I looked out of the window, my eyes still a bit heavy with sleep. Mountains on the sides of the road looked gorgeous in their newly acquired gray-white coats. Pine trees were sprinkled with fresh snow. I straightened a bit, fighting off sleep and cursing myself a little for having allowed myself to doze off. God knows how many of such splendid views I’d missed. But then, I’d been sleep-deprived the previous night and had left the hostel in Salzburg in the early hours of a rather cold May morning to get on a bus to Ljubljana – the Slovenian capital that’s right at the heart of the country.
I reached Ljubljana before noon. Something about Ljubljana made me feel absolutely comfortable at once. The only other place where I remember feeling just as comfortable from the time I set my foot was Barcelona, though there’s nothing that these places have in common!
I made Ljubljana the base for eight days and decided to make day trips to different places from the capital since there are buses to different places from the Ljubljana bus station. In eight days, the rains disrupted my plans most of the times, yet, I discovered just how gorgeous Slovenia is. It’s a country so small, the state in India where I belong is perhaps a few times larger than its total area. But this tiny country has an astonishingly diverse landscape. Want to go to the mountains? You have the gorgeous Julian Alps. Love forests and greenery? Yep, in abundance! Lakes? As gorgeous as they can get! And then there’s the amazing Adriatic too! Slovenia is magical and I truly wish I’d gotten more time to explore its beauty. But then, that gives me more reasons to go there again… someday.
As for the days I spent in Ljubljana, there are memories galore. Here’s what I remember about the time I spent in Ljubljana.
Long Walks within the City
I’d made big plans of going to different places in Slovenia, but mother nature had her own plans and the rain gods wanted to follow me here as well – just like they’d followed me through the entire month-and-half in different parts of central Europe! I did manage to be lucky to be in the Lake Bled area on a lovely sunny day and despite the rains, I did go to the beautiful coastal town, Piran, and also made a day trip to Postojna caves though I was a bit scared about getting claustrophobic. But my wishes to go for a hike in the Triglav National Park, visit the beautiful Bohinj lake and a whole lot of other places remained unfulfilled. When I couldn’t make day trips to other places, I’d go for long, lazy walks in Ljubljana.
The beauty of long, lazy walks is that you end up noticing things that you’d fail to notice otherwise when you are on a sightseeing spree. Things that are seemingly insignificant, yet they are the things that you recall the moment a place is mentioned, things that in your mind define the character of a place. I have many such precious memories of my time Ljubljana.
My hostel was located in the center of Ljubljana, quite close to Preseren Square and the famous Triple Bridge on the river Ljubljanica. There used to be an old man sitting right outside the hostel entrance. He’d play the same tune repeatedly on his harmonica. He’d have two bowls in front of him – one was for people to put in whatever small amounts they wanted to offer to him and in the other, he would keep candies and he’d offer those to anyone who offered him any money.
A waiter from one of the numerous eating joints on the banks of the Ljubljanica river a little ahead would always smile at me whenever he’d see me walking by and would say “Naamaste, Shookriya”. I’d always have the urge to tell him that “Shukriya” is used to thank people, not to greet, but I’d just smile at him instead.
A man and his dog would perform together further ahead – the man would play Saxophone and the dog would “sing” much to the amusement of the passers-by. In some building a little ahead, I’d hear people practicing musical instruments together.
I’d walk the entire stretch along the river multiple times, sometimes stopping by at one of the bridges on the Ljubljanica river, sometimes sitting at a riverside joint and enjoying a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, sometimes walking right up to the Botanical Garden and enjoying a relaxing time. I’d walk for hours within the city. Sometimes, in wet shoes (note to self – buy waterproof shoes for travel) and soggy socks, thanks to the rains. The jeans would be damp and smelly at times and the attempts to dry them next to the heater in the hostel would prove to be a futile exercise. But none of that stopped me from enjoying my walks in this charming city.
On the first day in the city, when I reached a little too early for check-in at the hostel, I walked up to the nearby Tivoli Park and spent some time sitting in absolute peace amid the green surroundings.
On a cloudy day, I walked past the colorful Central Market and followed the walking path leading to the Ljubljana Castle. I spent hours sitting on a bench on an avenue lined by chestnut trees in the castle complex and looking down at the city. I’d visited quite a few castles during my month-and-a-half in different European countries, but I didn’t remember any of them being surrounded by such greenery.
