Imagine Venice but without the crowds, high season anarchy and inflated prices. Now picture Slovenia with its sliver of a coast, luscious greenery and rustic culture flanked by the sparkling Adriatic. Combine the two and you have Piran ‘Piccola Venezia’, a gem of ornate Venetian Gothic architecture, ruled by the Republic of Venice for 500 years until the late-18th century. Nestled in the Gulf of Trieste, on the edge of the diamond-shaped Istrian peninsula, Piran is one of the best-preserved – and most picturesque – medieval sites in Europe. Fairytale palazzos, ancient ramparts and terraced hills stacked with olive, fig and cypress trees conjure up Tuscany, accompanied by the bilingual babble of the Slovene and Italian languages.
It’s no wonder that the great and the good have admired this place for centuries: Napoleon nabbed a couple of masterpieces from the town’s church, now exhibited in the Louvre, while Venetian patricians ferried the local wine and salt back home in shiploads. Today, life is quieter in Piran but, nevertheless, this walled town remains one of the most magical spots on the Mediterranean. Seven of the original entrance gates still stand today, surrounding a pretty web of cobblestone alleys, handsome monuments and charming town life. A muddle of white stone and red-roofed pastel houses – painted in lemon yellow, tangerine, pink grapefruit, peach sherbet and apricot – cascade towards the sea in a delightful lack of uniformity. Meander into sweet-smelling herb gardens, stumble upon elegant piazzas, watch old men crowd around chessboards and duck under verandas dripping with vines. The fishermen add to the picture-postcard scene, dragging the day’s haul up through the narrow lanes. This is a colourful town where you can’t help but smile.
With a striking oval shape, the marble-paved Tartini Square is the beating heart of Piran, named after Giuseppe Tartini, the Baroque violinist and composer who was born here. Every summer, in honour of the great maestro, the Tartini Festival of chamber music takes place with internationally renowned musicians filling the warm air with twinkling notes. From the square’s eastern edge, make your way up Rozmanova Ulica to the Franciscan Minorite Monastery with its lovely cloister and Church of St Francis, originally built in the early 14th century. Inside are staggeringly beautiful ceiling frescoes and the Tartini family’s burial plot. Continue up the hill to the commanding Baroque Church of St George, patron saint of the city, with a bell tower inspired by St Mark’s Campanile in Venice. Crowning a spectacular spot on the far side of the peninsula, the view is superb – on a clear day you can see across the water to the coastlines of Italy and Croatia.
Piran has an adventurous streak too; divers plunge off Cape Madona to explore a soft coral reef filled with long-snouted seahorses, freckled hawk fish and the hot pink flabellina among other exotic species. Keen cyclists can explore the Parenzana trail, which follows the Istrian coast and runs from Italy to Croatia past breathtaking scenery. Just over half an hour’s drive away, there is the extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Škocjan Caves, the ‘underground Grand Canyon’. Three million years old, this warren of dark chasms and passageways, 223 metres below ground, has been carved out by the Reka River which crashes below and has 26 waterfalls. White stalactites hang overhead, glistening like jewels; gargantuan stalagmites tower like overgrown mushrooms, including the mighty ‘Giant’, a single 15-metre-high stalagmite in the shape of a melted candle. But it’s the Great Hall that makes everyone’s jaw drop, an enormous, subterranean cathedral with a vault as high as Notre Dame’s. The Greek stories of Hades are said to originate from these caves. Above ground, back on familiar turf, Piran continues to work its magic. La dolce vita – the good life – ‘Piccola Venezia’ has it in spades.