Weather-beaten fishermen called to one another across equally weather-beaten boats, their Italian tinged with salt and laughter. Behind them rose a clutter of red-roofed restaurants and shops in saffron and persimmon, aqua and mint, their façades punctuated with signs such as PESCHERIA and GELATERIA. Water lapped at the dock. In the distance, green hills rippled with vineyards.
But I wasn't in Italy. Although – if I squinted – I could probably see it from where I stood.
Instead, I was in one of the least-known stretches of coast along the Mediterranean: Slovenian Istria. Until a few weeks before, I hadn't even known the area existed. When I thought of Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic, I thought of forest and mountains. But despite being less than half the size of Nova Scotia, the country takes in a sweep of geological diversity, from Alps to Adriatic.
That isn't to say that Slovenia's only outlet to the sea is a large one. From top to bottom, it measures 46 kilometres. It's squeezed between Italy, to the north, and Croatia, to the south. And, unsurprisingly, it has often been dominated by its neighbours. From the late 13th century through 1797, when Slovenian Istria passed to Austria, it was a part of the Republic of Venice.
Even today, Italian and Slovenian are the area's official languages; on the highway, signs list town names in both. In Koper, where the Italian border lies just 10 kilometres away, I wandered a tangle of stone streets, their windows strewn with laundry lines, that looked like a corner of Sicily – and then had an espresso beneath the pointed arches of the Loggia Palace, a 15th-century Venetian Gothic town hall that could have been dropped into Venice without a wrinkle of architectural disturbance.
And yet, at one point out on the water in the coast's southern section, my phone beeped. "Welcome to Croatia!" the message said.
Part of the Slovenian coastline's biggest draw is soaking up that cultural mishmash. For me, at least, there's a particular pleasure in finding places, and people, that don't neatly belong, and from top to bottom, Slovenia offers that in spades: the history of a former Yugoslav republic unmarred by the ethnic tensions of its neighbours, the architecture of a central European capital city that's primarily Italian Baroque, the wine connoisseurs who knock back liquor like residents farther east, even the local officials whose approach blends Mediterranean hospitality, Austrian efficiency and Eastern Bloc bureaucracy.
Even so, the real reasons to come to Slovenian Istria are those that draw visitors to the rest of the Mediterranean.
The food, for one. At Izola's Hotel Marina, I had one of the best lunches of my life – a long, lazy meal made up of an absurd number of miniature claws and shells that I drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. The oil came from the vineyards in the hills just over the harbour; the salt from the Piranske Soline, part of the Secovlje salt pans – the northernmost in the Mediterranean – located just 10 km south of where I sat.
Amanda Ruggeri for The Globe and Mail
To find out more about the staple of cuisine in this part of Slovenia – fish – I headed to the Fonda Fish Farm. Funded in part by the Slovenian government and the European Union, Mediterranean Slovenia's only fish farm is run by three siblings, all of whom are also biologists – and who have an obvious passion for not only the sea, but maintaining its health. "The sea is pretty empty," Irena Fonda, the company's manager, told me as we stood overlooking the water, the hills of Croatia just beyond, nibbling on fresh, raw sea bass – accompanied, of course, by Piranske Soline salt and local olive oil. Instead of continuing to strip the sea of the few schools left, the family decided to farm the bass. They don't use any chemicals or antibiotics; they hand-feed the sea bass bluefish and plants. They ice the animals before they're killed, a way to ensure both less suffering and, Irena said, that they produce less adrenaline. Whatever the family did, it made a difference: Their fish tasted clean.
On a boat ride out to the farm, I could see why. The bass splashed in large underwater nets. The water was clear. Ropes of mussels hung nearby, the shellfish cleaning the water. Fonda Fish Farm wants to help change how the fishing industry does business – to set the expectation that fish should come with a label of origin and guarantee of quality, just like wine and olive oil. Fonda Fish Farm's fish are sold with a mark on their gill flaps indicating where they came from and when they were caught. "When we first started putting fish as a brand, everyone was laughing at us," Fonda said. Not any more: The farm's bass are sold to restaurants and shops across Slovenia and into Austria.
But as much as I loved delving into Slovenian Istria's culture, as much as I enjoyed the sun-soaked meals and the friendly conversations and the happy-seeming Fonda fish, where I really fell in love – the real reason I'll return – I can say in one word: Piran.
The town is touted as the pearl of Slovenia's coast. Rarely, though, has marketing lingo matched up so perfectly with reality.
Amanda Ruggeri for The Globe and Mail
When I arrived, the sun was already setting. I was impatient to explore. Instead, I was arrested by my own hotel room – or, I should say, by the view. The water was glassy; in the distance, the sky's smoky pink set a sailboat's silhouette in stark relief. I threw open the doors and hung over the rail. Church bells chimed. The water lapped. I could smell salt on the air. Beneath my balcony, people chatted over aperitivi or strolled slowly along the water, their faces turned west.
The next day, I would explore Piran more fully. I would walk past the forest of sailboat masts in the small harbour, dreaming of what it would be like to stay there. I would watch children bicycling across the town's pristine piazza, their play overlooked by cypress trees and elegant columns, families sipping espresso in the cafés and the statue of 18th-century Italian Baroque composer and Piran native Giuseppe Tartini. I would climb up to the 17th-century Church of St. George, where I'd try to fix the view of pastel façades topped by red-tiled roofs, the impossibly vivid Adriatic in the background, forever in my memory.
Tomorrow, I would do all of these things. But today, for now, I would just enjoy this little corner of the Mediterranean – a corner I hadn't known existed, but couldn't be more glad to find.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Slovenia Tourist Board. It did not review or approve this article.
The most convenient airport is the Friuli-Venezia Giulia airport near Trieste, Italy, which is located about 45 km from Slovenian Istria. Although there are no direct Toronto-to-Trieste flights, Lufthansa has flights with one stop in Munich that can get you there in less than 10 hours. Other airport options include the Ljubljana airport, 100 km away, and the Venice airport, 200 km away.
Where to stay
The romantic, five-star Kempinski Palace, located in the centre of Portoroz, has all the fixings, including spacious rooms, 24-hour room service, outdoor and indoor swimming pools. From $255 a night; kempinski.com.
The 102-year-old Hotel Piran has 89 contemporary, comfortable rooms, a 4-star rating and a small spa – but its real asset is its waterfront location. From $105; hotel-piran.si/en.
The farm-stay Casa del Sal has clean, modern rooms, home-grown breakfasts and beautiful views of the salt pans. From $75 a night, minimum three-night stay; casadelsal.wordpress.com.
Where to eat
Whether or not you stay here, head to Izola's Hotel Marina for the restaurant. Like other "kilometre zero" spots, they've committed to sourcing at least 70 per cent of their ingredients and wine from Slovenian Istria. From octopus salad to scallops, they do Slovenia proud. hotelmarina.si
Pick the right table at Rizibizi in Portoroz and you get sweeping views of the blue Adriatic below. For a real showcase of Rizibizi's fresh, clean take on contemporary Adriatic cuisine, opt for one of the tasting menus (starting from €33/$46 for four courses), where you can try everything from homemade pasta with truffle to lobster-and-peach salad. rizibizi.si
– Amanda Ruggeri