Regardless of where I was in the city, I never had to walk too far to find foliage-lined avenues or verdant spaces. There’s greenery everywhere, not just in Ljubljana but in the whole of Slovenia! (Apparently, more than half of its area is covered with forests and parks!) There are numerous green areas in the city – forests, parks, hiking trails, and more. Not only is the city incredibly green, but the core of the city has been closed for car traffic since 2008 and has since been absolutely car-free. Want a stroll along the riverside streets? Park your car at the underground garage outside the car-free area and then either walk or cycle your way or take Kavilir, an electric taxi service. There are continuous efforts to make the city greener by planting more trees and introducing new parks. It’s little surprise then that Ljubljana holds the title of European Green Capital 2016 and has ranked among the top 100 sustainable destinations multiple times!
Dragon Tales and Dragon Tail
Even if you try really hard, you just cannot miss the presence of dragons while walking through the city. Not only are they there on the city emblem and city coat of arms, but you can also see them on buildings, river walls, license plates of vehicles, the crest of a local football club, and even on drain covers! And then again, there’s the famous Dragon Bridge on the river Ljubljanica with four dragons at each of its ends and many smaller dragons. The dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana. It represents power, courage, and wisdom and is said to protect the city. The legends about the Ljubljana’s dragon are pretty entertaining too!
Once upon a time, centuries ago, a Greek hero named Jason won the Golden Fleece (a symbol of kingship) from the king Aeetes of Colchis, a country near the Black Sea. Jason didn’t just win the fleece – he also won Aeetes’ daughter Medea’s heart. He and Medea sailed away (eloped) along with Jason’s army called the Argonauts across the Black Sea and the Danube river and eventually reached the Ljubljanica river, which was too shallow and narrow for their ship to sail through. So, the Argonauts dismantled the ship. They decided to carry it in pieces overland to the Adriatic Sea and then reassemble the ship there and continue with the return journey to Greece. Since winter had already started, they thought of building settlement near the banks of Ljubljanica and stay around until the weather was favorable to continue with the journey.
In the marshes surrounding the Ljubljanica river hid a monstrous dragon. It hunted any living beings in its territory. One night, the dragon rose from the water near the settlement of Argonauts. Spitting fire, it burned more than half of the wooden houses and killed some of the Argonauts. Jason had no choice but to kill the dragon. With the help of Medea, who was known to be a sorceress, Jason tied the monster while it was asleep and stuffed its nostrils with bones of its victims. Suffocated, the dragon woke up. Unable to breathe out the fire that rose in its belly, the dragon burst into a huge ball of fire!
Jason then went with his army to the Adriatic Sea in the spring, but some of the Argonauts decided to stay back and formed the town Emona, which later came to be known as today’s Ljubljana! Phew! Quite a story, right?!
As per another local legend, the dragons on the famous Dragon Bridge wag their tails every time a virgin crosses the bridge! Yeah, right! 🙂
Colorful and Sometimes a Little Weird Street Art
There’s street art in abundance in Ljubljana. There are parts of the city that are covered in graffiti and art of all sorts. Metelkova is one such place in the city.
To be honest, I found Metelkova to be a little weird! It’s the slight weirdness and the bright art on some of the walls that made it memorable for me. The place smelled a bit weird to me too (or was it the smell of my soggy pair of jeans…? :-p). I went there on a day when I really wanted to explore something different and Google search results recommended Metelkova. The former military headquarters site of the Austro-Hungarian empire and then the Yugoslavian National Army is now an autonomous center of arts and craftsmanship, which is occupied by artists and activists. It also has offices of some NGOs and LGBT associations.
When I went there, I was the only person walking around. Was it because of the weather or was it not exactly a place of tourists’ interest? Can’t say. I just walked around, looking at some very colorful and some very weird artworks and graffiti. I got to know later that it’s the place to hang around in the night when people get together for chitchats and for sharing ideas. Apparently, the site also hosts a huge number of music events all through the year.
