Pizza? The waiter slowly rolled the word around his mouth, his face a study in confusion. No, the traditional Croatian restaurant on the outskirts of Pula in Istria could not meet our low gastronomic needs.
Would my three children like to try the local stuffed squid instead? We took another look at the menu. It’s no surprise so many people think Istria is simply part of Italy.
Having spent the morning waving imaginary swords in a Roman amphitheatre with my son Felix, five, and trying to get my daughters, Rose, 12 and Evie, ten, to pick out the odd word of Latin from a triumphal arch, it was truly hard to believe we weren’t in Italy.
Highlight: Pula’s Roman amphitheatre in the Croatrian resort of Istria. Croatia has become a cheap option for holidaymakers
Except for one thing: your holiday money goes a lot further here, thanks to the Croatian kuna (the country is outside the Eurozone).
We didn’t spend more than £20 on most meals, with wine. This meant we made little use of the kitchen in our self-catering apartment on the Park Plaza Verudela complex, geared towards families with its shops, restaurants and ice cream parlours.
We didn’t use the hire car, much, either, only within a radius of an hour from Pula.
We kicked off with Cape Kamenjak, a rugged headland on Istria’s southernmost tip. It’s famed for its Safari Bar — a maze of driftwood and bamboo dotted with wooden climbing frames, rope swings and a ping-pong table popular with the young crowd.
My lot loved it. Less successful was our foray into the sea. As my husband fiddled with snorkels and dodged jellyfish, I cursed myself for not investing in rubber shoes, given Croatia’s rocky sea beds.
A boat trip to Brijuni — an archipelago of 14 islands, which is a protected site — made for a smoother day out.
We took the miniature train tour of the main island, jumping off when we’d had our fill of commentary on former Yugoslav president Tito.
A generous risotto at the waterfront Hotel Neptune was the perfect ballast for an afternoon bike ride.
I’m no Mary Beard, but seldom has an archaeological site come close to the delight of swimming amid the ruins of a Roman villa. We parked our bikes by the temple of Venus and ran delightedly into Verige bay.
The next big question was, could we coax the children into a third day away from the sunloungers?
With the promise we’d be back for dinner at the Plaza’s family- friendly Oliva restaurant, we set out to taste two of Istria’s most famous exports — olive oil and wine.
Brist olive groves, an award-winning family firm in Vodnjan, is run by Silvano Puhar, a man so gripped by the quest to produce the finest oil that he attends to each of his 2,000 trees himself. The children were soon playing hide and seek around gnarled trunks.
An afternoon with winemaker Bruno Trapan was fine entertainment. He hosts tastings at his modern winery in Sisan. Catch him early, if you can. As his oenologist put it: ‘He loves wine. He just drinks it.’
The children, unlike Bruno, had had their fill. Back to Oliva and a sunset over the sea. As the waiters emerged with trays of food, a cry went up from my eldest. ‘Look mum! Dolphins!’ And there they were — four of them. What’s more, the waiters’ trays were laden with pizzas.