At the time the old Yugoslavia was carved up 15 or so years ago, Slovenia emerged with the thinnest end of a pretty fat wedge —- a country the size of Wales with a measly 25 miles of coastline. But what a 25 miles they are.
The coastline is so tiny it seems almost like a negotiated afterthought — you can’t even run a coastal marathon in Slovenia and stay in the one country — but in a way that’s part of the appeal. It is the most fun landing on Italian soil at Trieste airport, hiring a car and driving 800 metres to the border, crossing into Slovenia for a long weekend by the seaside, with a detour perhaps up to the lakes and mountains, knowing that the barest half hour more in the car will take you into Croatia.
This last time around I stayed just outside — actually above — the workaday port of Koper at the Villa Andor. I stayed there once before. That time there was a bit of traffic — three cars and a motorbike, I think — and I was slow getting there from Trieste.
This time, no traffic. I made it from Italy to my hotel in Slovenia in a shade over 50 seconds and made immediately for Koper harbour. The place was in a heightened state of excitement. I happened to be there on the day a major cruise ship — from Venice on its way down south to the islands of Croatia — was docking for the first time on Slovenian soil, a pretty huge thing for a country that is all but land-locked.
The centre of Koper’s Old Town is Titov Trg (pronounceTirg), an appealing, traffic-free Gothic-Renaissance square with Venetian undertones.
A war hero’s gongs are cat food compared to the façade of Koper’s 600-year old Praetorian Palace, which fairly groans under the weight of hundreds of medallions and coats of arms of the rich and famous and the Venetian doges who used to sail across the gulf for their morning coffee and a little ennoblement.
Koper’s town planners are slaves to creative imaginings. The stunning 1463-built arcaded Venetian Gothic Loggia on the square’s north side is now a coffee shop, while the Almerigogna Palace, a hauntingly beautiful colonnaded edifice bedecked with many Romanesque frescos and gargoyles goes that uber-hip, post-modern ironic one step further: it’s a pub.
Truth to tell, where I stayed in Koper is where I like best i — the tiny village of Ankaran. Technically part of Greater Koper — though how a town of just 22,000 people has a greater anything remains a mystery — Ankaran nestles seductively on a hillside high up the Milje Peninsula, separated from Koper by a succession of vineyards. Lush, green and subtropical, my tranquil little wisteria- and hibiscus-clad hotel had lovely enough coastal views, and more than enough local wines, to make disengaging from my private balcony a bit of a wrench.
The local wines, I might add, are superb: top notch Merlots and Syrahs from the nearby Rojac vineyard. Koper really is a fine wine region, while the exceptional Istrian cuisine makes absolute mincemeat of dieting. Not for nothing is Koper the centre of Slovenia’s Italian ethnic community. Italians know their food and drink and the border is crossed more than frequently for a good night out.
The undoubted jewel in Slovenia’s coastal crown is Piran. Izola has its fans, while Portoroz, for all its clean golden sand and shiny spa resorts, is rather too much the abandoned love-child of Atlantic City and Blackpool for my own pure and cultured tastes. (Once I see three discos in a row and a turnstile on the beach, I know it’s time to move on, preferably to Piran.)
Piran’s Old Town is a minor miracle of Venetian Gothic. To be perfectly frank it does Venice better than Venice does Venice. Venice without the crowds, Venice without the smells, Venice without the Harry’s Bar prices. Piran is all narrow streets and labyrinthine cobbled alleyways where outstretched arms can touch both sides of the street simultaneously. Piran is not so much Venice in minor as Dubrovnik in miniature. And the views. Goodness me, but they are truly something else. To run one’s eye along the tapering line of terracotta rooftops towards the turquoise waters of the Adriatic from the highest point in town is to have one’s breath whisked clean away.
A few short weeks ago, under the most unseasonally warm sun that I could have never possibly imagined for the time of year, I hauled my backpack — groaning under the weight of two bottles of deep crimson Syrah and a hunk of parmesan the size of Bolton — upstream from the Sienna-like main square, Tartinijev Trg, past the Monastery of St Francis and the Church of Our Lady of the Snows, all the way to the blissfully silent Church of St George atop a hill that was, let me tell you, pretty damn hilly. Parmesan is very heavy.
From here, one does nothing but gaze. This is the highest point in town and these are, pure and simple and whichever way you turn, amongst the very best rooftop views in Europe. Dubrovnik, many hundreds of miles down the Croatian coast, has rooftop views to die for, and Slovenia’s own capital city of Llubljana — a sort of Prague lite without the crowds — scores even higher on the terracotta-and-chimneys scale. Piran, though, is right up there with the best of them.
Each time I’ve visited Slovenia I have not once missed the chance to sit awhile in a canal-side café in Ljubljana. Nor have I eschewed the twin lakes of Bled — with its hand-propelled gondolas and the 120 steps that lead from the jetty to the church at the apex of the lake’s deliriously enchanting little island — and Bohinj, each more beautiful than any lake I know in Western Europe. Nor have I managed to step on Slovenian soil without scarring my shins on the precipitous slopes of Mount Triglav at the heart of the soaring, often thrillingly hazardous, Julian Alps.
This time, though, Piran hooked me and it was quite an effort to desert its picturesque charms for the country’s interior. I arrived for a day — I had booked into the Villa Andor overnight with the intention of a week’s camping on, and climbing above, the banks of Bohinj — but stayed the long weekend.
For now I was happy enough to walk the same walks, sometimes right out of town and down the coast, each day from Friday through Monday. By night I had my fish suppers down by the pretty little harbour and took in the odd concert at the lovingly restored Tartini Theatre, before sipping a nightcap in the theatre’s café-bar, much the liveliest spot in this gloriously unspoiled unexpected corner of the old Yugoslavia.
Slovenia, and particularly its coast, is way less visited than Croatia down the road. Actually, most people don’t even know it has a coast. But that is one secret best kept between ourselves.
Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com) flies daily from Stansted to Trieste from £60 return. A shuttle bus runs from Trieste Airport to the Slovenian coast with single fares from 15¤ (£13.40). Room rates at Villa Andor (00 386 5 615 5000; www.andor.si) from 40¤ (£36) per person (based on two sharing), with breakfast. For details of all things Slovenian contact the National Tourist Board (www.slovenia.info)
As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Slovenia was once at the heart of European Jewish history. Today some 500 Jews live in Llubljana.
The Jewish Community Centre is at Trzaska 2, Llubljana (00 386 1 252 1836; email@example.com). One Jew remains in Maribor where the 1429 synagogue is now a museum and cultural centre, chronicling the story of Slovenia’s Jewish history.