Na zdravje, Ljubljana! A Weekend in the Capital City of Slovenia


We begrudgingly stepped foot onto our bus outside of Piazza Adua in Firenze, tired already from the short walk from our apartment to our meeting point and hoping, quite simply, to pass out on the ride over and awaken refreshed and with renewed vigor for our weekend away. No one really knew where we were going—Ljubljana? Slovenia? Where is that? How is that even said? 

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Giggles would ensue until we shrugged our shoulders and the comforting ambiguity enveloped us in phases of mystery and discovery—that was the only thing we knew would happen this weekend. Discover Ljubljana, Slovenia and the mystery would be unveiled.

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We conked out on the bus, to the shame of our very cheerful bus driver, until the sunlight hit our eyes and opened them to fields of wintery green grass, trees with delicate silvered leaves, and mountains—soaring higher and higher, with grey and black stone and veins of white snow from peaks that disappeared underneath the hazy Alpine clouds. Gone were the red terra-cotta roofs, Naples-yellow buildings, olive trees, and vineyards of the Tuscan countryside, replaced by strange and ominous-looking buildings with pointed roofs and small barred windows and walls painted with intricate and colorful borders evoking memories of histories even older than the ancient Italian tradition—the Renaissance had stayed behind, we had gone ahead into Eastern Europe and all the mystery within the medieval.

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After a filling luncheon, we greeted our tour guide with a cheery, “Zdravo!” and, in an accent that held faint and envious tinges of the spirit of the city, he walked us around the city center of Ljubljana and divulged the city’s soul and history to us—from its prehistoric origins as a swampy lake-dwelling marshland inhabited by Illirians, Celts, and Taurisci to its conquering by Romans, then Huns, Ostrogarths, Lombards, Franks, Magyars, and, finally, the Habsburg dynasty. Slovenia, so distinct in its history, had hosted many centuries and generations of foreigners within her walls and well fostered the lingering traces of other cultures in her borders—most recently after World War I, in which Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Hungary trisected the country, until the rise of Socialism in which the Christian Slovenia joined with Orthodox Croatia and Islamic Bosnia to form the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, eventually the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, managed by Soviet Russia until the bloody Balkan War, and now, as the Republic of Slovenia, has become the first former Communist state to join the European Union. Slovenia, holder of secrets and ancient mysteries, conquered and is still triumphant.

We listened avidly to our guide’s tour as we walked through the city center—the central  Prešeren Square, with its Belle Epoque era shopping center ‘Galerija Emporium’ now holding the expected brands like Chanel, Michael Kors, and Louis Vuitton, symbols of the international conquering of all cities—to the nearby Frančiškanska Cerkev Marijinega Oznanjenja, called Frančiškanska cerkev or, more simply, the ‘pink church,’ and then with just a few steps more, we crossed over the Tromostovje Triple Bridge, designed by late 19th century Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik whose works are found throughout the city in the form of bridges, open-air and covered markets, and buildings—though one would never guess it, as his personal ethic as an architect was to respect the original foundation and designs of places and maintain their aesthetic despite differences in culture, time, and own stylized design. 

IMG_2200.JPGWe walked around his open-air market where stalls of Slovenian honey and butter on fresh bread teased us with their warm smells wafting through the springtime air, flowers blossomed in their sellers’ carts, and stalls with breads, cheeses, cured meats, vegetables, and fruits proffered themselves to our hungry eyes. This food looked delicious but, our guide warned us, hold our stomachs until we get hungry enough to eat a cow—or, as he revealed, hungry enough to eat a horse! The country was known for its horse meat and horse burgers and, he informed us, the best horse burgers were at a restaurant in the Tivoli gardens and a stall in the market. Well, we would think about that for later!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 11.47.52 AMOur tour was complete after more discussion over Slovenia’s most exalted asset—language and literature, with the previously unknown knowledge that it was a Slovenian writer who wrote down the story of Pocahontas and brought her life and legacy into the lives of the literary world—we readied ourselves for a Slovenian feast at the Hisa Pod Gradom, hidden under a canopy of greying green leaves on a small street. Bread with garlic glaze, prosciutto, and creamed mushroom butter, eggplants with honeyed walnuts, duck paté with truffle sauce and honey; followed by pork tenderloin and polenta with bacon and cheese, garlic and bbq sauce, or roast beef with chili sauce, or soy burger salad and cheesecake or apple strudel for desert! With good wine, great food, and the greatest of friends, our first day in Slovenia was over.

