One of the best things to happen to Slovenia in recent years was when George W. Bush famously mistook the diminutive nation for Slovakia. While the former-Yugoslav country let out a collective gasp, Americans revved up their favorite internet search engines with questions like, “Where is Slovenia?” Well, not all of us. But I did. And soon enough, I was hopping off a train in the country’s capital, Ljubljana.
With a population of just 260,000 to 300,000 (it seems to depend on who you ask), Ljubljana is an unlikely, yet very accessible capital city. Split by the canal-like Ljubljanica River, the town has two disparate parts: the hilly medieval eastern side of the river, topped by a castle, and the flat, grid-like former-Roman and now modern, western side of the river. After nearly six centuries as an Austrian Empire provincial city and then a few decades under Tito’s command in the Yugoslav federation, Ljubljana is an EU capital city.
Best of all, a relatively small lot of tourists (both European and American) have found Ljubljana on their maps. Which means you get Prague-like narrow cobbled streets and Baroque burgher houses without getting caught in a miasma of camera flashes and Tiva sandals.
Making my way to the tourist information office in the center of town, I strolled down the city’s busiest boulevard, Slovenska Cesta (formerly Marshal Tito Way). Exhaust from the zooming cars intermingled with wafting, hunger-inducing scents of burek (a flaky, meat and goat cheese-filled pastry) from street kiosks. The small castle on the town’s tallest hill occasionally revealed itself at the end of tidy cobble-stoned streets.
Slovenia, it turns out, is really not Slovakia. Nor is it part of the Balkans. It’s true that it once belonged to Yugoslavia, which is considered part of the Balkans, but Slovenians, I quickly learned, define themselves by what they are not.
“We were the first to break away from Yugoslavia,” said Petra Stusek, a friend from the tourist board who met me for a drink. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this statement during my time in Ljubljana. “We were always the most industrialized. When Serbs or Croats wanted a refrigerator, for example, they came here to Slovenia.”
It’s true. Though I didn’t inspect any refrigerators while in Slovenia, I did notice that, compared to some of its post-communist cousins (Slovakia, for example), Slovenia seemed less haunted by the ghosts of communism – and not just by the fact that the economy was doing relatively well and the towns appeared to be clean and surprisingly pollution free: despite feelings of superiority when it came to other former-Yugoslav peoples, Slovenians were very friendly.
The following day I met Mira, a friend of a friend on Preseren Square, the unofficial center of the city. Here, in the shadow of the peach-colored Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and underneath the extravagantly large statue of the nineteenth-century poet, France Preseren, tourists and locals alike licked ice cream and practiced the time-honored art of staring at other people.
When the statue was first erected in 1905, most residents of Ljubljana rejoiced. The church, however, had one – make that two – problems: Preseren, who published only one book of poems before his death in 1849, is standing in front of a topless woman. She also happens to be facing the church. “The bishop wanted the woman in the statue gone,” said Mira. “Fortunately, today, he is gone,” he said, laughing to himself.
“Do you really like Preseren’s poetry?” I asked, as we began to walk from the square.
He paused, as if not expecting such a question, and then said, “We were forced to like him. If you’re Slovenian you have to like him.”
Which then brought us to the Triple Bridge and, in effect, the other Slovenian you have to like: Joze Plecnik. The bridge, which is the entryway to Old Town, is really three bridges in one: two for pedestrians and one for vehicles. Plecnik, a forward-thinking architect, added the pedestrian bridges in 1932, nearly 100 years after the wider, middle bridge, because of the burgeoning presence of the “horseless carriage” on the streets of Ljubljana.
Joze Plecnik was born in Ljubljana, schooled in Vienna, and worked for more than a decade in Prague. He triumphantly returned to his native city after World War I and proceeded to give Ljubljana a facelift (a devastating earthquake 25 years earlier gave him a blank canvas in which to permanently put his stamp on the city). In addition to the Triple Bridge, Plecnik built the Trnovo Bridge, the Cobbler’s Bridge, a long, neo-classical marketplace colonnade, the National and University Library, and Zale cemetery, just to name a few. And that’s just in Ljubljana. During my stay in Slovenia, I also visited Lake Bled and the castle-laden town of Kamnik, which had their shares of Plecnik-designed buildings and monuments. While one may not be a true Slovenian if they don’t share a love of Preseren, a town, it seems, is not truly Slovenian unless it can boast something by Plecnik.
Across the bridge and into Old Town, we stopped in Mestni Trg (Town Square), the historical heart of the city. Surrounded by the town hall and several chic restaurants, the square’s centerpiece is a large obelisk fountain. Designed by Italian artist Francesco Robba in 1751, the fountain is a nod to Bernini’s famed “Quattro Fiumi” in Rome’s Piazza Navona: the spewing water from Robba’s fountain represents three Slovenian rivers: the Sava, the Krka, and the Ljubljanica. Though the fountain is one of the city’s greatest treasures, Mira explained to me that it was almost never made. The first block of marble sank in the Adriatic. The second attempt made it to Ljubljana, but the marble split in half during construction. Finally, the city said they wouldn’t pay to have the fountain finished. So Robba paid for it himself, rendering him nearly penniless.
