Piran, facing west

The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait

Oddly enough, in the ten-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 tried to make up for that absence with this post, originally published in May 2012, when the blog was just over five years old.

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

These were all taken that May during a quick visit to check out the then-newly renovated Mestna Galerija, or Municipal Gallery, which reopened the previous weekend. 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 was writing elsewhere about Piran over the course of that spring, so rather than going into more detail here about Slovenia’s Adriatic diamond in the rough, I instead recycled some ruminations on Piran that I pieced together a few years earlier for a 24-hour Memoir Challenge. I decided to reprint the Piran 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.


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

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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.


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