Days at the Hostel
I had a pretty interesting stay at the hostel in Ljubljana. The hostel rooms and washrooms had some really amusing quotes – mostly about money. Understandable – in the place of the hostel, there once used to be a bank. There were some really funny and unique problems with the hostel room. For example, the hostel management had installed these “intelligent” systems where when you open the room door, the light against your bed gets switched on. But then, the system got messed up, so anytime anyone walked into the room, all the lights would get switched on. Since not all the beds in the 6-bed female dorm were occupied at all times, we had to go around switching off the lights against the other beds every few hours! From day 4, the air conditioning stopped working and was never fixed. I was frustrated, but then the hostel people were just so nice, I couldn’t even remain upset with them for too long!
My roommates kept changing every day. It’s surprising how people would only be there to go to Lake Bled and not even spend a day exploring the city itself!
On the first day, I met Hazel, who was from New Zealand. I remember just how lost she felt. She wanted to take a bus to Lake Bled, but having never traveled by bus before (she’d never had to in New Zealand, she said), she was petrified! She went out twice and then returned saying she had no clue where to go and what to do. I explained to her how to use Google Maps to check public transport options. When she still looked confused, I walked with her to the Ljubljana bus station, we bought her the bus ticket, and I returned to the hostel after seeing her get on the bus. Hazel returned that evening, thrilled about having seen Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge, feeling far more confident about finding public transport options and exploring places by herself. It was the first time when I wasn’t the one who was helped during travels but was the one to help someone.
Then there was Noemi from Switzerland who came dressed in an almost-Indian attire – a kurta with tribal print and a loose salwar, her hair dreadlocked. Her parents had apparently been to India and she told me how much she would love to visit India someday. She was also perhaps the only girl who wasn’t there to explore Lake Bled but was there, though only for a day again, to explore the city itself.
I’d never heard of a country called Faroe Islands until I met two girls at the hostel who belonged to the place that has a population of less than 50,000. Looking at their expression after knowing the population of my city, I decided not to tell them about the population of India. 🙂 They, like most others, made a day-trip to Lake Bled and checked out of the hostel.
The one constant neighbor/roommate who became my friend and, in a way, local guide, was Nika. She was attending some conference or training and was staying at the hostel to cut down on the commute time from her home to the venue. She’d keep telling me stories – of celebrating something similar to Holi (the Indian festival of colors) in Ljubljana, of her childhood trips to Piran to her grandparents’ place, of how as a child she loved those trips and loved to swim in the Adriatic. She could talk incessantly and when she’d talk, she’d make me feel worried. It almost seemed as if she hated to even stop for a moment to breathe! Full of stories and laughs!
The roommates and non-stop conversations made the stay in Ljubljana quite an interesting and fun experience.
Bureks, Kremsnita, and Gibanica
I am a vegetarian and I am not exactly experimental with food. I mostly crave really simple food and am way lazy to go looking for places specially to search for food. And then, typical Slovenian traditional food is rich in meat (though there’s a vegetarian take on some of the traditional dishes). So, I mostly stuck to eating pasta or pizza. I also found Indian restaurants, which satiated my craving for meals comprising roti and daal. One of those even had colorful pictures of Bollywood films! I basically didn’t really try any of the traditional Slovenian cuisine. I did eat a lot, and I mean A LOT, of potato bureks, but they can hardly be called traditional Slovenian, I guess.
What I am never likely to forget though is the amazingly delicious and soft cream cake, Kremsnita. I tasted it first at Lake Bled because that’s apparently the specialty of the region. Then, I just couldn’t stop myself from having it again… and then again!
When I mentioned how much I loved Kremsnita, my roommate Nika recommended that I try Gibanica, a layered pastry with walnuts, apple, cottage cheese, and poppy seeds. It was yummy alright, but after I’d eaten half of it, it became quite a task to finish the remaining half.
So yeah, those are the few things that come to mind when I think of my time in Ljubljana. Did I say I love Ljubljana? The name of the city apparently sounds similar to a Slovenian word that means “the beloved”! Ljubliana IS “the beloved”! I will hopefully return there someday, to explore what remained unchecked on my wish list… and to fall in love with the gorgeous sLOVEnia… again!
Have you been to the beautiful city? If yes, what’s your favorite memory of the place? Would love to hear your Ljubljana stories. 🙂