Slovenia’s main port now out of stormy waters

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

Port, resort and cruise hub, the pretty city of Koper lies halfway between Trieste and Croatia, hemmed in by borders that have shifted with each major war and international treaty.

Still officially bilingual, in footballing terms Koper now has a far higher profile as part of independent Slovenia than it did when it was an outpost of Mussolini’s Italy or Tito’s Yugoslavia. League champions in 2010, cup winners in 2015, FC Koper undertook seven European campaigns from 2006. 

After the club collapsed in 2017, a revived entity shot back up Slovenia’s football ladder from the fourth-tier Littoral League to the top tier in three seasons. In 2021-22, the Canaries came close to doing a domestic double, winning the cup and just missing out on the title in the last week.

An ignominious defeat to Vaduz of Liechtenstein in the Conference League underlined the club’s poor record in Europe – but Koper are back in the frame, at home at least.

Hotel Koper/Peterjon Cresswell

A shame more foreign visitors don’t make their way here, because the Bonifika is one of those classic Adriatic stadiums basking under clear blue skies, a short walk from the sea and streets of Koper’s Venetian-style historic centre. Its last major renovation came in 2010 – since then, Koper has staged the Slovenian Cup final and a low-key international friendly with Scotland in 2012.

Before the Bonifika, football was played on a nearby sandy pitch by members of the Circolo Sportivo Capodistriano, Capodistria being the Italian name for Koper. The students, workers and fishermen of the Capodistria Sporting Circle didn’t limit their activities to soccer, although the better footballers later earned contracts in Trieste and at various clubs around Tuscany.

After World War II, when the city became part of the temporary Free Territory of Trieste, new sports clubs sprang up, their members drawn from the Italian or Slovenian/Croatian communities. One was Aurora, another Medusa. Partizan’s players spoke Slovenian. A league was organised for teams from this buffer zone, including Capodistria/Koper, Isola/Izola and Pirano/Piran.

Welcome to KoperPeterjon Cresswell

In the summer of 1948, a modest football ground was set up on the site of today’s Bonifika, but it wasn’t until the population dispersal of 1954 that local football was given a more integrated infrastructure.

A year later, Aurora and Medusa merged to create NK Koper, who joined the Slovenian Regional League within the Yugoslav set-up. After winning the Western division in 1965, 1967, 1971 and 1980, Koper ascended to the Slovenian Republic League, the highest regional level and one down from the second all-national tier.

In 1985 and 1988, Koper climbed one higher, taking on the likes of RNK Split and Novi Sad, but real success only came after Slovenian independence.

Even after 1991, progress was slow, and it took a supporters’ buy-out and a helping hand from Milan Mandarić of Portsmouth fame before Koper could really challenge. With the managerial and midfield experience of Miran Pavlin, the national hero whose goal took Slovenia to Euro 2000, Koper won the title in 2010.

Welcome to KoperPeterjon Cresswell

Koper could also be relied on to provide the football-hungry holidaymaker with an easily accessible and affordable afternoon out. In the early Euro rounds, opponents tended to come from the same region – high-scoring fixtures with Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split included – although there are other coastal options if you’re here on a random visit.

Nearby Ankaran Hrvatini enjoyed a brief sojourn in the top tier in 2017-18, just after FC Koper had collapsed and were stranded in the lower rungs of the league ladder. Sadly, the Galebi (‘the Seagulls’) followed suit in 2019, and the 1,000-capacity, single-stand ŠRC Katarina on Jadranska cesta currently lies empty. 

As and when football is revived in Ankaran, you’ll find the ground almost walking distance from the Italian border. Next door, the Gostišče Sveta Katarina is a modern restaurant and motel. Some 300 metres away, is the stop for the hospital, Ankaran Bolnišnica, about 15mins from Koper by bus, or 4km in a taxi.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

The nearest airport to Koper is Trieste, 66km (41 miles) away, with no direct public transport links. You must first take APT Gorizia bus E51 to Trieste Autostazione (€4, every 30mins, every 1-2hr Sun, 1hr journey time), by Trieste Centrale train station on piazza della Libertà. From there, Arriva provides 6-8 buses a day (not Sun) to Koper (€3.30, 45min journey time). Rovinj-based Črnja Tours currently runs one bus a day (5.45pm) from Trieste to Koper, journey time 50mins, 25kn/€3.35.

