A no-strings getaway

Guided by her conscience, Karen Glaser visited a former puppet Nazi state


Being a Jewish tourist is not always straightforward. Like most people, the main reason I take vacations is to relax, and that makes holidaying in some countries difficult. I have, for example, visited Germany and Lithuania for work, but I'm not sure I would go to either country for an actual holiday. It's the same with Poland where my mother was born and where her entire Jewish family, bar one aunt, perished. How could I ski carefree in the Tatras and not think of my mishpocheh who once lived in Warsaw?

By rights, Croatia should be in the same box. It might be Europe's 'it' destination now, but during the war it was a puppet Nazi state and had an appalling record of antisemitism.

So, I did some cursory research before spending what turned out to be the most wonderful weekend in Rovinj, an ancient town on the postcard-pretty Istrian coast.

Jewish settlement in this part of Croatia has always been minimal, and virtually non-existent since 1918. And the Yugoslav Wars, fought throughout the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 and characterised by mass ethnic cleansing, never reached this part of the country.

Getting there: FLY: Ryanair fly to Pula from £54.99 one way www.ryanair.com, Stay: Lone Hotel (see review) room rates start at 150€, including breakfast www.lonehotel.com

And what a stunning part of the country it is. Not for nothing has this verdant stretch of the north Adriatic coast been dubbed the Tuscany of Croatia. Rovinj is its star attraction, and though bourgeois Middle Europeans have been holidaying here since 1845, when a steamship liner from Trieste first stopped at the port, tourism has not overwhelmed Rovinj or stolen its old world charm.

For starters, as one of the Mediterranean's last remaining fishing ports, Rovinj is a proper working town: fresh catches are still brought daily to the town's restaurants, and if you stroll along the harbour before lunch you can see fishermen mending their nets in preparation for the nocturnal trawl. Their only other fishing tools are the batane, small flat-bottomed boats. They are ideal for navigating the shallow, rocky waters. For around £40 an hour, Rovinj's ancient-looking mariners will take you on a boat ride in and around the harbour as well as the 13 green offshore islands of the Rovinj archipelago.

I got my first glimpse of Rovinj from a batane. My hotel was a ten-minute walk from there and as I strolled along the rocky coastal path - where impromptu opportunities for swimming abound - towards the town, Giovanni waved me down.

On board the brightly painted boat he had made with his own hands in 1962, he fed me biscotti made by mia signora and poured me strong red wine from an old Grolsch bottle. Before World War II, Rovinj was an Italian resort and Giovanni is part of the large Italian community that has remained.

The architecture of this hilltop town is Italian-flavoured. As the terracotta, sardine-packed old houses clinging to the edge of the oval peninsula hoved slowly into view, Venice sprung to mind. If you scale the 62-metre bell tower of the Cathedral of St Euphemia, which dominates the little town, you can, on some days, even see the Queen of the Adriatic across the horizon.

I didn't manage that, but the long sunny views across a cerulean ocean were reward enough. And even if you don't climb its tower, you should still visit the cathedral of Rovinj's patron saint: built in 1736 and modelled on nothing less ambitious than San Marco, it is the largest Baroque building in Istria. Another must is the cheerful daily market where you can buy olive oils, truffles and other prized foodstuffs from Istria's rolling green interior (many not available in local supermarkets) and non-essential items such as Croatian-flag tea towels. Like all formerly Communist countries, Croatia is fiercely patriotic.

The town's museum has little on local history, the odd piece of Roman pottery apart. However, there's a small art collection with a handful of ebullient Baroque paintings from the days of the Venetian Republic and some strangely hypnotic portraits of local big-money families.

Every summer, an art colony gathers featuring leading contemporary artists and their work is exhibited here, providing a nice snapshot of the modern-day Croatian scene.

And then there is Batana House. It's a bit of a liberty to dedicate an entire interactive museum to a small fishing boat, but had my children been with me, they would have enjoyed pretending to be ancient mariners making their own fishing nets.

The best thing to do in romantic Rovinj is to roam its narrow, car-free cobbled streets and peer through the open windows into people's tiny living rooms. Or go on adventures down dark alleys and find treats such as centuries-old wells. Or climb steep stone staircases to artisans' ateliers and trattorie stacked atop people's homes. Mixed-use living might be the holy grail of contemporary architects, but it has long been a way of life in this little town where many apartments have outside landings and stairs, called baladur, to create more space for the cramped human beings living inside.

Ubiquitious satellite dishes apart, Rovinj really looks like the Mediterranean of yesterday. The perfect place to decompress over a weekend (with a clear Jewish conscience).

    Last updated: 3:37pm, March 23 2012