple of hours, so I’d recommend not back-tracking via car or train after one of these trips. While he was in Italy, I sat at an outdoor café with our luggage and blew my nose until he returned. This was the worst day for my illness, thankfully, and it was slowly uphill after that.

    Before taking off, we stopped at the famous basilica. We found Porec generally kind of touristy and boring, but the basilica is as beautiful and fascinating as everyone makes it out to be. It’s very well-signed, too, so we were able to get a lot of information about its history without the need for a guided tour. The view from the bell tower was incredible. It’s what makes Porec worth a stop when driving from somewhere else, but I’d recommend staying in Rovinj or Piran.

    The Low-Down On Istrian Wines: I’d done as much research as I could on the top Istrian vineyards before we left home (there isn’t much to find), so I wanted to stop at a couple on our way to Rovinj. We’d passed Roxanich (arguably the best one) on the bike tour the day before, but it had been pouring and miserable, so we hadn’t stopped. We tried to go via car upon leaving Porec, but couldn’t find it again. We were also still getting used to driving in this country; roads are extremely narrow, and nothing—especially the vineyards—is well-signed. After twenty minutes, we gave up and tried for the next one on my list: Matosevic.

    The staff was eating lunch when we arrived at the house, but one of them got up within a few minutes to take us inside and give us a tasting. He was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the history and potential for wine production in Istria and was eager to build up not only Matosevic, but all the best producers. He was so excited about the idea of a couple of American tourists at his winery that he helped us validate a list of other vineyards to visit during our stay, starring the best ones from my list. He even recommended a Konoba for us to try that was apparently nearby. However, even after venturing up 2km of a gravel road, we couldn’t find it, so ate at a different one nearby. We’d read about these konobas in the guidebook, and they delivered everything that was promised: giant carcasses of grilled meat sliced directly onto our plates.

    It only took about an hour to get to Rovinj, but we were so physically destroyed that by the time we had post-card ready view in our sights, we almost didn’t notice it. The weather was also a bit crap and didn’t help it sparkle the way it could. Our main priority was to find the rental agent, whose office was hidden in a warren of tiny streets in the old town. We had to park in the expensive parking for an hour, since no cars are allowed into Rovinj, until we found her and got the directions to the free parking. The free parking is about 10 minutes walk outside the town line and up a hill. It’s not so much a parking lot as it is a clump of trees that the adjoining restaurant doesn’t mind people leaving their cars in for days on end. Given that description, it is surprisingly safe.

    Our apartment was in a great location at the narrowest point just outside the peninsula on which the town sits (if you look at a map, you'll see what I mean). I found it through this forum and highly recommend it. It was a large, Ikea-furnished studio with everything we needed; it wasn’t fancy, but the really high ceilings made it feel even more spacious than it was (and it really was quite spacious). The real estate agent had even lain out a little table cloth for us and put freshly cut flowers in the apartment. If you stuck your head out the window and looked left, you could see the bay.

    We were too tired to even think, so our dinner ended up being some specialty Istrian ham called pršut that we bought at the butcher’s next door (amazing), along with delicious slices of local salami that we called ‘meat chips’ (because the paper bag they came in looked like a potato chip bag), some bread from the bakery across the street, and some yoghurt with Dr. Oetker’s Schokomuseli (aka my favorite food on the entire planet that you can usually only get in Germany; it’s basically museli with chocolate chips and magic in it), quenched with some of our Matosevic Teran. It was obscenely delightful. After a week of eating out for every single meal, the last thing we wanted was to experience Rovinj’s restaurant scene, so I have little to report on it.

    Sunday & Monday: Rovinj lazy days

    Exploring Rovinj: We did a glorious amount of nothing for two days. After a week of biking, all we wanted to do was sit, read and eat Schokomuseli. I booked the apartment partly based on its possession of a washing machine, so we did many loads of laundry and hung them out the window on the provided lines like locals. When we ventured outside to visit the market, we could spot our apartment via our colorful laundry (everyone else's laundry was white). The apartment also came with speakers, so we were able to play saved music from our iPads (there was no Internet, which I found rather restful, as it allowed me to catch up on the three months worth of New Yorker magazines that I’d brought). I was offered a new job while we were on the bike trip, so we spent most of an afternoon in Rovinj at an internet cafe downloading paperwork and faxing it back. It wasn’t ‘fun’, but it needed to be done. The Internet café was in a slightly less old part of town near the marina that had a lot more commerce, and is where all the water view cafes and gelato places can be found (all quite nice and inviting looking).