We started the next day early. After breakfast, we quickly boarded our bus with a new guide who would show us out and around the countryside on a tour of Lake Bled, Blejski Grad—Bled Castle—and, luckily enough, an excursion through the Postojna Caves, whose ‘Brilliant’ form symbolizes the cave in stunningly white luminous glory.

IMG_2320The lake ride was an easy and relaxing venture from the lakeside shore on a flatbed boat painted in bright blue with orange awnings to the island shore where, after a flight of 99 steps whose climb is said to be the task of every newly married couple—the husband carries the wife up the steps while the wife remains quiet—leads to the entrance of a small towering church and its courtyard. Swans swim around the island, and delicate blue, purple, and yellow blossoms dot the terrain, and, just on the horizon, lay the Alps, slumbering underneath a blanket of snow, Alpine trees, and hazy white clouds.

We returned to the lake shore only to go to the next stop, only 45 minutes away (as it seems everything in Slovenia is under an hour away!) where we walked around and dined on sausages, potatoes, and Lake Bled Cream Cake—a layered cake of cream, yolk, and confectioners sugar that can simply not be described in any other way than saying “Mmmm.”

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We journeyed up to the Bled Castle, Blejski Grad,  where, at the summit of our climb, we turned around to see the view from the castle doors—Lake Bled, glowing electric and eery blue and green, the deep emerald and neon greens of springtime trees and the eternal Alpine trees, and those daunting snow-capped mountains and misty clouds. We stood together and yet alone on the peak of our mountain, feeling almost at the center of the Earth in this history-laden land and yet so far away from the reality of present day—as if we, too, had vanished into the nebulous of past and present, existing in ancient history and current moment. Then we descended, back down in to reality and back down into the center of the Earth—120 meters below surface in the Postojna Caves, surrounded only by the Earth, our thoughts, and ourselves.

The Cave’s entrance, a small tunnel barricaded by wrought iron fencing and a small medieval town, seemed to hide demurely although it is the second largest cave system in Slovenia at 24,120 meters long—just under 80,000 feet! We entered and were whooshed away on a train ride through tunnels of sparkling and glittery gemstone and Karst, with stalagmites soaring above and around us. We toured the caves, trailing through passages crafted by the Pivka River millennia ago and carved onto only since World War I by human hands. No words or pictures can describe the depths of the caves, who at once make you feel so small in their magnificence and yet brilliant to see such things and feel a part of something so great as this world and its nature.

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Our tour of the caves concluded with a view of the aquariums and the ‘human fish,’ who is something of a mix between a gecko and a salamander, and then we dashed back to the bus under a cover  of rain and drove back to our hotel in awed reverence. We had to get ready for dinner.

And how we dined! Our restaurant was said to be ‘very traditional Slovenian’ and, as we made our way to the restaurant doors, the whimsical whisperings of fifes and accordions invited us closer and the band’s appearance, women in long beaded and threaded folk dresses with plaited hair and men wearing green buttoned vests over white shirts and leather pants with lederhosen, was a joyful sight. We danced our way into a wooden-beamed dining hall and feasted upon cherry liqueur and honey schnapps, fresh bread and cold meats, chicken with buckwheat kasha and Slovenian diced potatoes, and a pear tart in liqueur glaze with fresh ice cream, and cheered to our night and memories with some wine then ended the night dancing traditional folk dances and competing in a Slovenian version of musical chairs done in couples. The dinner over, we welcomed the rest of the night to prepare ourselves for our journey home.

Our last day in Slovenia gave shame to the weather from the rest of the trip—the skies earlier may have been gray, but our smiles were golden beams of sunlit happiness equaling that of the bright day and blue skies of our final morning. Well rested and no longer weary, we had a bite at breakfast and ran into the city, eager to see as much as we could in our final moments.

We split off into groups, some who had woken earlier climbed the mountains to catch the views from Ljubljana Castle, while others, like myself, who had rested longer, simply walked the city streets and ventured into the market one last time to pick up some cheeses, meats, honey,  liqueurs, butter and bread for our ride home. We were strolled through the city, flâneurs in the truest sense—just following our  feet in whichever direction they would take us, into antique shops and used book stores, wine cellars and honey shops, until, finally, we returned to our hotel and boarded our bus to go home.

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As we drove the five hour journey back to Firenze, we watched the Alps and tall wintery trees give way again to the luscious olive trees and greens of Italy, passing the off ramps for Trieste and Venice where many Italians had come from to enjoy a weekend in Ljubljana like ourselves. Returned, only too quickly, to Italia and Firenze, we can only dream of the next time the springtime Slovenian sun will rise and awaken us to a day in the city where East meets West.

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