I was convinced I was heading to Dracula’s castle even though my train ticket said Ljubljana, Slovenia. The train weaved its way through a valley of foggy, ominous hills while large, stern looking Slovenian guards checked my passport four different times. I squirmed in my seat and wondered what had possessed me to take this God-forsaken trip in the first place.
Maribor, Slovenia had possessed me. During a prior trip to Eastern Europe, I had been to Maribor and fell in love with the gorgeous Slovenian city streets and their loud Italian and Austrian influences. When I next was visiting friends in Eastern Europe, I was invited on a Ljubljana daytrip and jumped at the chance.
The train pulled into Ljubljana’s train station (which also conveniently features the city’s bus station) on Masarykoa cesta. Jan, my friend and companion for the trip and I sprang out into the rainy, cold streets of Slovenia.
“You should have come in the spring,” Jan said and would say every time the rain got heavy. Since Ljubljana is most certainly a walking city, Jan’s advice was useless given our circumstance. We pulled out our umbrellas ready to slay the city of dragons, Ljubljana.
Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital city with 280,000 residents and a pedestrian friendly city. We picked up a city map at one of the many helpful Tourist Information Centers and began at Preseren Square.
Preseren was Slovenia’s favorite poet. The national anthem, the Toast, is even one of his poems in the song. There is a touching statue honoring him and his muse in the central part of the city.
Dog Chocolate, Cherries and Aliens
The Slovenian people in general are pleasant in an Eastern European way (meaning don’t expect any type of “excuse me” when you are bumped into). About half the people I encountered spoke English. While shopping in department stores like the Slovenian Nama or the German Mueller, I quickly learned English is not the world’s language, money is.
Jan seemed content to be out of the rain while I stood in Mueller ogling the bountiful array of facial products and body lotions. It was also in Mueller that besides shopping for their delectable Eastern European candy bars (Croatia’s KRAS still ranks top for me), I came across a selection of chocolate bars for dogs!
Despite the ever-present rain, we strolled the charming back streets and took in the poignant but hidden tomb of national heroes, the ornate parliament building and the adorable small parks that dot the city.
Just when Ljubljana seemed as picturesque a city as one could imagine, there they were – the two ugliest buildings I had ever seen sitting right off Republic Square. They are dirty, large box-like structures with enormous antennas and satellites on top. They look like the perfect dormitories for all those scary border patrol guards from the train. They are merely office buildings, but they literally and metaphorically feel like aliens in the city. Their caked-in-black-soot façade further confirms my longstanding theory that Eastern Europe has not heard of power washers.
As they are two of the most unpleasant buildings you will ever see, my only suggestion is to avert your eyes, run back to the Triple Bridge, cross over and relax in the open markets both within and next to the Plecnik Colonnades. There are stalls featuring croissants dipped in chocolate, scones decorated in cheese, pastry as light as air with fresh spinach inside and Danishes with their ever-present maraschino cherry filling. Those divine cherries are everywhere, and make the world a better place for it.
Don’t let the harsh exterior of the women working these stalls intimidate you even though they do tend to feel a lot like Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”. When I asked a woman to pose with her beautiful desserts for a photo, she went from dower babushka to flattered schoolgirl in a matter of seconds. She blushed and smiled and showed me a glimpse of what is underneath those harsh Eastern European exteriors.
The markets also have non-food stalls featuring all types of souvenirs – especially the dragon. From the dragon bridge located off the market to the city’s coat of arms, these dragons are omnipresent. Legend has it that Jason of the Argonauts founded Ljubljana by stumbling upon it while he was fleeing with the Golden Fleece; he was confronted by a dragon which he slayed and thus became known as the Ljubljana dragon. If you need a souvenir, buy a dragon.
A Castle – Not Dracula's
After touring the mainstays of Ljubljana (the cathedral, the Roman Wall, the Cobbler’s Bridge), shopping and eating till maraschino cherries came out of my eyes, we were ready to ascend to the magnificent Ljubljana Castle. From Kresen square, beside the open markets, one can either take a trolley up to the top (cost is four euros), or walk up one of the many footpaths.
Much to Jan’s chagrin, I chose the footpaths. Jan had a funny way of announcing when things were a katastrofa, catastrophe, he proclaimed this hike a katastrofa from the instant it started to the instant it stopped and then for days after. Nonetheless, I found it invigorating.
Ljubljana Castle is quite old, dates back to 12 BC. It apparently served as a typical castle overlooking its medieval city, but the air at this castle is compellingly modern. Both the entrance and bottom have been completely renovated, now both sleek enough and steel enough to placate any London modernist.
The castle features the chic NuBrand Café, an art gallery of the castle’s history and the cleanest, most stylish public lavatories I have ever seen. Incidentally, if you ever have the urge to marry in a Slovenian castle, you can. There are different rooms you can rent for various occasions.
The surrounding area of the castle is a beautiful park with many walking paths amid manicured mini-parks while the powerful “Peasant Uprising” statue sits in the middle. Past that there are multiple paths, fields and scenic overlooks to enjoy. While Jan quietly mumbled something resembling “you should have come in the spring” – even in the rain, the castle and its parks were thoroughly enjoyable. To punish Jan for his mumblings, I made him walk down from the castle instead of using the alluring trolleys his feet ached for.
Since I only had a day in Ljubljana, I had to make a decision to either stay outdoors and continue to tour the city afoot, or to take in some museums. I chose to walk but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many indoor cultural options. A few are located in the same corner of town off Republic Square; the Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery and the City Museum of Ljubljana. While the first two museums feature the work of Slovene artists along with other twentieth century works, the latter is strictly about Ljubljana’s path through history.
As Jan and I walked our numb legs back to the train station, he wearily turned to me and said, “Spring is better but anytime here is also good.” I nodded triumphantly and realized we had spent the last six hours hiking about the city in a cold, heavy rain and still enjoyed every second of it. Not many cities are worth that effort, but Ljubljana is.