    On Sunday morning, we stopped at the market just outside our door and allowed ourselves to be bullied into buying the strangest and most expensive mushrooms I’ve ever seen for sale. With the mushrooms and other vegetables, we made a pasta dish that served us for two nights and a lunch (with meat chips on the side).

    We walked up the hill through Rovinj a few times during our stay. It’s wonderful for exploring; even though it’s pretty small, you find a new corner every time. At the very end of September most places shut up shop and the tourists are mostly gone. As a result, we had this beautiful town almost to ourselves to explore. The streets go right into the water, just stopping so people can tie up boats and come up the stairs wherever they want. One day, we passed by what looked like a rehearsal dinner in a tiny medieval tavern right at the bottom of one of these streets, with windows directly over the water. We passed by the other, more expensive, apartment and hotel options I’d also looked at, but decided we liked our apartment the best. What we lost by being across the street from the entrance to the medieval center (instead of deep inside it), we made up for by having a butcher, baker and grocery store right there. Rovinj’s town center lacks commerce, and I think our place was also probably sunnier.

    More Drinks: There are two cocktail places overlooking the water that all the travel literature talks about: La Puntalina and Valentino. We went to La Puntalina and loved it, because it gives you a two-sided view of the harbor activity; you can really supervise the goings on while drinking your wine or eating your lunch. We were going to try Valentino the next day, but found it had shut for the season; it’s okay, though, as the idea of sitting on rocks while you drink your wine sounds very romantic when you read about it, but in person it looked rather uncomfortable. There is a romantic set of rocks just under Valentino where people come to take a dip in the sea. The church at the highest point of the island has a lovely and casual café right in front of it, from which you can watch the sun set, so we did that instead of Valentino.

    Aimless Day-Tripping: We took a mini road trip one day over to a mostly deserted but picturesque village called Bale. It was mostly empty, with a lot of tiny, ancient religious structures that looked like personal chapels. There was (shockingly) a very chic looking new B&B in it. We tried a couple of wineries nearby, but they turned out to be mom and pop type deals—people in basements producing not very well-fermented stuff. We learned that, while the roads of Istria are peppered with “Vendito del Vino” signs, you really don’t want to go to any old one. It’s best to stick with the five or six best ones—the same ones our guy in Matosevic recommended and which I had found during research.

    Near Bale was a winery we wanted to visit called Meneghetti. Ugh. A teeny, tiny, mostly invisible sign that we only saw on the third time driving down the indicated road. Four kilometers of gravel path to reach an admittedly attractive estate where no one answered either the telephone or the bell even though we were there during normal business hours. I don't care how good their wine may be; nothing is worth wrecking the bottom of your car on a dreadful gravel road for a place that might not even be open. We were so annoyed that we went back and bought more Matosevic wine from a giant grocery story we found just outside Rovinj to drink with our leftover pasta and cereal.

    Non-Nights on the Town: Every night after dinner, we’d get ice cream from one of the vendors on the marina square, ogle the couple of massive yachts docked for the night, and then sit on the bay-side dock to get our fill of the perfect circle of Rovinj, with the houses coming down right into the water. Even in the dark, it’s a sight that never gets old. You can stare at it for hours, every day and never feel like it’s enough. Something so perfect shouldn’t exist.

    Rovinj was a perfect honeymoon destination, especially when we were there. We did absolutely nothing and loved every second of it.

    Info:
    Hotel:
    Apartments Felicitas (http://www.felicitasrovinj.com/)
    Central and wonderful and so reasonably priced! We stayed in the studio (Felicity). Down the hall is the larger one-bedroom (Felix). And upstairs is the palatial Flora apartment with a roof deck that has water views on multiple sides. The Felicity was just the right size for us, so we’re glad we picked that one, but the other two were more luxurious. If we had been with friends or had a kid, the other two would have been heaven.
    Restaurants: La Puntaleina (Sv. Kriz 38, Rovinj)
    Lessons Learned:
    1) Unless you want to be completely alone in this jewel, come before September 30. That said, there isn’t anything wrong with being alone. Enough places were still open that you’d have restaurant, café and drink options. Plus the market and butcher shop were great for cooking. The little grocery store across the street from our apartment was fine for two people who just wanted to eat pasta and cereal, but if you want to really cook, go to the big box grocery store right outside of town.
    2) The market is a must, and happens every Sunday and Wednesday.
    3) There are little nearby islands that we read about and which sounded nice, but a) it was a little too cold for the beach and b) we were too tired to move.
    4) It probably makes sense to call and let wineries know you're coming in advance and an idea of the time. We got lucky with all of ours and were given tastings (they're all free, but there's a silent expectation that you will buy something, which isn't that big of a deal, since all the wine is ~$12 euros). I doubt it would have made a difference with Meneghetti, though, since they don't answer the phone.



    Tuesday: Roman Ruins in Pula

    Off to Pula & a Low Point of the Trip: Because I’m a Roman ruin junkie, I had insisted we spend a night in Pula. On the way there, we stopped in Vodjnan, which is famed for some ‘mummies’ that we didn’t see. However, it’s a true medieval town—the most extensive we’d come across yet, and felt more authentically medieval than anything I’d seen even in Tuscany. No tourists or touristic commerce. Walking through the cobblestoned streets and getting a coffee in a secondary square was a dream.

    Pula was a shock, and not a good one. After having spent a week and a half mostly in the middle of nowhere (Rovinj in the off-season almost counts as nowhere), arriving in Pula felt like suddenly driving into Times Square. Dirty, noisy, honking everywhere, nowhere to park, impossible to navigate, giant hills on our little manual car… It was incredibly stressful. It didn’t help matters that my husband, who’d caught my cold, was having his worst day of it.

    We eventually found parking and a place to eat (some random pizza place; we were too hungry to care) before heading to the coliseum. It was incredible! Almost immediately, all of our fuss (well, mine at least, I don’t know about his) dissolved. It really is as well-preserved and impressive as the travel info says. As well preserved as Nimes, but bigger. You could sit in the stands, and even look through the small grate through which the poor prisoners would enter the arena. You could also still make out the underground cells in which the animals were kept. Below the whole thing was a kind of museum, full of fascinating information about wine and olive oil production in Istria, and the trade routes that had made the peninsula such an important spot during Roman times. We learned that sad little Aquilea had been the Frankfurt of its time—a major crossroads and hub. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now.

    We also stopped by the Arch of Sergii, which dates to 27BC. It’s also been amazingly preserved, despite currently sitting in the middle of a major pedestrian thoroughfare. We were cooing over it, but no one else seemed to care. Most of the ruins dotted around the town were like that—worth the visit but lacking in fanfare.

    Milan 67 & the Suburbs of Pula: Based on recommendations in multiple guidebooks, I had booked us dinner and a room at Milan 67. The good news? It’s far away from the center of Pula, which we were already done with. Bad news? It’s far away from the center of Pula. It is testament to how stressful and unpleasant we found Pula that we got into our only fight of the trip trying to find it. My husband was kvetching, “How are you having such a hard time figuring out where we are? We’re on Ulika! Look on the map for Ulika!” And I was like, “It’s all Ulika! That’s like telling me to look for Rue!”

    As you can imagine, it took us quite some time to find the hotel, but once we did, we finally felt relaxed again. The only bad thing was that there was nothing to do and nothing to see. We were in the middle of a suburb. We napped in the room for a bit before our dinner reservation and got bitten by mosquitoes because we’d left the window open. This was the fanciest meal we’d have on the whole trip, but unfortunately, my husband was too sick to eat much. We did have a funny interlude during appetizers. I was in the mood for an Aperol Spritz, so I asked the waiter if I could have a cocktail. He informed me that they didn’t do cocktails. However, a group of businesspeople had sat at the other end of the restaurant. I pointed questioningly at the pink drink one of them was sipping. The waiter shrugged. “Oh, a Spritz. But that is not a cocktail. That is… A spritz.” So, good to know, don’t call a spritz a cocktail.

    Info:
    Hotel & Restaurant:
    Hotel Milan (http://www.milan1967.hr/en/)
    A lovely restaurant, but hard to find and not near anything interesting, and the hotel isn't that special. Just don't stay in Pula if you can help it.
    Lessons Learned:
    1) The ruins are a must, but Pula is awful and not worth spending a night. Since it’s only an hour’s drive from Rovinj, just see the ruins as a day trip from there and head back up north for dinner. You’ll be so much more relaxed and happier and surrounded by beauty. Honestly, if you must stay around Pula, go to Fazana (see the next installment for that), which is only a couple of minutes drive away from Pula. It's so much more charming.

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    I had the same thing happen to me with Meneghetti winery! Drove out there and almost ruined the underside of the car just to find them all locked up...

    I don't think you missed too much with Valentino. I paid TWELVE EUROS for a Spritz there - the most I have ever paid for a Spritz, anywhere and the most I have ever paid for a drink in Croatia. Its lovely and all but not that lovely.

    I agree about Puntalina and the little cafe by the church. I love Rovinj and sometimes fantasize about buying a little apartment there.

    Still loving your well written, honest and humorous report.

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    Last installment!

    Wednesday: Brijuni and up to the hill towns

    The Brijuni Islands: The guidebooks all tout the Brijuni Islands as a place of interest, but they aren't. We drove from Pula to Fazana (only a few minutes away), which is where you’re supposed to pick up tour boats for Brijuni. Fazana was a charming fishing village, or would have been, had we never seen Rovinj or Porec or Piran. We got on one of the many boat trips.

    Boats can’t actually stop on the islands, so they go around. The only other people on our boat were a Swiss family, so our tour was in German. While I understand enough German to get around, I don’t know enough for a full history lesson on the vacationing habits of Cold War dictators, padded into an hour and a half’s worth with silly nonsense about modern American celebrities who maybe visited Brijuni once. Between the incomprehensibly terrible tour, the seasickness and the general boredom, it was the true nadir of the trip. I don’t think it was just our boat or tour guide, either; there simply wasn’t anything to say or look at. At least the weather was nice.

    I think Croatian tourism is going to have to figure out something else to do with this area. The interest in Tito is already waning, and when you can’t go on an island to see how a Cold War dictator lived, it’s hard to care. It’s basically a tour around a bunch of little deserted scraps of land, only a few of which have buildings on them. No wildlife, just nothing to see or get excited about.

    Wine-Tasting Highlights: Between Pula, Brijuni, and our continued winery strike-outs (either because the ones we visited were terrible or because we couldn’t find the ones we wanted), we were feeling pretty cranky. It was still early in the day and we had nothing to do, so we figured we’d head north to Motovun, where we were to spend the night. We’d been burned by attempts at wine-tasting before, but decided to give it one last try, since we were headed back up north where most of the good ones were. In fact, there were a bunch of the recommended ones clustered all around Vizinada, very close to Motovun.

    The first one we found was Pelotti. We knew we were on the right track and hopefully in luck when we were almost elbowed off the narrow road by a German tour bus. Pelotti himself was just cleaning up after this tour, but made time for us. He was a lovely person with great English who was ticked at getting two Americans (again, we didn’t run into any American tourists basically on the whole trip). He showed us his ridiculous red Camaro of which he was so proud. We asked how he drove such a monster on those tiny roads, and he said, “Carefully.” Apparently, even though there were no American cars in Croatia back in the 80s, he bought it off an ambassador, so it’s the only one of its type in Croatia. The wine was great and he gave us blessedly clear instructions to a cluster of three other wineries on our list (which he also said were the best, or at least, almost as good as his). We would never have found them otherwise.

    Our next stop was at the Armans. There are two labels, each owned by one of two brothers. There used to be just one Arman winery, but Pelotti told us they had a falling out. However, they still live next door to one another. Awkward. The first one we visited, Franc Arman was staffed by a grumpy middle-aged woman who was cleaning up after a big group (probably the same German tour bus). She was not that interested in giving us a tour until we made it clear that we were going to buy some wine. The other, Marijan Arman, ten feet away, gave us a warmer welcome. A teenage girl—the daughter of the house—had seen us wandering cluelessly around their back yard, so she took us into their really cute tasting room. It reminded me of an Austrian heurigen. This one was actually the best of all the wines we tried.

