The ride from Zagreb to Ljubljana was a vast improvement over the ride from Budapest to Zagreb – shorter (a bit over 2 hours), cooler and more scenic. Before I thought to glance at my watch, we had arrived. In both Zagreb and Ljubljana we used airbnb to rent modest apartments. Both apartments were exactly as described, cheaper than a hotel, and owned by helpful locals who provided insight to their home city. In Ljubljana, the apartment owner’s brother, Matus, met us at the train station. At the time, I didn’t realize how typical he was of the townspeople: youthful, friendly, energetic, and optimistic with a “don’t worry, be happy” countenance. We talked rapid fire the 15 minute walk to the apartment. In a flash he showed us everything we needed to know before disappearing.
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia – a country formed upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Slovenia is squeezed between Croatia, Italy and Austria and shares a smattering of riches from each country: a 40 kilometer Adriatic coastline; seaside towns with ancient Venetian architecture; and massive snow-capped and rocky Alps. The Slovenes don’t seem exactly sure what happened to short them of a longer share of the coast. Matus shrugged his shoulders and laughed unconcerned. Ljubljana is a plucky version of Salzburg. A city focused on moving ahead. A people who could not have been more welcoming and hospitable. Our stay was perfect.
The Yugoslavs learned English – not Russian – as their second language. Marshall Tito managed to keep the Soviet influence at bay while merging a diverse populace with a hateful history. Ethnic cleansing was an unfortunate reality in this Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox mélange. Upon his death, the divisiveness of culture and religion and history – the boiling over of hatred – exploded into a war which consumed much of the early 1990s. Slovenia declared independence first and with minimal bloodshed. The town and country do not have the post communist paranoia that all good things can and will end. The past, and any residual pain, appears firmly in the past.
Slovenes speak English well and love to demonstrate. Glance at a map and you will soon hear, “Excuse me, can I help you?” We chatted for 15 minutes with an older man on a city street who wanted to know about us – our home and why we came to Ljubljana – before dispensing advice on what to see and where to eat (“Really, you can eat anywhere in the old town – the restaurants are all quite good and reasonable”). His daughter gently tugged his elbow as he charmingly welcomed us to his birthplace.
Ljubljana is not a city with a list of must see attractions. This leaves whatever time you choose to spend here free for roaming – a perfect place to catch your second wind during a longer vacation. We hiked up the hill to the castle which has been restored without being completely overhauled – a nice mixture of both new and old. You will find a handful of restaurants, exhibition halls, and an eye-popping view to the nearby Alps. Two exhibits we visited were outstanding. First, we enjoyed the Indian photo exhibit of Arne Hodalic. The pictures captured the mood of India – evocative – a photo of a vulture feasting on a corpse floating in the mist shrouded River Ganges. The photos were outstanding. The exhibit runs until January of 2014.
Also housed in the castle is an exhibit of Slovene writer and traveler, Alma Karlin. Snippets from Alma’s journals kept during her around the world trip from 1919 through 1927 are displayed on the walls along with stories of her life and approach to studies and travel. Alma was a linguist who learned languages by dedicating one day a week to a different language – Monday might be English, Tuesday German, Wednesday Spanish, etc. A fascinating woman and pioneer – I wish I could have met her. This entry from her journal particularly resonated with me.
“On 24 November, I said farewell as matter of fact. I didn’t want to do so. After all, it’s much easier to give into the flow of habit, but something inside forced me; it was not the desire for adventure, it was the call of an inescapable duty. From that time on, I always believed in a kind of fate.”
We devoted the remainder of our short visit – just one full day and two partial days – to exploring the old town – up and down each back street, past the old market, over the bridges and into the churches. We ventured into the newer city to glimpse the library and the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Serbian Orthodox Church. Cafes line the canal on both sides. In hindsight, we should have lingered over a drink or meal. We did manage to spend an hour or more sitting on the bridge and people watching as the sun set.
During this trip, we visited two Central European capitals for the first time; Zagreb and Ljubljana. Zagreb struck us for its time-honored traditions – a more serious town – Prague like. Ljubljana equally impressed us for the youthful exuberance of a town where you feel no remnants of a painful past – a young and hip and cool adorable city. We enjoyed each city for different reasons, and for those different reasons, we hope to return.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe