Piran, the Venice of Slovenia

Trail of the Unexpected

There is something very familiar about the bell-tower dominating Piran's skyline, even to the visitor who has never heard of this small, Slovenian seaside town. A 60-mile ferry ride away, across the Adriatic, there's a larger version of the tower: the
campanile of St Mark's in Venice.

There is something very familiar about the bell-tower dominating Piran's skyline, even to the visitor who has never heard of this small, Slovenian seaside town. A 60-mile ferry ride away, across the Adriatic, there's a larger version of the tower: the campanile of St Mark's in Venice. For 500 years, the Venetian empire dominated this coastline, first through trade and later by conquering the towns of Istria. But unlike many occupied towns, Piran has not suffered for it.

Far from being a smaller imitation of its Adriatic neighbour, Piran is a jewel in its own right. Limited in size by its geographical location on a small peninsula, it has managed to preserve its medieval appearance and haphazard layout. Picture Venice without the tourists, if your imagination can stretch that far. Besides the bell tower, Piran possesses ornate façades, passageways and houses that seem to be suspended between neighbouring buildings. But don't expect canals – the water that laps around Piran is either in the harbour or splashing onto the long expanses of pebbly beach.

To look at the map, you get the definite impression that when the Adriatic shoreline was carved up, Slovenia got the booby prize: not quite 30 miles of coast, squeezed between the Italian port of Trieste and the start of the long Croatian seaboard. That's because the region was passed backwards and forwards between the Italians and the Austrians for centuries. It became part of Yugoslavia only in 1956, and finally declared its independence 10 years ago.

Other towns along the shred of coast have abandoned much of their heritage and turned themselves into modern resorts: Portoroz, with its watersports, sandy beaches and seafront hotels, could rival anywhere on the Mediterranean. Piran has a couple of good hotels and some nice waterfront fish restaurants, but, so far at least, mass tourism has passed it by.

The bell tower, high up on a ridge above Piran, is a good place to go for a view of the old town and of the peninsula itself, jutting out into the Gulf of Venice. Below, you see the outer harbour, enclosed by two protective wharves, and the marina with its mixture of fishing vessels and pleasure boats. Beyond this is the oval-shaped marble of Tartinijev trg, now the main square but once, as is obvious as you look from above, the inner harbour. It was filled in during the 19th century, when the near-stagnant water became a health hazard for the city. Tartinijev trg is dominated by the statue of the violinist and composer who gave the square its name (or the first part of it, at least).

The statue of Giuseppe Tartini, violin in one hand, bow in the other, portrays him as if he is about to acknowledge the applause at the end of a performance. He stands in front the Town Hall, an ornately pillared structure built towards the end of the 19th century after the original Venetian building was pulled down.

That, and the adjacent library – built at the same time to serve as Piran's courthouse – are the town's main official buildings. The rest of the square is a jumbled collection of Venetian-style houses in yellows, creams, pinks and greys; most are shuttered; some have balconies.

The most striking of these is the red building, the oldest on the square, at the corner of Ulica IX Korpusa, known simply as the Venetian House. A highly decorated 15th-century Gothic building, it has a corner balcony at first-floor level and stone tracery around the windows. The upper floors are still used as a private house.

Most of the residences in Piran are less grand. Space is at a premium – the peninsula is only a few blocks across, even at its widest point. The streets are a maze, doubling back on each other, or narrowing into alleys that lead into communal courtyards. Washing hangs from the balconies and children play in the streets. But for the chiming of the bell in the tower above the town, it could almost seem as though time was standing still.

Cathy Packe paid £42 return on Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) to fly from London Stansted to Trieste, from where a couple of buses can transport you to Piran. Alternatives include Croatian Airlines (020 8563 0022) from Gatwick to Pula, and Adria Airways from Heathrow to Ljubljana. She paid £23 a night to stay at the Hotel Tartini (00 386 5 67 11 000)

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