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I almost don't want to tell anyone about Ljubljana. You see Easy Jet start flying to the Slovene capital in May and that will no doubt mean many more people discovering this gem for themselves. (Not only that but it'll probably mean I pay more to get there when I return in October!) The name Ljubljana almost matches the Slovene "ljubljena" which means "beloved" which I think is perfect for this city.
Ljubljana is the capital city of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. Slovenia nestles snugly between Austria (to the north), Italy (to the south west), Croatia (to the south) and Hungary (to the east). It has a small stretch of coastline on the Adriatic which can be reached by ferry from the Italian port of Trieste. Please don't confuse Slovenia with Slovakia (the republic which, with the Czech Republic, made up the former Czechoslovakia) - George W Bush did and you don't want to look like him, do you? Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 with relatively little fighting (only ten days and 66 deaths) but it has, like Croatia, always been one of the more outward looking of the Yugoslav Republics.
While it is a capital city, Ljubljana is small: it has a population of around 330,000 of which around 10% are students. This is definitely a factor in giving the city it's very youthful feel. Not only is Ljubljana the capital and largest city in Slovenia, it is really the only "city" in the country of any notable size. Maribor, in the north east of Slovenia, is known as the country's "second city" but with a population of just over 100,000 and taking into consideration the business and cultural activity it has, it does not really offer an alternative to Ljubljana.
Therefore, Ljubljana is the centre of cultural, business, political and financial activity in Slovenia. However, it still has the feel of a relaxed and happy city not the pressure and hustle of other capitals. I found Ljubljana to be afriendly and welcoming city which goes about it's business gently and without any rush.
Ljubljana is essentially a miniature Prague without the hordes of tourists and the brash commercialism that inevitably goes with destinations that have suddenly boomed. It has a small old town, a newer part with turn of the century and more modern architecture and to the north of the centre, the expanse of Bezigrad with it's tenement and high rise blocks. Despite these features, it is still an incredibly spacious city and one with plenty of green and open spaces.
The Ljubljanica flows through the city (one of three rivers to do so) but it is more of a canal as it winds through the city. There are a handful of pedestrian and road bridges spanning the river but the Shoemakers Bridge (named because of the shoemakers who used to work on the bridge in medieval times), the Dragon Bridge (decorated with hansdome green dragons, it is said that the dragons wag their tails whenever a virgin crosses the bridge) and the Triple Bridge (three zig-zagged paths crossing the river and beautifully lit at night) are the most memorable and the ones you're most likely to use crossing into and out of the old town. The river is a wonderful turquoise-green - very striking and looks great when lit at night. In the summer you can hire a gondola and it all looks very Venetian.
Ljubljana is the kind of city where you can walk and walk without feeling you need to actually visit attractions. The main street through the old town links Mestni trg and Stari trg (trg is the Slovene word for a square). The Magistrat (the town hall) and the Robba Fountain are to be found in Mestni trg: the fountain depicts three Tritons and is modelled on one in Rome, but here the three spouts represent the three rivers of Ljubljana. When we visited in February a glass cover had been put over the main body of the fountain but you can still see it and it is very beautiful. There has been talk of moving the fountain for it's protection but locals are fiercely against this proposal. As you walk towards Stari trg there are little alley ways leading off the street and in them you will find some lovely little shops selling everything you can think of - designer clothes and accessories, handmade chocolates, antique shops and a fantastic little shop which sells tonnes of "Hello Kitty" stuff.
There are also lots of bars/coffee shops along here and each has it's own individual decor and ambience. Cafe Antico is decorated with beautifully painted panels depicting cherubs and has gorgeous chandeliers while Nostalgija is more "retro-chic" and the customers are young and stylish.
When you reach Stari trg there is a road that curves up and is lined with antique shops. If you follow this road it leads to the castle (Ljubljanski Grad). The castle as it stands today dates from the 16th century but there were fortifications on the hill long before then; an earthquake in 1511 destroyed much of the previous incarnation (don't worry, earthquakes are not likely these days!).
