Piran: La Piazza Secreta

Great night’s sleep here at the Miracolo di Mare.  We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of croissants, jam, toast, cold cuts, coffee, fruit, and juice in the backside courtyard sitting beneath a kiwi vine canopy.  We were occasionally entertained by the wonderful staff, as well as butterflies, a yellow jacket interested in our bologna, and one very laid back dog.

Under the kiwi vine
Under the kiwi vine

When asked about bikes, Borut produced two well-used steeds and did some hasty revival work on them.  I’m a great fan of using bicycles to get around (check my bicycle blog if you need verification), and was already excited about this activity.

Borut gave us fairly detailed instructions for a good bike route.  Of course the numerous details wafted through my mind like so much smoke, and soon I could only remember to find a Mercator supermarket and then look for signs to the auditorium.  Oh well.

We hit the streets and then the waterfront.  To our surprise, we ran into our roomie from back at Hostel Celica, the guy from Scotland, and stopped to say hi.  He sat waiting on the curb for a bus that was running late.  What were the chances?

On the Piran waterfront
On the Piran waterfront

Within only a couple of miles, we found the Mercator and ducked inside to buy some sunscreen.  We then headed southeast looking for our route, one that supposed to go into a tunnel under the steep ridge behind the city.  We tried several likely routes without success, climbing up several hundred feet, then dead-ending.

Backtracking a mile, we ran into a very friendly Hungarian couple we’d met at the B&B who’d done the bike route yesterday.  They were most gracious in giving us pointers on where to go.

We took off south again, but alas, must have missed our turn again, and soon found ourselves on the waterfront in Portoroz.  We sort of ignored a sign that prohibited bikes, and instead rolled a way down the waterfront, by four large hotels, a big beach area, and lots of tourists.   Good exploring.

Portoroz beach area
Portoroz beach area

Backtracking again, we FINALLY found a sign proclaiming Auditorj, and then a sign indicating a tunnel.  But what a grind!  I bet the slope got darn close to 20% on the way up.  As we ground away at the pedals, we saw a small cycling group relaxing at a table in front of the tunnel entrance.  They started cheering us on, and then clapped as we both made it.

Despite the climbing to its entrance, the tunnel cuts underneath the steep backbone of the Piran peninsula and reduces the overall effort required to reach the northern side. The roll down through it was exhilarating, especially due to the great lighting within the tunnel.  Janel loved it!!

Tunnel to the north side
Tunnel to Strunjan

Out of the tunnel, we had to make some turn decisions, but made our way by some old salt flats to the village of Strunjan and finally to a well visited park.  We locked up the bikes and took to foot down a very rocky beach with no sand.  Hundreds of locals were beaching it and it was curious to see them laying out on towels on the flat tips of rocks.  A few were even nude.

Beach food was available, you know, hamburgers and ice cream, but that didn’t really appeal.  Instead, we turned around and starting hiking north for more people watching.  The crowd diminished quite a bit and so did the use of swimming suits, which was entertaining at least.

The nude end of Strunjan Park
The nude end of Strunjan Park

We finally found a rocky perch with a respectful distance from others, and soon took to the water ourselves.  It was very tough going on our feet to get over the rocks, but once afloat, the swim felt pretty magnificent.  The water was pretty cold, maybe as low as 70F.

Refreshing swim
Refreshing swim

We pawed our way back along the path to the park, all the while thinking about food.  Sardines seemed a particularly good idea.  With none to be found, we hit up the bikes and retraced our route, climbing up through the tunnel, rolling back through the Portoroz area and eventually back to Piran.  The whole bike/explore/and swim outing took us about four hours and about 20 km – a very excellent little tour.

On the waterfront we stopped at the Pirat Restaurant to survey the outside menu.  The listing of sardines seduced us immediately and we entered.

Pirat Restaurant Menu
Pirat Restaurant Menu
At Pirat Restaurant
At Pirat Restaurant
Piran waterfront
Piran waterfront

Just like at Spajza Restaurant in Ljubljana, a waiter immediately took control of us and started steering us, but it was done is a very helpful way.  First a “fresh” table for us.  We then learned that, while sardines were available, it is off season for them and the quality is not so good.  Instead, he suggested a cold seafood appetizer plate.

When it arrived, it looked a lot like the one served in Izola yesterday, but of MUCH better quality.  The fish mousse/pate was tasty, the octopus delicious, and even the two (presumably frozen) sardines not too bad.   A couple of Laškos on the side.

The waiter then steered us deftly to the shrimp-langoustine-squid plate, claiming that langoustines are the pride of Piran.  This entree was called the “poker plate” on the menu.

