East­ern Europe’s over­looked gEm

Fall in love with Ljubl­jana’s wine bars, fan­ci­ful ar­chi­tec­ture and café cul­ture

Ottawa Citizen - - TRAVEL - By San­dra macGre­Gor

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.

this is one of a quar­tet of fierce dragons that guard ljubl­jana’s dragon Bridge and test a woman’s virtue.

the view from the cas­tle tower, the many pedes­trian streets lined with cafés and colour­ful art-nou­veau ar­chi­tec­ture are just three of the many good rea­sons to visit. jonathan StRugS pho­toS

pho­tos by jonathan strug restau­rants, cafés and wine bars line the banks of the ljubl­jan­ica river as it wends through the city.

You’ll find vi­brant baroque and art-nou­veau build­ings on Stari trg, one of the streets that leads to ljubl­jana’s cas­tle.

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