The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait in 19 Pics, Part I


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Oddly enough, in the five-plus years that Piran Café has been plugging along, I don’t think I’ve published more than a handful of photos here from the city whose name the blog bears and honors. I’ll make up for that absence today. And then some.

I hope choking you with nearly 20 photos isn’t too big an indulgence – Piran is one of the nicest spots on the planet, and not only because I was born there. It just is.

These were all taken yesterday during a quick visit to check out the newly renovated Mestna Galerija, or Municipal Gallery, which reopened last Friday (more on that in the next few days). I had enough time left over to scamper about the 15th Century city walls, stroll around the 13th Century cobblestone streets and collect some notes for a few upcoming stories. To help with your bearings: the photo above, taken from the city walls, faces west. Venice is at roughly 10 o’clock.

May 1 Square, formerly Piazza Portadomo

May 1 Square, formerly Piazza Portadomo

I’ll be writing elsewhere about Piran over the next several weeks, so rather than going into more detail here about Slovenia’s Adriatic diamond in the rough, I’ll instead recycle some ruminations on Piran that I pieced together a few years ago for a 24-hour Memoir Challenge. I’ve decided to reprint the chapter in its entirety below (slightly edited, you’ll be happy to know), including the few opening paragraphs that don’t have much to do with Piran. That was a very fun project by the way, one I think everyone should set aside a day for every now and then.

The Devil’s Sonata? It’s the most famous piece composed by Guiseppe Tartini, Piran’s most famous son (for now). More about the piece is below.



Chapter II. The Devil’s Sonata

Piran 017The final prep work for this day-long exercise came last night after a long walk through Ljubljana’s old town center and its fringes when I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut’s final book, A Man Without a Country. With its publication in 2004, my favorite author, at 83, was inspired enough to break his promise to never write another book and admit in 146 breezy pages that he, like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein before him, had finally given up on the human race. The man had patience, no?

Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, was published in 1965. It’s a story about Eliot Rosewater, a slovenly millionaire who controls a large family foundation, one of the richest in the country. When his overwhelming love for humanity forces him to begin giving money away to anyone in need, his family, hoping to save their fortune, hires a lawyer to prove he’s insane. It’s probably Vonnegut’s most upbeat book.

Piran 023Forty years later in A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut concludes –and reminds us that Mark Twain did as well in his short story, The Mysterious Stranger, published 106 years earlier– that it was Satan, not God, who created the planet earth and its human race.

In February of 1965, a few months before Vonnegut gave us Mr. Rosewater and just ten days before Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan, I was born in Piran, a quiet and charming little northern Adriatic seaside town.

Piran sits at the end of a tiny peninsula that you won’t find on most maps, just south of Trieste, with a history going back at least thirteen centuries. Countless European empires laid claim at one time or another, but it wasn’t until the Venetians moved in during the latter years of the 13th Century that Piran began to take on the look of a quaint medieval town, Black Death and all. Five centuries later came the Austrians and during Napoleon’s relatively brief incursion –one of the little Emperor’s favorite concubines was Slovenian– Piran played host to the only naval battle in the history of Slovenian waters.

Mid 15th C. Benečanka, or 'Venetian' house, the oldest on the central Tartini Square

Mid 15th C. Benečanka, or ‘Venetian’ house, the oldest on the central Tartini Square

In February of 1812, a six-hour scuffle ensued when two British warships –one was named Weasel– attacked the French vessel Rivoli on its maiden voyage, eventually blowing to bits one of its three accompanying ships. The French surrendered (imagine!), and the remainder of the fleet was towed to the Dalmatian island of Vis, these days a popular destination for French nudists. Today it’s difficult to imagine six naval ships fitting into Slovenian waters.

Between the world wars of the 20th Century, Piran was under Italian tutelage, and from 1947 to 1954, administered by the Yugoslav Army as part of Zone B of the Trieste Free Zone. By the time I came into the picture, it was already Slovenia’s Adriatic pearl as part of Tito’s Yugoslav federation.

