With no clouds to filter the sun's rays, the glare coming off the vast blanket of snow atop Velika Planina--an alpine pasture some 1,600 meters above sea level in north-central Slovenia--was overwhelming. My eyes were locked in a permanent squint, which offered no relief. I had spent the whole day hiking and snowshoeing, and by the time I got back to my car around 4 in the afternoon, I was exhausted, not just from the physical exertion of that day, but from nearly three full weeks of long days--up before dawn nearly every day, I had logged a lot of miles in unfamiliar terrain on little sleep, and it had finally caught up with me. I had been wrestling with the idea of continuing on to Bovec to explore the northwest of the country for my last three days, but what I really needed was a little R&R, so I decided to rent an apartment in the town of Piran on Slovenia's Istrian coast instead.
Taking the A1 from Kranj, it was an easy 150 km drive southwest on a beautiful highway that takes you past Slovenia's famous caves at Postojna and Škocjan. By the time I reached the coastal town of Koper a little over an hour later, I was driving directly into the setting sun. With the sky changing from a bright, almost sickly yellow to a more pleasing orange and eventually a deep, rich crimson, it was like watching the gentle brushstrokes of an unseen painter constantly correcting and improving their work.
As the road finally turned north and descended toward the seaside and the town of Piran, my eyes finally got a much-needed respite. I had already been fantasizing for some time about finding a nice restaurant somewhere along the water where I could sit outside on this warm February evening and enjoy a glass of wine and a proper meal.
My time in Limbo
As I was driving into town, I came upon an ordinary parking gate blocking entry. I pulled up and pressed the button, and then took the ticket that the machine spat out. Ordinarily, this would cause the gate to lift; in Piran, as I soon discovered, it caused a surly-looking gentleman to slip out of a nearby booth and slither his way over to my car.
As he approached, I peered out the window with a questioning look on my face.
"What do you want here?"
The question caught me off guard, and I thought that perhaps I had made a wrong turn somewhere and had ended up at some sort of military installation instead of one of Slovenia's better-known tourist destinations.
"I'm staying in Piran for a couple of days," I responded.
"Do you have a reservation?"
"Yes, of course."
This was rather unexpected, to say the least. When I was living in Russia at the end of the 1990s, I was used to putting together a dossier every time I wanted to enter or leave the country. You just didn't know what documents you were going be asked to produce on any particular occasion, so you took everything. It was something I had grown used to circa 1999 in the former Soviet Union, but it hadn't crossed my mind that I might be asked to produce any documents under the present circumstances-trying to enter a town in the European Union in 2014.
"I only have a copy of it in my e-mail," I explained.
"If you don't have a reservation, you can't enter."
I searched my memory, and the name of the apartment that I had booked suddenly came to mind.
"I'm staying at Pri Mari."
"Ah, Pri Mari." Apparently, I had uttered the magic word, as he let down his guard.
"OK, you can enter for free for one hour to leave your luggage. Then you have to park outside of town," he explained.
My apartment was only 100 meters down the road. As I pulled up outside, the owners were already waiting for me: an exceedingly pleasant Slovenian-Italian couple, whose warm welcome made me think that my experience at the gate was an anomaly--and over the next three days, that would prove to be the case, as just about everyone I encountered greeted me with at least a smile, while many were happy to have a chat (update: since I originally wrote this post, I've been back to Piran many times, and while I've still never been able to park in town, I've never had any more trouble with the guards).
But before I could experience any of Piran's true hospitality, I first had to get my car out of town and find a place to park it.
I left my things and headed back to the gate. Only 15-20 minutes had passed since I entered. I pulled up to the window, where a different gentleman, slouching in his seat and looking entirely uninterested in life, took my ticket and told me I owed 3 euros for parking.
"Your colleague told me I could enter for an hour to drop of my bags," I explained.
"Show me your reservation," he said. "It's in my computer, which is now in my apartment."
"If you don't have a reservation, you have to pay."
"I just had this conversation with that guy standing right there," I said, pointing to the other man, standing not 5 meters away. "He said I could enter for one hour to drop off my luggage."
"Only if you have a reservation."
"OK, OK. I'll go back to my apartment and get my computer," I said.
At this point it was a matter of principle and not the 3 euros.
