Piran – The Tiny Jewel of the Adriatic Sea

[…Piran, Slovenia September 2011…]

What better way to spend your early morning than to climb up the hill over the red rooftops and watch the first sunlight touch the face of St. George's church, then gradually embrace the town in a nice, soft and warm light.


Boris picked me up at the airport in Trieste just before 4 pm. I had arranged for a car service knowing that I wouldn’t have made the 3:00 bus to Piran and needed the quickest way to get there before sunset.

It was only 24 miles (40 kms) away, driving along the coastal route, first passing the Gulf of Trieste in Italy then the Adriatic sea as we cross the border of Slovenia. As we pass different towns along the way – Koper, Izola, and smaller towns – I see the same campanile over and over again just like the famous one in San Marco of Venice. The landscape did not change much and had it not been for the border crossing sign, I wouldn’t have guessed where Italy had stopped.

My heavyset fatherly-type Slovenian driver, Boris, was timid at first but soon as I initiated a few questions, he quickly changed into a jovial mood and turned out to be helpful with information. He assured me I didn’t have to worry about traveling by myself in Piran as it is a crime-free town, and that’s always something I’d like to hear from a local.

We arrived at the hotel an hour later, taking a detour first to nearby Portoroz since Boris wanted me to catch a glimpse of this neighboring seaside town. Portoroz is the party hotspot, its promenade are lined with busy restaurants, night clubs, casinos, and fancy hotels. Piran is a mere 3 kilometers from here but there is a noticeable difference between the two, although with both towns having distinct charm, who’s to say one is lesser than the other?

Definitely not a bad view from my room.

Truffles on a bed of tagliatelle at the popular Pavel restaurant. Something exotic for the palate and your nose, but I could have gone through the day without it.

My hotel is conveniently located just along the restaurant-lined Prešernovo nabrežje, and my room looks out to the sea. Outside my window is a picture of paradise – the hot sun, the glistening sea, and joyful swimmers frolicking on the promenade not having a care in the world. Boris had repeated to me twice, “Your hotel is so close to the sea, you can just jump out of your window.” I believed him until I looked out of my window and saw that in reality, I am more likely to land on top of the sweaty, oil-drenched, and naked sunbathers.

Much has been said about Istrian gastronomy on the guidebooks so I thought I’d give it a try for dinner. First in order are the Istrian truffles. Truffles are a unique kind of mushrooms that are not easy to find since they grow under the ground that’s why they use well-trained hunting dogs or female pigs to detect them by scent. Depending on the variety of the truffles, it can be the most expensive of the world’s natural foods. The scent, indeed, was pungent, that I could smell it from the kitchen. Served on top of  my tagliatelle with carbonara sauce, the truffles were vicious and overpowered my palate. I can’t really say that I enjoyed it, but I can certainly say that I have tried it.

I expected more tourists in Piran since it was the weekend, but it wasn’t really overwhelming as compared to the more popular Venice which is only a ferry-ride away. With perfect 84°F (29°C) weather, no humidity, and the Adriatic sea looking calm, you’d wonder where else has every one chosen to be?

By the time I was finished with dinner, the sky had taken a golden glow. I have not surveyed my route yet so I did my once-over around the marina to inspect my vantage points. The town is just how I pictured it from my research except that one side of the marina had unsightly construction going on, so I had to work my composition around that. Afraid that I might not make it up the hill in time, I proceeded to climb the steep hill to the old town walls, only stopping once to ask for directions,. That was a grueling huff-and-puff moment as I raced with the sun, and every second felt like I was losing while I see the sun sinking faster than I could walk.

When I finally reached the towers, there were 2 young men seated on the floor, each with a bottle of bear and one with a camera. I asked them if that was the best vantage point seeing that they were there for the sunset as well. They pointed me to a narrow set of stairs to a higher tower where I had found 2 other people in a tiny cramped space. The place filled up quickly as soon as I saved my spot and the sky started its color transformation.

You have to be there to believe it.

You know how you look at a postcard or a photograph of a lovely view and be awed by what you see? I have seen many photos from this view of Piran, yet still, being able to witness it firsthand felt incredible, almost surreal. If only I did not have to keep my eyes behind the camera for most of sunset, I would have relished the experience more, but then that’s why you try to capture it the best you can with your camera, and hope that the trade-off was worth it.

One of my favorite moments in this town was walking in the narrow alleys on the multi-layered hill – going down not up because that’s easier – and I bump into these 10-12 year-olds who are romping around, chasing each other, and being kids. So carefree and nostalgic. And then you are surrounded by these old houses and churches that have many stories to tell, just like the red Gothic Venetian house in the square. This oldest building is said to have been built by a rich Venetian merchant to house his mistress, and in defiance to all the gossip, he had this Latin message inscribed between the windows: “Lassa pur dir.” Let them talk.

Composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini, whom the square was named for, was a native of Piran.

During the time around sunset up to twilight while I was busy running around with my camera, I still tried to catch glimpses of the festive yet laid-back scene in Tartini square: the same children running around Giuseppe Tartini’s statue, their folks seated nearby on benches, and others watching from the cafés while eating gelato, sipping coffee, and enjoying the night. It’s not easy to pick out the tourists from the locals here; every one seems like they belong. I’d think to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice to join in and be part of this?” Not many places are able to freeze time like it does here.

