The contrast between Istria and inland Slovenia comes at you like a train. Within a few hundred feet’s descent of the Karst Plateau’s face, the traditional border between Italians and Slovenes, the Mediterranean takes over. Once off the plateau, we hugged the coast south to join up with a repurposed railroad bed that disappeared into a stone tunnel. Sunlight flooded the exit, which, eyes adjusted to the dark, I blindly burst through to find myself coasting along a narrow valley of microfarms planted in olive, fig, and fruit trees, and tidy rows of sweet peas, cabbages, and tomatoes.
“I’m Slovenian, but I consider myself Istrian,” Primoz, who was born about a few miles from this point, had mentioned earlier in the trip. We were discussing how, socially and culturally, he has more in common with neighboring Croatians than with his inland countrymen: a shared official second language (Italian), seafood and pastas in place of potatoes and hearty meat stews, coastal traditions, a warmer climate, better wine. We confirmed this last fact that evening with a tasting in his hometown, the fishing village of Piran, whose more than 500 years under Venetian rule are still clearly evident today. In a courtyard above an old cistern used to store water during sieges, a winemaker from Steras Vineyards shared vintages that included a rosé (a bit sweet) and two reds, which some of the group ordered by the case for delivery, while tourists walked by with looks of “How do we get in on this?”
Piran is one of the few spots on the trip where groups are on their own for dinner. Among the ten or so recommended restaurants, take Primoz’s advice and head to his friend’s place, casual Pirat
, where eight of us ordered double portions of nearly half the menu to share: calamari; mussels in a garlicky white-wine sauce; pasta with grilled lobsters; a fish platter with shrimp, squid, and whole sea bream and sea bass; and more – hands down one of the best and most fun meals of the trip.