From the description, I half-expected to receive langostinos.   Later on, I learned that langostino is a sort-of  made up marketing name for prawns, shrimp, crayfish, you name it.   But when our poker plate arrived we saw that these were different critters.  Real langoustines are slim orange-pink true lobsters (sometimes called Norway lobsters) local to northern Atlantic and that they are definitely something special.

Langoustines!
Langoustines!

The langoustines – WOW – outta this world!!   Sweet and scrumptious, and of course enjoyed with clarified butter.  The squid and shrimp and white wine were just as excellent, but the langoustines!  Man!

Of course, we had fun with them, too.  They have big beady eyes and small claws that are perfect for positioning and photographing.

After the feeding frenzy
After the feeding frenzy

A short ride back to the B&B in time for a good afternoon nap.

Miracolo di Mare entrance
Miracolo di Mare entrance

Piran was still waiting for us when we woke.  Now about 5:30PM, we shopped briefly for some sandals without luck, then hiked up across Tartini Square to a dive shop we’d seen yesterday.  The loose plan was to rent snorkeling gear for a little late afternoon swim, just to see what was around.  The friendly shop owner just shook his head.  It was obviously too windy and too churned up for that to make sense.

We decided to dive into happy hour, but nothing in the vicinity appealed.  We thought we might meander back to Pizzeria Tartini to see if the pop duo was in action, but instead of taking the wider touristy streets, we cut through the tiny alley ways of central Piran, just to see what might be there.

Beautiful St. John's church at dusk
Beautiful St. John’s church at dusk

In the heart of the ancient buildings we found what we later called la piazza secreta.  It was a little clearing between buildings with a simple sign declaring Piazza 1. Maggio, or in Slovenian, Pryomajski Trg.

La piazza secreta
The window of Friolin pri Cantini

Local local local – we could tell immediately.   Janel and I took a seat at one of a half dozen tables just to watch for a little while.  In 20 minutes or so, a server visited and brought some white wine, which was accompanied by a few raindrops.  We asked him, “What are the little fishes everyone is eating?”  “Girice,” he replied, and strolled off.

It was then we spied an open windowframe on the wall of one building, lit up from the inside.  Beside it was a simple chalk sign, “Fritolin pri Cantini.”  Beneath it, in English: “Take Away or Take It Easy.”

Fritolin pri Cantini
Fritolin pri Cantini

The window was self-serve, so I peeked in to see a kitchen staff whirling around in a busy kitchen.  A lady behind a big pot asked what I wanted (in either Italian or Slovenian, I did not know).  “Girice,” I said.  “Pommes frittes?”  “Da!” I answered. She looked me over, I guess just to identify me, and then gave me a big smile and went back to her tasks.

In only 5 minutes, a different lady came outside with our order, found us seated, and brought over two big baskets, one piled high with freshly fried French fries, the other a mountain of tiny fried fishes, along with a third basket of fresh bread.  This feast set us back a mere $7€.

The girice were wow – GREAT!!  Crunchy little fingerlings, with a perfect combination of fishiness, vinegar tang, and the toasted flavor of hot frying oil.   The fries were equally outstanding.   Add in some catsup for a sweet accent, and well, we stuffed ourselves.

Girice and pommes frittes
Girice and pommes frittes (We decimated these plates before taking any photos.)

I walked up a block to the open tavern to get beer, but couldn’t find a bartender or server, and so came back empty handed.   But Janel left a few minutes later and came back with a big smile and 2 ice-cold Laškos.  Heaven!  Beer is a must with these fried foods.

As explanation, I believe the word girice is a Slovenian word and its equivalent is gavun in Croatian.  Both refer to a tiny schooling fish called the Mediterranean Sand Smelt, which are caught by the zillions in the waters around Europe.

As we sat and enjoyed, we ran into Borut from Miracolo di Mare, who expressed surprise to find us here.  He explained that this is a VERY local place (we know!).

When is Piran, seek out the secret piazza and Fritolin pri Cantini.  Simple, fresh, local, great eats!

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2 thoughts on “Piran: La Piazza Secreta

  1. Here I am in NJ worrying about humidity and didn’t even know I had a chance for another vicarious trip through Spain….I thought I was headed to Florida….I will enjoy every minute of this…..

    1. Hi Trish!!! Of course, you must notice that the date is August 11, 2012! I am writing and backdating some old stories so that Janel can relive them with me. We are about to hit the road to Florida next week (in 2013)! Anyway,. I am happy you are reading about Slovenia too – we had a blast there. I miss seeing you – hope and Tom are doing well. Rich

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