by Tim Dawe
“Laws are made in Belgrade, discussed in Zagreb then totally ignored in Ljubljana”. That aphorism helps explain how the independently-minded Slovenes, rather than the Serbs and Croats of communist-run former Yugoslavia, peacefully transitioned to the new independent nation of Slovenia leaving their capital, Ljubljana, intact. And this year Ljubljana has something else to celebrate – its 2,000th anniversary; happy birthday Ljubljana.
Ah, ljubly Ljubljana with a name you can roll around your tongue like the fizz of a Fruit Tingle! Its name means beloved in the Slovene language. This pedestrian-friendly compact city is dominated by a medieval castle peeping over a steep forest and the emerald Ljubljanica River that flows around it. Old town lies beneath the castle and around its hill on the eastern side of the river, and on the west is the commercial and cultural sector. Ljubljana’s also a university town that gives it vitality – including late night revelry on our visit. Architecture and streetscapes present as typically European baroque but there is a touch of Art nouveau and Classical. This is the dominant influence of Ljubljana architect Jože Plečnik who, more than any other, transformed the city devastated by the last (1895) earthquake. It’s said that Plečnik’s eclectic and original works in Ljubljana equate to Gaudí in Barcelona. The result is a very pleasing environment of wide streets, plazas and parks connected by footpaths. The river too, has been transformed from sewer to a major social amenity of broad walkways, cafes and pubs. And then there are the many bridges, the most famous being the Triple Bridge designed by national hero Plečnik.
I start my exploration at the main meeting place, Prešernov Square; it’s in the centre of a small city in the centre of a small country. Behind me is the 17th century Franciscan church, in pink baroque, with steps right onto the square. Over the road is an odd department store selling bric-a-brac at counters that look like nothing has changed since 1930. People gossiping, watching or waiting sit around in orderly lines eating ice creams from busy shops. And everyone is drawn to the monument of national hero France Prešeren. The world is awash with sculptured monuments of heroic men, many tyrants and despots, but this one is different; he’s a poet. That says much about Slovenia that, without any irony, calls itself the green piece of Europe.
About 14 AD the Romans set up a fort here near marsh dwellers to pursue their military conquests of Slavic tribes. As Emona, it became a thriving trading town and changed hands many times during the Middle Ages. By 1144 it was named Laibach and by 1335 it was absorbed into the Hapsburg Empire, developing Slovenian nationalism by the late 19th century. The tiny Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes became Yugoslavia after World War II, welded together by strongman Tito, until 1991 when it gained independence (peacefully) from the Serbs and Croats. Today independence for West-leaning Slovenia means membership of the EU.
With ice cream in hand I’m funnelled from Prešernov onto the white, colonnaded Triple Bridge, stopping midstream to gaze at the serried rooms-with-a-river-view and tourist boats passing shaded cafés filled with diners. The imposing Cathedral of St Nicholas is close-by. I enter through massive doors of biblical figures in bronze relief as the bells announce midday, oblivious that apparently it closes for lunch. It takes me 20 worrying minutes to find an unlocked side door and way out. Free at last, I walk along the river to Dragon Bridge through the two squares that constitute the out-door market lined with more classical columns. It’s a city institution not only for the fresh produce but for season events. Dragon Bridge has four dragons (the city’s symbol), two at each end, that it is said wag their tales when a virgin walks by.
Crossing the river again I’m soon at Hotel Park at Tabor, my staging post for trips from one end of Slovenia to the other; such is its size, in a few hours in a scheduled bus I can either get to Bled near the Austrian border or to Piran near the Croatian and Italian borders. The area swarms with students with digs between the train station and the river. Many congregate boisterously around shops selling ice creams. What is it about ice cream? But it is good. Students make up nearly 10% of the population keeping not only the place lively but the economy going.
Ljubljana’s main street, Slovenska, is memory lane. Its commercial buildings, including the 1933 squat “skyscraper”, resemble Australia in the 1950s. It takes me past Kongresni Plaza and the university to the striking façade of the National and University Library, another Plečnik masterpiece. Looking down the street from here affords a lovely view over the Philharmonic Hall under the castle. Inside the library a black marble staircase leads to the stylish reading room. Nearby is City Museum that displays the city’s history and culture through multimedia and interactive displays and a stunning reconstruction of a Roman street. A short distance away is the hilly expanse of Tivoli Park, the city’s lungs. While not obvious, communist influences prevail in the streetscape. Over at the very modest Parliament House is a larger-than-life statue of a comrade-leader with typical outstretched arm pointing to the glorious future.
A visit to Castle Hill is a given. Centuries before the Hapsburgs took charge fortifications stood on this strategic spot. This castle evolved over many centuries and was most useful in stopping the advance of the Turks during the 15th and 16th centuries. Tourist access up this steep rocky plinth is usually by a very modern funicular but we opt for the path to the top (376m) via Shoemaker Bridge, near the old Jewish quarter. It’s a pleasant walk with each breath taking stop seeing a little more of the city surrounds. Unusually, entrance to the castle is free but there’s a combined charge for the Virtual Museum, a 23 minute 3-D presentation, the watchtower with amazing views, and the Slovene History Exhibition. Otherwise there are St George Chapel frescoes, Pentagonal Tower and Gallery Rustica, even an archaeological dig. The castle is a local favourite for dining, evening concerts, special events and weddings. And especially the view.
It may be 2,000 years old but liveable Ljubljana – “little Prague” – continues to flourish and innovate. And it’s a great base to explore diverse Slovenia.