And on that note, I bid farewell to Mira, and set out on my own. As I strolled down the very Prague-like Stari Trg, a narrow street paved with chunky cobblestones and flanked with exquisite Baroque burgher houses, it started to rain. I ducked into the subterranean CafÃ© Romeo. Decorated in red – and by that I mean red walls, red lights, red chairs…you get the idea – the romantic CafÃ© Romeo serves gigantic fresh salads and passable Mexican food to what appeared to be the town’s beautiful people. I sipped tasty Slovenian wine in this former 16th century bathhouse while ambient electronic music seeped from the speakers.
Before Ljubljana was Ljubljana it was Laibach, which is still the German word for the town. But before that it was Emona, a first century B.C. Roman settlement that fell to the Huns in the fifth century A.D. For unknown reasons, medieval Ljubljanians didn’t plant themselves on top of the former Roman town, as Europeans in the early Middle Ages were wont to do. Instead, they built a town across the river, on the hilly, eastern side (probably so they could see invaders). Today there are scant remnants from the Romansâ€”a wall and a grid-plan that currently make up the western side of the city called Center.
My first stop in Center, which is decidedly more modern than Old Town, was Trg Francoske Revolucije (Square of the French Revolution). While the revolution’s ideals, Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite are alive and well in Ljubljana, the square – as well as the Plecnik-designed obelisk in the middle of it – are actually dedicated to Napoleon. The little French dictator may have fallen out of fashion in the rest of Europe centuries ago, the Slovenians are forever grateful to him: After Napoleon defeated the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1809, he gave Slovenia a degree of autonomy they hadn’t had under Austrian rule. This period of freedom lasted only four years, but it was enough to spark the beginnings of a Slovenian national identity. One of the city’s only French restaurants, La Petite CafÃ©, sits on the square today.
I toyed with the idea of sipping some vino on the square, but opted instead to stroll down Barjanska Street to view the Roman wall. Though the wall itself was uneventful, it was well worth the walk. This part of town, made up of two outlaying residential districts called Krakovo and Trnovo, are leafy neighborhoods filled with large garden plots and several laid-back pubs and cafes. I stopped at one on Eipprovo Street, which runs along a small canal and is near, what else, a modest Plecnik-designed bridge. The special of the day was “Horsey Goulash.” I ordered another glass of Slovenian wine. Later, I ate a fabulous dinner at a traditional Slovenian restaurant in Old Town called Pri Pavli. The stuffed peppers, crammed with pork and a medley of veggies, and smothered with paprika sauce were excellent.
I topped off the evening with a drink at a quiet, chic cafÃ© called Minimal. I lounged on a low-lying sofa, amidst the all-white dÃ©cor. Young Slovenians were seated around me. They laughed and toasted their drinks. When one of them asked me, in perfect English, where I was from, I hesitated before answering, knowing a punch line might follow. “United States,” I finally said. He laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Welcome to Slovakia. We’re glad you’re here.”
There are no direct flights from the United States to Ljubljana. It’s possible to fly to Munich, Frankfurt, Brussels, or London and get a connecting flight. The frequent trains from Zagreb, Venice, Vienna, and Budapest are all directly connected to Ljubljana.
Where to Sleep
Only a handful of hotels – in every budget category – exist in Ljubljana. Most of them are centrally located and all offer comfortable amenities. Here are few popular places to lay your head.
The town’s newest hostel is Celica. A former prison used by the Austro-Hungarian army, the colorful Celica’s rooms were each designed by a different artist and not one room looks the same. The bars on the doors remain – just so you don’t forget where you are. Rooms start at 2,000 SIT per person (about $10) Metelkova 8; Tel: (386)(1) 430 18 90, www.souhostel.com.
Hotel Turist is conveniently located between the train station and Old Town. Though it’s undergone recent renovation and offers enough amenities to make your stay comfortable, there’s no way the hotel can escape its original identity as a communist-era pre-fab apartment building. Doubles range between 16,000-20,000 SIT (about $80-$100). Derceva ulica 4; Tel: (386)(1) 513 70 00; www.m-hotel.si
There are only a few ultra-luxury hotels in town. One of which is the Art Nouveau-era Grand Hotel Union. Doubles for $150-$200. Miklosiceva cesta 1; Tel: (386)(1) 308 12 70.
Where to eat
Ljubljana has a lively and surprisingly eclectic restaurant scene. Here were some of my favorites.
Slovenians love fresh salads and the best place in town to get one is CafÃ© Romeo, which also serves Mexican staples. Stari trg 6; Tel: (386)(1) 070708073.
For tasty tradition Slovenian dishes, try Pri Pavli. Cheap prices, great service. Stari trg 21; Tel: (386)(1) 425 92 75.
Papillon has to be seen to be believed. Designed like a prison, the restaurant is an homage to film of the same name. Knives are nowhere to be found (remember, you’re a prisoner). Nazorjeva 4; Tel: (386)(1) 426 21 26
What to do
Though strenuous at times, a walk up to Ljubljana Castle is exhaustion. The castle’s ramparts as well as the Belvedere Tower afford great views of Old Town and the surrounding city. The castle is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., but closed all day Sunday and Monday for weddings. Admission costs 200 SIT (about $2).
The National Museum has sections devoted to history, including a fine coin collection and Roman artifacts such as glass, pottery and jewelry. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Admission 500 SIT ($2.50). Muzejska ulica 1.
For a survey of Slovenian art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, stop by the National Gallery. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and till 1 p.m. on Sunday. Admission 500 SIT ($2.50).
David Farley is the editor of Travelers’ Tales Prague. His writing has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Playboy, New York, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others. He teaches writing at New York University.