When someone thinks about Slovenia, their first idea is usually associated to snow-white mountains, endless forests, and mystical, medieval castles. However, as I have already mentioned before, this country has hundreds of different faces from its culture to its landscape, and sometimes traveling to another region of Slovenia is like visiting a completely different country, which is connected to the rest only through the national flag, language and spirit. Well, it is much more complicated and special than that.
People usually forget that Slovenia is not just about hiking, skiing, climbing and biking, but it also has access to the sea. Although Adria (in Slovene: Jadran) is mainly connected to Croatia or Italy in our minds, a bunch of other countries also have their share of these wonderful coasts, and Slovenia is certainly one of them.
Maybe this area is not among the most famous gems of the region, but it is way more interesting and underestimated based on my experiences, as it should be, and it is completely as worthy at least as other places of Adria, such as the Italian Trieste (in Slovene: Trst, in Hungarian:Trieszt) or the Croatian Fiume (Rijeka).
Even the name of the region, Primorska means 'Seaby Land', which is very special from the cultural and linguistic point of view. Namely, because the expression shares its Slavic roots with Primorsko-goranska (in Hungarian: Tengermellék-Hegyvidék) in Croatia, and Pomorze (better known abroad as Pomerania) in Poland.
The biggest and most important port city of these territories is with no doubt Koper (in Italian: Capodistria), which is not just a significant trade centre for Central-Europe due to its huge annual turnover, but it is also a shining diamond for tourists and history lovers with its cozy, Mediterranean streets and gorgeous architecture.
The city is already known on the map since the Roman times, when its name was written as Caprea or Capris, meaning ‘Goat Island’, and the contemporary name of the city is also derived from this word.
Today we might be very surprised why it was referred to as an island, but for most of its history it was not a question, because until the modern times Koper was located on an island, and it was just connected to the mainland as a peninsula later on.
According to a myth, Poseidon, Greek god of sea and Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom had a quarrel, and as a result, the goddess dropped her shield to Adria, which turned into an island.
In the middle ages the region was a part of the Republic of Venice, which is still visible, if one has a look at the monuments and buildings of the city: the Praetorian Palace on Tito square (Titov trg), which is a home for the city museum, is surely one of them, but it is possible to find the winged lion, the famous symbol of San Marco's republic in a lot of different locations of the area.
Another great remain of the Venetian period is the Taverna at the port, close to the piers: a very unique building that looks like a roof-protected market place and used for cultural means nowadays; back then, however, it was a public warehouse for salt and other supplies.
Besides, there are many fountains, Gothic or Renaissance stone faces and heads, sculptures, ancient walls and multistorey, vivid, colorful townhouses, that make Koper look like a piece of Italy just in the edge of Slovenia.
The fact that Italians form a relevant minority in the city up to today, also confirms this impression: therefore, it is not a surprise that the visitors might hear every second or third person speaking Dante’s tongue in the historical old town.
The cathedral in the main square, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also a masterpiece that throws us straight to a medieval city of Dalmatia, Italy or Greece. Although the interior has its decorative and mesmerizing beauty on its own (including the altar and the organ), the most iconic part of the church is obviously the bell tower.
It is a great challenge to face its infinite scares and terrifying height indeed, but trust me, it is totally worth it, because it provides an utterly amazing view to the bay, the city and some gloomy mountains around. It is like a fantastic eagle's flight for the eyes, and a shark's deep, profound scuba-diving for our imagination.
If you do not manage to get upstairs in the bell tower, no worries: there are many places all around Koper that assure a great panorama on the sea for free, while you can see the two edges of the bay: two gigantic tongues of earth on the left and right that embrace the sky-blue water and steel-grey waves of the respectable and almighty sea.
The port is really a place that never sleeps: it is always full of walking tourists, sellers, street musicians and other performing artists under the bright clouds and the golden sun, which is, by the way, also the contemporary symbol of Koper embedded in the middle of its flag, coat-of-arms and many architectural ornaments of the city.
Besides the touristic vibes of the quay, corso and palm tree avenue, it is also a kind of sightseeing for those who come from the heart of the continent to see the busy everydays of a sea port: enormous ships, like some sort of iron monsters are coming and going from Koper to Adria, while huge lifting cranes move the cargo constantly here and there, all day long.
One of the city’s main beaches, Mestna plaža can also be found in the centre, and to be honest, swimming in the mild, warm foams of the shore surrounded by merchant ships and private boats parking everywhere is a real genuine feeling.
If you need something else, just walk along the boulevard of the coast, pass by the incredibly green city park and cross the bridge: then you will find plenty of other places to lie down and have fun in the sea. Some people might not be comfortable with the fact that there are so many rocks under their feet and the beach is not sandy, but compared to the whole atmosphere, the temperature of the water and the extraordinary view, it is really not that unpleasant thing.
This part of the city is especially suitable for romantic night walks or night baths, and the dozens of bars, taverns and restaurants (gostilna) are also inviting their guests, just as the local wine shops, snack bars, food trucks and fancy terraces.
As I was observing the horizon, I could see that through the slopes and hills of one side, behind the charming town of Ankaran (Ancarano), that was already the Italian border starting, while on the other side, there was Izola (Isola), another fascinating tourist destination.
This second one is not that historical as the rest, but it's always full of concerts and cultural events, while it offers a lot of opportunities for an authentic holiday experience; not to mention the purely magical sight of the Adria, that is floating in a timeless, joyful fantasy, no matter if it is the hottest noon or a yellowish sunset. Although many people were gathering, drinking, chatting, going to the sea and so on, the feeling of harmony and meditative silence of Izola's shores could not be spoiled by the crowd.
