Portorož and Piran are like chalk and cheese though only a few kilometres separate these towns on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast. Historic Piran is the jewel of Slovenia’s short coastline, a tiny walled Venetian town jutting out into the sea, while Portorož, one of the liveliest resorts of the northern Adriatic region, is a modern town famed for its luxury hotels and luxury spa complexes.
It should come as no surprise that Piran has a very Italian air; as well as being part of the Venetian Empire the wider area passed hands frequently between the Italians and the Hapsburgs until the end of the Second World War when it officially became part of Yugoslavia. Italians living in the region remain a protected minority and Italian has joint status with Slovene as the official language in this part of the country. It’s not uncommon for Italians to drive over the border for lunch in Piran and if the Italians, so proud of their own cooking, want to come to eat, you know the food has to be good. There’s a cluster of restaurants on the Piran waterfront: many specialise in fish but Balkan grill dishes can be found in most restaurants too. No trip to Piran is complete without sampling the ice cream and there are plenty of places to get your fix.
Piran’s wealth was built on salt during the middle ages. The Venetians recognised its value and took control of Piran’s salt flats. The Sečovlje salt-works are still in operation; some of the salt is sold under the Piranske Soline brand, a luxury line which can now be found on the shelves of such notable stores as Harrods. Piranske Soline is also forging a reputation among chefs with famous names such as Jamie Oliver choosing to use salt from Piran in their kitchens. The salt pans are part of the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park: this was founded to preserve the industrial heritage of the salt flats as well as the animals, birds and plant life which are so important to the area.
Piran’s history is plain to see. A walk around the walled town provides an opportunity to see the main sights of the old city walls, St. George’s Cathedral and the Franciscan church with its former monastery. The town’s history is inextricably connected with sea-faring and the Sergej Mašera Museum is a brilliant place to learn about the town’s maritime heritage.
Tartinijev trg (Tartini Square) is the hub of Piran: it is named after the eighteenth century Italian composer and musician Giuseppe Tartini who was born in Piran and lived in a house on Tartinijev trg. For the last twelve years a music festival named after the composer has been held each year in the town. The house Tartini lived in now contains a museum dedicated to the composer and his music. Recently made into a pedestrian zone, Tartinijev trg is the focus of Piran’s cafe scene and it is the perfect place from which to do a little people watching.
Music is a central part of Piran’s cultural life. The MIFF Folklore Festival takes place in July and sees the arrival of dancers, musicians and story tellers from all over southern Europe. Events take place in Tartinijev trg as well as at locations in Izola and Koper. The fine arts are also represented with a series of popular antiques fairs and art exhibitions throughout the calendar.
During the summer months Piran teems with tourists. The town is a regular draw with passengers from the cruise ships which dock along the coast at Koper but many others travel down for the day from the capital or the mountain resorts around Bled. Piran has only a small number of hotels but its proximity to Portorož means that visitors can stay not too far away. Portorož does host a number of busy international events throughout the year, however, so advance booking is recommended in spite of the abundance of hotel rooms there.
With its swaying palms and golden sand, Portorož can compete with any beach resort on the Adriatic; though it has something for all budgets the town has an air of exclusivity which draws well heeled holiday makers from all over Europe. Instead of medieval charm, Portorož has thermal waters and it was those thermal waters that led to the town’s rise to become one of southern Europe’s premier destinations for health tourism in the nineteenth century.
Portorož suffered a decline because of the two world wars and this downturn was not reversed until 1968 when a concerted effort was made to revitalise the resort. Modern new hotels were built and the main promenade area, the Obala, was redesigned to become more appealing for holiday makers. In recent years there has been private investment to convert some of the town’s elegant nineteenth century villas in to fashionable boutique hotels but the most notable of all of Portorož’s refurbished hotels has to be the five star Kempinski Palace. First opened in 1908 this opulent hotel was popular with wealthy tourists who came from Vienna and other cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to enjoy the benefits of the Portorož waters. Re-launched as part of the Kempinski Group amidst much excitement in 2008, the Palace Hotel is once again one of the Adriatic’s most prestigious hotels. Portorož continues to attract visitors to its luxury spas. Highly regarded among them is the Paradise Spa, part of the Grand Hotel Bernardin, which opens its doors to day visitors as well as guests staying in the hotel.
For holiday makers who enjoy an active vacation, Portorož has lots to offer. Thrill seekers can try tandem parachute jumping through Portorož Airport: for the more laid back experience panoramic flights can also be arranged. Several Portorož-based dive schools offer PADI training and accompanied diving sessions.
The Internautica International Boat Show is one of Portorož’s most popular events; not just for the international yachting set, Internautica has a diverse programme of entertainment as well as one the biggest international of luxury yachts held in Europe. Over 15,000 visitors attended Internautica in 2013. For four days every September the Slovenian Film Festival welcomes directors, critics and film enthusiasts for a varied programme of screenings and workshops as well as the chance to make new contacts within the industry.
Forma Viva, which takes place in Seča, a small settlement near Portorož, is an international event that takes place every two years. Sculptors from all over the world participate, creating new works just for the show. These sculptures remain on site in a permanent exhibition at Seča and at other locations on the coast after the symposium closes. At Forma Viva Portorož the sculptors work in stone while at other Forma Viva parks in Maribor, Kostanjevica na Krki and Ravne na Koroškem the artists work with other materials.
Portorož hosts the Slovenian Open Tennis tournament each July. In 2013 spectators were delighted to see Slovenian Grega Žemlja win the tournament, fresh from Wimbledon where he became the first ever Slovene player to reach the third round of the tournament.
Although there are currently no scheduled flights to and from Portorož’s international airport journey times to Slovenia’s coast from Ljubljana have been greatly reduced since the completion of a new motorway. Airports at Trieste (60 kilometres) in Italy and Pula in Croatia (98 kilometres) are useful alternatives to flying into and out of Ljubljana and have connections to a number of European cities.
In the wider region the Lipica Stud Farm, home of the celebrated Lipizzaner horses used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and the magnificent karst caves at Postojna are just short drives away, with a number of local companies offering tailor made excursions. There is a daily hydrofoil service to Venice with the outward and return journeys timed to allow for a whole day of sightseeing there. Closer to the Portorož the Istrian countryside has lots of unspoiled villages to explore. Encircled by olive groves, the little village of Padna is one of the prettiest. It became wealthy by supplying the towns on the coast with olive oil, meat and vegetables. It is even said that so green fingered were the chard growers of Padna that they were able to fund the construction of the village’s church tower.
Real estate in the Portorož area is diverse. Opportunities still exist to purchase un-renovated turn of the century villas but refurbished properties also come onto the market. There are purpose-built modern apartments as well as those in converted town houses. Slightly inland there are stone farmhouses as well as modern villas with superb views of the coast. Average temperatures between May and September on the coast range from 20-25°C (though they are often much higher) while in winters temperature are usually a few degrees higher than inland.
With excellent road links to Ljubljana, Croatia, the north of Italy and onwards to Austria, Slovenia’s coastal region is a practical choice for anyone looking to re-locate or to buy a vacation property. As a result the property scene remains buoyant. Just up the coast, the busy port city of Koper is the commercial and administrative capital of the region and has all the facilities of a modern European town.