Ljubljana: A Hidden Charm

Ljubianica River.

Ljublana” means “beloved” in Slovene, and just a few hours here proved why.  The old town, charming and compact, is bisected by the Ljubljanica  River, whose banks are lined with modern cafés and whose girth is spanned by bridges both quaint and unique.  Narrow, cobbled, pedestrian-only streets wind their way through a succession of small squares and markets.  Above the old city looms the Castle Hill, a reminder of bygone eras and attempted conquests.  The green and white Ljubljana flag, fluttering from the watchtower, is emblazoned with a pictograph of the castle and the city’s mascot, a green dragon atop the battlements.  With sunset, the town took on a dusky glow before lights twinkled on both sides of the river.

Ljubljana Castle, overlooking the old city.

But first:   A brief history of Slovenia

An encapsulated history of Slovenia is similar to much of central Europe:  traces of early Stone and Bronze Age settlements, conquest by first the Romans, then the Holy Roman Empire, under which the country remained for a thousand years.  Most recently, the Slovenes were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire for 600 years until its collapse in 1918.  (To be fully historically correct I have to give a nod to Napoleon who left his brief but not lasting footprints on the country, and the earlier Ottomans who tried but failed to add Slovenia to their empire.)

Most non-Slovenians over the age of 40 will remember a country called Yugoslavia, which came into being at the end of WWI as a coalescence of former Balkan countries and remnants of the Hapsburg Empire.  As (hopefully) most people know, the union of Yugoslavia slowly disintegrated after its president-dictator, Josef Tito, died in 1980, when sectarian differences among the multiple ethnic groups began to chafe at the national fabric.   As communism lost its totalitarian glue throughout Eastern Europe, so went the former Yugoslavia.

Slovenia was one of the first to declare its independence, which should not have been much of a surprise to the largely Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.  During our five days in Slovenia, more than one person provided an impromptu history of the country that started with:  “We’re Slavic in origin, but not really like the rest of the Slavs in the south,” with an accompanying shrug and dismissive gesture in a southerly direction.  “We’re actually more European and always have been.”   Then the kicker, nearly verbatim (propaganda anyone?):  “Slovenia accounted for over 20% of the economy of Yugoslavia, and we were tired of paying for everyone else, so” (another shrug), “we separated.”  Okay, this is a capsule history, so I won’t bore you with endless details.  Suffice to say that from about 1990 until very, very recently, much of the former Yugoslavia has been engulfed in sectarian warfare accompanied by targeted genocide among most of the fractious ethnic groups, the extended Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian conflict being the most infamous.

Today, Slovenes are justly proud of their accomplishments even while noting with self-deprecation that they are a very small country on the world stage. With a total population of 2 million, and approximately 270,000 in the capital, Ljubljana, the country is small, but very stable, democratic, with a growing economy and is a proud member of the European Union.  Slovenia is also one of the greenest countries in Europe with 60% of its land covered with forests.

Flags of Slovenia, EU and the City of Ljubljana

The heart of old Ljubljana straddles the river, with Presernov Square on the north bank and the city market and a series of smaller squares on the south bank. The square is named after France Preseren, the national poet of Slovenia, who lived and wrote romantic poetry in the first half of the 19th century.  Virtually all of Slovenian literature tips its collective hat to him.

Franciscan church on Presernov Square

Several pedestrian bridges span the river, each with its unique style and history.

Michael on the Triple Bridge, which spans the river from Presernov Square, the heart of Ljubljana, to the old town. The middle bridge dates to medieval times and was expanded harmoniously to include two pedestrian spans before all three were made pedestrian-only.

The Triple Bridge was expanded by famous Slovenian architect Joze Plecnik.  Here is a picture from Wikipedia with better detail of the bridge’s spans:

The Dragon Bridge, flanked by ferocious looking dragon sculptures, was my favorite.  We were told, however, that the dragon, the city’s mascot, was only fierce when defending the town, which is why it’s depicted sitting atop the castle on the city’s crest:

Crest of the City, the dragon atop the castle, guarding Ljubljana

The great Ljubljana dragon, one of four sculptures on the Dragon Bridge

In the midst of Old Town, the more modern-day Butchers’ Bridge arches over the river to the heart of the huge market square, right next to — of course! — the pavilion housing the butchers’ stalls.  In recent years, lovers have begun to secure locks to the bridge as a symbol of enduring love.  This trend has caught on in several other European capitals, including Prague, where we first saw this phenomenon, as well as Wroclaw, where we will be going as well.