Seeing the small line of cars that had formed behind me, the guy threw his arms up in the air, muttered something I didn't catch, and, mercifully, allowed me to exit.
As I was granted permission to leave the inner sanctum, I noted the name of the street, Dantejeva, and I began to think that perhaps this little exercise was nothing more than an inside joke, a meta-wink to one of the giants of the literary world, whereby the guys manning the gate make visitors experience a little bit of Limbo, Dante's first circle of Hell, as a test before they're allowed to enter and eventually enjoy all Piran's sacred charms.
A little history
That Piran's main street is called Dantejeva--named for one of Italy's greatest writers, while the word itself is clearly Slavic in form-is an indication of this ancient town's rich and complex history.
First settled by Illyrian tribes in the pre-Roman era, Piran, and much of the northeast Adriatic, was annexed by the Romans in 178 BCE. The Byzantines would eventually supplant the Romans, only to be driven out by the Franks, who were themselves replaced by the Venetians, who would rule the town for more than five centuries from 1282 until 1797, when they were driven out by none other than Napoleon himself. French rule was short-lived, however, as the Austrians took over in 1813, which, from 1867, meant the town was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the interwar period, Piran, and the entire region of Istria, belonged to Italy, which ushered in an era of economic and cultural decline. In the wake of World War II, Piran became a part of Yugoslavia, officially in 1954, only to become a part of an independent Slovenia in 1991, which then joined the European Union in 2003.
This mixed heritage is clearly visible today. If you follow the aforementioned Dantejeva into the center of town, the bilingual (Italian and Slovenian) street signs will inform you that you're passing, for example, Leninova ulica, which is soon followed, of course, by Engelsova ulica, a clear nod to the town's recent communist past. Continue around the marina, however, and you'll pass a gelato stand on your right just before you get to Piran's main square, named not for Lenin or Tito, but for the Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini. While I only spent three days there, it was Piran's Italian genes that undoubtedly stood out; the town seemed to have much more in common with Venice and Verona than Belgrade and Sarajevo.
A few words about my visit
My time in Piran was blissfully stress-free, which was just what I needed. After an early-morning walk along the pier, I would enjoy breakfast and coffee at a seaside café, and then wander through the old town, exploring whatever I happened upon on any particular day: examples include the 17th-century St. George's Parish Church, which dominates any view of Piran; the Franciscan Monastery, with its beautiful vaulted courtyard; and the well-preserved town walls, some portions of which date all the way back to the 7th century. I would finish each evening with a sunset walk and photo shoot above town, before winding down with dinner and some wine.
The pier that stretches out into the Adriatic is lined with restaurants, but I preferred the center of town-the distance between the center and the pier being a five-minute walk. I wanted to mention three places that I particularly enjoyed for anyone who might have a chance to visit someday. Pizza lovers shouldn't miss the Pizzeria Petica (Zupanciceva ulica 6). The pizza was one of the best I've ever had, and, as I'd come to expect, the service was also excellent. And just so as to remind myself that I was actually in the former Yugoslavia, I spent an evening at Sarajevo 84 (Tomsiceva Ulica 43), which offered terrific Yugoslav fare-I had a massive portion of ćevapčići, and though I've become a vegetarian since my first visit to Piran, they also had some excellent meat-free options on the menu-in an interior decorated with sepia-toned photos from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo; an entire wall full of Yugoslav album covers that included such names as Heroj Tito, Hokej 1966, and Yu-Memories; and ubiquitous little wooden plaques with Bosnian sayings carved into them. Some of them were perhaps a bit too racy to share here, but they also included little tidbits of Yugoslav wisdom like "There is no such thing as a quiet child or a young grandmother" and "Don't hang up until the woman is silent." Finally, I wanted to recommend the restaurant attached to where I stayed, Pri Mari. Once again, the owners were incredibly welcoming, and both the food and wine were excellent. Though I don't eat fish, everyone I spoke to in town recommended this restaurant as the best option in Piran for seafood.
In the end, I had a great time and was able to get the R&R I needed before flying home to Warsaw. And while Piran may have looked and felt like Italy, the local hospitality was undoubtedly Slovenian, with its warmth and genuine appreciation for visitors.