    There was a third place to try right across the way from the Armans, but they specialized in grappa, which we don’t care for. And anyway, we had to keep driving. However, after such successful winery visits (they were all the kind of experience we’d been hoping for all week), we were in a grant mood and feeling optimistic again. The 24 hours between arriving in Pula and getting to Pelotti had been a bit rough (the Coliseum notwithstanding), but from here on out, we would be back in and remain in happy vacation mode.

    Marvelous Motovun: Motovun is a big like Rovinj, in that the pictures look impossible, but once you approach it, you realize it’s exactly like the photographs, maybe even better. You can see it from miles away—something beautiful built on top of one of the hills. There’s even a photo op rest point along the road so you can get a picture of yourself with the town in the distance.

    Entering Motovun is a bit of a drama. The switchbacks to get up the hill are very steep. Even worse, when you get closer to the top, the pavement gives way to cobblestone and the street becomes so narrow that I didn’t think our tiny Ford Fiesta would make it. I had read that the hotel’s parking was 300m from the hotel, but my husband insisted we could keep going, that we’d find another parking spot. He was right, as there was one only 50m from the hotel, but I had a good freak-out about it first, paranoid that we’d get to a dead end and have no room to turn the car around and get back down.

    We had reserved what amounts to the honeymoon room at the Hotel Kastel, which is in the old but renovated medieval castle right at the top of the town. We’d had a pretty budget vacation thus far, and so we decided to splurge here. The room was enormous and had a balcony, but unfortunately, it lacked the sweeping views that I had figured something called the “Executive” room would have; our balcony looked over the courtyard, not the valley. Some of the smaller rooms that I nosily poked my head into the next morning had those views (ex. #9, the one with red walls pictured on the website, had incredible views of the countryside). Still, the room was beautiful and romantic, and it didn’t matter much about the balcony, because there was a massive terrace on the roof with better views than any room could possibly have. No one was ever out there, so we took some wine, glasses and reading material and spent a couple of hours watching the sun set. It was magical. Like Rovinj, Motovun felt like a special place that we kept having to pinch ourselves to remember was real.

    We went outside the hotel walls and had a quick drink at a bar along a terrace that looked over the quickly darkening valley, just so we could stay outside.

    The Greatest Restaurant of Our Time: During my research for the trip, I came across an article in the New York Times that was basically about “the best restaurant you will never go to”. The angle was that no one goes to Motovun, so no one will ever know how good this place is. Well, we were there! Mondo Konoba is a cute place a stone’s throw from Hotel Kastel (everything in Motovun is a stone’s throw from Hotel Kastel). It is a tiny place, but there’s no need for it to be bigger, since the only people who eat there are the few who happen to be staying in town. It was white truffle season in October, so we were treated to the special White Truffle menu. Our waiter even came and shaved white truffle over our main courses. Everything—the wine, the meat and cheese plate, the pasta, the main courses, everything—was delicious. Definitely, absolutely, the best restaurant no one will ever go to. We pretty much rolled ourselves up the hill after dinner.

    So, this day started rather poorly, but all was forgotten by dinner, and even writing this, I have to forcibly remind myself that it was anything but a perfect day.

    Info:
    Hotel:
    Hotel Kastel (http://www.hotel-kastel-motovun.hr/en)
    It’s worth it for the views, the terraces, the pool, and knowing that you are staying at the tippy top of a hill town. However, I think the rooms are inconsistent. For example, there are three executive rooms, but only one of them is nicely decorated (the one with white moulding on the walls that’s in the website). So make sure you call and ask for certain rooms specifically that you see on the website, or make sure you ask for one that has a view of the valley.
    Restaurant: Mondo Konoba
    The place is sometimes called Barbacan, after the address. It is so good, and is an extra reason to stay in town. We had a reservation but didn't need it in the off-season; however, in high season when Hotel Kastel is full, you should definitely call a couple of weeks in advance, if you can.
    Lessons Learned:
    1) Don’t waste your time at the Brijuni islands.
    2) Wine tasting around Buje is wonderful. Pelotti is the easiest one to find, so stop there first or get a hyper-detailed map or GPS to find the others.



