The Devil’s Sonata – A Piran Portrait

Part memoir, part guide, an introduction to Slovenia's 2,000-year-old Adriatic diamond in the rough.

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.

Enjoy!

***

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.

 

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84 Comments

    1. BobR says

      Thanks! What’s stopping you? 😉

  1. 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.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks – you really should check it out when you’re next in this part of Europe.

  2. Jade says

    ah, gorgeous! Love the street shots! Jade- @Vagabond3.com

  3. 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!

    1. BobR says

      Glad to hear. 🙂 And do check out The Devil’s Sonata, I suggest Andrew Manze.

  4. 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 🙂

    1. 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.

  5. Mary @ The World Is A Book says

    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. =)

    1. BobR says

      So glad you enjoyed. 🙂

  6. The Wanderlust Gene says

    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.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks so much, VERY much appreciated. (I can’t wait for the next one, either.)

        1. BobR says

          Probably best to come up for air.

  7. Sabrina says

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

  8. Sophie's World (@SophieR) says

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

    1. BobR says

      Very nice to hear it’s left a lasting impression. 🙂

  9. 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!

    1. BobR says

      🙂 Very happy to hear that. You really should move it up the list. At least a few notches. 🙂

  10. 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.

  11. InsideJourneys (@InsideJourneys) says

    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.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks – That memoir project was a lot of fun. About a dozen chapters over the course of a day. 🙂

  12. 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.

    1. BobR says

      Yes, you did leave that part out. 🙂

  13. Road trip Slovenia: The coast and the Karst region « SRSCK

    […] 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. […]

  14. 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 🙂

    1. BobR says

      Very good to hear! And you have been added to the grand opening invitation list. 🙂

      1. Peter Godek says

        counting on this 😀

  15. Windows « piran café

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

  16. jcalberta says

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

    1. BobR says

      Not recommended. 🙂

  17. 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.

    1. BobR says

      It is a wonderful place. One of my favorite spots on the planet. Hope you can make it one day.

  18. edwincolonpagan says

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

    1. 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. 🙂

  19. Mr. Gentleduck says

    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.

    1. BobR says

      Thanks so much, very glad you enjoyed. You should visit there one day.

  20. Anastasia Sofia says

    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.

    1. 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.

  21. Adelina | PackMeTo says

    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 🙂

  22. 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)

    1. Bob R says

      So happy to hear I stirred some of those fine memories of your teenaged years. 🙂

  23. Erin says

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

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Erin. I’m looking forward to Part 2, too. 🙂

  24. 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!

  25. Paula says

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

    1. 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! 🙂

  26. sheiladerosa says

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

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – I don’t live in Piran but do like to visit from time to time. 🙂

  27. 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

  28. niasunset says

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

    1. 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. 🙂

  29. marlene frankel says

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

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks so much, Marlene, very much appreciated. You should visit one day, too. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  30. Rebekah M says

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

  31. Jesper, The Biveros Effect says

    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 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Nice to hear that you’re both familiar with Piran and have visited. It really is a very nice spot. And thanks for dropping by.

  32. The C-Sweet says

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

  33. JoHanna Massey says

    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.

  34. Anonymous says

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

  35. Anonymous says

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

  36. Amy says

    There’s a thing that historians call, “historical simultaneity.” It’s when a series of seemingly unrelated events happen in a chain of several days or weeks. These events will go on to change history. Your mention of February of 1965 reminded me of other events that month, over 1200 protestors, including Martin Luther King were arrested in Selma. Nat King Cole died the day after Malcom X. The war in Vietnam escalated. I don’t know what any of it has to do with with your insightful piece, but it made me think of those things. And since you’re discussing history, maybe it’s a relevant comment. Maybe not.

  37. jaimelazarteJaime Lazarte says

    I was thinking in going to Slovenia this year 2017 between September and October. Now, I know I will be there, hope to see you. Thanks for the push…

  38. Christina says

    What lovely photos. Piran is such an undiscovered gem. It’s a bit of a Venice of the East and I can see why you want to open a cafe in Piran!

    1. Bob R says

      It’s only about 2 to 2.5 hrs drive to Venice. Parts of the town were modeled after it. A very strong influence.

  39. Melody Pittman (@melodytravels) says

    What a fabulous story and captivating writer you are. I admit that I had never heard of Piran though I am quite familiar with your website. The history was most interesting and when you threw in the Charlie Daniels comment I had to laugh out loud. Splendid sense of humor. So you ended up in Cleveland via Paris, as in Cleveland, Ohio???

    1. Bob R says

      Yup, spent much of my life in Ohio –the Cleveland area mostly but also about a dozen years in Athens, in the SE part of the state in the Appalachian foothills– before moving back to Slovenia in 2004.

  40. Megan Claire (@mappingmegan) says

    Wow, Piran has quite the colorful history, always so interesting to reflect back on the heritage and past of the place you were born. I’ve not come across Guiseppe Tartini before, though about to YouTube the Devils Sonata.

    1. Bob R says

      The Devil’s Sonata is a great piece. Most violinists will tell you that it’s extremely difficult, too.

  41. Jenna Kvidt says

    So interesting! Love learning more about the town through its history–Piran sounds like a great spot to visit! Tartini Square and the waterfront and boats look so pretty!

  42. Rhonda Albom says

    That was a deeply fascinating essay. I believe my favourite part was the Weasel warship. I can’t believe one would be named that! What a gorgeous town. I’ve never been to Slovenia before but I would love to the next time I go travelling in Europe.

  43. Jen Joslin says

    What a complex and rich history Piran has! After reading your memoir/history, Slovenia is definitely on my radar! Listening to the Devil’s Sonata now 🙂

  44. authenticfoodquest says

    Gorgeous shots!!! What a charming city. Slovenia is on my must visit list and your article further pulls me in. Great read.

  45. Nancy says

    Congratulations on ten years of writing, photographing, and sharing – Piran looks beautiful!

  46. Carmen Edelson says

    Thanks for putting Piran on my radar! And congrats on ten years – a great accomplishment. Your photos are stunning, thanks for sharing. Happy travels 🙂

  47. Penny Sadler says

    What a beautiful place that I have never heard of. I love Italy and I know this little town would capture my heart.

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