In search of truffles, brandy, and a Roman Amphitheatre, Adam Hay-Nicholls takes the magnificent Mercedes G-Class on a winding road trip across Central Europe.
The hunters call them ‘black diamonds’, the shavings of which turn humble scrambled eggs into an event. Beneath the umber soil, under a small oak tree, I discover a gnarled and pungent black summer truffle, about half the size of a fist, its dusty skin mottled and creased like that of an elephant’s.
I’m in Istria, in the northwest of Croatia; a province that was part of Italy until 1947 and has become, in recent years, the world capital of truffle hunting, outscoring Piedmont and Perigord. I’m taking this one home with me but, were I not, it could end up on a plate at La Gavroche or La Tour d’Argent because, as we all know, truffles are the most expensive garnish known to man. This is, essentially, gastronomic gold.
Additionally, the Istria region churns out the finest olive oil and spankingly good wine, the seafood comes straight out of the Adriatic, and dishes are rustic and Italian-influenced. In other words, foodie heaven. My chosen hotel, Roxanich, exists to celebrate all of this. Opened just four months ago, the 500,000 litres of vino in its 80-metre deep cellar can only be described as bacchanal.
For my road trip to Istria, across its bountiful hills and valleys, I required a 4×4 with earthy DNA that, like the subterranean fungi, could capture the attention of the bling ring. A car you could imagine flooring from here, the verdant forest of Buzet, back to a Mayfair kitchen with a boot full of valuable produce. So, I arranged the all-new Mercedes G63 AMG.
The beast awaits me at Stuttgart Airport, having recently emerged from the nearby Benz production line. It’s Storm Trooper white, with four side-exiting exhausts and carbon-fibre grab handles for the rough stuff. The interior is covered in silver plastic and scarlet-flecked carbon, the clock is IWC, and the seats are in red and black nappa with bright red seatbelts. It appears to have taken inspiration from the cabin of Muammar Gaddafi’s jet.
It’s officially known as the G-Class these days, but to anyone who knows their four-wheel-drives it’ll always be referred to as the G-Wagen. Short for Geländewagen – or Cross-Country Vehicle – it was originally manufactured by Puch in Austria for the Iranian army, and civilian versions were produced from 1979. Since then it’s been regularly updated but its boxy and utilitarian looks have changed little, despite the introduction of state-of-the-art technology and Sheik-enticing levels of luxury. This latest version is the biggest upgrade in its history, with only six components carried over from the outgoing model. The improvements to its driving dynamics are terrific, but it manages to maintain its unique ‘toy soldier’ character.
As I move off, the central locking makes such a violent noise that it makes me jump. I thought for a minute someone had fired a crossbow from the backseat. Mercedes could have made it S-Class quiet, but that would be out of keeping with its militia personality. Ahead of me is a 500-mile mission across Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia and, finally, Croatia. The steeply raked windscreen means that the view is quickly obscured by a massacre of splatted bugs.
The autobahn between Stuttgart and Munich provides ample opportunity to reach the G63’s 150mph top speed legally, and to crank up the Kraftwerk. The Austrian Tyrol highlights the SUV’s Herculean 627 lb ft of torque as it hammers over mountains.
The chic alpine town of Kitzbuhel marks the halfway point in the journey and where I’ll overnight, at the cosy and convenient Hotel Zur Tenne. My suite’s roaring fireplace makes the country cottage décor feel extra snug, and there’s a balcony overlooking the Old Town and Hahnenhamm mountain, which hosts annual World Cup ski races.
The ski season in Kitzbuhel is so long that on the last week of April I’m still able to hit the pistes. After a morning’s slaloming, I jump back in the G-Wagen and do the same thing behind the wheel. The route from Kitzbuhel takes one across fabulous passes and switchbacks. In order to help the three-tonne Merc get its nose into the hairpins I loosen up the Electronic Stability Control and brake on turn in. The massive tyres squeal. Zero to 62mph takes just 4.5 seconds, meaning you can overtake less athletic traffic in the short straight sections. With its lofty height and beefy 577bhp bi-turbo V8, one feels imperial.
The G63 threads around the serrated edges of the 2,500m Grossglockner High Alpine Road before crossing into Italy and zig-zagging down the perilous Strada Statale 52. After Trieste, the route runs just 15 miles through Slovenia, passing under the country’s tallest viaduct, before meeting a sleepy border post. Croatia is not Schengen. Foreign plates, foreign passport, £143,000 Benz; the official takes a suspicious walk around before sending me on my way.
Motovun is my destination; a medieval hilltop town in the heart of truffle and wine country. Sitting below, with an expansive view of the vineyards, is the Roxanich hotel, the passion project of a wealthy Istrian civil engineer and wine connoisseur. The main building was a municipal winery built in 1902 and has now been transformed into an eclectic design hotel. My room features a rather unusual leather-padded double-sized bunk bed. For what reason, I cannot fathom. The manager suggests it caters for arguing couples, or weird group fetish stuff. The wallpaper is equally bold; 3D cubes and vivid roses painted by Berlin-based artist Nora Turato. Suites in the building’s modern extension have their floors, walls and ceilings carpeted in 1960s Italian shades, like baby blue and pistachio.
