Eastern Europe’s overlooked gEm
Fall in love with Ljubljana’s wine bars, fanciful architecture and café culture
I should have known never to judge a city by its train station. I’d learnt that at Piazza Garibaldi in Naples. But, nonetheless, pulling into the station in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, having come directly from Dubrovnik, Croatia’s rising star, my heart sinks a little. No exuberant art nouveau buildings, no elegant, à la Parisienne coffee shops and not a single gothic church in sight. Just a disinterested ticket attendant and a man urinating in the sink in the women’s washroom.
But I needn’t have worried. As I leave the station and head south down Mikloši street toward Prešeren Square, the city’s main hub, I start to feel that a love story may be about to unfold.
“Some say she’s gaudy but I think she’s gorgeous,” says a local, in near perfect English as he notices me staring at the Cooperative Business Bank, a bright, pinkish-orange, flamboyant masterpiece adorned with colourful geometric patterns. Mikloši street has the largest concentration of art nouveau buildings in the city. Cheeky facades, organic forms, patterns and decorative motifs abound, each as dizzying as it is delightful.
I arrive in Prešeren Square where I had planned to grab a coffee and give my eyes a rest only to find that the visual feast is far from over. Vying equally for attention in the square are a bold, rose-coloured, 17th-century Franciscan Church and a commanding statue of beloved national poet France Prešeren (complete with naked muse). Having heard of the church’s beautiful 18th-century altar, I try for a tour, but, finding it closed, I join the others seated on the church’s front steps — a perfect place to pause and see and be seen.
There is little time for rest, however. This little city of 270,000 people isn’t quite what I had expected. Its charisma is undeniable and invites investigation. Bridges and streets fan out from Prešeren Square, each with a fairy-talelike quaintness thanks to pedestrianfriendly, cobblestoned streets and ageworn but elegant buildings. The image is made complete by an imperious hilltop castle that claims the city’s skyline and beckons visitors forward.
I resist the urge to cross the triple bridge, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, and walk instead toward the endless cafés and outdoor patios lining the Ljubljanica river. Always busy, their inexpensive menus make them as attractive to locals as to visitors. One could spend hours sitting by the river and people watching. It is much more difficult, however, to eavesdrop; I don’t hear much English spoken. Though European tourists have begun to catch on to what an attractive and inexpensive destination Ljubljana is, North Americans are not common, continuing to favour Prague and Dubrovnik as their primary Eastern European destinations.
Underappreciated by both Europeans and North Americans are Slovenian wines. Wine has become a booming business and vineyards are popping up throughout the country. I won’t have the chance to explore the wineries but, lucky for me, the country’s increase in vineyards is matched by a corresponding increase in the number of wine bars, many of which also stake a claim by the riverbank. Lured by a list of more than 100 Slovenian vintages, I decide to step into the chic Dvorni Vinoteka where my helpful waiter informs me that almost none of the country’s wines are exported, therefore making it necessary for me to try as many of the local vintages as possible.
As popular as the cafés and wine bars along the riverbank are gelato stands — not surprising given Slovenia’s proximity to Italy. Though I know a diet of wine and gelato is hardly conducive to sightseeing, it’s hard to resist the lure of a treat that’s every bit as delicious as its Italian counterpart, yet only a fraction of the price.
I decide the only way to resist further gastronomic indulgence is to leave the riverside and its cafés behind and head to what I am told is one of the most overlooked yet beautiful experiences Ljubljana has to offer: Tivoli park.
Always a fan of parks when travelling (there is something about an urban centre that, no matter how beautiful, can make you crave some greenery), the five-squarekilometre park has little of that staid, sanitized look city parks can sometimes have. Its entranceway is welcoming, with a wide promenade flanked by chestnut trees and a permanent, open-air photograph collection. The walk- way leads to the Tivoli Mansion (a baroque beauty) and a quaint café. Tivoli’s rambunctious flower gardens, bike trails (bikes are available for rent), zoo and picnic areas are all lovely but my favourite is the Ticistan (Birds’ Home) area, where well-fed and friendly woodpeckers, robins and squirrels are more than happy to make my acquaintance for a handful of nuts.
Having tamed the wildlife of Tivoli, my thoughts turn to less docile creatures and I decide to go dragon hunting. As the symbol of Ljubljana, dragons can be found sprinkled throughout the city: on the castle tower, on lampposts, carved into buildings, and in pretty much every gift shop. But the most famous of the mythical beasts are the four iconic green dragons guarding the corners of the Zmajski bridge ( more popularly known as Dragon Bridge).
Impressive and beautifully made, I fail to understand why these fierce creatures should elicit laughter from a group of young boys who seem to be watching an equally hysterical number of girls run across the bridge. Noticing my confused look, a local explains that legend has it that the dragons’ tails will wag when a virgin walks by.
“My mother-in-law took me here before I married her son,” the local woman explains, adding with a wry smile, “she let me marry him anyway.”
Finally, I decide to heed the call of the castle, but not before stepping into the nearby Premier Pub where I notice a sign for what has to be the most curiously named craft beer company I have ever come across: Human Fish Brewery. Named after an indigenous and blind cavedwelling salamander, it is Slovenia’s first craft brewery and a pint of its pale ale is worth the stop.
Sated, I head for the castle. Its present incarnation was built mainly in the 16th century, after an earthquake destroyed its original structure. Though majestic, its interest for me lies mainly in its hilltop location and its tower. Climbing to the tower’s viewing platform (100 steps, each decorated with the iconic dragon) is not only a great way to work off all those café-acquired calories, but also offers excellent views of the city.
Here, poised high above Ljubljana, I can trace my previous day’s journey through its myriad enticing streets and, with my visit coming to an end, I look with sadness on the dozens more I have yet to follow.