On my second night in Piran as I was milking the last light of the day up the hill in St. George’s church, I could hear angelic voices singing from down the square. That, along with timely church bells ringing – although it might sound like a cliché – was pure bliss and heaven. You have to be there to believe it. After I had finished working and I went down the hill, that’s when I realized that there was a small gathering in Tartini square, an evening concert featuring a choir and dance performers. You certainly wouldn’t find this in touristy places without a carnival-type atmosphere or a big crowd. This one was like going to a school musical in your hometown, coming home, and having a nightcap before going to bed which was sort of what I did before retiring back at the hotel that night. I stopped for a strudel and cocoa at what turned out to be my favorite bistro, Stara Gostilna. I felt so welcomed there that by the second night that I had stopped for fish soup and Istrian risotto, my amicable server had treated me like a family member. She’d say both times, perhaps worried that I did not like the meal, “Why you never eat much?” and urge me to finish my food.

Working the salt pan.

Since Piran was tiny and you can only do so much around here, I wanted to explore outside of town within the range of limited time that I had, so I ended up not too far down past Portoroz to the village of Sečovlje, known for its salt pans. I don’t know how you can make a tourist spot out of a salt pan, but they sure figured it out. The salt pans, extending hundreds of acres at the mouth of a river Dragonja, and reaching the boundaries of Croatia, still follow centuries-old tradition of producing salt. This will probably interest those who are avid fans of salty foods, but to me it was just an excuse to explore a little further out. It also gave me a chance to walk down the promenade of Portoroz on the way there.

Just as I had envisioned it to be, or perhaps even exceeding my expectations, the sunrise in Piran was just as spectacular as the sunset. I did not mind getting up before break of dawn to be among the first one outside. Who doesn’t want to be greeted by the soft murmur of the waves, the whimsical bobbing of the boats in the marina, and be there to see the first grates of the cafes pulling up, the last street light turning off, and best of all, witness the sun rising behind the distant hills across the Mediterranean sea?

Piran’s location being at the tip of the peninsula jutting out into the sea gives it a geographical advantage, at least visually. Its fringes are nicely ruffled by the warm waters of the Adriatic that is fed off by the larger Mediterranean, and you can see Italy and Croatia on a clear day. As if this lovely town was not enough to delight you, you are awarded with many more extras.

While walking along the short coastline past the Punta lighthouse early morning, I discovered how rocky the edges of Piran are. They said that the town walls were built to reinforce the hill to prevent the ground from falling. All these rough and jagged edges around it make me realize even more that Piran resembles a diamond in the rough. From the top of the hill looking down, Piran is a jewel that sparkles to the rhythm of the glistening sea and sun.

While I felt sad to leave this heaven-on-earth paradise, I have tried to freeze the moments through photographs. That is perhaps the closest I can get to reliving the experience.

Sunset is only one of the many attractions in Piran.

Beautiful morning view of Tartini square from the church of St. George. The oval-shaped square (hmm, that doesn't sound right) used to be a dock before it was made into a square during the Middle Ages when subsequently, buildings and palaces were built around it.

Covering about 650 hectares near the Slovenian-Croatia border, the salt pans of Sekolvje still practice the same techniques of salt-making since the 14th century.

As if there's not enough things to like about Piran, but if you love seafood, you surely will like it here. The Slovenian coast of Istria (Istria, being the largest peninsula of the Adriatic which also includes Croatia and Italy) has a local cuisine that is big on pasta, meat and fish. I had this baked red snapper at Giuseppe restaurant in Tartini square. Now that's a meal.

At the Saturday market in Tartini square, I found these 2 local Slovenian specialties: schnapps and honey. (1) SCHNAPPS - may be fruit or medicinal herb, are made from distilled alcohol that is derived from fermented fruits. (2) HONEY - they say that 1 in 250 Slovenian keep bees; the native Carniolan gray bee thrive in the forest and alpine environment that covers 60% of Slovenia.

Fresh from the bakery Slovenian pastries (1) Prekmurska Gibanica is a layered cake, originating in the region of Prekmurje, Slovenia, and contains poppy seeds, walnuts, apples, raisins, and cottage cheese fillings. (2) Bombica is a chocolate coconut ball.

PIRAN'S CHURCHES - Piran has many churches nestled within the multi-layered terraces of its hill, alongside medieval homes. Three of these churches have all different colorful styles: (L to R) Church of St. Peter, Church of St. Mary of the Snows, and the famous St. George Church which is dedicated to the town's protector and patron saint.

6 responses

  1. I love this place – I remember cycling around the coastline many years ago.. so beautiful. I like your love for the blue hour – an interesting way to snap photos…

  2. Awesome photos and commentary, as always. It’s great you are trying more food. You gain a little bit of insight on people of an area by what they eat. Truffles are a bit of an acquired taste at first. It will overwhelm your sense of taste and smell and you’ll wonder why it cost so much. But once you are hooked, you’ll want the full flavour and smell. It’s excellent with spinach cheese ravioli. Love your window shot. It’s such a teaser. It begs you to fully open the shutters.

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