It’s my second time in the city and I was asked by many friends, “Where on earth is that?” No one knows how to pronounce it; Slovenia whose capital it is, is often confused with Slovakia. I am in Ljubljana (whose name means ‘beloved’ and is pronounced lyoo-bliyana), the capital of pint-sized Slovenia, with a medieval heart full of Baroque and Art Nouveau splendour. “The position of Slovenia couldn’t be more perfect as you have got the seaside, Alpine peaks, rolling hills and sparkling rivers and lakes,” said our guide Ales Fevzer, proudly. “One could spend the morning skiing on the snowy peaks and then spend the afternoon swimming in the sea,” he added.
It’s hard to believe that Ljubljana was once a marshy city, occupied by lake dwellers who built round homes on stilts. The city was founded by the Romans in around 50 BC—it was under Hapsburg rule almost continuously from 1335 to 1918, and the city grew rich as the crossroad of the amber trade. History still whispers from every corner of the city. According to legend, the founder of this city was the Greek prince Jason, with his companions, the Argonauts. Jason encountered a fearsome monster which he slew. This dragon is represented on the city’s coat of arms and is a local symbol. The Dragon Bridge is a local icon with four copper dragons guarding the entrances. It is said that if a virgin walks on the bridge, then the dragons will wag their tails!
The green Ljubljanica River is the heart of the city. Weeping willows droop into the emerald water, houses in shades of peach and orange line the banks, and street musicians play lively folk tunes. The city has a youthful, Bohemian vibe in the air—a quarter of the city’s residents are students. Small electric carts called Kavalirs run around the pedestrianised historical city centre. Shops spill over with bottles of wild honey, which is the local delicacy, and bags of gourmet sea salt from the pans on the Adriatic coast. Baroque buildings line the narrow streets, many of them housing souvenir shops selling painted beehive panels (which Slovenian farmers used to traditionally decorate their bee houses with), wine cellars, art galleries, and a slew of cafes with people sipping kava or coffee.
The name that pops up often in the context of the city’s architecture is Jože Plečnik. This famous architect has left his imprint all over this city. “He trained as an architect in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, Plečnik returned to his native Slovenia in the 1920s and set about redesigning the capital,” said my guide, Martin Sustersic, who is taking me on a walking tour. He created the bridges and embankments that transformed the Ljubljanica River into the living heart of the city; his renovations brought back to life historic buildings like the 18th century Križanke Summer Theatre, and gave Ljubljana its signature style. My favourite of all his buildings is the National Library, with a façade of red brick and textured stone, modelled on an Italian palazzo. Entering through massive doors with horse-head handles, a dark marble staircase lined with columns ascends to the reading room, perhaps, a metaphor for the journey from ignorance towards wisdom.
Martin walked me through Krakovo—a picturesque south-of-centre neighbourhood with a medieval feel, which was originally a fishermen’s settlement, but is now the ‘Ljubljana Montmartre’. Its small territory includes some Roman ruins and plenty of leafy vegetable plots. “The area is famous for its gardens and the ‘salad ladies’ who sell their fresh produce in the Central Market,” said Martin. We walked down the Vegova Ulica Street where I saw the craggy, weather-beaten Roman walls of the ancient city of Emona, whose foundation stones were supposed to have been laid in 14 BC by Roman emperor Augustus. It was renovated by Plečnik in the 1930s. I loved the triangular structures he added, which are used as benches by students of local colleges.
Over the next few days we spent our mornings people-watching at Preseren Square, with the 17th-century salmon-pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation as a centrepiece. A statue of 19th-century poet France Preseren (who wrote love poetry in Slovenian) sat across from one of his beloved muse, Julia, whom he never got to marry. Beside the church is the Triple Bridge, which was built when two side bridges were added by Plečnik to the original stone bridge to make way for pedestrians. We saw tour groups with flag-wielding leaders, young professionals zipping by on bicycles in work clothes and college students carouse on the steps of buildings that were in a mishmash of architectural eras as the city was rebuilt after devastating earthquakes.
“Live life in the slow lane,” seemed to be the mantra of this city, with its quaint, cobblestone streets lined with cafes and gelato bars. Our days were spent in chatting with friendly shopkeepers at the open market between the triple and Dragon Bridge, which is a sensory overload with the warm colours of oranges, apples, plums and peaches and dried herbs in open sacks. We tasted luscious muskmelon and pears, sampled baked goods and cheeses. Come Friday the city becomes a hive of activity as the ‘Open Kitchen’ with stalls run by various restaurants offering gourmet food and wine. We sat on wooden benches in front of the Market hall and sipped on wine and munched vegan burgers.
Visible from every place in town is the Castle Hill and a 15th century fortress looking down benevolently at the medieval streets below. We climbed up in a modern glass funicular that looked like a cube, which made its way gracefully over the trees over Ljubljana’s red-tile roofs, enjoying enchanting vistas of the Julian Alps. Our dinner that night was at Gostilna na gradu carved into the walls of the castle and featured pumpkin gnocchi, sea bass with potatoes, and gibanica—a rich local dessert involving poppy seeds, and walnuts.
By night, the city’s magic is in full play—the tinkle of wine glasses and murmur of chat from the restaurant terraces ripple along the willow trees lining the bank of the river. I was happy that even after four years it still feels like Central Europe’s best kept secret. “Next year, Ljubljana has the great distinction of being the Green Capital of Europe for 2016,” informed Ales and I felt the city richly deserved it. Slovenia is, after all, known for its focus on sustainability. Over 60 per cent of the country is forested; each year, more than 1.2 million more trees are planted. The centre of this city is ruled by pedestrians and cyclists, and local residents relax in the many parks here. Legend has it that when God created the world, he had a handful of the most beautiful, most wonderful leftovers, and with these remaining treasures, he created Slovenia. I couldn’t agree more.