We took a 2 hour walking tour of Ljubljana, which we highly recommend.  The guides do not charge a fee, but work solely for tips.  (If interested, go to http://www.ljubljanafreetour.com/.)  Along the way we trekked cobblestoned streets, learned a fair amount of Slovenian history, sampled sour cabbage and sour turnip, both of which were much better than expected, and gained a good appreciation of the old city.

Robba Fountain, looking at the spires of St. Nicholas Cathedral

Interior of St. Nicholas

Ornate ceiling of St. Nicholas

Two Museums of Note

Wimping out after the tour in 87° heat, we took the funicular to the castle.   Architecturally, the castle is a cobbling together of different eras and some reconstruction, but still worth a visit, particularly to the watch tower and the Slovenia History Exhibition.  The latter’s exhibits are excellent and formatted with a selection of submenus (with subtitles in several languages) that allows the viewer to learn as much or as little as desired.  The only way up the watch tower is hoofing it, but the panoramic views of the city are worth the climb.

Castle courtyard and city vista from the watchtower

The City Museum of Ljubljana turned out to be one of the best museums we’ve ever visited.  The modest admission fee (student and senior discounts available) also includes a free audio tour in several languages.  The museum covers the history of Ljubljana, and, of course, Slovenia, from pre-Roman to contemporary times.  With each exhibit in this three-level museum, the audio guide allows the visitor to select more in-depth background if desired, as well as skip entries if you’re enough of a philistine to blow off a fascinating history.

I found a couple of exhibits on women quite interesting, one an enacted “women’s voices through the centuries” (mostly up through the 19th c.) which provided glimpses into both common and famous women of their times.  The other, in the post-WWII portion of the museum was this sign, whose caption was one of the few items not translated:

Rosie, the riveter, a symbol of Slovenian women’s power movement.

I noted that it was identical to the WWII poster of Rosie the Riveter, encouraging and praising women who went to work in America’s factories, replacing the men who went to war and maintaining the materiel output that helped the Allies win.  A very nice girl at the front desk translated the Slovene caption I’d copied and explained that the “Rosie” image had been adopted by the post-WWII women’s rights movement in Slovenia.  She added that women did not receive the right to vote until after WWII.  How interesting and appropriate that “Rosie” became the Slovene feminist symbol!

Food & Entertainment

I’ll close this somewhat lengthy blog with notes on two great restaurants, Sokol and Most.  Sokol was recommended to us for “typical” Slovenian food, and despite concerns that it could be a tourist trap, we went the first night.  And the next.  There was a wide range of Slovenian dishes on the menu in nature and prices, but all portions were generous and the food delicious and reasonable   .  Over two nights we had octopus salad, calamari stuffed with ham and cheese, traditional venison stew, chicken pate wrapped in prosciutto, and salads.  The last night we ate at Most, where the sesame-encrusted tuna steak and gnocchi with grilled pears and a walnut cream sauce were out of this world.  We highly recommend both.

Sokol:   Ciril Metadov trg 18, just east of the Town Hall and Robba Fountain.

Most:  Petkovskovo nabrezje 21, on the north side of Butcher’s Bridge, a block and a half east of Presernov Trg (Preseren Square).

Two nights we hung out after dinner at Seam, an outdoor café on Presernov Square that offered live music.  The first evening was forgettable rock and roll, while the second evening featured a guitar duo that played a great assortment of “soft” rock from Elvis to U2, and everything in between.  Even when the music wasn’t great, the atmosphere was congenial, the river and city beautiful, a very nice end to both evenings.

Travel tips

For whatever reason, train travel between Trieste and Ljubljana is unnecessarily complicated, at best; in the train station at Trieste, we were told outright it wasn’t possible, and the bus was recommended.  Whatever the train situation is, I’m happy to report that the bus was a comfortable and inexpensive alternative, about €26 for an air-conditioned, 2 ½ hour ride.  However, there are no toilet facilities on the bus, so keep that in mind.

We stayed at the Central Hotel which was about 3 blocks north of Presernov Square.  The room was not large but spacious enough, with a great shower, and the included breakfast was great.  The reception staff all spoke excellent English, as did almost everyone we encountered in Ljubljana.

From the Triple Bridge at dusk — my favorite picture of Ljubljana

All in all, an excellent start to our first visit to Slovenia!

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2 thoughts on “Ljubljana: A Hidden Charm

  1. Carol! You are an amazing tour guide…politics, history, architecture, food, and the ambiance of the the city life…most excellent. Glad you and Michael are having such a good trip. Thank you! xox Cricket

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