Imagine what the Adriatic coastal town of your dreams will look like. Chances are it will be something like Piran. Venetian architecture, sea views, Italian inspired cooking, a nearby spa resort...
Poor Slovenia has hardly any coastline; you would be forgiven for assuming it to be landlocked. Indeed, most beach bound tourists ignore it and turn to Croatia and Italy for their Adriatic kicks. That's no bad thing for the rest of us because we get to enjoy the 46km Istrian coast without the crowds.
One town, in particular, steals the show; Piran. It has an “ooh” and “ah” inducing situation on the tip of a peninsula. Tightly packed houses with red roofs fill every inch of land. Charming squares, a bell tower and church spires make the place very delightful. Five hundred years of Venetian rule has resulted in a very Italian character with architecture and cuisine that could easily fit in with what goes on across the border.
Easy and efficient are the words that sum up public transport in Slovenia. Ljubljana to Piran takes two hours 40 minutes by bus (www.ap-ljubljana.si/eng/).
Ordinarily a bus journey in a small European country would not provide sustenance for a travel article, but in this case two curious passengers provided plenty of amusement. There was a guy sniffing in a very loud, weird way that had everybody turning around to see what on earth was going on. At his stop the driver had to shout the destination at the top of his voice several times to jolt the guy into leaving. I watched him staggering around outside, unable to walk in a straight line.
There was a girl who, at every stop, got out to smoke a cigarette and drink a can of lager. On one occasion she got too comfortable on a bench and the bus drove off without her. Luckily for her she had been flirting with most of the men on the bus and one who was particularly enamored by her demanded the driver turn back!
Where to stay
I stayed in the Val Youth Hostel, an adorable place hidden away within the rabbit warren of Piran's narrow alleys. The nightly rate is 25 euros per person with breakfast. Although this is a budget traveller's choice I would also recommend it for those used to a bit more comfort. The reason is that the rooms are spotless and the location is perfect for experiencing the true atmosphere of Piran's interior. There are no huge dorms in this building; my room had just two beds, a little writing desk and sink.
The rooftop terrace offers a great opportunity to catch up with some laundry and leave it out to dry just like a local; let your favourite socks join Piran's patchwork quilt of hanging washing.
Breakfast here was memorable for the vastness of choice. Just like Piran's peninsula every inch of space was filled with something; melon, grapes, oranges, eggs, cheese, cold meats, olives, orange juice, cereals and bread.
Walking and enjoying the atmosphere of the narrow streets is the main activity here. The evening is the best time to witness a town living in close confines. You will smell cooking, hear music, conversation, singing, television sets and even sneezing!
Tartinjev trg (Tartini Square)
This is the town's focal point, named after the renowned violinist Giuseppe Tartini. The bronze statue is him. Great looking buildings surround the square, including the 15th century Venetian house, impossible to miss with its red colour and distinctive corner balcony. However, it is the shiny marble surface of the square that gets most of the attention, particularly by hyperactive children sliding and slipping. The night time reflection of lights on this polished square is one of my lasting memories of Piran.
You can't possibly leave Piran without that classic photo of the peninsula jutting out into that block of perfect blue colour otherwise known as the Adriatic Sea. The 46-meter-high belfry is a good place to capture it, but be warned that the stairs are rickety. I timed my visit badly to coincide with the deafening clanging of the bells. The town walls require more than a little exertion to reach but, in my opinion, their vantage point was superior to the belfry.
The history of Slovenia's naval exploits is an interesting diversion (Cankarjevo nabrežje 3). For me the highlight of the visit was the building that the collection is housed in, the Gabrielli Palace. It has a fabulous interior layout; my favourite being the tiny oval room on the corner with windows looking over the port.
I undertook the pleasant 2km coastal walk to Portorož, Slovenia's premier beach resort. I headed straight for the Terme & Wellness LifeClass spa (/www.lifeclass.net/en/), the best place to sample the health-giving properties of the local mineral waters that put this town on the map in the 1830s.
For 10 euros I was given access to the enormous complex of swimming pools at different temperatures, waterfalls, whirlpools, underwater chaise longues and massage benches.
I indulged myself with one of their treatments, the 40 minute Vichy massage (50€ ), described thus: "This unique massage with sea water and aromatic oils is carried out on a special massage bed, above which numerous sea water jets are positioned. There are two types of massage carried out simultaneously, namely the hand massage given by the masseur and the massage exercised by gentle jets of warm sea water coming from above." I have been to several spa resorts in the world and this treatment has destroyed anything else that I previously experienced. Try this if you have the chance!
The spa is attached to the Grand Hotel Portorož. If you want 5-star accommodation it does the trick - from 200 euros for a double with breakfast - but it does not have the atmosphere of the hostel in Piran old town.
Where to eat
Stara Gostilna (Savudrijska 2)
A very informal and laid back place with efficient service. The decor is straightforward; the emphaisis is on good tasting food. I tried an overly generous portion of olives and crusty bread for a starter, spaghetti with shrimps for the main course and a huge green salad. It was not fancy by any means, but it was highly tasty. The surprise was being served a complimentary drink of sherry and grappa with a bunch of grapes on a silver tray at the end. Expect to pay 15 euros for something similar.
Pri-Mari (Dantejeva ulica 17)
Located near the bus station I walked here during a storm, chilled to the bone and dreaming of warm, chunky soup. The Istrian bean and corn soup with hunks of bread more than met my comfort food craving. Gnocchi with shrimp came with a thick, slightly spicy tomato sauce. I ordered a Greek salad as a side dish that was big enough to be a meal in itself. Expect to pay 15 to 20 euros. It has a homely, cottage-like decor with cosy tables favoured by couples.
This is a nice café on the corner of Tartinjev trg. Not particularly lively, but certainly comfortable.
I got so carried away with the scrumptious cakes that I forgot to write down which street the bakery is on, but the old town is so small that your wanderings will take you there at some point. Then you will also get so excited by the chocolate cake that you will forget the street name!
The main drag in Portorož is crowded with cafés, most featuring enticing ice cream counters. Beach hut style cafés are aplenty along the path between Piran and Portorož .