Diana Noonan visits the Istrian Coast, a small but
perfectly formed little-known piece of paradise.
There is little more depressing for a traveller than an
Italian bus station on a wet Sunday morning.
Unless, of course, it happens to be Easter Sunday morning -
no staff, buses, heating, timetables, or helpful information
of any sort. And there is the discouraging certainty that any
one of these small comforts is unlikely to appear within the
next few days.
So I am sure you will understand when I say it was an angel
who plucked me, dripping wet, from the on-ramp to a virtually
traffic-less motorway where I had been reduced to
hitchhiking, and carried me out of Italy and across the
border to the gloriously live and sunny Istrian Coast of
Being only vaguely aware of the existence of Slovenia, and
having never heard of the Istrian Coast until finding a
last-minute home-exchange there, it was a complete surprise
to be set down in what is, quite simply, a paradise.
Sandwiched between Croatia and Italy, and forming Slovenia's
only section of coastline, this 12km-long stretch of Adriatic
sits prettily in a country influenced strongly by Italian
culture but which also describes itself, quite accurately, as
being a cross between the best of Switzerland and Austria.
Lacking the, sometimes, overly zealous orderliness of Austria
(you will never find a Slovenian vigorously sweeping the road
beyond their verge) and considerably less costly than
Switzerland, the Istrian Coast is nevertheless highly
developed with kilometres of sealed promenades, ritzy
seafront cafes and restaurants, spas and health centres,
casinos (discreetly positioned a short distance back from the
ocean), elegant old Austrian-style hotels, and manicured
beaches. It is only the equidistant positioning of its rows
of rental sun loungers and uniformly matching umbrellas that
arouse any thoughts of Slovenia's communist past.
Ritzy though the Istrian Coast may be, its parks and gardens,
cycleways, fishing spots, and coastal walking trails
meandering through olive groves and hillside vineyards mean
that it is also family-friendly, and its affordable hostels
and small hotels make it entirely accessible to the
With a delightfully Mediterranean feel, except perhaps on the
odd day when a chilly wind is blowing off the sea, it is no
wonder that this efficient, welcoming, trilingual country
(along with Italian, English is spoken everywhere), which was
once the founding member of the Federated Republic of
Yugoslavia, in 2007 became the first ex-communist nation to
enter the euro zone.
The Istrian Coast is also steeped in history, and Piran is
the jewel in its crown.
A walled "city" of compact houses and mediaeval architecture,
this town of 4000 inhabitants juts into the Adriatic like the
prow of a ship, with the Punta Madonna lighthouse as its
Cobbled lanes lead from the edge of the sea, past open-air
produce markets, stone shops, and myriad churches, to the
defensive ramparts overlooking the city. From these heights
it is possible to gaze east, along the coast, toward the vast
area of salt pans which now constitutes the Sečovlje Salina
With its miniature paddy fields of evaporating sea water and
mounds of drying salt, the region was once the lifeblood of
Piran, and the salt pans now exist as a working museum and
home to rare and endangered plants and animals. With its
neighbouring wetlands a haven for migrating birds, the region
iregarded as having international environmental importance,
and is a favourite destination for bird-watchers.
But history, beauty, wildlife, and holidaying potential
aside, it is the Slovenians' sheer love of the outdoors that
dominates the Istrian Coast. This is a region where footpaths
are wider than roads, where you are more likely to be run
down by a jogger than a car, and where vehicles of every
description slow for a cyclist spotted half a kilometre
The day I arrived, on a public holiday, the coastal
promenades were alive with pram-pushers, walkers,
skateboarders, skaters, runners, joggers, cyclists (old and
young), folk fishing from the wharf, entire families enjoying
a full range of outdoor gym equipment permanently stationed
in a seaside park, and even a few hardy swimmers. Beyond the
waves, yachts bobbed and bounced beside life-boat rowing
teams, surf-sailors, and kite-surfers, all plying the choppy
seas. Every Slovenian was a trim and fit Slovenian who
appeared to take it for granted that they had more right to
the open spaces than anything with a motor - and the
spectacle continued long after the Easter holiday period had
Later in my stay, I joined some Piran locals on a 10km run to
honour the 300th birthday of their town's venerated composer,
Tartini, whose statue holds pride of place in the square and
whose house stands a little way off. So delighted were the
organisers to have a
New Zealander register for the race that I was showered with
prizes not actually earned through a race placing.
Given that it has everything to offer as a holiday
destination, the Istrian Coast of Slovenia can only become
Go there, in any season. In fact, go anywhere in Slovenia, as
soon as you can. Just be sure to pack your Leki-poles - and
perhaps your own sun umbrella.
If you go
How to get there
Fly into one of the closest internationalairports (Trieste,
in Italy, or Slovenian's capital, Ljubljana, about an hour
Or, if first visiting somewhere such as Dubrovnik, consider a
bus ride along the highly scenic coastal route from there
(allow 1-2 days).
Places to stay
There are no shortages of hotels, but if you're looking for
something less pricey, go for Hotel Garni or the Val Hostel.
Owned by the same family, they're great value and just a
stone's throw from the sea.
For a longer-term stay, consider one of the many apartments
available in the town.
Eating in Piran
Numerous gelato bars operate along the seafront - stop by at
at least one of them (daily!). Cafe Neptun (at the entrance
to the town) does a great espresso. For fresh, locally
produced food, visit the open-air market in the mornings.
It's situated out of sight, just behind the main square (buy
your bread at the bakery opposite while you're there).
Things to do
Ask at the excellent tourist office in Tartini Square for
their self-guided walk brochures, and spend the day moseying
around town. Allow a half-day to visit
the salt pans and museum at the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park.
Buses run regularly but you might like to consider hiring a
bike and pedalling there - it's flat all the