Slovenia's Seaside Paradise: Piran
Get a taste of Venice—at decidedly Balkan prices—in the sleepily atmospheric and deeply multicultural coastal settlement of Piran.
The sun is rising over the Adriatic. The rose-hued sky deepens the pink of the lighthouses, the palazzos, the peninsula church. Restaurant Neptun, huddled on a terrace beside the makeshift bus station, is just opening—the first cappuccinos are being prepared; the first pastries baked. The buses come one by one: to Trieste, to Koper, where you can change for Zagreb, for Sarajevo.
I sit on the chalky rocks, overlooking the sea, eating my burek.
Like everything else in Piran—a pedestrianized seaside town of barely 4,000 near Slovenia’s border with Italy—morning is a culturally diverse affair.
Piran—known to Italians, who make up a large proportion of the town’s tourist population, as Pirano—is officially bilingual, and a sense of ethnic admixture suffuses every aspect of local life.
Bakeries here serve both burek—that quintessentially Balkan blend of phyllo pastry, mincemeat, and grease—and cornetti, Italy's distinctive breakfast treat. The town’s signature drink—the “Hugo”—is a mix of elderflower liqueur from the nearby Tyrolean Alps and Italianate prosecco. Even the seafood—finely chopped octopus tartare, clams pulled straight from the sea—is often seasoned with truffles rooted out in the inland mountains.
Like most Adriatic coastal settlements, Piran spent most of its history controlled by the splendid doges of Venice, and has the ornate baroque architecture to match—especially around marbled Tartini Square—though streets like Via Karl Marx and Via Lenin belie Slovenia’s communist past. Nestled between the seafood restaurants along the marina is popular Balkan socialist-kitsch chain Sarajevo ’84, where hearty bean stews and goulashes are served up by performatively surly waitresses.
This sense of nowhereness lends Piran an almost dreamlike atmosphere—one that’s only intensified by the fact that, in my seven late-summer visits, I’ve shared the pebble beaches that line the town's central peninsula with a handful of visitors at most. Those tourists who do venture to Piran are often day-trippers from nearby Portorož, a garish Riviera resort town known for its Vegas-style all-inclusive hotels.
There are few hotels in Piran itself—Hotel Piran, with its staidly elegant lobby and waterside restaurant, is the most comfortable—and most accommodation is found in family-run guesthouses or B&Bs.
This makes sense, as, in truth, there is little to actually do in Piran beyond meandering—which, depending on your travel proclivities, only adds to its languorous appeal.
Beneath the Franciscan church and monastery—two towering medieval structures built upon the hill above town—a narrow cliffside path leads to the hamlet of Fiesole, where grassy meadows and stone slabs lead straight into the sparkling water. While, downtown, crooked cobblestoned streets wend into each other, under faded marble archways, and past candle-strewn shrines to the Virgin Mary.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Piran’s the sort of place where you spend the morning ambling from café to café along the waterfront—from Neptun to the recently restored art nouveau Café Teater, with its Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired frescoes and creaking chandeliers. From there, it's on to Tartini Square, which is more often than not occupied by antique dealers and artisans selling everything from fin de siècle china and lace embroidery to Piran salt—once the driving force behind the town's economy—cured meats, and truffle-infused cheese.
When hunger strikes, drift toward the harbor for a lunch of garlicky, full-bodied spaghetti alle vongole at Pavel or Pavel 2—they’re neighbors, owned by the same family—complemented by copious portions of fruity Karst wine (at two to three dollars a glass, it’s a practically requisite indulgence).
Then it's on to the Hotel Piran terrace for sunset cocktails, or dinner at the province’s most sumptuous restaurant, Rizibizi—a 20-minute walk from town—specializing in truffles and other locally sourced fare, with staggering sea views from its vine-laced patio.
Piran’s intoxicating silence—and its patently Balkan prices—feel a world away from the high-season anarchy of nearby Venice or Le Marche. But when you’re watching the moon appear on the horizon over the marina, as the Tartini Square musicians take up their violins once again, you’ll be staring at the same, star-dappled sky.