As well as getting access to the castle, it's worth the climb to get a wonderful view of the city spread out before you. You can wander around the exterior of the castle as you wish without charge but I would recommend paying a couple of pounds to climb the top tower and again catch some wonderful views of the city. This price also amits you to the virtual museum which I strongly recommend. This takes place roughly every thirty minutes and you sit in a small auditorium. You are given a headset which the assistant programmes into your chosen language and a pair of very unflattering 3D specs. Set the tape going when the presentation begins and pop on the specs for a thoroughly informative history of the city from pre-Roman times until the present day.
If you have difficulties walking or simply don't fancy the climb on foot, there is a bus service from town which takes you up to the castle (more frequent during the weekends and summer months). The castle can be seen from most parts of the city and is very imposing, We were there over the Valentines Day weekend and the castle was bathed in red light on the 14th February - it was gorgeous!
If you do want to take in some museums there are plenty to choose from. The main museum area is situated to the north of Trg Republike (I thought that this square which contains the Parliament building - a rather ugly modern building - and a large congress and cultural centre, would be quite impressive but it's actually a big carpark which is merely enclosed by these buildings. There is the National Museum which seems to be akin to most national museums with sections covering history and natural history, a coin collection, a collection of various minerals and gems and a collection of Roman antiquities. This museum is open from 10.00am - 6.00pm, Tuesday to Sunday and admission costs 500 Tolar for adults, 300 Tolar for children. (for currency information please see "Practicalities" at end of article).
The Neboticnik (Skyscraper) is a well-known landmark in Ljubljana although westerners will no doubt think it hardly worth the description. It was built in 1933 and was at the time very tall. However these days it is rather neglected and much less impressive. I believe there is a cafe at the top of the building but it has of late been closed. If you are interested it may be worth trying on the off-chance that it has re-opened.
The National Gallery (on Cankarjeva cesta) offers a mixed bag of works including portraits and landscapes from the 1600s to the 1800s, some Gothis stautes and a fair selection of work by Slovene artists. There is a newer wing which houses temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection of works by European artists. The National Gallery is open from 10.00am - 6.00pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is as the National Museum but there is no charge on Saturdays.
Close by is the Museum of Modern Art which features mainly Slovene artists and some temporary exhibitions. It has the same opening hours as the National Gallery.
Sadly I did not have time to visit any of these places while I was there but I do intend to fit in a couple when I go back in the autumn.
Close to the musuems, a subway under the busy ringroad takes you into Tivoli Park - the city's pleasure gardens. You walk up an imposing promenade (designed by Joze Plecnik - an architect responsible for much of the way the newer aprt of the city looks) into the park. The park contains the Zoological Gardens, Tivoli Castle (not so much a castle as a grand pink house with a white pillared portico) lots of sign-posted walks (including Roznik Hill - 394 metres high, you often see walkers in all the gear with their walking poles in the park) and Tivoli Hall which is a concert venue and exhibition centre - Fun Lovin' Criminals are playing next week if you can get over !) There is also an recreation centre which houses a bowling alley, tennis courts, a fitness centre and a roller rink (which is an ice rink in winter) and Zlati Klub - this has saunas, an indoor swimming pool, a steam room, hot and cold plunge pools and a small outdoor pool where nude sunbathing is permitted in summer - it has high walls surrounding it so you won't be spied on by non-bathers!) (Zlati Klub is open daily but check for opening times which can vary according to season).
Ljubljana is just the right size to navigate on foot. There is an excellent bus network across the city and the whole country if you should need it but in the city itself you're unlikely to need to use public transport. The main bus station is situated right next to the train station just to the north of the main centre. There is an information office at the station and in the concourse beneath the train station, there is an internet cafe.