The most precious chapter of our trip is surely a little, proud Mediterranean town located right on the very edge of an Adriatic cape in the south: it is Piran (Pirano), that can give you such a kind and friendly welcome, that you cannot forget it at all - not even, if you have already visited plenty of similar seaside places in the past. This place is like arriving to the end of the world; to an entrance guarding the beauty of existence and creation.
This was exactly that happened to us: the cool shadow of the narrow streets, the play of different shapes and colors, and the calm eternity of the sea just amaze everyone who steps within the walls of the town. I had already noticed in Koper that especially the coastal territories of Slovenia are full of different flowers, like geraniums, oleanders and roses, but in Piran this national passion towards plants really got to its finest.
If you need some challenge besides having a rest on the beach and trying the local cuisine, you should go to the castle hill of the town, where you can find the walls and bastions of a great fortress.
Although the strict curves and stones of the building can make you fly back to the times of merchants, mercenaries, cannons, sailors and pirates, you will like the view of the town from above just as much: imagine the light red tiles of the roofs, the white bricks and the mosaic of windows and chimneys, accompanied by the hustle and bustle of boats, ships, piers, pedestrians, swimmers and fishermen.
You can experience something similar, but even from a better angle, if you visit the Minorite church and monastery of Piran, that you can reach equally from the main square, the beach or the port. Of course, this complex also has a bell tower, which is less dizzying with its height compared to the one in Koper, but it completely preserves the mysterious characteristics of the centuries.
The most special thing about it is the wooden stairs leading to the top, while each corner is dedicated to one of the main guardian angels (archangels) of the Christian mythology, with the probably most famous and powerful Michael as the last one, just before the end.
Their names are written by Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabet as well, which makes them really universal for the visitor. Mind the church bells though, that can be very loud in both towers mentioned here - but apart from that, you will feel, see and smell the totality of this region from the balcony and you might have the impression that you had lived there sometime in another life, another reality; or, if not, it is just a matter of time and you are definitely going to do it.
Spend your day by exploring Tartini square (Tartinijev trg), the enchanting lighthouse tower, the sea museum, the exhibition of shells, listen to some medieval music or Italian style tarantella on mandolin, hear the seagulls and foams roaring all around, or approach Fiesa Lake (Jezoro Fiesa), that you can do by walking along the shore on a wonderful path for bikes and tourists.
In the end, you will just arrive in a brilliant gulf with a dark green, rocky mountain on the right, and have an unforgettable encounter with the light blue, greenish waves of the salty sea. By exploring this hidden paradise, you can feel that you are in a majestic island somewhere in the middle of the ocean, while you are totally surrounded by caressing leaves and bushes.
Honestly speaking about my personal opinion, I am not that fascinated by Slovenian cuisine in spite of the variety and richness it has, or the few things I have described before.
However, it has a big advantage: it is a genius cultural mixture of Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Balkanic elements, spiced up with some international fast food hits. Therefore, our dinner table can contain spaghetti, pizza, focaccia or pinsa from Italy, bograč or golaž from Hungary, and čevapčiči or pleskavica from the Balkans.
This last one is a slice of meat, mostly served with a very soft and tasty bread called lepenja (in Hungarian: lepény), but we can also try a Slovenian sandwich named pohanček, and of course, the all-time favourite, burek that might be stuffed by cheese, spinach, potato and so on. Additionally, it is made of a special dough that make it similar to our sweet Hungarian cookie, rétes. Besides, we can find plenty of different bakery products to get know about the local gastronomy, just like the different flavors of štručka.
It is almost a must to taste the treasures and the gifts of the sea, if we spend some time in port cities: besides the several types of fish we can try, the best choices in terms of seafood are calamari and scampi, that we can fulfil with authentic Slovenian wines, such as refošk, cviček, and žametovka (red wine, rdeče vino) or jeruzalemčan, rebula and mariborčan (white wine, belo vino), which last one is a blended type from my city of residence.
Other settlements, such as Portorož (Portorose) also deserve our attention if we have time, but besides the sea, we should remember that there is much more in terms of wonders: the local forests and woods consisting of cedars, pines, laurels and almonds are just as miraculous, as one imagines them based on the romantic paintings and illustrations of ancient epic poems.
We also have a good chance to bump into macchia, the specific vegetation of Mediterranean climate, partly caused by human activity such as agriculture, while we should not ignore the bare cones of carst mountains either.
Particularly the experience of descending from the top of the mountains to the valley on railways is fabulous, while you can notice the transition from the continental land to the seaside plains, and this power just pulls you inside like a whirlpool with the growing blue lines of Adria from afar - a kind of spell I could not feel since I was on my way to Rijeka two years ago, and this magical word was getting sharper and created itself from the blur step by step.
If you are at the Slovenian riviera, the opportunities to have a bath in Jadran, drink a spritz, some cocktails, or ride the bike are nearly infinite, so everything is up to your limits and your imagination: for instance, do not be surprised if you see naked swimmers in the distance, because the beach may have some nudist parts along the coast.
Piran is a tiny, but impressive example for the perfect combination of natural and human aesthetics, and while you are watching and absorbing impulses and turning them into gentle memories, you will understand why Koper is also called Capodistria, so the ‘head of Istria’: this maritime kingdom indeed opens a gate for something bigger and more undiscoverable; something luring and seducing, that waits for her new admirers with all of her islands, hills, bays, reefs and shores.