One of the best surprises i’ve ever had in my travels was Ljubljana, Slovenia. Yes, it is a mouthful. It’s pronounced lube-lee-ana. We were there in 2007, we had done some touring of Europe and decided to spend a week in Croatia. We booked a train ride from Venice, and on a whim decided to spend a day or two in Ljubljana, though we had no reservations there and no idea what the city might be like. We had always planned our travels carefully and decided this one time we would be daring and just take a chance.
We arrived there at 11 at night in the middle of a violent electrical storm. Not as auspicious start. We were scheduled to be there earlier, but at the border some bored crossing guards decided to hold up the train and check every single passenger’s passport. It took hours. These guys were refugees from the communist era and were humorless and really enjoyed lording it over the passengers. We were warned by a young Croatian guy whom we befriended at the train station to not make any jokes or say anything more than necessary, because these guys could make our lives hell.
Anyway, we got to the station and took the stairs down to a passageway of closed shops. There were backpackers sleeping rough, which didn’t give us much hope of finding accommodation, but we spotted a light at the end of the passage, and low and behold it was a tourist information center. They booked us a hotel about ten minutes away by taxi, and we made our way topside and somehow managed to get a cab, even though there were about thirty other people trying to do the same. My wife is from New York, and i’m from San Francisco, so we know all the tricks.
The second picture is of the side of the hotel, a converted communist era school boarding house, by the look of it. The room was passable, just. Ah, but Ljubljana! What a beautiful surprise. We couldn’t believe our luck. It’s one of those places, and there are many in Eastern Europe, that are virtually undiscovered by tourists, so the people are glad to see you and the service is fantastic. Well, except at the hotel, but you can’t have anything. The town is old world charm, the people all speak English, and the restaurants, while expensive, are top notch.
The city itself is easily navigated by foot. Despite the appearance of large buildings, especially at the city’s edge, Ljubljana’s historic center remains intact; there, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles mix. Modern, stylish shops, and a quaint old department store of the sort the U.S. used to have in the 50’s. Ljubljana Castle dominates the hill over the river Ljubljanica. Built in the 12th century, the castle was the residence of the Margraves, later the Dukes of Carinthia. Aside from the castle, the city’s main architectural works are St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church, the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge.
The fierce looking dragon in the third picture is at one end of the Dragon Bridge, with another at the other side. I asked a sales clerk in the department store about the dragon lore of the region, and he told me in all seriousness that the dragons were commissioned by a mayor of the city who wanted them because they reminded him of his mother-in-law. If he was pulling my leg he didn’t let on. The Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most) was built between 1900 and 1901, when the city was part of Austria-Hungary.
Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) is a mediaeval castle located at the summit of the hill that dominates the city centre. The area surrounding today’s castle has been continuously inhabited since 1200 BC. The hill summit probably became a Roman army stronghold after fortifications were built in Illyrian and Celtic times. Between 1485 and 1495, the present castle was built and furnished with towers. Its purpose was to defend the empire against Ottoman invasion as well as peasant revolt, and you know how revolting those peasants can be. Just a little travel humor…
So all in all we got lucky. We ended up staying for three nights, we loved the place so much, and we plan to go back and explore the highlands of Slovenia, we passed many beautiful lakes on the train ride, and we were assured by our travel companion that the area is well worth a visit. We will go there when we explore Eastern Europe in more depth, we’ve been told that Budapest, Vienna and Prague are must see places.
Our most memorable time there was strolling along the river at dusk, having dinner at the outdoor cafes with all the locals, just taking in the wonderful evening air and basking in the beauty of their wonderful city. A highly recommended destination.