Piran 033Piran’s favorite son –for now– is the early 18th Century violin master, composer and teacher, Guiseppe Tartini, who came of age and into prominence during the town’s Venetian enlightenment. He was barely into his twenties when he became the first known owner of a Stradivarius, those insanely beautiful and acoustically perfect violins created by the gentleman of Cremona, Antonio Stradivari. I’ve seen two over the years –the first time, at the Music Museum at the Royal Palace in Madrid, its sublime beauty nearly inspired enough to try my hand as a professional thief. The violin is after all known as the devil’s instrument, and Tartini is best known for his haunting and notoriously difficult composition, The Devil’s Sonata, or Trill. According to legend the piece came to him in a dream in which Satan stood at the foot of his bed strumming his own fiddle. (You didn’t honestly believe that the Charlie Daniels Band’s biggest hit was based on an original concept, did you?) I’ve heard lots of versions –my favorite interpretation is by Andrew Manze on Harmoniamundi. Do check it out.

Guiseppe Tartini standing tall in his eponymous square

Guiseppe Tartini standing tall in his eponymous square

Piran 024Those sorts of dreams were likely not uncommon during Tartini’s tortured formative years. His father, a successful local businessman, wanted his son to join the priesthood, but the closest young Guiseppe would come to fulfilling his father’s wishes went something like this: When he was eighteen and studying law in Padua, Tartini eloped with a woman who was also a favorite niece of the powerful local Cardinal who, after receiving the news of the newlyweds, promptly put a bounty on Tartini’s head. Upon discovery, the young woman was sent to a convent while Tartini escaped to a monastery where he tempered his loss with a new love for the violin.

I don’t recall the devil ever appearing to me in a dream, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t. Because like jokes, dreams are another thing I can’t seem to remember. But like Tartini, I’m convinced that music is mankind’s greatest invention, whether the inspiration behind it is diabolical or divine. Or somewhere in between. Especially in Piran where so many flashes of memory are associated with and ignited by music.

Piran 018Even the burja winds –bora to Italians and bura to Croats– that pound the town each fall and early winter with gusts of up to a hundred-and-ten kilometers per hour and have been known to send stray cats airborne have their own mildly diabolical melody.

Which reminds me: When I returned to Piran for about six months in 1997, I tried to follow then-Czech president Vaclav Havel into a bar when he was in town for a meeting of Central European presidents. I was told that morning that beer was his breakfast beverage of choice, and wanted to buy him his first afternoon brew. Maybe even discuss a book or two. But one of the largest bodyguards I’ve ever seen blocked my way in. It was just as well, since I’d never actually read anything by Havel up to that point. I spent that late afternoon and evening with an extended Roma family from Hungary on the rocky beach below the cliff face that is home to the towering St. George church. They were strumming on cheap violins and banging on ratty old drums. We drank lots of wine. Tartini would have approved.

Piran 030Which also reminds me: My first real taste of individual freedom came in Piran in the summer of 1980, when portraits of Tito, who had died just a few months earlier, were more plentiful than Coke ads are today. I was fifteen and my parents sent me off into the world by myself for the first time. They may still regret it. I remember being able to walk into a corner store, buy a pack of cigarettes and a porn magazine, and sit down at a pub next door and drink large glasses of beer and chain smoke while looking at pictures of nude Macedonian women as cheesy Balkan pop blared through scratchy speakers. For a fifteen-year-old suburban white boy, life couldn’t get much more free.

And by the way, Vonnegut again: He visited Slovenia several times during the Yugoslav days when the international writer’s organization, PEN, held meetings in the famous Alpine city of Bled. He often wrote that Bled was one of his favorite places on this planet that mankind is so bent on destroying.

But back to 1965. Like Tartini, I didn’t stay in Piran very long. He went to Padua via Venice; I moved to Cleveland via Paris.


Piran 036

Piran 032

Piran 037

Piran 020

Piran 027

From the city walls, facing north and the Bay of Trieste

From the city walls, facing north and the Bay of Trieste

Piran 021

Piran 022

St. George’s Church. Dates back to late 11th C., current likeness from 1637.

Looking down from St. George's Church. A long drop. And yes, people have jumped.

Looking down from St. George’s Church. A long drop. And yes, people have jumped.


Last modified: June 3, 2015

69 Responses to " The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait in 19 Pics, Part I "

  1. Wow. Beautiful shots. I want to go there…now.

  2. Leigh says:

    You’ve captured beautiful images and now I know (pardon my ignorance) why your blog sports its name. Its a beautiful city with an interesting history.

  3. Terrific photos! Looks like a great place to visit!

  4. Jade says:

    ah, gorgeous! Love the street shots! Jade-

  5. Lisa says:

    I hadn’t realized that Piran was a place either so it’s nice to learn more about it. The photos are beautiful but what I really enjoyed was reading your essay on the town and particularly about Tartini and the Devil’s Sonata – I learned quite a bit today!

  6. Denise Pulis says:

    wow, I could have taken these pictures! That is, you chose to focus on little details and things, which is how I like my photography to be. It’s also common for bloggers to forget that their home country is someone else’s travel destination. Perfect case in point here 🙂

    • BobR says:

      Thanks – I moved back to Slovenia eight years ago so in many respects lots of corners in this tiny speck of a country remain a travel destination.

  7. What a charming and beautiful city! These are such wonderful pictures to represent your birthplace and I really liked learning about it – its history and yours. The picture of St. George’s Church is enough to put this on my list to visit. By the way, thanks for letting me know about the sausage tree on my post. =)

  8. That was a pretty heady cocktail of words and pictures, and a bit of history and personal journey thrown in for good measure. Can see why you admire it so. Can’t wait for the next Piran post.

  9. Sabrina says:

    Looks beautiful! I love the framing in the first shot.

  10. Even though it’s been years, decades, in fact, I remember Piran, particularly the harbour. So picturesque! Lots of gorgeous photos here.

  11. pen4hire says:

    I know next to nothing about Slovenia, and never heard of Piran, Now I want to go there. Thanks a lot! (She says semi-sarcastically, since the “wanna-go” list is way too lengthy already.) But these are amazing pictures and the tourism department of Slovenia should thank you, if not hire you!

  12. srsck says:

    Nice pictures and I surely do agree that Piran is one of the nicest spots on the planet. The first time we went to Slovenia was about 8 years ago and we were flabbergasted by the beauty and the variety of Slovenia.

  13. Stunning photos, Bob. I love your stories, especially you chain smoking and reading your porn magazine.
    I returned home last year — it’s great to see how beautiful this land is. Even the little things fascinate me.

  14. Bob Berwyn says:

    Nice! I now feel like our visit was too short and I’m ready to go back. I think you read about our visit but what I left out of that story is how we rode our moped up to the top of the hill and back down the stairs … one of our most exciting moments.

  15. […] The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait in 19 Pics, Part 1. It took me more than five years to post a photo essay from Piran on a blog named Piran Café. Yup, […]

  16. […] not all new per se, but they are new here. Most were taken here in Ljubljana, and a few during my quick trip to Piran a couple weeks […]

  17. […] In case you were looking, here’s another reason for you to visit Piran. […]

  18. […] Piran is a picturesque walled medieval town with pretty Venetian architecture. I enjoyed having a stroll in the narrow winding streets of Piran. There are many sights to visit there like the Church of St Mary of the Snows, the Sergej Masera Maritime Museum, the Tartini memorial room, the Herman Pecaric Gallery and many more. Piran is a lovely and lively town with a promenade along the sea and lots of cosy restaurants. The Tartini square named after the violin player Giuseppe Tartini is also very charming. Check the great pictures of splendid Piran on the blog of Piran Café. […]

  19. Peter Godek says:

    Piran is one of my favorite towns ever. My first touch of Adriatic.
    Invite me when you finally open up the cafe 🙂

  20. […] 28-Jun-2011 Off-season at the Green Dollars Bar, Galissas, Island of Syros, Greece, 12-Nov-2008 Piran, Slovenia, 04-Apr […]

  21. jcalberta says:

    ok … i just bot my ticket. to hell with this Western stuff …
    can i bring my six-shooter?

