With pastel-shaded buildings and culinary delights on the Mediterranean coast, Slovenia’s south west region pockets hidden gems and off-beat cities without the crowds of Croatia, discovers Robin McKelvie
Fancy a city break with a difference this spring? We’re talking about a trio of pearls sprinkled out across the balmy Istrian shores of the Mediterranean, awash with history, bountiful beaches, a relaxed vibe and lashings of world class food and drink. Welcome to the Slovenian coast, the Mediterranean’s secret playground, and the ideal spring getaways of Koper, Piran and Portorož.
In this lively port city’s historic core it feels like the Venetians only left yesterday. Their evocative legacy is a swathe of grand architecture in an ancient city once known as Capris and Iustinopolis. A languorous slice of Italian La Dolce Vita also still ripples through a city still known across the water as Capodistria.
Head through the landmark Muda Gate and the centuries peel back. The warren of narrow old town lanes lead towards the grand main square, a riot of Venetian Gothic that is home to the Venetian-era loggia, the lavish Praetorian Palace and one of the largest cathedrals in Slovenia. The City Tower that soars above offers a sweeping view of Koper and the sparkling Adriatic Sea. Back on the square you can enjoy a bela kava (latte) in the café in the 15th century loggia as you soak in the palpable sense of history.
If you fancy a dip quality beach options tempt in Ankaran, Strunjan or San Simon Bay in Izola. Boat trips exploring this spectacular sun drenched coast also tempt. Inland great hiking and cycling awaits in the rugged limestone hills of the Kras, or Karst, a word Slovenia gave the world to describe the dramatic mountainous and porous limestone scenery that rises right behind the coastal cities.
The predominant Slovenian Istrian red grape is refosco, which grows in the rich local soil and is said to boast a raft of health benefits. At the Hisa Refoska restaurant learn about the local viniculture and tour their cellar, home to what was once Europe’s largest wooden wine barrel, with a whopping volume of over 40,000 litres. It goes well with the excellent local fuzi pasta when laced with Istrian truffles.
This chocolate box pretty Venetian-era gem is one of the most picturesque historic settlements anywhere around the Adriatic. Piran’s expansive old core ripples across a sea kissed peninsula and nestles within sturdy old walls. It casts a storybook beauty that is instantly beguiling. Swathes of history, a rich cultural scene and views to Italy and Croatia are part of a cocktail as tempting as a glass of the crisp local white wine, malvasija.
The main square of Tartinijev Trg pays homage to Piran’s most famous musical son, the composer Tartini, whose statue adorns it. Make sure to ask at the square’s tourist office about any current concerts or cultural events. For centuries salt was the coast’s main industry and you will still find it produced here today. Piran salt is farmed using age-old methods, with the Salt Making Festival every year in April marking the start of the season along the coast and celebrating the industry, with the epicentre of the festival in Piran.
Handily you can just plunge straight from almost anywhere around the old town peninsula straight into the crystal clear waters. Hike up to the old town walls, which provide a bird’s eye view of Piran, as does the landmark Church of St George. Delve inside this Venetian Renaissance gem to learn how much the saint is still very much still revered in Piran today, with its lavish frescoes and statue of St George himself. Climb to the top of the vaulting belltower for epic views of this remarkable coastline. Look out for a flurry of small souvenir stalls and boutique shops on your way back down the hill.
Seafood is the star in Piran with the southern side of the peninsula awash with a sprinkling of restaurants offering up heaving platters of boat fresh squid, mussels and quality white fish, which comes healthily grilled with the fine local olive oil. Make sure to try too the skampi (the local langoustines) in a delicious tomato ‘buzara’ sauce. It is best washed down with that crisp, dry malvasija white wine, which has been cultivated along this coast since Roman times.
The Port of Roses sports a rich history as a spa resort dating back to the 19th century, when it was a key health retreat during the days of the Austrian Empire. The prime legacy is the lavish Hotel Palace, which is now a luxurious Kempinski hotel. The most popular beach resort on the Slovenian coast has all the beach thrills, as well as a flurry of hotels, spas and casinos, with a handy waterfront walkway leading along to Piran.
Ease back from the family-friendly beaches and the grandeur of the Slovenian coast’s first beach resort unfolds and not just with the stately Hotel Palace, as there are period villas and plenty of characterful flourishes. Boat trips are a great way to get a sense for how dramatic the location is and are even more enjoyable when a fish lunch is included.
Portoroz’s littoral is awash with places to soak in the rays, laze on a sun lounger or just unfurl your towel on the sand. The waterfront boulevard is great for romantic strolls, especially if you want to ease along to Piran and catch a bus or taxi back. You will also find a number of hotels that keep the spa tradition alive and welcome non-guests for massage and beauty treatments, as well as the famed seawater thalassotherapy. At the Secovlje salt pans you can learn about the traditional salt production at the Museum of Salt Making and on a guided tour.
Like all three of these destinations foodies will be in heaven as you can sample regional delicacies such as the mouth-watering prsut air dried ham (similar to Italian prosciutto; arguably better) and some excellent hinterland cheeses. Both go well with the red refosco wine. Also look out for struklji, a layer of thin dough layers that can be a delicious cream cheese laced side or a fruit laden dessert.
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