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Coastal Slovenian town shows Italian influences

Staff Contributor

From five miles away, I realized this sprawling horizon could be anywhere in Venice: hundreds of sailboats lined against a circular harbor, the dim sound of waves massaging the stone beach, the aroma of fish and salt encouraged by a nippy, but welcoming breeze. But there was one problem: I wasn't in Venice.

Welcome to Piran, Slovenia, an old Mediterranean coastal town, situated on the westernmost part of the Istrian peninsula. Known as the jewel of the Slovenian Coast, Piran was once ruled by the Venetian Republic in the 10th century in exchange for protection from feudal lords.

The Republic's dominance ended centuries ago, but what remain are pockets of Venetian charm, where you can saunter among Venetian architecture, peruse artwork by Venetian artists and experience Venetian-influenced culture.

Gothic architecture

Tartini Square is the best starting point for exploration. Named for Piran's most famous resident, violinist Guiseppe Tartini, the white marble square resembles an ice-skating rink, with a statue of Tartini (the work of Venetian Antonio dal Zotta) dominating the middle. Once a harbor for fishing boats, today, the square serves as the town's social heart, where residents congregate, kids play and tourists people-watch.

Across the street from Tartini Square stands the Venetian House, an example of Venetian Gothic architecture. The red house was built in the middle of the 15th century, and boasts architectural details such as stone ornaments, keyhole windows and a Gothic corner balcony.

The luxurious palace also holds one of Piran's historic tales. According to local legend, a wealthy Venetian merchant fell in love with a native girl and built the palace for her. The merchant wanted the palace to serve as a showcase for his love and to express the strength of his wealth to the townspeople. But the townspeople resented the couple's relationship and gossiped about them. As a defense against the town's resentment, an inscription, still preserved today, was added between the windows on the second floor. It reads: "Lasse pur dir," or "Let them talk."

Venetian influence

Follow one of the cobblestone streets leading from Tartini Square into the winding alleys of Piran. Explore the Venice-like pathways or follow a mysterious group of stairs until a dead-end. Smile as the residents walk past and wave at the young women hanging laundry above. Listen as the sounds of footsteps intrude on the bliss casually mixed with chaos: the clanging of dishes and laughter echoing off the buildings.

Perched on a high hill and strengthened with flying buttresses stands the centerpiece of Piran, St. George's church. Built in the 12th century and renovated to Baroque style in 1637, the medieval church bears the name of Piran's patron saint. Inside, a museum exhibits findings from the 14th century, including a statue of St. George himself. From the church's courtyard, the sky extends toward Venice (which is observable on a clear day), the Italian city of Trieste (also at one point under Venetian rule) and the snow-capped Dolomites.

Standing next to the St. George's church is the bell tower. Built in 1608, the bell tower is an exact copy of the San Marco Campanile in Venice and is one of the strongest reminders of Venetian rule. A brass angel, St. Julian, sits on top of the tower, informing residents of forthcoming weather. It points north if there's good weather on the way and south for bad.

Churches house great artwork

Two of the 10 churches in Piran - St. Francis and Church of the Snowy Mary - hide the best examples of Venetian artwork. Most of the Venetian artists are unknown, but their influence and talent remain captured in their work. Discovered in 1969, paintings of the Crucifixion and Revelation hangs on the Gothic arch wall in the Church of the Snowy Mary, both are the work of an unknown Venetian painter.

St. Francis church contains artwork from painters of Venetian workshops. The paintings, from the 17th and 18th century, include the Last Supper, portraits of St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul. The Pinacoteque, a gallery located downstairs in the convent, display 14 works of art painted by Venetian artists who decorated the church and monastery.