I mentioned the bars briefly before but I really should expand. In typical continental style, most bars are of the "cafe bar" type which means that you can just as easily order a coffee as a beer - no-one minds at all, even in the evenings. Many are tiny but even the larger ones tend to be staffed by just one person who manages to have a calm aura while serving, taking payment, washing glasses, making espressos and wiping down tables. Service is nearly always at your table and is always prompt and friendly. There are a couple of bars which deserve particular mention
- Casa del Papas - this place is a Spanish restaurant downstairs and a fantastic tapas bar upstairs (although you can just go in for a drink) which has been styled to look like the sort of place Ernest Hemingway would have frequented in Key West. (Hence the name - Hemingway was known in Havana as Papa). There are loads of photographs of Hemingway on the walls and the furniture is a mix of colonnial rattan and animal print cushions. Fishing nets and barrels hang from the rafters. Casa del Papas is situated on Celovska (on the right hand side as you come out of the city centre and about 5 minutes after you pass the Union Brewery).
- The Che Bar - this bar is hidden away between the blocks of flats in the Bezigrad area to the north of the railway station. Che Guevara is my hero and my boyfriend, who arrived in the city a few days before me, found this place in a tourist information leaflet and brought me here on Valentine's Day. The door bears the design of the Cuban flag and inside this tiny bar it is crammed from floor to ceiling with framed portraits of Che as well as statues, t-shirts, postcards and even an apron! You can buy Che t-shirts and calendars and in one corner there is a small section dedicatd to the former Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito. This place is my favourite bar in the city and, while it might not appeal to evveryone, I would recommend a visit just for sheer kitsch appeal if nothing else.
The Skeleton Bar - is in the basement in a narrow alley in the old town just next to the Shoemakers Bridge. It is decorated with skulls and skeletons (including a male and female skeleton inside a lit glass cabinet who dance every so often). (there're not real skeletons!!). It's very dark and eerie inside but the staff are friendly and welcoming - be sure to say hi to Zija, he's great!. The toilets are situated behind a mock bookcase, in true haunted house fashion the doorway is revealed when you push the small bone on the frame!
Eating in Ljubljana is a real treat. Not only are even the top end of the market establishments alot cheaper than you would expect of a capital city but there is a wide variety of cuisines on offer. You really should try some traditional Slovene food - they are especially fond of game and I would also recommend that you sample the buckwheat pancakes - these are basically a big ravioli which contains a cream cheese mixture. For a really good Slovene meal in typical surroundings, try Vinoteka Sokol (situated opposite the cathedral). This is modelled on a traditional Slovene "gostilna" (a kind of restaurant/inn) and plays traditional Slovene folk music in the background as you eat. For two courses and drinks we paid less than thirty pounds (this comprised an octopus salad, beef carpaccio, a fish dish and the "game plate" which included two venison steaks and a wild boar steak, as well as drinks, so very good value).
Elsewhere the city can boast a fantastic sushi restaurant (again very reasonably priced and the green tea tirmisu is to die for!), several Mexican restaurants (seems to be very popular here) and a couple of French restaurants. There are plenty of pizza joints and you should never find it a struggle to get something to eat.
A typical snack food is the burek, a pastry filled with either cheese, meat or fruit and sweet cheese. These are normally bought from a fast food kiosk and either eaten on the go or standing at a small counter beside the kiosk.
The most common beers are Union, brewed here in Ljubljana and Lasko, brewed in the south of the country. The vast Union brewery is situated close to the city centre and you can go on an orgainsed tour if that's your kind of thing. There are a number of locals spirits based on a kind of schnapps and varieties include those flavoured with pears, plums and other fruits.
Accommodation is slowly improving. If you are on a budget there is not much in the way of hostels outside the summer months but if you do visit at this time the university halls of residence become temporary hostels from around June until the end of August. My boyfriend spent the first part of his stay in the Turist Hotel which was formerly a state-run hotel but has now been refurbished and improved. Prices here range from 16,000 - 18,000 Tolar for a double room but prices vary for all sorts of different reasons so check with the hotel. When I arrived, we moved to a small "apartment" (a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen), situated close to the city centre) for the very reasonable price of 9,000 Tolar per night (and even got one night free because we were going to spend it in the mountains and the guy was keen for us to rent it when we got back) which is much cheaper than the hotels. Hotels range from the pretty grim to the rather plush and very pricey so it's best to do some research. You can get lists of private accommodation from the tourist information office.
