July 12, 2023 – The renaissance of inland Istria continues. Meet an abandoned school which has reinvented itself as one of Istria’s most exciting restaurants – Stara Skola.
It is hard to believe that there was little to no tourism in inland Istria 30 years ago, and that many of those picturesque hilltop villages were fairly abandoned and underpopulated. As I discovered in my May visit, courtesy of the Istria Tourist Board, the renaissance of inland Istria into arguably Croatia’s top gourmet destination with a focus on truffles, olive oil and wine, has been nothing short of breathtaking. You can learn more in my previous report, Inland Istria, Croatian Tourism’s Greatest Success Story.
In village after village, there were examples of olive producers and winemakers expanding their offer to restaurants and boutique hotels, bring jobs, renovated buildings, and customers to local food suppliers. In an age of mass tourism on the coast, it was heartening to see. And while we encountered several such examples during our week-long trip, none left an impression more firmly than the dining experience at Stara Skola in Krasica, a small settlement between Groznjan and Buje.
Clai, Much More than a Quality Istrian Winery
Having tried the excellent wines at Kozlovic, Kabola and Roxanich, we arrived at the Clai winery in good humour and ready to sample one of the rising stars of the Istrian wine scene. But, as we sipped on the Malvazija overlooking yet another fertile and unspoiled Istrian valley, we learned much more about the project that included Clai wines.
Soon, we were ferried down to the only building in the Clai winery view, a magnificent villa complex in expansive grounds, which is apparently the priciest villa rental in Istria at 49,000 euro a week (sleeps 20). The villa and the project belong to a successful Croatian-American couple with a New York address, who have been investing into high-end projects. There is even a luxury yacht as part of the package. We met briefly, as they had just returned from Venice and were staying for a few days.
The tour of winery and villa complete, I thought we would then be heading back to the hotel in Novigrad, but our guide told us that we should take a look at the old school – Stara Skola – in the village before we left. It seemed like an odd thing to visit, but I have learned over 20 years in Croatia that there is usually an interesting story behind such suggestions.
I just had no idea that it would be THIS interesting.
An Abandoned School Transformed
Abandoned as a school some 33 years ago, the building became a victim of the general depopulation of the interior. Abandoned and without hope, it seemed destined to go the way of so many other similar buildings in similar villages.
So imagine my surprise on arrival to find not only a beautifully restored building, but an outstanding restaurant and hospitality centre paying 100% homage to the authenticity, traditions and heritage of the former educational establishment.
Have you ever had a fine dining experience in a classroom?
There was dining inside and out in a delightful courtyard where we dined. Signature cocktails could be enjoyed from the rooftop terrace, an idyllic location to take in the expansive nature and magnificent sunsets.
And the thing I liked most about the story was the connection with the former pupils of the school more than three decades ago. For they are once more returning to the school, this time as local suppliers of their local fresh produce to the restaurant kitchen. The janitor of 1990 is once again employed, tending the Stara Skola gardens.
Local quality products, International Quality Experience
This was no local project, I learned (although the focus is very much on local)), and the team behind Stara Skola is impressive indeed. It took me a while to place the very engaging blonde lady who came to our table to talk about the food and the project – Chef Priska Thuring of Swiss-Canadian roots, with over twenty years of experience in prestigious restaurants, hotels, resorts in Switzerland, Canada, England, Germany, Dubrovnik, Rovinj and Zagreb, is returning to Croatia. Her return, especially to Istria, was inevitable because among the hills, forests and incredible coast, she discovered many products that have yet to be served on the table and recognised in them the true inspiration for honest food.
Coupled with the New York investment, an impressive international lineup for a school which closed its doors – seemingly forever – just a few years ago. And for me, perhaps the best symbol of the rise of inland Istria from forgotten outpost to the most incredible development of a destination I have seen in Croatia.
And so to the food. Priska explained that they operate a zero-waste policy, meaning that every part of the animal or vegetable gets used. This necessarily means that the menu is in a constant flux of change, and the menu creators – the entire team – are constantly inventing new combinations. I am not really a foodie, but how refreshing for those who are to come to a restaurant and find something new almost every time.
Above, the menu the day we arrived. Yes, carrot crumble. Absolutely sensational. Such a cool idea, and not one I had come across before.
And unlike several fine dining restaurants I could mention, there was no question of going home hungry after this feast, and the kefir ice cream was a more than satisfying finish.
A word, too, on the wine pairing which was very innovative and worked superbly. Istria has done a fantastic job promoting its gourmet story, and it is hard not to drink Istrian wine or sample Istrian olive oil. Stara Skola has an excellent list of natural wines from all over Croatia and beyond, and it was heartening to see less fashionable grapes, such as rajnski riesling, shining when given their chance.
A superb meal, but there was plenty more. The post-dinner cocktails await, as too does the wine cellar, which boasts a fabulous collection.
Stara Skola, Much More than a Restaurant
And if you are looking for a little more after-dinner comfort, Stari Skola is happy to provide, see below.
A superb evening with truly top-class service, and how heartening to see what IS possible with village regeneration and a high-quality approach to sustainable tourism. I suspect that those pupils of 33 years ago are returning to school not just to drop off fresh vegetables, but also to enjoy one of the great recent additions to Istrian tourism. You can book your table in the classroom on the Stari Skola website.
Paul Bradbury visited Stari Skola as a guest of the Istria Tourist Board in May 2023.