Portorož and Piran’s nickname, the ‘Pearls of Slovenia’ are not my words but how these coastal towns on the Adriatic coast, near the border of Italy (Trieste) have come to be known, and it is for good reason.
They literally shimmer under the sun owing to their position on the Istrian coast and warm-but-mild climate in a place that is immaculately clean yet rarer to tourists than Mediterranean favourites.
We drove there for four hours from Ravenna in Italy, but if travelling from the UK or another country, you could fly into Trieste and the drive from there is very short, roughly half an hour.
Another way to get there would be to fly into the capital city of Ljubljana and travel by car/coach for 1hr 30. Once you pass the Slovenian border, you see the Adriatic sea along the Istrian peninsula within a few minutes which is a hazy, brilliant blue and stretches out far and wide.
Portorož (also known as Portorose in Italian), meaning ‘port of roses’.
It was, along with Piran, once under Venetian rule, which can be seen in a lot of the architecture and design of the town. The Italian influence is found in a lot of the dishes available on the menu, and the presence of coffee and summery spritzes.
Slovenian and Italian are both spoken widely, with some locals speaking some English but to a much lesser degree than Italian.
There are not really any sandy beaches here but there are waterside sunbathing areas along the long promenade (or a lungomare as it is known in Italian, a word I love as it transliterates as ‘long sea’) that stretches from Portorož up to Piran.
I was taken aback by how blue and beautiful the sea was as we took our first walk along there, an hour before sundown. The sun was casting a gold shimmer across the light waves and the atmosphere was very peaceful, especially as it was high season in early August.
We passed a 19th-century salt warehouse painted in white and a weathered seaside light blue; salt is an important resource in this part of Slovenia due to the salt lakes nearby, and you see its prevalence in its products from salted soaps of red wine or algae, to salted dark chocolate.
The walk takes approximately 40 minutes but you can also take a free bus into Piran’s centre if you prefer.
Portorož has a traditional holiday feeling with beautiful hotels, bars and seaside restaurants, with discos and karaoke nights each evening. We were very lucky with the weather for our whole 5-day stay with temperatures settling between 25-30 Celcius.
We had one afternoon of rain which was absolutely fine as we returned to our hotel rooms for a couple of hours for a rest and I slid open the balcony doors and listened to the rain fall on the sea as I fell into a light sleep.
The main attraction of an evening is probably the Grand Casino Portorož which is the oldest casino in Slovenia. It has quite a relaxed atmosphere for a glamorous casino, except for the concentrated expressions at the poker table or roulette wheel. I am inexperienced in gambling and stuck to fruit machines and bingo!
We tended to spend the evenings in Piran, the town centre. The central piazza, called Tartini Square, looks a lot more how you might imagine a Slovenian town to look with pale pastel buildings and a fairytale-esque clock tower.
It is named Tartini Square after the violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini, an Italian born there in the Republic of Venice now known as Slovenia’s Piran. I felt fond of the name due to being a longtime Sex and the City fan, with echoes of Stanford Blatch playfully calling a tipsy Carrie Bradshaw a “little Tartini” after one too many of a cocktail going by that name. Of course, this city square had nothing to do with that but it still made me smile. (RIP Willie Garson 😦 )
It’s a really ovely place to sit and rest at aperitivo hour, and I had a lovely lychee spritz at one of the bars there to try a different kind other than the ubiquitous (but delightful) Aperol Spritz.
The spritz- what an invention. Thank you to the Venetians!
A refreshing drink to sit down with and cool down with, to get your breath back and sit down and admire your surroundings over a chat and maybe some olives or crisps.
Before the square, Piran is home to a beautiful marina with white sailboats anchored and transparent blue-green waters where you can see cockles latched onto the boating ropes and tiny flashes of black fish slipping between the rocks.
There are jellyfish in these waters, so that is something to consider before dipping a toe or even your whole body in.
We ate in Piran most evenings, in a restaurant close to the rocks and the sea, where we could see the sky glow pink and orange then darken to indigo before the sun sets.
Unsurprisingly, fish and seafood are the specialities here, and the silver sharing platters that glitter with oysters, razor clams, scallops and mussels set over a bed of crushed ice look like art.