Ljubljana has embraced western values unreservedly. Even in the Communist days Slovenia and Croatia both earned most of their money from tourism so the customer service tends to be of a high standard and the shops are of a comparable standard to those in western Europe. In fact, in the city centre lots of th well-known international designers are represented and you might even think, walking down some streets, that you were in Milan or Paris when you look at the brand names. In actual fat, ordinary Slovenes earn comparatively little. On a Saturday night in the capital it was relatively quiet. This is because most people who work in the capital live someway outside it where it is much cheaper. Therefore the city centre is frequented mainly by students or tourists.
I was surprised that in the capital there wasn't really much to spend my money on other than meals and drinks, maybe the odd pound or so admission fee here and there. However one Sunday mornings from 8.00am there is a great flea market alongside the river on the south side. I bought an old red star badge for just a couple of pounds but there's also jewellery, paintings, old coins, furniture, glassware, military caps and helmets, lighting, bakelite telephones and all kinds of other bric-a-brac. definitely worth a walk round.
Sundays in Ljubljana are a dream - getting up early to stroll around the flea market, then a coffee to warm up (maybe even have something alcoholic at the same time to really warm up), a walk along the river to Krakovo (a lovely suburb on the south of the Ljubljanica which was once the place where artists used to live, try and see this area for the lovely, brightly coloured two storey artists' cottages), and then a stroll up to Tivoli, stopping off every so often to have another drink!
I think that this city would appeal to anyone who has been to places like Vienna or Prague and wished that they had not become quite so busy and commercialised. No doubt this will happen once the budget airlines start flying in lots more tourists but for now I am please to have been while Ljubljana is still relatively undiscovered.
Slovenia joins the European Union on 1st May and I have no doubt that Slovenia will make a great contribution to Europe. The Slovenes are an outward looking people who welcome visitors and, while I like the fact that I know of few people who have been, I hope more will make the effort to see this wonderful city.
I flew to Trieste in Italy with Ryannair and then travelled by train to Ljubljana ( a three hour journey from Trieste to Ljubljana). British Airways currently fly direct to Ljubljana and Easy Jet will fly from London Stanstead to Ljubljana from May. You can also fly with Ryannair to Klagenfurt in Austria and then travel by bus or train to Ljubljana.
The currency is the Slovenian Tolar: it is not fully convertible so you can not exchange it outside of Slovenia. Be aware that you can only cash travellers cheques at a bank (NO htoels offer this service). Banks tend to open from 8.00am until 5.00pm weekdays and then from 9.00am - 12.00pm on Saturdays. If you arrive when there are no banks open remember to have some cash on you to change into the local currency. There are bureaux de change at the airport in Ljubljana and at the bus and train stations as well as others dotted around town. Even some of the private exchanges offer quite good rates - you are less likely to be ripped off than in some cities.
There are, at the moment, between 340 - 350 Tolar to the Pound.
Most restaurants accept credit cards and if you are really stuck try the ATM at the larger banks, you should be able to withdraw local currency from these thanks to the new international banking agreements.
cYou have done Ljubljana justice, thank you! And, ashamed to admit, you are much up-to-date what is going on there than me after I left to live in UK 7 years ago :)
One thing I love and I am not sure you experienced - a market and fish market near Ljubljanica. And in summer time, if you ever manage to go, it is hot, but the old part just comes alive with different events! June 26 is the day to be there as well as it is national holiday and you can expect celebrations in old city and a firewroks display from the castle. Also, close to Christmas, the old town is really nicely lit, with stalls selling hot roasted chestnuts that warm your hands in the cold winter evening, there are stalls with presents to buy, stalls with mulled wine... all just smells of Christmas... and then, a big New Year street party! So, if you ever go back, contact me, I might get you some local contacts who know about life in the city :)
Oh, and there is a new hostel open where old army barracks were. It is called CELL as bedrooms are actually converted prison cells :)
Puggers 08.09.2005 16:02
Exceptional indeed. Will get to Ljubljana sooner or later!