Old, historic downtown Ljubljana was the most pleasant surprise. I fell in love with it immediately.
We arrived at twilight. Our hotel was a short walk from the train station and easily found. We had the option of walking through the bar or taking the steps to the lobby. We took a moment to imagine the path of destruction we would likely leave with our coats and suitcases and opted for the stairs.
Once settled in our room we headed out on foot. Less than a mile, maybe even less than half a mile, we found the center of this welcoming city. Its fringes felt very urban and clean with modern office buildings and hotels, but these structures seemed to respect the ancient and medieval architecture just a block away by not towering over them, not stealing the spot light.
As we walked down a side street in the direction we hoped would lead us to some restaurant options, the city slowly came into view. Lights shimmered along the river, artfully lighting the buildings on its banks. We took a moment to take in our surroundings. To take a breath. Then we set our sights on dinner. Our options seemed limited where we stood so we crossed one of the many bridge to investigate what options the other side may have.
A few steps over the river we found restaurant row. Every restaurant offered outdoor seating. It was early Spring in eastern Europe, just a stone’s throw from the Alps and the temperature on this evening was in the high 30s. Fahrenheit. Blankets are placed over each chair and some patios were warmed with torches, but mostly it was cold. We opted for an indoor table.
The next day we explored in earnest. Beginning with the famed Saturday morning market. It felt like a street festival. It was huge and bustling, full of music and dancing and life. There were sections of local crafts, clothing, flowers and especially food. Mostly it was produce from nearby farms, rows and rows of it, but there were also packaged goods, like local honey or butter. We learned the entire history of Slovenia from a very animated local goat’s milk butter and cream guy. Moving away from the center, we found a bank of food trucks for additional fortification, alongside the many cafes that flank the river.
There are many distinct bridges, each with their own personality and story, that cross the Ljubljanica River bisecting the city. Three of them exclusively pedestrian. But that hasn’t always been the case. About 8 years ago the new mayor closed the downtown area to vehicles. It apparently created a small uproar and some traffic snarls, but this city of 250,000 quickly adjusted and now the area is vibrant with commerce and entertainment.
The bridge or bridges we crossed the first night, known as the Triple Bridge, all had the same balustrades, creating an almost Venetian feel. The center bridge was much wider than the two adjacent; it was meant for cars when they were allowed. Aside from the Triple Bridge, there are two others meant for pedestrians: The Cobbler’s Bridge and a much more modern span whose name I can’t recall. The Cobbler’s Bridge, while nice, is relatively plain, but just a few steps away from it, at the top of an alley, sits an art installation of hanging shoes. The more modern bridge boasts railings made of cabled wires that are full of the padlocks of lovers. The edges of the bridge itself are made of glass to view the river below as you walk.
The driving bridges are also quite beautiful. The Dragon Bridge is made spectacular by the giant verdigris bronze dragons that guard either side.
This is a country that celebrates its poets and writers. They love their wine and coffee – and are quite proud of their number three standing among coffee consuming nations – and hike for fun on the weekends. They are kind, open people who enjoy being outside with friends.
Geographically, Slovenia is nestled between Austria and Italy, whose influences can be felt in the architecture of old, historic Ljubljana. A touch of the contemporary can also be found in recent repairs or refurbishments. It has all been added with care, layered in a way to blend and appreciate the history without disrupting the past. Old gas lamps still post sentry from the buildings.
Did mention the castles and views of the Alps?
It would be easy to try to compare Ljubljana to another country or city, but it has a definite personality all its own. It is fresh, youthful and inviting. It is familiar enough to welcome the most timid traveler and unique enough to entice the most seasoned. I would go back tomorrow. It felt like home.