I have become more adventurous with trying out different types of fish and seafood in recent years and this was a great chance to try many others such as sea bream, merluzzo, branzino, swordfish, triglia, and so on.
It’s all caught locally and is exceptionally fresh, served simply with slices of lemon and maybe some garlic and parsley.
It pairs so well with a type of white wine I tried for the first time here called Malvasia, made with the eponymous grape common in Slovenia, the north of Italy, the Balearic Islands and Greece. On a warm evening near the sea, this crystal light and ever-so-faintly sparkling white wine goes down perfectly.
I will definitely be keeping an eye out in the likes of M&S or the underrated gems such as Lidl and Aldi for if they ever stock a Malvasia; it’s nice to try whites other than the dominant Sauvignon Blanc that reigns supreme at the moment in England. Prosecco had its big moment in the UK around 10 years ago (and is still wildly popular here), so who knows, maybe Malvasia will be a popular drink here in 5 years’ time.
A wine expert my sister knows passed on some wise words which was that here, in our grapevine devoid cold land, we pay more for the grapes that are commercially popular, but they aren’t necessarily the best, and yet we still pay the inflated prices because it’s seen as safe. If we choose a less popular grape it can often show us a cheaper and much nicer wine. It might sound obvious but it definitely inspires me to try types that are lesser known in the UK.
Proximity to Croatia
A further bonus of the location of Portorož and Piran is how close it is to the Croatian border. We left Portrož by car and 15 minutes later, we were crossing the Slovenian then Croatian passport controls. Another stamp in the passport!
We drove for a further 10 minutes past the border and pulled in at a seaside town called Umag.
Croatia is famed for its sparkling greeny-blue Adriatic waters and you could see the landscape subtly change between Slovenia’s sapphire blue and Croatia’s emerald green.
After a quick espresso, we walked along to the shore and climbed down a small hillside with nobody around to sit on the rocks to see the sea.
After a quick lathering of suncream, we slipped along the seaweed and pebbles and dipped into the warm water. I love nothing more than the sea but I’m a cautious swimmer so I took my time, getting gradually braver until I felt confident enough to submerge myself up to the neck.
All was going ‘swimmingly’ until I spotted a strange mass floating towards us and I couldn’t make out what it was; it could have been a stray wrapper, a sting wray, or a jellyfish. It turned out to be the latter, and I quickly made a beeline back to the rocks, not willing to take the risk. I was content then to just sit on the rocks and chat for a while, observing the beautiful view.
That looks like a postcard, dare I say, even if it was just taken on an iPhone. The water was literally transparent and the sandy peach-toned buildings paired artistically with the pale green shallow waters.
After a couple hours there at the rocks, we moved towards the centre of Umag and had lunch. I ordered black truffle tagliatelle again; this really was my dish of the holiday like spaghetti with clams was my go-to last year in 2021.
A few years ago, I would never have even entertained the idea of clams or any type of seafood or funghi but I remember my mum telling me when I was young that your palate changes over time and mine definitely has. It’s a good thing really, as it means I can order much more freely from seaside menus than when I lived in Spain 2015-2018 and bypassed many things because they came from the sea.
Back in Slovenia
Portorož and Piran are home to salt lakes where the prized fleur-de-sel is produced and sold locally and exported abroad.
On our final night in Slovenia, we went to a restaurant situated on the salt lakes surrounded by horses, ponies, dogs, and hedgehogs. The sun was already slightly setting into wisps of baby pink juxtaposed over the craggy rocks when we arrived, but I was distracted by the ponies grazing nearby. I had oysters and seabass yet again as I did most evenings here; a fitting end to a gorgeous few days here.
When we sat down to eat, we spotted a very bold hedgehog scurrying around between the wooden legs of the recently vacated table in front of us, and its behaviour struck me as being more like that of a dog or cat. I had never seen a hedgehog be so daring and domesticated before.
This evening summed up everything I found beautiful about Portorož and Piran: the clear skies, the bright blue seas, the wildlife, the sunsets, and the rugged, rocky landscapes.
I returned to Italy, then later England, with fridge magnets, salt soaps, a wooden salt dispenser and the faint remains of a suntan and an abundance of happy memories. I’ve already been telling people how lovely this place is and how to get there, and my own mum and dad are already looking into a trip there.
Let me know if you have visited and what you thought in the comments below!