April 23, 2014
An afternoon drive into Istria – Capodistria or the port town of Koper. It is located just over the border from Trieste basically at the top north west point of the Istrian penninsula and is the tiny slice of the Adriatic shore that belongs to Slovenia. The rest of the Istrian peninsula is now part of Croatia. We take the old road and not the autostrada, and the approach to Capodistria from Trieste is through a small stretch of rolling green fields and rows of grapevines with the Adriatic on our right. The first site of the town is all industrial with those round white petroleum silos, the cranes from the port and an industrial park. As we near the port, there are rows and rows of cars some still wrapped in plastic that are straight out of their containers. Since all cars look the same to me I don’t know the make of the cars.
Then we follow a few traffic circles past supermarkets and small shopping plazas to park the car in a large gravel parking lot beside the Despar grocery store. We cross through a nicely tree shaded park that has a children’s playground. The sign says to keep the area clean for the children. And just outside the park is a WC – for dogs. A grate covers an opening and there is a handheld shower to flush down the dog doo. All along the walk I am impressed with how clean the town is and at how much effort is put into maintaining the streets, businesses and parks. We reach a street corner and the driver of the oncoming car slows down and stops. I have not even given the signal of stepping slowly into the road and then stopping to stare down the driver which you must do in Trieste! And in Trieste the driver just pauses the car long enough for you to dash in front of it and then the car passes behind you right on your heels.
The street along side the historic centre is bordered by department stores, bookstores, travel agencies and as we near the port – I see the farmer’s market and its stands but it is only open on Sundays. There is a wide lungomare where pleasure craft and fishing boats are moored and it is lined with tall palm trees. The boats are framed by the snow capped mountains in the background to the west.
We head into one of the gates to the walled city – the Muda Gate which was the central gate and was built in 1516. The first records of a town in this location date back to the second half of the 6th century. We enter Preseren Square and the old city. Three story stone buildings, – all the buildings linked together, pastel colored with Venetian style windows, wooden shutters, flower boxes. From there we reach Carpaccio Square. It is named after the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio who supposedly lived and worked in Koper in the 16th century. The 14th century house where he lived is in this square and it is painted a vivid burgundy color. What stood out for me was a long row of old wisteria vines still in bloom running over top of a long wooden bench. This square also has a set of arches now with a view of the port but these would have been city gates in the past. We head up a narrow street and now the buildings really do feel like Venice – I see a Venetian lion still strong and proud although the dark coral plaster is crumbling around him. A lot of the buildings have been restored and are well maintained. I look up at one that has not been restored and see the ancient timber frames, dark and worn that hold up the roof – really interesting and exciting to see the actual structure, bones of the building that have been there for more than 500 years. The house is in fact occupied. This is a living place where people make their homes and live their lives like generations and generations of people before them. We wind our way up the street and there are clothing stores, an organic products store, an antiquarian bookstore, art galleries, a museum, eating places and narrow side streets on both sides with the same tall pastel colored buildings.
Then the street opens up into this unexpected and beautiful piazza – unromantically called Trg Tito! I am stunned – it has a campanile and a loggia just like in Piazza San Marco and it is surrounded by light grey white stone palazzi. As beautiful as Venice but on a human scale not a grand scale. A little girl chases pigeons and has lots of room to do so. The piazza is wide open, with people leisurely strolling about and enjoying the beauty of the space. In the loggia is a caffe, one of the oldest in Slovenia and it has been there since the mid 19th century. The Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption was built in the 15th century in a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles. The campanile- bell tower – was originally a Romanesque fortification and converted to a bell tower between the 15th and 17th century. I love the facade of the Praetorian Palace – which dates from the 15th century with all its carved plaques and dates and carved lions and dentailed top. It would be nice to be able to read and understand what all the plaques say. We sit on a stone bench in front of the church and I try to take in all the beauty and history that surrounds me in this piazza. Then we head through the gates and onto the Ulica Cevljarska – the Shoemaker’s street- medieval and still holding onto that trade and craft feel. It is narrow and winding and has narrow and winding side streets. It is alive and functional with small stores occupying every space and people sitting outside enjoying a coffee or an aperativo. How fortunate we are that this fine example of the Venetian lifestyle and town design that today we crave – walkable, people friendly spaces, with all your needs met in your own neighborhood – is not only so well preserved but alive. A jewel of a town.