Piran Slovenia: A Venetian Jewel On the Adriatic Coast
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
I usually think of Slovenia as a gravely beautiful land of imposing green mountains and shimmering blue lakes. But on a slender finger of a peninsula, encircled by the sparkling Adriatic sea, sits the picturesque town of Piran. You'll feel like you've been power beamed to Tuscany. It's a little slice of Italy.
Semi-crumbling pastel facades that Michelangelo might have sculpted rise above ancient maze-like streets. Venetian architecture is adorned with tracery windows. The compact historic core is one of the best preserved medieval sites in the Mediterranean. Piran's reminiscent of Venice, but without the canals or hordes of tourists.
It's hard not to fall in love. Here's my guide to Piran, the loveliest town on the Adriatic coast.
A Short History of Piran
Piran was first inhabited by fishermen, hunters, shepherds, and pirates. The pirates enjoyed attacking Roman ships. But mostly, until the last 30 years, Piran has changed hands repeatedly and been ruled by other nation states.
In 178 BC, Piran became part of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the area was ruled by various Illyrian tribal leaders.
In the 8th century, the Byzantine Empire took over the Adriatic coast and fortified the town. After two centuries of Byzantium rule, in the 10th century, Piran found itself within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire.
In the 12th century, Piran fell under the rule of the Venetian Republic. It remained part of Venice until the fall of the republic in 1797. During Venetian rule, most of Piran's buildings were constructed and Italian was the principal language. The result? Piran was nicknamed "the little Venice."
Following Venetian rule, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Piran. After that empire collapsed in 1918, Piran was ruled by Italy. Following WWII, Piran became part of the Free Territory of Triest. It was later incorporated into Yugoslavia via plebiscite. Since 1991, and the breakup of Yugoslavia, it's been an independent nation.
Thanks to centuries of influence from Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia, Piran is ethnically and architecturally diverse.
The town is famous for its olive oil and its world class la fleur de sel sorts (flower of salt). At one time, salt was nearly as precious as gold. A Slovenian slogan is “the salt is the sea that couldn’t get back to the sky.” Every April, Piran has a Salt Making Festival. Other local delicacies include white truffles, wines, and the ubiquitous fresh seafood.
Let's check out the highlights of Piran.
1. Tartini Square
Tartini Square is the heart of Piran's old town. It's a marble-paved, sherbet-toned, red roofed oval designed by Boris Podrecca. Formerly, it was Piran's inner harbor, until it was filled in 1894. It was designed in an elliptical shape because it used to be the turnaround point for a tram line.
Tartini Square is full of chic bars, alfresco cafes, and colorful houses. It's a splendid place to snack and people watch. I opted for some scrumptious mussels to get my seafood fix. It seemed a common choice in this seafood-dominant town.
As you people watch, try the "Hugo," Piran's signature drink. It's a tasty mix of elderflower liqueur and Italian prosecco. Or sip refosk, a local red wine.
2. Tartini Statue & Tartini House
In the square's center is an 1892 statue of Piran's native son -- composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini.
It was designed by Venetian sculptor Antonio dal Zotto. The statue sits in front of Piran's imposing Romanesque City Hall. If you venture inside, there's a large painting by Italian artist Domenico Tintoretto, Mary with a Child and the Dignitaries of Piran.
The place of Tartini's birth, dubbed the Tartini House, is right on the main square. It's one of Piran's oldest buildings, dating as far back as 1384 according to some documents. Entry fee and hours are here.
You can see Tartini's beloved Amati violin, made by Fr Nicolò Amati from Bologna, and his death mask. The violin is a living instrument, and is still used in performances today. Interestingly, Tartini was the first known owner of one of the famous Stradivarius violins.
3. First of May Square
Another square worth visiting is the quaint First of May Square, Trg 1 Maja, at Prvomajski trg. It was Piran’s main square until the 13th century. It can be reached by weaving through a maze of narrow streets and alleyways, flanked with interesting old buildings.
4. The Venetian House
In Tartini Square lies one of Piran’s most eye-catching structures -- the "red" mid-15th century Gothic Venetian House, Benečanka, at the corner of Ulica IX Korpusa. It's very romantic, with beautiful tracery windows and a Juliet-type balcony. The upper floors are still used as a private residence.
When I was there, it was decidedly not "red." Yet when you google the Venetian House, you'll see only bright red images. I learned that the house was repainted in a pale peachy color, which was actually its original color. Authenticity wins.
There's a legend attached to the stone relief between the two upper windows. On it, is a lion with a banner in its mouth and the Latin inscription Lasa pur dir.
The story goes that a wealthy merchant from Venice fell in love with a beautiful local Slovenian girl. They quickly became the subject of local gossip mongering. To silence the shamers and keep his lover happy, the merchant built her this little palace. It defiantly declares, "Let them talk."
