My Slovenian experience has a difference to other recent trips. For once, I can’t say I am travelling solo; I have with me my youngest son, 10-year-old Luca. We are on a day-long tour of the coastal towns, having spent the previous day in Trieste, North East Italy. Flying to Italy was Luca’s idea. One day, whilst discussing some of my travel destinations, he asked if we could visit the country his name comes from. Do not misunderstand, there is no Italian history in the family for him to discover. No, his motive is a carefully considered one, borne of long-suffered frustration: he wants to find a souvenir which bears his name (impossible for him in the UK, unless buying a pen adorned with ‘Lucas’ and adding an apostrophe before the ‘s’, in attempt to make it a viable gift. This, fellow parents of children named Luca, does not wash – I’ve tried). Trieste makes an excellent base for exploring Slovenia (only a twenty-minute drive out of the city) and – just a little further South – Croatia.
We are met outside our apartment first thing in the morning by our guide, Bojan. He takes our bags and I diligently make my way to the left-side front door of the car and climb in. I think it takes me a full minute of sitting with the door closed and Bojan standing the other side of the glass, eyebrows raised, before I realise there is a steering wheel in front of me. How many more times will I make this mistake? History suggests it will not be last. Finally realising and apologising for my bumbling Brit status, I correct my seating position and allow Bojan to drive, instead. It’s probably for the best. The Trieste roads are full; and an army of Fiat Pandas zips in and out of tiny parking spaces on narrow streets. Passing a huddled mass of industry on the Southern side of the city, we make it to the coastal road. We are, so we are told, avoiding weekend roadworks and take a single-track up and along the coastal hills to our first destination, Koper. It’s slow-going, but the views are already fantastic, sea glittering under flawless blue.
Koper was once a walled town, and separated from the mainland by water. We park just outside what would have been the main town, and wander along ‘Shoemaker Street’. Everywhere is extremely quiet. Bojan explains that the streets will be full in a month or two, once the tourist season really begins. Koper and the surrounding area has become what we conclude is the “Devon of Slovenia”, with many Slovenian residents of inland towns buying holiday homes here. The result is something of a ghost town during winter months, with many thousands of empty apartments providing no customers to the town-centre bars and restaurants. Few of them will open this weekend in early March.
Lined with Venetian-style buildings – a trait shared by every coastal resort we see – Shoemaker Street is a cobbled ramble back in time. Bojan explains that the stone houses hide ‘secret gardens’, with many of them using tiny outdoor spaces to create pockets of green in the otherwise stone-covered streets. We see glimpses of this as we walk – there are already colourful pots planted outside front doors in optimistic clusters. The street breaks out into the town square, home to the completely charming Town Hall, built in the 14th century. The Loggia stands opposite – now home to a coffee shop, it was once a meeting point for local nobility. Commoners would gather in the square, trying to catch sight or word of what was being discussed. The Catholic church sits alongside, its tower standing proud over the surrounding houses and all their secret greenery, once a defence tower against pirates.
Continuing our tour of the town, we pass along delightful and crooked residential streets, many of them too narrow for vehicles, and many of the buildings unchanged over the years. Bojan points out a traditional-style dwelling, with chimney built on the outside to maximise space indoors. A few centuries ago, space and warmth were in such short supply within the city walls that animals would have been housed indoors, on the ground floor of these dwellings, their human keepers living above. There are glimpses of history everywhere we go; large portions of the original town walls remain. We pose for pictures with two large wells, once the only fresh water supply for residents within the walls during times of attack. Luca deciphers the Roman numerals in the stone of the wells ten times faster than I do, and confirms with Bojan that they have been here since 1435.
The coastal road continues to the next town of Izola – which also happens to be Bojan’s home, and also once an island. The views upgrade themselves to spectacular as we pass several vantage points over both Koper and Izola. Arriving in Izola and stepping out of the car, there is immediately a different vibe to Koper. For one thing, the car park is full; people mill all around. We pass a flea market, full of smiling locals (Bojan seems to know them all), and someone playing drums on the street. Bojan – a fellow bass player – waves to one of his bandmates who is zooming past on a bike, music pouring behind him from a speaker on his handlebar. Bojan explains that Izola was the birthplace of rock and roll in Slovenia, and is still a go-to destination. Sure enough, we pick a café (they are all open here!) for a coffee break, and rock music fills the space around us. We perch on outside stools, overlooking the harbour and sheltered from the infamous ‘Bora’ wind that typically pesters the region, and discuss blues music whilst Luca samples Slovenia’s strangely medicinal-tasting but delicious herbal answer to Coca-Cola, Cockta.