Downstairs, Roxanich is rightly proud of its restaurant and the wines it produces. I enjoy a feast of snails in pesto, donkey salami, scampi risotto and succulent aged boskarin, the local long-horned cattle, all washed down with their own light-bodied red curvée, Super Istrian. On the bottle is a chequered flag and a childhood photo of Mario Andretti. Andretti is an Italian-American hero, the only racing driver to have won the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indy 500 (1969) and the F1 world championship (1978). No other surname evokes such a sense of speed. He was born in Motovun or, as it was known at the time, Montona, and he and his twin brother Aldo learned to race in karts down its steep and treacherously cobbled streets. He now lives in an Italianate mansion in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, called the Villa Montona in recognition of where he came from. On learning that I was in Motovun, Mario messaged me that I should check out a room in the town hall that’s dedicated to his family. “They know me there”, he writes, as if that weren’t obvious.
The thrilling scenic roads between Motovun and Groznjan, which is packed with medieval auberge, truffle emporiums and art galleries, are the perfect training ground for a wannabe grand prix pilot. Despite its weight, the G-Wagen is hilarious fun to chuck around the bends, and when the road opens up the thrust is addictive. Hit the gas and summon the Wagnerian Valkyries. The sound made by the eight pistons punching through the cylinders is like Anthony Joshua pummelling a speed bag.
I continue to the Adriatic coast. Pula is the region’s main city and its architecture tells the story of its varied rule, including Venetian, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslavian, and its most dramatic building is a Roman amphitheatre, built in the First Century. Crowds of 20,000 would come to watch gladiator fights, but more recent acts include Björk, Sting and David Gilmour.
Some locals invite me to join them for a biska, a mistletoe brandy that’s been produced and sipped in Istria for as long as the amphitheatre has been standing, and was introduced by Celtic druids. On learning I’m a writer, they enthusiastically inform me that another scribe, and Celt, used to live next door to the very café we’re in. James Joyce was in Pula in 1904 to earn £2 a week teaching English, though, it’s whispered conspiratorially, he may have supplemented his wage working as a spy for the Royal Navy.
The fishing port of Rovinj is prettier than Pula and located further up the coast. The medieval town sits on a headland packed with tiny crammed-together houses that drop down to the seafront, and its skyline is dominated by the baroque St Euphemia basilica. I lunch on the terrace of Puntulina, a highly-recommended simple seafood restaurant, before trekking back into the countryside to Meneghetti, makers of what has been hailed as the world’s best olive oil, for a tasting session.
Of course, the pièce de résistance of these food adventures comes with truffles on top, and after three days in Istria I was in danger of becoming a truffle myself. The servings on each course were generous to the point of force-feeding. Kinoba Mondo, atop Motovun, will completely cover your rib-eye steak with the stuff. And the most prestigious restaurant in the area, Zigante, just a few miles away, is owned by the biggest truffle exporter. Giancarlo Zigante became a local legend in 1999 when he and his dog Diana discovered a 1.31kg white truffle in Motovun Forest, putting him (and one hopes her) in the Guinness Book of Records. It was this that put the area on the map. From his kitchen arrives the finest course of the trip, citrus marinated sea bass with balsamic vinegar pearls and a weighty amount of black truffle.
But I had come to Istria to hunt my own truffles and, with the G-Wagen’s 4WD system rivalled only by that of a Land Rover Defender I had the ideal car to take to the valleys and search for very valuable fungi with the aid of some dogs.
They still use pigs in some parts of France, but not in Italy or Istria. Unlike pigs, dogs need to be trained to sniff out the smell but they’re easier to look after and transport and will rarely try to eat the treasure, unlike the truffle-loving hog.
I go hunting with Ivan Karlic, whose grandfather founded the Karlic Tartufi in the 1960s and whose mother now runs the business. They employ a network of 250 freelance hunters and aim to collect 30-50kg a day. They export to 22 countries. Given the wholesale value of a kilo of black summer truffles fluctuates between £130-£500, and white truffles, which are found in the autumn, can go for up to £3,500 a kilo, it’s a profitable but unpredictable business.
The dogs are an Italian breed of water retriever called Lagotto Romangnolo. Most are female, as they’re found to be more obedient and focused on the job. They are all mongrels, and take around three years to train. One highly skilled mutt sold in Italy for nearly £15k. Ours are called Istra, Dolly and Candy and they spring from the G63’s boot and go straight to work. Within ten minutes they’ve found me the best souvenir I could take home from Istria; it lies 20cm under an oak, and Ivan hands me a small shovel called an ‘otka’ to dig it up.
Dolly is rewarded and the G-Wagen deserves praise too. Its permanent 4WD, featuring locking front, centre and rear differentials controlled by three chunky and satisfying buttons on the dash made short work of the tan-coloured mud and gorges. The panting dogs climb back in and one has to shut the boot with force. No soft-close or electric tailgate here. You have to slam it like Vinnie Jones might against a geezer’s head. Again, it’s the character of the thing.
The G-Wagen is utterly unique. It’s idiotic, but hilarious; a tank crossed with a nightclub. Yet it has real off-road pedigree and oodles of prestige, meaning the transfer between Croatian truffle forest and Michelin-starred restaurant is effortless in every way. No wonder hungry oligarchs love it.