A train would require a byzantine number of changes (Gorizia Centrale/Nova Gorica, Sežana, Divača) and an overall journey time of 5hrs.

The cheapest transfer by taxi is just over €60.

Ljubljana Airport is 94km (58 miles) from Koper. A bus (€4.10) runs hourly (Mon-Fri) and every 2hrs (Sat, Sun) to Ljubljana terminal (journey time 50mins) by the train station near the city centre. For times, type in ‘Letališče Brnik’ for the airport and ‘Ljubljana AP’ for the bus station.

There’s also a regular and faster shuttle service into town (€9, journey time 30mins) with Markun. A taxi to the capital should cost around €35.

From Ljubljana, buses to Koper (€10, 90min-2hr journey time) are more frequent in the morning. Three direct trains (€10) a day take 2hrs 30mins – two require a change at Divača.

Koper bus and train stations are next to each other, a 10-15min walk from the city centre via Ljubljanska cesta. The stadium is on the way, about 5-7mins from the stations.

Everything is walkable – bus stops are for inter-city and coastal services that call along Koper’s main streets.

Based near Koper’s stations, Taxi Srečko (+386 31 386 000, +386 40 386 000) is a convenient local firm.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Between Koper’s market and the showcase green square framed by seafront Semedelska cesta and Pristaniška ulica, a cluster of terrace bars and restaurants does a busy trade in summer.

Prominent venues include the Forum Bar, with TV sport screened inside and out, a range of beers and cocktails, and decent coffee. Alongside, the Park is more restaurant than bar but doubles up as a café outside of meal times. A big screen outside broadcasts major games.

Further along the seafront, prominent bar/café Kavarna Kapitanija provides coffees, shakes and ice-creams but has beers, spirits and TV too, and welcome shade near the beach. Round the little headland, the Slaščičarna Kroštola is in similar vein, just smaller and right by the beach.

In terms of bars, the best place to combine drinking and football watching is the excellent Bander Bar on Muzejski trg, offering rare Slovenian and Belgian beers, and several sports channels. With a big screen above its large terrace on a pretty, leafy, enclosed square, there’s little reason to move unless it starts raining.

An alternative might be the Lord Byron Pub on Repičeva ulica, behind the Hostel Histria, done out reasonably authentically, with TV football, draught Guinness and generous opening hours, coffee served from 7am weekdays, beer after midnight at weekends.

If you’d rather drink with locals, the nearby Gostilna Pri Tinetu at Gortanov trg 13 hides itself in a tangle of Old Town streets, an honest hostelry with Slovenian Laško beer and impossibly cheap lunches.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Bizarrely, the Koper Tourist Information Centre has a palatial office but no website – Koper’s city council offers a basic hotel database.

The nearest hotel to the Bonifika is the Vodišek, a Socialist-era cheapie spiffed up for modern-day requirements, with a decent breakfast and terrace bar/restaurant. Most of all, it’s halfway between stadium and station, hardly more than 5min walk from either.

On the stadium side of the historic centre, tucked away down a narrow sidestreet, the Histria contains three rooms of dorm beds plus a separate double and twin, in an old Istrian stone house, with the usual hostel facilities.

The main hotel in town is the seafront Koper, though its rooms are pretty functional considering it’s a three-star. Its restaurant is a popular meeting place, and it’s across the street from the hub of bars and eateries near the market.

On secluded Muzejski trg in the historic centre, the Museum Bife & Hostel offers a range of rooms, dorms and furnished apartments at knock-down prices, fronted by a pretty café terrace and opposite a decent football-focused bar.

Slightly out of the centre but handy for the stations, the Garni Hotel Pristan is Koper’s only four-star, set up to cater to the business crowd. In truth, it’s not significantly better than the Vodišek, the only difference between its notch-above restaurant, which closes at 9pm.