  22. mightwar says:

    There is just so much to see here. I can imagine spending a couple of weeks just wandering the roads and doorways and getting lost in daydreams whispered by the architecture. Such a wonderfully inviting place.

  23. Awesome, these images are fantastics!!! You’re very talented. Congrats from Puerto Rico, the most beautiful island of the Caribbean.

    • BobR says:

      Muchas gracias, very much appreciated. You should plan to visit one day. By the way, Puerto Rico is quite high on my must-see list. 🙂

  24. This is an excellent post in all aspects. It’s engaging, intriguing, enticing, inspiring and informative. On top of all that, it’s written well and is supported with good photography. I’m happy to have come across this article.

  25. What a great story. Nice to hear how your blog came to get its name. I spent a while in Slovenia but never heard of the place, eh. I thought it might have been the place I stopped off on my way up to Lubljana but I think that was Portoroz? Looks lovely though, the photos make me nostalgic from my Balkan trip and I’m seriously looking forward to getting back over to Europe in a few weeks time. I can’t remember jokes either.

    • Bob R says:

      Thanks Anastasia. Piran is place everyone needs to visit. 🙂 It’s easy to work into a variety of itineraries –part of a Istria, Croatia trip, or Venice-Trieste. Trieste is only about a 30min drive, or as little as an hour by bus.

  26. I’ve heard so much about this city, after I had visited Slovenia a couple times of course. I guess that means I’ll have to go back again 🙂

  27. Frank says:

    Great post Bob, love the photos. 15, drinking beer and looking at dirty magazines in a bar? Brings back good memories for me too 🙂
    Frank (bbqboy)

  28. Erin says:

    Fantastic post, as usual, Bob. What a excellent, informative tribute to gorgeous Piran. Looking forward to Part 2!

  29. Marta Grilo says:

    Piran is such a cute and beautiful city! I’m studying in Ljubljana so I’ve been there and I just loved it!

  30. Paula says:

    Fabulous view from the “jumping spot”. A really cool perspective and capture!

  31. Fantastic place! Great photos!

    • Bob R says:

      Thanks – it is quite nice. One of my favorite places. Hope you have the opportunity to visit one day.
      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  32. sheiladerosa says:

    What a wonderful place you live in. And great photographs. Thanks for liking my recent post.

  33. niasunset says:

    Hi Bob, I want to say Thank you for your visit my blog. I took time to write to you, sorry. You have a wonderful blog with your amazing photographs. Thank you for this voyage too. I know this Devil’s sonata… How interesting story. And do you know, there was a style on playing fiddle till his dream… Because after this Devil’s sonata the style or playing fiddle changed. Sorry for my language, I hope I explained well. But who play fiddle will understand what I meant. Yes, this is really interesting story… But art, creation is something like that… Muses whispering to your ears… 🙂 Anyway, ho beautiful this lovely place, Piran… I haven’t known her before… Thank you again, have a nice journeys, love, nia

  34. niasunset says:

    By the way, have you listened to this sonata by David Garrett?

    • Bob R says:

      I have now, thanks. 🙂 I’m not a big fan of these modern “mash-ups”. I guess I’m too much of a purist when it comes to these pieces. At least those by my boy Tartini. 🙂

  35. marlene frankel says:

    Took time out to read your passionate story about Piran, and enjoy your photographs. Glad I did!

  36. Rebekah M says:

    Awesome shots of a likewise awesome place. I like No. 7 in particular [smaller photo of a little alley] …

  37. Thank you for some nice photos. I just had to find out if the name of the blog had anything to do with the town of Piran. I have really nice memories from our visit of Piran a few years back and this helped them to surface once more 🙂

  38. The C-Sweet says:

    Hardly choking on these beautiful photos of your hometown….I love to paint the things you photograph here!

  39. I continue to enjoy and embrace your beautiful perspective as you travel this globe. Thank you so much for sharing your big creative voice so freely.

  40. Anonymous says:

    Love this post. The pictures are really lovely and the format is eye catching! excited to explore your blog. p&k

  41. Anonymous says:

    20 captivating photos! Thank you so much for sharing your original home. Enjoyed this essay and photos so much. 🐞


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