The Slovenian coast is an Adriatic potpourri – complex and multi-layered, a sedimentary culture created through its varied past. Caught in the middle of a centuries long Roman, Hapsburg and Ottoman tug of war, Slovenia emerged as an independent country just recently, in 1991. Slavic at its core, and ultimately a part of Yugoslavia, it’s no wonder so few can find it on a map. In school, I learned about Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Keeping score of the piece parts is like trying to recall the eight husbands of Elizabeth Taylor (Of which I remember two: Richard Burton and Richard Burton). People sometimes look at me puzzled, “You live in Slovakia – and that’s not Slovenia, right?” The history of this region is all very incestuous and confusing.
Slovenia is an unwitting accomplice to the confusion. The architecture, ochre hued with lancet windows beneath the campanile, is pure Venice. But sit and listen – and the language is Slavic – a linguistic goulash shared by Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs and Serbs. The food is inspired by the bounty of Istria – a cuisine centered on wine and olives and fish. But venture beyond the local fare, and you are as likely to find wiener schnitzel on the menu as pasta. It’s baffling. I craned my neck to look out the bus window as it rolled down the 42 kilometer coast through each of the four seaside villages: Koper, Izola, Piran – and finally Portoroz.
My husband, Pat, and I had accepted an invitation from our Slovaks friends to join their annual group vacation – a long weekend in brash, resort riddled Portoroz. The town itself is a hodgepodge of casinos and hotel options – ranging from cheap and concrete through the upscale health spas. They cluster on the hill above the sea elbowing each other aside as they vie for the best view.
Spartan hotels harboring a military sized cafeteria and “all you can eat” inclusive meal plan are a remnant of communism and typical in any Central European tourist area. We have travelled Slovak style before. When I closed my eyes, I could conjure a vision of our hotel. As our bus whizzed down the windy, hill hugging road into seaside Portoroz, we pointed and simultaneously and yelled, “There it is!” Five star amenities be damned. We left the bus at the main station and backtracked two miles to our resort on foot.
The St. Bernadin complex occupies most of a small peninsula – a stones throw from the Croatian coast to the left and a short walk to the more charming neighbor, Piran, to the right. Clustered around the central cafeteria building is a mishmash of trinket shops with postcards and T-shirts, low-rise hotels, and marina-side cafes. Each morning and evening we met in the cafeteria. White coated waiters whizzed in and out of the kitchen pushing carts overflowing with food in a replenishment frenzy: eggs and cereal, meats, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and desserts – a stick to your ribs affair. No one vacationing in Portoroz need ever know hunger.
We spent our mornings watching the Slovak tennis tournament – a cut throat winner takes all pride match wrapped in a thin veneer of fun. The crowd cheered and booed and drank. At times the players stopped for a palinka “to calm the nerves”. It was a crazy good time. We ended the first day with one of our Slovak players dozing in his lounge chair, his wife’s wide brimmed and flowered straw hat perched jauntily atop his head – a victim of sun, fun, beer and palinka.
Contrasted to the garish Portoroz is the stately Piran – the gem of the coast. Perched on a rocky snout shaped protuberance, from the air it resembles a brick-red aardvark. You reach the town by following the shore around the half-moon harbor and into the Tartini Square. A statue of native son, Giuseppe Tartini – composer and violinist – greets you. A group of knobby kneed boys darted around and between the tourist groups in a mad cap game of football. I scribbled in my journal – “the noise of tourists is drowned out by the twack, twacking of a football against the stone walls amid peels of laughter.”
We scrambled carefully across the square through the chaos and escaped to the pedestrian back alleys. There we found a quieter Piran – the sounds transformed to the melody of village life: the squeak of a pulley as fresh laundry is pulled out onto the line, the sizzle of meat hitting the piping hot frying pan, the mournful tones of violin practice – perhaps the great, great-grandson of Giuseppe, or at least one of his closest friends. Music emanating from centuries old windows is one of my favorite sounds in the world.
The alter ego of the town unfolded as we hiked up to the castle. High above the rocky peninsula, we peeked over the stone wall to discover a nudist beach – stout Central Europeans spread out at discrete distances two by two as if awaiting an impending ark. Walking down from the castle an elderly woman rushed out to greet us. Her Slovak gushed out in fits and starts as if released from a pressure valve. She jabbered with our friends having overheard them conversing in Slovak. Our friends summarized the conversation in English – as amazed as the old woman to have randomly stumbled upon a countryman.
As evening fell, we sought out a family restaurant. On the far side of the village, we found the perfect mom, dad, and son establishment. We split a platter of grilled fish and squid, a side of perfectly boiled parsley potatoes and a carafe of red wine. The family shared the cooking and serving chores. Few enough American tourists wander these parts, they proceeded to interview us: “What brings you here?” “How do you like our country?” Nothing breaks the ice as effectively as a simple complement – a genuine appreciation for a people, their country and their culture.
As we left, they recommended a gelato place and waved as we disappeared out the door. We walked back to Portoroz licking our cones. The sea stretched out in all directions awash in gold from the setting sun. Boys sold sea shells on a make shift overturned box; a man sipped a glass of white wine as he gazed out over the water and a couple balanced on the rocks snapping their own picture.
Had I not lived in the region for nearly two years, I might have missed the subtlety of the cultural amalgamation – focusing on the very Italian surface and missing the layers underneath. The country unveils itself to those who pay attention to her nuance. Everyone is accounted for: the Romans, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans. Molded by their influence is tiny Slovenia. A little country who delivers a cultural wallop.
Make it happen:
Getting there: We arrived by bus from Ljubljana (where the bus station is next to the train station). The bus runs a couple of times a day. The TI office in Ljubljana can print the most current schedule. Buy the ticket at the bus station window just before you leave. The bus stops in Koper, Isola, Piran and Portoroz. Expect 2 bathroom break stops en route. The trip was under 3 hours and cost about 12 euro per person.
Hotel: The San Bernadino resort was perfect for our vacation. A simple but comfortable hotel room with breakfast and dinner was just over 100 euro per night for two. On a budget or with Slovak friends it is perfect. If I went alone, I would stay in Piran.
Restaurants: I suggest you wander and pick something which looks good. The restaurants we found were fine – but nothing exceptional.
Other things to do: An acquaintance in Ljubljana recommended we rent a car for a day and explore the Istria hillside – particularly the vineyards, and stopping at the Secovlije Saltpans. Here, salt is gathered using a centuries old method. If there is no Slovak tennis tournament going on, I would suggest you try this.
Day Trips: We went to Trieste, Italy for the day – perhaps 30 minutes away. Watch for a separate blog.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe