Friday, December 5, 2008

A Slice of Italy Across the Sea

Piran, Slovenia, on the Adriatic, a well-preserved medieval town, was once part of the Venetian empire.

The sexy scene could have been mistaken for Cannes or Monaco. On a clear Tuesday last August, the cobblestone promenade in the coastal town of Piran was filled with well-tanned men sitting under thatched umbrellas, watching a collection of topless bronzed women splayed across the rocky beach. The vroom of Vespas could be heard zipping through the town's mazelike alleys.

But Piran is not on the French Riviera, nor is it a lazy Italian fishing village, despite its glut of pizzerias, Venetian Gothic churches and restaurants with names like Verdi Inn. Piran, it turns out, is in Slovenia, tucked between Italy and Croatia along the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea. And in recent years, this once-obscure medieval town - population 5,000 - has garnered an outsized reputation as the crown jewel of the northern Adriatic coast.

Perched on a tiny piece of land jutting into the sea, pleasure-seeking travelers are flocking to Piran to experience the Tuscan-like rolling vineyards, coastal views and rich Italian cuisine - but without the throngs of tourists, exorbitant prices and tacky hotels that now plague much of Italy.

Sure, a few glitzy hotels have opened up on Slovenia's sliver of a coastline, mostly in the neighboring town of Portoroz. The Kempinski Palace (Obala 45; 386 569-270-00;, for example, opened this fall, an Art Nouveau goliath with 183 rooms, a full-service spa and several restaurants overlooking the sea. But it is Piran's well-preserved medieval charm that remains the top draw.

The heart of Piran sits on a sloping peninsula, a maze of orange hipped roofs, crumbling walls and a marble square lined with facades that Michelangelo could have carved. On the weekends, the square is packed with townsfolk soaking up outdoor theater, dance and chamber music.

While the town is officially bilingual (Slovenian and Italian), its cuisine - fresh seafood and pasta - is unmistakably Italian. And for good reason: Piran was ruled by Venice for some 500 years. Slovenian fare, usually some variation of sausage and dumplings, makes only cameos on the menus. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths and soundtracks of Puccini complete the effect. "It's still a fisherman's town and feels as it did during the Venetian empire," said Lea Suligoj of the town's tourism office.

The restaurants with the tastiest cuisine line the seaside esplanade. For good people-watching over sips of refosk, a local red wine, head to Pavel (Kosovelova ul 1; 386-567-471-02), a family-style fish restaurant with a lobster-filled aquarium and glassed-in garden. Classic dishes include thinly sliced cuts of sea bass (40 euros per kilogram, about $50, at $1.28 to the euro) and grilled squid battered in olive oil (8 euros).

After dinner, a mix of fashionable Slovenians with Ferragamo handbags and slovenly dressed backpackers mingle awkwardly at Cafe Teater (Stienkova 1; 386-417-118-88), an Irish-themed pub stuffed with antique chaise longues, while putting back Guinness and Slovenian merlot.

On a clear night, the action moves to the alcove terrace, which overlooks the blue Adriatic and from which the twinkling lights of Trieste can be seen.


No comments: