The King of truffles holds court in the hilltop town of Motovun, a sleepy medieval relic full of cobbled streets lined with shops selling nothing but truffles and truffle-related products, and dotted with the odd rusting Fiat 500 that appears to have been strategically placed for rustic, aesthetic appeal. Even in the achingly pretty peninsula of Istria in the northwest of Croatia, the town sticks out like a particularly beautiful sore thumb.
There are restaurants in Motovun, too, predictably specialising in truffles, and one of them belongs to the king, Giancarlo Zigante. A stocky, serious-looking man with suspiciously treacly black hair who speaks his English as any King should – through a beautiful interpreter – Zigante found fame in 1999 when he unearthed a white truffle weighing a then world record 1.3kg in the forests of nearby Buje. Though the original was served at a banquet for friends, the king keeps a model of the giant, brain-like fungus to show off to the visitors who make their way up the narrow, winding and road to Motovun.
It’s a road that, by rights, shouldn’t suit a car as large and powerful as Bentley’s revised Continental GTC. But it does. The big convertible pummels the short straights and devours corners thanks in no small part to the 6.0-litre W12 and a body the Crewe manufacturer claims is the stiffest of any convertible. Slicing through the glorious Istrian countryside, it’s hard to imagine there’s a better seat in the house than the one behind the wheel of the latest droptop Bentley.
As a coupé, the Continental has always been a handsome and devastatingly effective grand tourer, even more so in its latest guise, but the convertible undeniably serves up the greater drama, offering panoramic views and visceral, hood-down thrills with little compromise by way of refinement. With the hood up, you’d be hard pressed to tell you weren’t in the coupé, so good is the sound-deadening and the ride, though with superlative wind-protection and a neck-warming air-flow system your only excuse is torrential rain or an Antarctic road trip.
Outwardly, the new GTC – which replaces the 2006 original – is more evolution than revolution, with sharper lines, a wider track (by 48mm at the rear and 41mm at the front) and jewelled headlights. But the changes run deeper than the muscular surface. Power is up 15bhp to 567bhp, a revised transmission slashes shift times by half and the four-wheel drive system’s torque split has been given a 40:60 rearward bias (from 50:50) to minimise understeer when cornering hard.
There’s also a revised touchscreen infotainment system using Google Maps, and a ten-speaker Naim audio system every bit as punchy as it should be in a convertible car capable of travelling at 195mph and accelerating to 62mph in 4.5secs. Those figures, though, somewhat miss the point; the GTC is effortlessly, breathtakingly fast, but its real skill is its ability to disguise its continent-eating pace in a cocoon of exquisite craftsmanship and unparalleled composure, without sacrificing any enjoyment.
That much is clear on Istria’s billiard table-smooth tarmac, which wraps around a peninsula so full of natural and man-made beauty it’s hard not to feel it was dealt an unfair hand when these things were being handed out. Which isn’t to say Istria has had an easy run of things; in the last 100 years alone it has passed from the Austrian Empire to Italy (after WWI) and from Italy to Yugoslavia (after WWII) until the latter’s breakup in 1991 and the recognition of Croatia as an independent state.
Long before it became the subject of an international game of pass the parcel, Istria was in the hands of the Romans, and there are spectacular reminders in the town of Pula. We park the GTC alongside the town’s magnificently preserved amphitheatre and walk into an arena that, almost two millennia ago, hosted gladiatorial battles, and today is home to a film festival and musical concerts. Quite what the Romans would make of blood, guts and thrilling glory being substituted for the likes of Sting is anyone’s guess.
If the influence of the boot-shaped country across the Adriatic can be seen in ancient ruins and an undeniable geographic similarity (they call Istria ‘the little Tuscany by the sea’), it’s even more obvious in the cuisine. You’ll find pasta, risotto, polenta, a local prosciutto and other Italian staples on Istrian menus, along with a Prosecco-besting sparkling wine so good I’m only telling you it exists out of a sense of journalistic obligation. Made by Misal by the Persuric sisters in the tiny village of Peršurici, the wine’s only downside is you’ll struggle to track down a bottle in the UK.
And of course there are truffles, though you’ll have to go a long way for one as large as the king’s 1.3kg behemoth. Just make sure you’ve got a Continental GTC for the trip.
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