Just 125 kilometres from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the charming coastal town of Piran is one of the best preserved medieval sites in Europe. It maintains its seafaring spirit and a rich cultural heritage. A little way along the coast, the neighbouring town of Portoroz is the country's most important tourist marina and port.
Piran lies across the Adriatic Sea from Venice in the far north of the Balkan Peninsula. It was once a part of the Republic of Venice, and the close Venetian influence is immediately apparent in its architecture and heritage. The slender tower of the church of St. George, patron saint of the city, rises above the medieval houses of the old town with its many Gothic facades and gateways. Here, too, plentiful examples of Baroque style blend with the medieval architecture with the same perfect ease with which the gulls glide overhead.
A point where the borders of great empires met, Piran itself can be considered an artistic monument. The town is set around the elegant Tartini Square with its larger-than-life statue of the great eighteenth-century violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini overlooked by the balconies of the beautiful fifteenth-century houses that are some of the most emblematic buildings of the city.
The bell tower of the church of St. George was inspired by St Mark's Campanile in Venice. Climbing the hill on which the church is set will give you the best views over the old town of Piran, surrounded by a circular medieval defensive wall. On a clear day you can see across the water to the coast of Italy and Croatia. What could be more evocative than dining on a restaurant terrace looking out over the Adriatic and watching the colours of the sun setting slowly on the horizon?
Seven city gates still stand today, enclosing Piran's greatest treasure: a picturesque area of narrow streets crowded with monuments and architectural gems, including the Venetian House, the Courthouse, the Town Hall and the Maritime Museum. Here, too are old-fashioned wooden taverns and shops, restaurants with fine sea views... and a promenade that leads around the bay to Portoroz, Slovenia's lively tourist port and marina.
Modern and worldly, famous for its casinos and water sports facilities, Portoroz history goes way back to the thirteenth century, when the monks of the San Bernardino monastery discovered the healing powers of the local hot springs. Later on, in the nineteenth century, Portoroz – the port of roses – became a popular spa town. Now, it is a popular destination among celebrities; the long centuries of tradition blend seamlessly with its cosmopolitan coastal appeal, and the sparkling Adriatic Sea casts its spell over everyone who visits.
TIPS & SUGGESTIONS
Piran is a delightful town to explore on foot, by taxi or bus, and Portoroz is just five minutes away. If you want to travel around and discover a little more of the country, though, it's a good idea to rent a car.
When to visit
Spring and autumn are particularly good times to enjoy the mild climate and vivid quality of light on this stretch of the Adriatic coast. Summer is best for water sports, and in August, in particular, the area is abuzz with Italian tourists.
Where to stay
The Kempinski Palace Hotel in Portoroz is one of the most luxurious hotels in Slovenia. It dates from 1910 and, although fully renovated and including a complete hot springs spa facility, retains all the charm of a by-gone age. Excursions are available by speedboat to popular nearby locations, including Venice. Also in Portoroz is the elegant Grand Hotel Bernardin. The secluded Hotel Piran, in the historic centre of the coastal city boasts a wonderful terrace overlooking the sea, and is an excellent choice for exploring the delights of Piran.
Where to eat
The Altana Restaurant at Piran's Hotel Tartini is an interesting option with al fresco private dining in quiet courtyards in the summer months and a fine Mediterranean menu of pasta, salads and seafood. The sea takes a starring role at the Riva Restaurant (Tel 00 386 56,732,225) whose menu shows clear Italian influences and an unmistakable Mediterranean essence. In Portoroz, the Barka Restaurant, at the Hotel Bernardin, has a select and varied menu of seafood cooked in a multitude of ways.
The landscape of Slovenia is like a great Swiss cheese, riddled with dreamscape caves and caverns. One of the most spectacular systems is the Postojna grotto, about fifty kilometres from Ljubljana, where twenty kilometres of of tunnels, caverns and galleries worn by the river Pivka form a veritable underground paradise. Nearby is the medieval castle of Predjama, built on a cliffside, and, close by, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Skocjan caves, near the town of Divaca.