Ljubljana, Slovenia Part 1: not your grandma’s Vienna


Before moving on to Ljubljana, I forgot to include this memorable picture of Mo and I at Vintgar gorge last time. This might help explain why we got lost coming back.

We clearly take ourselves seriously.
We clearly take ourselves very seriously.

Bright and early Wednesday morning (about 11am) we packed up our things and headed for adorable Bled bus station to catch a ride to Ljubljana. We could have taken either the bus or the train but, considering the bus leaves from the center of town and the train station is 2km outside of Bled, I highly recommend the bus.

Mo’s luggage handle got jammed so, after spending quite a bit of time tugging on the suitcase and getting funny looks from all the middle-aged British tourists, Mo decided to wear her pack like this:

which received more funny looks.
which received more funny looks.

Luckily the bus came quickly. We were half inclined to hop on one of the hack vans that park directly across from the bus station. There seemed to be one man directing the operation and another man or two who stood by as drivers. As soon as one van pulled away, the man would pull the next one to the front of the line and sort through his stack of signage until he found a sign that corresponded with the next bus due at the bus station. Quite a clever operation and his prices weren’t too much more than the actual bus– a couple of big groups actually took him up on the offer after a little negotiation.

Once on the actual bus, the ride to Ljubljana was uneventful and arrived in about an hour. The ride passed through quite a bit of suburban Slovenia, which is the bane of any traveler. I’ll admit its hypocritical, I live quite happily suburban Los Angeles, but I sometimes secretly wish that other countries would handily remove all the suburban Quicki Marts and gas stations for my visit and re-install them after I leave. I guess suburbia anywhere is a nice, cost effective place to live but definitely not a place to bus through.

Ljubljana (roughly pronounced Lub-ble-yana), the capital of Slovenia, is a mash of architectural styles, cultures, and histories. Like most of Eastern Europe, its historical birthday cake has more layers (and more recent layers) than many of its Western European neighbors. Settlements in the region date back to prehistoric times, followed up by the Roman town of Emona and later medieval and modern settlements. In World War II the town was occupied by fascist Italy, then fascist Germany. In most recent history the country has weathered the rocky transition from Yugoslavian socialism to capitalism. Despite the constant upheavals, Slovenia has managed to maintain a strong economy and when it joined the European Union in 2004 it was the only Eastern European county to add a net gain to the EU economic zone.  Possibly because of all these rapid and recent transitions Ljubljana feels like it is eternally in the middle of an identity crisis. Alpine, baroque, modern and post-modern; artist squats to Getty-style community centers Ljubljanans drink in the quirks of their city with a laid-back attitude and a cone of gelato.

1922 Cooperative Bank Building by Ivan Vernik. He was trying to create a signature architectural style for Slovenia; he certainly created a signature, hard-to-miss landmark for tourists!
1922 Cooperative Bank Building by Ivan Vernik. He was trying to create a signature architectural style for Slovenia; he certainly created a signature, hard-to-miss landmark for tourists!

The town center spans both sides of the river with the medieval ‘Old Town’ on one side surrounding castle hill and the more modern, baroque era ‘New Town’ on the other. Mo and I spent most of our time in the ‘New Town’ area because that was where the majority of the shops, restaurants and gelato stands were. Did I mention there was a lot of gelato in Ljubljana??

We checked into our hostel, but couldn’t go up to the room until 3pm, so we decided to drop our luggage off and explore the town a little first. Our first stop was Prešernov Trg, or Square, which is dominated by the huge pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and a statue of Franc Prešernov, Slovenia’s favorite poet. From a building across the square Prešernov’s lovely lady Julia makes eyes at the statue. Apparently the whole shebang did not go over well with the Franciscans, especially since there is a scantily-clad muse wrapped around the statue’s legs.

Julia peering out from the wall at her poet (which I somehow did not take a photo of).
Julia peering out from the wall at her poet (which I somehow did not take a photo of).
The oldest building on the square.
The oldest building on the squareAnother fun, crumbly buildingAnother fun, crumbly building

We admired Ljubljana’s multiple fine bridges, including the triple bridge which was built to allow traffic to merge from the multiple entrances to Prešernov Trg. My favorite bridge was, you guessed it, the dragon bridge.

The dragon bridge!
The Dragon Bridge!

We crossed the triple bridge to the “Old Town” side of the city and found, among other things, a string of very unique souvenir booths where I bought a bottle of honey mead for Michael and a traditional beehive cover. I didn’t see these things for sale anywhere else in my Slovenian travels, although I’m sure they are around. I’m glad I picked them up when I did!

Souvenirs from Slovenia. The beehive cover shows a farmer sacrificing a sheep to the Ljubljana dragon.
Souvenirs from Slovenia. The beehive cover shows a farmer sacrificing a sheep to the Postojna cave dragon.

We also found a huge farmers market with vendors selling everything from delicious cherries to dresses and sun hats. After wandering through the market we finally made our way up to the castle, which sits on a hill above the town. We took the funicular (of course! Mo is just about as obsessed with funiculars as I am with castles so we were both a little giddy when we reached the top).

Ljubljana castle has worn a great many different hats over the years–first as a Roman fort overlooking Emona, then as a series of medieval castles, a World War II hospital and military base, and finally as the museum and community event space it is today. The whole place, although still gripping onto some vestiges of castley-ness, feels a lot like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The courtyard has well-manicured lawns, there are a few historical exhibits and a lot of event spaces. The awesome thing about Ljubljana castle is that the city constructed it to specifically cater to the needs of city residents as well as tourists. Ljubljanans can get married in the space for free and the city hosts community dances in the courtyard several times a year. We were very sad to miss one by only a few days. Possibly the best thing about the castle was a lone calligrapher in the chapel, dressed in friar’s garb to add a little character to the tour. He wrote names on pieces of parchment for tips and, after writing names for me, Ella, and Mo he wrote ‘Carpe Noctem’ for Mo and ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life’ for me to give to Michael. He kept cracking jokes while staying in character and made the visit entirely worth it.

The view from the castle tower.
The view from the castle tower.
The castle courtyard, where community dances are held.
The castle courtyard, where community dances are held. And, making a cameo in the bottom right, my finger.

After the castle (and traveling all day) we were a little exhausted so we crossed the bridge back to the ‘New Town’ and decided to indulge in a fine Slovenian tradition–chowing down on gelato while lounging in an open-air cafe on the river bank. Seriously, those Slovenians are on to something, the gelato was delicious and the lounging was grand. Finally the waiters began to give us shifty eyes and, with our gelato long gone, we decided it was a good time to meander our way back to the hostel.

We stayed at Hostel Celica which, as Slovenian hostels go, is pretty infamous. Built after the fall of socialism, the Hostel used to be a jail and supposedly some of the smaller rooms still have the cell bars, as well as tons of fabulous artwork. I heard that it is possible to take tours of the rooms even if you aren’t staying at the hostel, but we didn’t have time to ask. The room we stayed in was the 12 man dorm at the very top of the hostel (Yay for being cheap!). The entire top floor of the hostel feels like a monastery with raised wooden floors and a very zen design. The day was really hot and the room was the first air conditioning we had felt all day. After claiming our beds, which were low white pallets on the floor that only added to the monastery vibe, we decided a nap was in order. It was possibly the best nap I have ever had.

Hostel Celica
Hostel Celica

Speaking of naps, I’m going to pause my story here. Ella and I are having a girl’s weekend and she turned in at 7:30 this evening– which means an early morning for me! Tune in next time for the rest of my ramble through Ljubljana.

–Jill

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