    Thursday: Motovun, Groznjan and a lot of really good choices

    Exploring the Hill Towns: The next morning, after breakfast, we explored Motovun. It took about five minutes. It turned out that a new hotel had opened up just across the street from Hotel Kastel in the weeks since I’d booked everything, making Kastel no longer the only game in town. It looked super cute, but even though the interior renovation of Hotel Kastel leaves something to be desired, I wouldn’t trade the roof terrace or pool for anything.

    We drove over to Buje, a town we’d passed on the last day of the bike trip but hadn’t actually seen (I think we had been in the valley, while the town is on top of the hill). We’d been fondly celebrating the name (boo-yeah!) for weeks, so were excited to go. It was cute and the views were fine, but the problem with staying in Motovun is that it ruins you for almost all other hill towns.

    Luckily, our next stop was at the one hill town that didn’t completely pale in comparison to Motovun. Groznjan was gorgeous, and in a completely different style from Motovun. It was all grey stone and tiny artist shops. Unlike Rovinj, the places were mostly still open. Sleepy, jewel-like Motovun is a great town to sleep in, but I think Groznjan makes for the best day trip, as there is actually stuff going on there. We found an empty bar/café/restaurant that boasted the best terrace in town. It was empty because other places with lesser views served better food, but we were fine with our sad sandwiches. The weather was magnificent, and the view across the valley rivaled any view we’d ever seen. They even had Augustiner, my husband’s favorite beer. We lingered here for some time.

    There were other hill towns on our list (near Buzet, to the east), but it was pretty clear from reading between the lines of the guidebook that they would have been a huge let-down after Motovun and Groznjan, so we decided to give them a miss and just head back to Motovun. We were on vacation, after all, we decided. No need to be constantly on the move. We were staying in such a nice hotel, so we might as well enjoy it. On our way back, we stopped at Zigante Tartufi, a truffle product emporium that’s good for food-related gifts to take home.

    We spent the rest of the day lounging in the enormous thermo pool, which we had all to ourselves, since there weren’t many people staying in the hotel in the off-season, and reading on our private balcony in the sunshine before heading up to the rooftop terrace again for another sunset. We made two very good decisions that afternoon: a) we didn’t care if our waiter looked at us funny; we were going back to Mondo Konoba again for dinner and b) while we loved Istria, we’d kind of run out of things to do, and since we had fallen so deeply in love with Slovenia during our 24 hours there, we wanted to go back. I cancelled our last night in Motovun, frantically made reservations for whatever I could get in Ljubljana the next night, and we were all set.

    And yes, going back to the same restaurant and ordering different things was totally the right call. Amazing.

    Friday: Ljubljana

    My dream had been to go to Lake Bled, but, not knowing anything about Slovenia, it seemed like it would be too much, so we skipped it and just went to Ljubljana instead. Knowing what I know now, I think we could have done both, but it’s okay. The drive through inland Slovenia was just as beautiful as the Slovenian coast had been, but in a different way. We were so pleased with our choices.

    Ljubljana’s town center is perfect and beautiful, but there isn’t very much of it. The river (so narrow, it seemed more like an overgrown stream) runs through it, and there are charming cafes on every side, and then one or two parallel streets worth of old buildings on either bank, but that’s about it. We had explored every block of it within a couple of hours. Still, it was pretty and relaxing, and oddly, made for a perfect end to the trip. Except for that one evening in Trieste, we hadn’t had the normal kind of urban European holiday we’re used to—monumental architecture, fancy stores, places to get gifts, a wide selection of restaurants and cafes. Since we’d be heading back to NYC the next day, stopping here was a nice transition from the deep country we’d spend most of the past two weeks in.

    We walked and shopped all day, stopping for a long kafeekuchen break after taking a trip up the funicular to the castle that looms over the city. The castle was sort of odd. The views were fantastic, but, as the informational video explained, there isn’t much left there. It’s mostly a very well put together pavilion linking a few empty spaces. Something slightly awkward was the way the explanatory video told us the history of Ljubljana going all the way back before Roman times, but skipped over the majority of the 20th century, intimating that nothing of import or interest had happened.

    Our last stop was a walk through Tivoli Gardens. It’s a long walk from the castle, but after driving and doing nothing for days, it was rather nice to wear ourselves out. The gardens were beautiful and full of people relaxing.

