Ljubljana, besides being a nearly unpronounceable word, is a fairy-tale-like city.
The capital city in the middle of Slovenia boasts a population of 275,000. Upon arriving at the train station, I thought we might have just gotten off at the wrong place. But, no, we just went out the wrong exit – and that is the difference that looking in the opposite direction can make here. We find the right exit and walk to our hostel, past closed shops and restaurants (it’s mid-day Saturday), down barely populated streets. Within five minutes we arrive at our rented apartment, greeted by Eric, a New-Hampshirite turned Slovenian with an understandably confused accent. The apartment is totally white with huge windows looking out at the colorful heart of old town. Sort of like a museum, where the art is the view.
Eric presents us with a map with ripple-like circles marked 2, 5, and 10 minutes – everything here is a quick stroll. Walking out to get our bearings, we discover that the apartment is literally around the corner from the town square. We also discover that Ljubljana may be the quaintest, cutest, happiest place in the world. That’s a big claim.
The main square boasts a triple-bridge, the architectural gem of the city. The map makes it look huge, it’s actually quite small. Today, in the main square, there is an outdoor science fair. Seriously. Music, matching t-shirts, terrariums, and ice cream frozen with dry ice. Today, Ljubljana is bursting with pride for its young, bright minds. We somehow refrain from sampling the ice cream and instead turn in search of a cocktail. However, we cannot find a café without first being accosted by two, yes two, bachelor/bachelorette parties. Again, matching tee-shirts, boas, leggings – and this is the bachelor party. (Continued best wishes to Davide and bride.)
We find our way to one of the numerous cafes along the narrow river that cuts through the center of the old city. Tables with umbrellas line the banks, and it is the perfect afternoon to sit. It’s a perfect mojito to sip. We soon learn that this is the main activity of Ljubljana – soaking in the ambiance al fresco. Something like 70% of the town’s denizens have to be at café’s like 80% of the time. Something like that.
After a drink, more meandering up and down stone streets, now partly in the shadow of the Ljubljana Castle that overlooks the city. We find our dinner restaurant, Gujzina (it takes about 2 minutes) and pick a table outside. Although it’s hot out, I feel that I must order the goulash, since it is supposedly the best in Slovenia. It comes to the table in a little copper cauldron. It’s the only goulash I’ve had in Slovenia, but it is the best I’ve had. We follow up dinner with gibanica – a local apple, raisin, walnut, poppy seed layer cake that, honestly, I wouldn’t feel guilty about having for breakfast.
The next day we head to Lake Bled and encounter truely other-worldly beauty. Imagine a lake of clear blue water with a tiny island in the center. There is a tiny church on the tiny island. Wooded Alps surround the lake. On one cliff sits the watchful Bled Castle. Traditional Slovenian Plenta boats lazily moves between the shore and the little island. It’s perfect and spectacular.
During the summer, visitors can swim in the lake. We lay on a dock and take turns heating up in the sun and slipping into the cool, clear water. The sensory effect is almost too much – the cool, blue water, hot sun, the green, tall mountains all at once. Floating on my back, I’m certain this is Nirvana. It’s definitely spiritual.
Only after working up appetites strong enough to combat our serenity do we reluctantly remove ourselves from the water. We nosh on antipasto plates, sip sparkling rose wine, and finish with the regions famous cream cake. A trip to Slovenia would be truly sad if it did not include Lake Bled.
Sort of in a daze we take the 45 minute bus back to Ljubljana.
The next day we do everything in Ljubljana. We stroll through the impressive market with Roman looking colonnade, we hike up to the Castle and lunch at the wonderful Gostilna Na Gradu restaurant there. We buy Slovenian honey. We rent bikes at the tourist office and bike to Tivoli park on the other side of town. We dine along the river, of course. Then, we go to the otherworldly, Metelkova.
In the midst of the storybook Ljubljana there is a sort of noir, junk yard, alternative bar block called Metelkova. It’s the underworld to the storyworld. A complete other side to the happy happy pastel riverside. It’s cool and grungy, a layer that causes some people to anticipate Ljubljana as the “new-Prague.”
The next day, we close this story with pastries and cherries from the market to take to the train. Like Croatia, Slovenia has spectacular natural beauty. It also has a beautiful outdoor culture of bicycles and cafés. This content town is now independent after so many years of oppression during the world wars. Undercurrents of the activism that resulted in this independence manifest themselves in the rebellious Metelkova. It’s like the Dungeons & Dragons to Ljubljana’s Candy Land. If you need further proof: the root of ‘Ljubljana’ is the Slavic ‘ljub’ meaning ‘to love’ and the symbol of the town is a dragon, depicted atop the tower of the castle. Together, however, they are a fairytale, a storybook, and idyll. So, so hyper-real in it’s pleasurableness, Ljubljana is almost unreal.