An ancient culture, evocative architecture, delicious food and fine wine. Sounds like a holiday in Italy? No it’s Slovenia and half the price, in a beautiful and unique medieval town by the sea called Piran.
On the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea is a collage of pale and peeling buildings in a hundred pastel colours. Around every corner is another atmospheric alleyway, a sunny piazza, a rose-coloured gothic facade, a chapel, a cloister, a vine-shaded cafe.
From the grassy terrace in front of the blindingly-white St George’s cathedral on the hill the fragrance of oleander and jasmine rises on the warm air from the red-tiled town below.
Piran was settled during the Roman era and became heavily fortified during the uncertain times of the Byzantine Empire. Since then the Venetians, Napolean, the Habsburgs and the Italians have held sway before Piran and the Istrian peninsula joined Yugoslavia and then ended up as part of Slovenia.
Slovenia is a country that has always been closely aligned with central Europe while retaining its own unique culture and language. The influence of neighbouring Italy is palpable and I seem to hear as much Italian as Slovene in this jewel of Slovenia’s brief Adriatic coastline.
The town’s most famous son is Giuseppe Tartini, an 18th century Italian/Venetian violinist and composer who I’m sure revels in the myths surrounding his career (of six fingers and deals with the devil) as well as his elegant monument in Piran’s central square: Piazza Tartini.
There are stylish cafes in the square many good restaurants lining the waterfront. The aroma of grilling seafood is very tempting but we returned again and again to our favourite family-run restaurant, just up the street from our accommodation.
Gostilna Fontana or Trattoria Fontana, depending on who you’re talking to, serves up tender yet crispy grilled sardines and grilled squid with equally intense flavours. Or vongole and seafood risotto. Fresh food is prepared simply and well in Slovenia.
Next door was a friendly bar where everybody knows everybody and the “ciao!” culture is alive and well. After dinner Miss Walkie-Talkie chased pigeons around the piazza, working off the crepes and icecream.
We became even more part of the neighbourhood as Miss Walkie-Talkie befriended the local pets (dogs, cats, rabbits) and the children let her ride their bikes. We enjoy an Euro 0.80 glass of wine at the Cantina opposite. Yes you read that right. This is like having a holiday in Italy but for a fraction of the price and with the attractive mix of cultures thrown in for good measure.
All the street signs are in both languages and if I had Euro 10 for every time I passed an Italian with a camera exclaiming: “Molto bella!” Well, I’d have a free holiday.
In the 14th-century Friary of St Francis the nuns in their creamy robes called “ciao!” to Miss Walkie-Talkie as she ran laps of the cool white colonnades.
Climbing up through the narrow street we walked along the medieval walls flanked by gardens and olive groves, and scoffed the bag of cherries bought in the Piazza dell Erbe market. The tall cypresses are all that now stand sentinel here.
Afterwards, we sat with our toes in the Adriatic, watching the local lads leaping into the sea from the promenade. Although it’s only the first half of June, Slovenia was basking in summer holiday sun.
By 10:00 next day half the town was heading for the beach and we joined them to spend a few hours splashing about in the sea. On such hot days in Europe I look forward to the sweet air of evening, when the summer clothes I’m wearing feel just right and the light wraps every detail of the architectural landscape in softness.
In the end, my experience of this tiny, one-square-kilometre town in Slovenia was distilled down to just one palazzo in the Piazza Maggio. It must once have boasted an eye-poppingly brilliant yellow-gold facade. Now it is a symphony of faded variations on the colour, mixed with spreading patches where the plaster has altogether gone.
The rows of shuttered windows have paintwork that ranges from tidy white to a faded and peeling grey or bare wood. To the left is a balcony with doors of decadent beauty, all curves and flourishes.
I imagined looking out that window and it may have been the grappa but I found myself thinking I could live my whole life in this piazza, opening the shutters to the balmy air, bidding good morning to the statues and the well. In the evening, walking across to drink with my neighbours under the loaded vine of the Cantina bar.
There’s something about the harmony of the colours and the light in Piran. Or maybe it’s the beauty of memory that leaches from the stones. Whatever the secret, this coastal gem in Slovenia is completely unpretentious, this is just how it is.
By Natasha von Geldern
More information about holidays in Slovenia:
Piran is a one to one-and-a-half hour drive from Llubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and there are train and bus services. Or it’s a day trip from Trieste, with regular ferry services to Portoroz. Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is also only a few miles away.
If you’re arriving by car park either in the parking garage on the hill before the town (Euro 12 per day) or along the road to Portoroz and catch the free bus in to Piazza Tartini. It is not possible to park in the town and you have to pay to drive into the town anyway.