Moving on, we come to the Town Hall. Official buildings in the region are adorned with statues of lions holding a book. If the book is open, the area was not at war at the time of building; if closed, it was. The Hall bears a lion with his book safely open. The musical heritage of the town is evidenced as we pass by the music school and into a square housing the oldest buildings in Izola. This leads to Ljubljanska Ulica (‘Artist Street’), in which many secret concerts take place. It is not unusual for successful Slovenian bands to turn up in the small town and play unpublicised gigs, open-air or within surrounding bars. These roads are also the site for cookery competitions, with local cooks lining the street and showcasing their signature dishes.
Piran is the richest town on the Slovenian coast thanks to salt mining, which began in the area in 804, allowing the town to grow and flourish. Its name is derived from the Greek ‘pyro’, meaning fire; the pretty lighthouse on the coast was once lit with flames.
Parking is at a premium in Piran, and there are no spaces available for visiting vehicles. We park at Fornace Garage, a multi-story car park between Piran and Portoroz. The summer months see queues of cars along the mountain roads, waiting for spaces, but there are plenty of spaces available for us on this Saturday in early March. A five-minute walk downhill towards the coast leads to a free bus transfer point (although note that the car park itself is not free), which deposits visitors at Tartini Square, the main square, so named after violinist and composer Guiseppe Tartini. A monument of the composer stands in the square, poised with his violin above the townspeople since 1896.
The square is surrounded by the venetian-style influences we have seen in the other towns. The bell tower of the Church of St. George looks out over the square. It is a small-scale copy of San Marco Bell Tower in Venice. For €1, visitors can climb the 146 steps to the top, and I would urge anyone visiting the area to do just this. Hopefully the pictures below are evidence for why. The castle-like building atop the hill is part of the original city wall.
Unable to persuade Luca that he can survive for a moment longer without lunch (one of the down-sides of travelling with a constantly ravenous growing boy), we make our way to the wonderfully named “Gossip Café”. The visit is included as part of our tour and a warm welcome awaits us as we settle at a cosy table. The bartender brings a plate of bread, a selection of local sausage, fish, and olives. Glasses of wine are brought in abundance. Luca and I strike a deal that I will drink his share of the wine, and he will eat my share of the fish and meat. We begin with dry white wines produced in the region (I recommend Sladki Muskat, as my favourite of the day). Moving to sweet wines, Bojan tells us they are often called ‘laughing wine’ locally.
Leaving the bar to continue exploring, I stumble on the cobbles, nearly flying face first onto the stones. Reassuring Luca this has nothing to do with lunchtime wine-drinking, Bojan and I start to showcase the laughing properties of this delicious local produce.
We walk around town in a loose circle, visiting The Cloisters of Saint Francis. Here, one can find a collection of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio, the 15th/16th century Venetian artist, who – according to local legend – was born in Koper. The yard is a peaceful and bright space, with further paintings showcased outdoors. Outside the main square, the town is quieter than Izola, and we head towards the peaceful coast. Here, there are several hotels and restaurants, all enjoying picturesque views over the water towards the Venetian coastline. There seem to be more places to eat, drink, and stay here than the other towns of our tour and I would recommend it as a base for exploring the beautiful seaside offerings of this welcoming country.
I will leave you with a poem penned by Luca at the end of our day:
Slovenia, Slovenia, a good place,
When you are here, make sure you find a parking space
It is really good, to not wear your hood
It is very sunny
Not many people have a bunny
It is a beautiful place
But don’t break your face
The wine makes you laugh
But don’t fall on the path
Who discovered it though?
[Picture of a puzzled dog]
Many thanks to Koper Tours for our Slovenian experience.