Tadhg Peavoy's road trip continues.
Having started my road trip in Verona, before hitting Venice, next up I clambered back in my Alfa Romeo and headed south towards the Slovenian border crossing.
Before reaching that border, you loop around the top of the Adriatic coast and climb into the foothills of the Val Rosandra mountain, at which point you first see the city of Trieste nestled by the shore below. It's a stunning sight with its red terracotta roofs and the Adriatic lapping up against the industrial concrete structures of the port.
Driving through Trieste reveals a low-key city, which doesn't have tourists cramming the streets. Instead, it's a mellow city with a calm atmosphere and several points of interest.
If, like me, you are just passing through, stopping to take in the seafront as well as the stunning Piazza Unità d'Italia is recommended. The piazza is built right onto the coast and is a superb example of Austro-Hungarian architecture.
From there, it's onwards south and across the border into Slovenia. Immediately, the landscape changes. On the Italian side it's all arid mountains and autostrada, with fields dotting the roadside. However, right across the border the lush, green forests of Slovenia cover the Julian Alps.
I drove back north to reach the quiet village of Vipava. With the sun high in the sky at this point, I ventured inside to sample some of the many wines that the region produces. There are 150 different producers, 23 grape varieties and a wine production university, so this really is their thing. The wine is good. Very good. And relatively unheralded too, which makes it excellent value.
The Vinoteka Vipava gives you the chance to taste a cross-section of the varieties and is a great opportunity to savour what is on offer.
From there, with my driving companion taking the wheel, we drove on to one of the highlights of the trip - the Gostilna pri Lojzetu restaurant. It's located just outside the town, at the end of a beautiful tree-lined avenue in the Zemono Manor House, which looks out over the neighbouring fields and mountains.
On entering the restaurant you see a beautiful dining room, where five tables are set in the most intimate of settings. Chef Tomaž Kavcic then personally greets the guests before the seven-course tasting menu commences.
Kavcic's policy is that all the produce must be local, and that availability of ingredients is the key factor. From those ingredients he will construct the menu, changing seasonally with the produce of the region. Slovenia doesn't use the Michelin star system, but if it did this eatery would likely have at least one étoile.
Back on the road after a sumptuous lunch, the next stop was the Lipica Stud Farm, the home of the Lipizzaner horses. They are regarded as being among the most famous and successful dressage horses in the world and were developed for this practice by the Hapsburg nobility as far back as 1580.
The mix of Spanish, Barb and Arabian stock has produced a singular breed, and the school itself has survived Italian, Nazi and Yugoslav rule to remain in existence in modern-day Slovenia.
As well as being able to take in the stables and ride the horses, viewing the stud's architecture is a bonus.
The motorway then brought me further south to the coast and the town of Portorož, which is perfectly placed to allow you to explore the coastline and inland.
As for where to stay when in town, if the budget allows it, the Kempinski Palace Hotel really is the best option.
Put simply, this five-star hotel is outstanding. Built by the Austro-Hungarians, its façade has been beautifully maintained and looks out over the Adriatic, sitting regally in the centre of town.
Rather than spoil the hotel by modernising it, Kempinski has got the balance just right, creating a beautiful blend of glass, stone and marble.
The food served there is immense, while indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa, and some of the best hotel staff I have ever encountered, make this a world-class place to stay. I can't recommend it highly enough.
As the Slovenian coast only goes on for 42km, the Kempinski Palace's location means that you are a short drive to virtually all the sights on offer.
The Secovlje Salina Park is home to the region's saltpans, where hand-made salt has been produced since the Middle Ages.
The tradition still continues, with salt fields owned by a salter for his entire lifetime.
From the park you can also take a boat out onto the Adriatic to see the Fonda fish farm, which is world renowned for its production of sea bass. The farm uses purely organic methods and its produce is regarded as one of the culinary highlights of the country.
The restaurant Fioret is located within Salina Park and uses the hand-made salt and Fonda sea bass as cornerstones of its menu, which is devised by a father-and-son team that have lived all their lives in the region.
The other big tip for eating in the region is to book yourself a table at Rizibizi, located in the mountainous hinterland of Portorož. It also serves Fonda's outstanding sea bass, as well as focusing on pastas and meats. The homemade pasta with truffle sauce, preceded by tuna tartare, were some of the best dishes I've ever eaten. The restaurant combines simplicity with superb ingredients - especially the local fish, salt, olives, wine and asparagus - and is set in an incredibly scenic location which looks out over the entire town.
The other main attraction along the coast is Piran, a coastal town that first had its walls built around 7AD and has survived as a settlement ever since. Periods of Venetian and Austro-Hungarian rule dominate the architecture, while the more modern sections have been designed - like the upgrade of the Kempinski Palace - to meld with the older architecture and complement it.
The town is located on a headland jutting out into the Adriatic, with the sea dashing against its shores on three sides, and a fortified wall enclosing the fourth side of the town. Within those confines one finds a beautiful town, with winding, narrow streets filled with little bars, taverns and squares - relax, sit back and chill.
The Slovenians are nothing if not friendly. Sitting back and having a few lagers or Slovenian wine while chewing the fat with them was another highlight of my sojourn.
Like the Irish and the Italians, they are incredibly open and tend to pour their hearts out within an hour or so of meeting people. It's hard not to like that honesty and integrity.
How To Get There
Aer Lingus flies to Trieste and Verona. Ryanair flies to Venice Treviso. All are short drives to Slovenia.
Hertz offers car rental at Trieste and Verona airports. Its Gold Plus Rewards scheme is the one to go for. Hertz will have the car waiting for you at the arrivals terminal as well as a host of other benefits: https://www.hertz.ie/rentacar/member/enrollment.
Where To Stay
The five-star Kempinski Palace hotel is world class. Staying there is a pleasure: http://www.kempinski.com/en/portoroz/palace-portoroz/welcome.
Where To Eat
Gostilna pri Lojzetu, located in the Vipava Valley, offers an intimate dining experience, with one of the country's greatest chefs at the helm of the whole experience: http://www.prilojzetu.si/en/kje_nas_najdete.php.
Rizibizi, located just outside Portorož, is a highlight of visiting the Slovenian coast. Its varied menu hits all the right notes and Rizibizi also serves Fonda fish farm's organic sea bass, which is one of the country's finest food products: http://www.rizibizi.si/index.php.
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