I woke up in the morning and gazed out at the snow-capped peaks and took a deep breath of the crisp, alpine air. Just a few hours later I was curving around a bend to reveal red clay roofed-homes cascading down toward the aqua waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Istrian Slovenia was like the cherry on top to a wonderful introduction to Slovenia. The air smelled of the sea, steaming bowls of pasta and seafood were being served and I could hear the rhythmic sound of Italian in some cafes. It was magical.
Squeezed between Italy and Croatia, the Slovenian part of the Istrian peninsula has the vibe of the Italian Riviera. The Slovene coast stretches for about 30 miles between bordering countries with Piran as the jewel in its crown.
When I asked my guide and local, Mateja, whether folks here felt more influence from Italy or Croatia she told me, “we are Istrian.” There is a pride here that goes back hundreds of years to the times of the Roman Empire and earlier.
Here in Slovenia’s most southwesterly tip, Italian and Slovene are both official languages. Architecture was influenced long ago by the Venetian Republic.
The cuisine too has different influences. Istria is known for rich olive oils and sweet wine. Italian flavors come through in pastas and risottos scattered with shellfish.
Secovlje Salt Pans
So, besides chocolate, I love salt. I probably use too much salt, but thankfully my blood pressure is still low and I’m in good shape. Back in the day, salt was like gold—wars were fought over it and trade routes were shaped because of it.
For generations salt has been panned here from the Mediterranean’s northernmost active salt flats in Secovlje. Pure sea salt is produced by hand, employing the same traditional methods and tools that have been used for over 700 years.
Lepa Vida Thalasso Spa at Piran Salt Pans
So of course, what is the next likely addition at a dry, hot salt field? A spa, of course.
Smack dab in the middle of the salt fields, the Lepa Vida Thalasso Spa opened a spa a couple years ago complete with pool, lounge chairs, and even a small bar for drinks and snacks. The new spa is located among some abandoned salt pans pools and only steps away from where salt is still being produced.
The open-air spa consists of 14 wooden houses, a platform for sunbathing and showers, one salt-water swimming pool, 4 smaller swimming pools for brine baths and 3 small swimming pools for Kneipp therapies (cold-hot seawater). Get a mud bath, a sea salt scrub or a massage.
Because of its small size, only about 50 visitors will be able to visit the spa at a time and its open from just May through October. Good to book in advance.
Fonda Piran Sea Bass
During my stay, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Irena Fonda, the director of Fonda Fish Farm. Irena is a molecular biologist and recipient of numerous awards for research achievements. When the Fonda family fish farm was established, Irena joined her father and brother because of her affiliation with the sea. She manages the company, while also working on international research projects involving the area of marine biology.
Over a delicious lunch at Rizibizi (one of their clients and where I had one of my favorite meals of my entire trip), she explained to me why their farmed fish is special. Her family operates a sustainable aquaculture “boutique” fish farm producing healthy sea bass right here in the Bay of Piran.
They are very proud of their product and Irena told me about their process of raising their fish with no chemicals in uncrowded, free floating mesh cages that are in the open water of the Adriatic. And each and every fish is tagged with its origin and date of catch for the buyer to see.
“Aquaculture is a reality today and we have to make it better,” said Irena. “We decided to breed the best farmed fish in the world.”
The regular replacement of fresh seawater, continuous movement, local climate and lower salt content of the sea in this part of the Piran Bay favorably influences the quality of the fish meat. They say that the fish are fed manually using only the highest quality (and most expensive) food made up exclusively from sea animals and plants.
You can take your own visit to the Fonda fish farm for a tour. Guided visits are conducted in Slovenian, Italian and English.
Just down the coast is cosmopolitan Portorož (porto-rosh). Known as a “health resort” since the 13th century thanks to the combo salty sea, air, and water, visitors still come here to relax and rejuvenate at places like the LifeClass Hotels and Spa. LifeClass consists of several wellness-themed hotels in a huge complex. Here you can get numerous treatments including an Ayurveda massage as I had, plus salt therapy, and ice cave sauna park, and anti-aging clinic.
There are dozens of bars and restaurants in the hotels and all along the promenade of Portorož. When I asked for a great local spot for seafood, several locals recommended Fritolin. It was the perfect combo of local—families were here for their Sunday lunch–and delicious food. It was busy, not too fancy, and honest food. I ordered a pasta dish with seafood and had trouble only eating my normal half portion. It was so fresh and tasty!
During my time in Piran, I was a guest of the Hotel Piran, a lovely local hotel situated right on the water. One interesting note: since the center of Piran is so small, with winding roads, they’ve stopped allowing traffic in. You can park at a parking garage outside of the center and then walk or get a lift to the hotel. It cuts down on congestion and keeps the old town, feeling old…and peaceful.
Disclosure: During my stay in Piran, I was a guest of SloveniaTourism. As always, all opinions are my own.