The Parenzana was a narrow-gauge railway line which ran from Trieste in Italy via the Slovenian coast to Poreč (Italian Parenzo) in Croatia. The line opened in 1902 and took 7 hours to complete the 123 km journey. It closed in 1935 when it ceased to be profitable. It may be long gone, but the spirit of this historic railway line lives on. The route of the railway has now been converted to a long-distance cycleway.
History of the Railway
The line was opened by the then ruling Austro-Hungarian government under the name Parenzaner Bahn. It was used to transport agricultural produce, fish and salt from the Istrian coastal region to Trieste. During the First World War, it was also used to transport military personnel and supplies. After the war, the railway line came under Italian governance, and managed to remain profitable for around ten years, after which it could not compete with maritime and motor transport. The ruling Fascist government ordered its closure, in a move which brought increased economic hardship to the native Slovene and Croat population.
During its operational lifetime, there were several derailments, most likely because the government in Vienna did not understand the microclimate of the area with its treacherously strong Bora (Burja) winds. These accidents caused several fatalities and a number of injuries. In one particularly tragic incident, Fascist soldiers shot at a group of local children near Strunjan, killing two of them and injuring a further five. Even under normal operation, the journey was far from comfortable. There were no toilet facilities onboard, but in several sections the train travelled slow enough for passengers to hop off, obey a call of nature, then hop back on!
Cycling the railway
The abandoned railway line was converted to a cycle route in a project which began in the centenary year of the opening of the railway, 2002.
In non-covid times, it is possible to cycle the entire route from Milje (Muggia) to Porec. The official website of the cycleway has suggested 2, 3 and 5 day itineraries.
If you’re staying in Slovenia, the ride from Koper to Portoroz and back makes a fine half-day excursion. Start at Koper railway station where you can find one of the old Parenzana locomotives on display. Continue on the route marked ‘Izola’ through Bonifika park towards Žusterna beach and the coast. The route hugs the coast as far as the town of Izola, and there are even solar-powered toilets and a vending machine with coffee and snacks en route. This stretch takes around half an hour.
From Izola, follow the marked route towards Portorož, which will take you past another preserved Parenzana locomotive and away from the coast up a steep but gradual incline towards the first of two well-lit railway tunnels. From here, the route heads down hill towards the salt pans of Strunjan, before turning inland towards the 550m long Valeta tunnel. It can get very hot in summer when you will welcome the cool shade of these tunnels. The Valeta tunnel emerges onto a long downhill run into the casino town of Portorož. I recommend an ice cream in Cafe Mignon, and if you have time, a detour from the Hotel Bernadin to Piran (all flat and following the coast). Here you can enjoy the Venetian ambiance and perhaps a spot of lunch in Fritolin before tackling the return journey. Plan for about 2 hours each way if you include the Piran detour.
I hope you enjoyed this trip along the Parenzana Line! You can find more images from this cycle route on my Instagram. Stay tuned for more Postcards from Slovenia, though I will be taking a break from these next week to bring you another Sonnet Sunday…