    Slovenia forces tourist drivers to buy vignettes for 15 euros per week. You need to have it in your car in case you get stopped. We bought it on the way back to the hotel, since the one we’d bought on the day we picked up the car was expiring and we needed to get back to Trieste the next morning. We had dinner at an outdoor table at Julija, which is on one of the most beautiful stretches of the old town. It was good, but the people watching was even better.

    It was a Friday night, and I had booked at the last possible minute, so our hotel, while in a fantastic central location and reasonably priced, was loud and kind of awful. However, all the other hotels had been exorbitantly expensive. I don't know if this was a function of booking at the last minute, or if Ljubljana hotels are simply overpriced. The walls in the annex we were assigned are paper thin, with people coming in from partying at all hours of the morning banging their doors and conducting drunken conversations. We didn’t sleep a wink. But we still got up in time for a very early and very easy drive back to Trieste, encouraged by our new favorite radio station, Cento Cinque.

    Info:
    Hotel: Hotel Emonec. I don’t recommend it.
    Restaurant: Julija (http://www.julijarestaurant.com) - Lovely, but I think others along that stretch would have been just as good.
    Lessons Learned:
    1) It doesn’t take more than a couple of hours to see what there is to see in Ljubljana. There definitely would have been time to go to Lake Bled first and then drive back down to the city in the afternoon. If you don’t get a chance to explore the castle, it’s not a big deal.
    2) The inexpensiveness that made Slovenia so popular with us also makes Ljubljana very popular as a stag party destination, so Friday nights are probably more bustling and wild than the city’s otherwise quiet aspect would imply. Because of the noise on weekend nights, staying right by the river might actually be a detriment rather than a boon.

    Anyway, that’s it! We had a beautiful time, and except for wishing we’d rearranged things to not stay in Pula and make room for Lake Bled, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. We loved the biking so much that we’re going to do another one next year. We’re trying to decide if we want to do a Puglia bike trip (another flat one) or a Piedmont one (slightly less flat, but with better wine).

    Thanks for reading!

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    We loved Ljubljana (perhaps that didn't come across well enough). I think it was more of a matter of expectations. We heard 'capital city' and thought the old town would be a little bigger. But what was there, we loved, and were so glad we went. I was just really in love with the pictures of Bled and was sad not to have fit both in.

    Oh! And I found a dreadful typo in the last installment. I said Pelotti was "ticked" to find two Americans, but I meant to say "tickled". He was so lovely and nice to us that I feel terrible for having made such an unfortunate typo.

  • Report Abuse

    It is Peter Poletti (not Pelotti) :)
    He's a very nice guy. And he sure does love his camaro.

    If you can someday get back to Ljubljana there is a really great restaurant up at the castle. Lake Bohinj is also well worth a visit.

    Your report was so much fun and I will be taking some of your tips next time I go!

    Hvala!

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    Hello,

    Hope you don't mind my english. Your trip report is one of the best I've ever read and will help me a lot.

    I'm planning a trip to Rovinj area and Brijuni Islands were one of the highlights I've been expecting. However, you said that "Boats can’t actually stop on the islands, so they go around."

    I'm not sure wether something has changed or you've gotten the wrong boat. As far as I read, boats are supposed to stop in the islands, where you may catch a touristic train or rent a bike. You may see roman ruins, dinossaur footprints, deers, zebras, etc.

    Didn't you know this or did I get it wrong?

  • Report Abuse

    There are boat trips that travel around the islands without landing, but Felly was probably not aware that it is also possible to book a tour that lands on the islands. Boats are only allowed to land on two of the islands.

  • Report Abuse

    Many thanks for your excellent report!
    Made it to Rovinj two years ago but became so chilled out there that all plans to tour the Istrian hill towns, Brijuni Islands, Trieste were abandoned.
    Your report filled in some of the blanks very well......

  • Report Abuse

    Luademochila, I lived in Istria and went once on a school trip to Brijuni. The islands are nice but I never felt it was a place worth returning to, lots of small sites without anything spectacular. Look at the website www.np-brijuni.hr to see what they offer, I know that a trip from a nearby hotel costs about €35.
    For impressive sites and history, Pula is easily the most impressive place to go, and is mostly without free of charge.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks for such an inspiring detailed trip report. I am seriously considering doing this trip. Please let me know if there are any additional notes or suggestions you have. Your trip sounds like a dream adventure - again thanks for sharing!

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