5. The Piran Marina
The marina is decorated with bobbing boats, dozens of white yachts, and a pair of Christmas colored lighthouses. It's incredibly picturesque and the perfect laid back place for a "wind in your hair" languorous promenade. Or a sunset.
There are also man made ladders that allow you to take a swim off the rocky shores, if you're so inclined.
On the farthest tip is the Promontory Punta Madonna, populated since pre-Roman times. In fact, one theory about the origin of Piran’s name is that the town took its name from the Greek word pýr, which means fire. There was always a fire burning at Punta Madonna to guide sailors at sea.
On the edge of the promontory, you'll find Piran's old Lighthouse and the tiny Church of Our Lady of Health.
6. Cathedral of St. George
For the best aerial views of Tartini Square and Piran's harbor, climb the bell tower of the Cathedral of St. George for 2 euros.
You access it via a cobbled street behind the Venetian House. The cathedral itself was built in Baroque style in the early 17th century on the site of an earlier church from 1344.
The church was named for the town’s patron saint, St. George. The empty framed space above the door was intended for his statue, but it was never commissioned. Frescos and statues adorn the interior. It's most notable piece of artwork, Crucified from Piran, is a realistic wooden sculpture of Christ on a Y-shaped cross.
The accompanying free-standing bell tower was built in 1609. It's almost 60 meters high. It's a miniaturized version of the Campanile of San Marco in Venice. The bells rings every 15 minutes. Climb the 146 steps for sweeping views.
From the top, you can see four countries all at once -- Italy, Croatia, Austria and Slovenia.
7. The Medieval Walls
When Piran was part of Venice, the fortified walls were built to protect the town from Turkish invasions. They date to the late 15th century.
The walls aren't nearly as extensive as neighboring Dubrovnik or Kotor. But there's a short stretch you can walk for 2 euros. It's an uphill walk to get there and can be very hot in the summer months. But it's worth it just for the view.
Detours and Day Trips From Piran
There are also plenty of things to do near Piran, if you want to venture out, take a detour, or day trip.
1. Walk to Portorož
The town of Portorož lies east of Piran. It's a 30 minute walk on a scenic shore path that runs between the two towns. Portoroz is a swishy beach town, specializing in spa treatments thanks to the area's unique mud and salt. It's the only sandy beach on the tiny Slovenian coast.
2. Stop in Izola
Izola is another quaint town on Slovenia's Istria coast. It's a 25 minute bus ride from Piran.
Izola is smaller and quieter than Piran. But it still has a lovely waterfront promenade, swimming areas, and a picturesque old town. If you’re on the hunt for an off the beaten path town on the Adriatic, explore beautiful Izola.
3. Detour to Škocjan Caves
If time allows and you have a rental car, drive 45 minutes to the several million years old Škocjan Caves, a Slovenian UNESCO site since 1986.
These subterranean caves are gargantuan, spooky, and an absolute must visit if you’re traveling through Slovenia. You'll see stalagmites, stalactites, and interesting rock formations. You visit on a 1.5 hour guided tour through the lighted passageways, with the Reka River running through it.
4. Detour to Predjama Castle
If a medieval fairytale type castle is one your agenda, look no further. Less than an hour from Piran lies one of Europe's most dramatic castles, Predjama Castle.
Tucked into the mouth of a towering cliff, it's one of Slovenia's most famous attractions -- a cave fortress filled with secret tunnels and hidden caves.
Your first glimpse is breathtaking. Predjama Castle's whitewashed walls are set off by the landscape and natural rock. It's foreboding and exudes mystery.
5. Visit Castle Ruins in Socerb
Only a half hour from Piran lies the tiny town of Socerb, very close to the Italian border. There you'll find the ruins of Socerb Castle. The ruins are on the coastline at the very edge of the Karst Plateau. They've been dominating the cliff since the Illyrian times.
The castle is now a restaurant. From it, you'll have a fantastic view of Trieste Italy.
If you're taking a Slovenian road trip, you should definitely add Piran and its environs to your itinerary. It's one of the best places to visit in the Balkans. We loved it.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Piran:
Pro Tip: Leave your car in the parking lot at Garage Fornače and walk 15 minutes into town. Piran is mainly a car free zone. There's also a free shuttle bus from the parking lot.
How to get from Ljubljana to Piran: There is a Ljubljana-Piran bus that runs several times a day and is approximately 2.5 hours each way. It's only 90 minutes to drive there.
Note: Driving in Slovenia requires a vignette, which can be purchased at gas stations close to the border.
Skojan Caves: Matavun 12, Skocjan 6215, Open 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, Entry fee is 18 € for adults, 14 € for students under 26 years and 9 € for children, but changes by season so check the website.
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