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Thursday, September 1, 2016

8/24: Ljubljana: The Beloved City

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, we arrived late last night in Ljubljana, the capital of the small country of Slovenia and the northernmost of the Balkan countries that had formerly been part of Yugoslavia. It is just a few hours' drive from Vienna and not far, by American driving standards at least, from Venice, Budapest and much of the rest of Europe.

I had last been in Ljubljana waaaaaaay back in 1974 when I was an au pair working for a Canadian family in Geneva and I was lucky enough to travel with them to part of what was then Yugoslavia. But coming back was, for me, like visiting the city anew and sharing it with Steven was better still. 

We had rented a room in downtown Ljubljana in an Airbnb but some of you may not be familiar with what Airbnb is. It's a worldwide organization of people who either have extra rooms in their home to rent out to visiting tourists or even whole apartments or homes. We had not used Airbnb since our initial overseas trip in 2013 because of some concerns we had then but we have booked a few places through Airbnb this trip.

The location of our room was absolutely perfect, just  a couple minutes' walk from the bus station, lots of small grocery stores, the Old Town, etc. We couldn't wait to get out and explore some of the latter before joining a 'Free Walking Tour' of the city at 10. 

A few sights of Old Town: Many of the streets in this area are for pedestrians only which was so welcoming after the hubub of such a huge city like Kyiv. 

Castle Hill in the background:
The open air market:
My first time seeing (or remembering?!) a stall just selling mushrooms:

It felt a little like we had been transported to Copenhagen or Amsterdam, two cities known for their large number of bike riders. We really needed to keep our wits about us as we crossed intersections or walked on the sidewalks because of the dedicated bike lanes everywhere, even there too.

We took a few minutes to walk inside Town Hall. Some photos of its interior courtyard:
The Gothic courtyard, arcaded on three levels, is where theatrical performances once took place.
The city's PR department hard work showing Ljubljana then and now after extensive work had been done beautifying the city:

As we walked down this narrow street, we could only wonder what the significance was of the row of stones down its middle.

As you will soon see, Ljubljana is a city of bridges over very scenic canals. We could hear the sound of Italian being spoken everywhere as not only is Venice so close but I am sure it reminded Venetians and other Italians of that great city.

Before joining the official walking tour, as opposed to our own which had only taken about a lesiurely 40 minutes or so, we saw the 'misting zone' in the middle of Presernov trg or the main square where the tour began.
I couldn't resist cooling off in the light mist/rain knowing we would be walking for the next couple of hours in the quite warm weather. Guess I am really a kid at heart as I saw few other adults enjoying it!
The tour started at the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation also known affectionately as the Pink Church. Tina, our tour guide, told us that she is also a journalist and has a PhD in Sociology and is a salsa teacher in her spare time. What impressive credentials to be a walking tour guide! The Romans came to Ljubljana in the 1st century BC and during the Middle ages, there was a large transformation with the building of the Castle way up on the hill. One third of the city's buildings were destroyed in 1995 when the city suffered a huge earthquake.

Presernov trg (trg means square in Slovenian) is named after the country's most celebrated poet of the same name. Every February, Tina said with amusement, Slovenians come to the square to ''freeze their bums off'' to listen to poetry being read in his honor! France Preseren wrote a drinking song called "The Toast" celebrating wine, friendship among people and nations. It later even became the national anthem. He is also remembered for his endeavors to modernize the Slovenian language.

The naked lady in the sculpture below caused quite a stir when it was built in 1901 in front of the church. The pragmatic mayor however said, "We paid for it and therefore it stays." Trees were planted in front of it so that churchgoers couldn't get a view of the naked woman.
The sculpture is of Preseren who is facing the relief of his great love, Julia Primic, nestled on the wall of an adjacent building located across the square, Tina explained. Things you learn on a walking tour we would never have discovered by ourselves! What a perfect segue to write that Ljubljana means "Beloved."
Right across from the church and square are three bridges located so closely to each other that they are known as the Triple Bridge. The middle bridge was originally built during the Middle Ages but it became too small for car traffic and dangerous for pedestrians so a decision was made to make it a stone bridge instead. The city architect, Joze Plecnik, told the mayor he didn't want to make a bigger bridge so he added two adjacent bridges intended for pedestrians only between 1929 and 1932.

For the last eight years, there have been no cars allowed on the middle bridge so, as it turns out, the architect needn't have bothered widening that bridge! The bridges and much of the architecture throughout Ljubljana is a mix of both Italian and Austrian influences. 

The Middle Bridge:

In front of the Catholic Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, there was one of the city's many public drinking fountains. Tina urged everyone on the tour to fill up water bottles at the water fountains rather than buying plastic water bottles which would clog up the landfills. This was all part of making the city 'green.'
Catholicism is the main religion in Slovenia and the Church of St. Nicholas was the first church on this spot when it was built in the 12th century by fishermen and sailors.  That seemed so strange as there is no sea close by, but, as Tina explained, there were lots of rivers.
We spent a fair bit of time admiring the door to the church and learned that the Vatican was one of the first countries to recognize a newly independent Slovenia when it broke away from the Soviet Union. A bust of Pope John Paul II overlooking his flock is on the top of the door in recognition of his visit to the city.
Both the image of the Pope and Plecnik's lady love in the wall niche were made by the same sculptor. Tina said he liked placing people in window frames.
The pottery in the lower part of the door represent the earliest settlements.
The Middle Ages were represented by two men on hoseback and the religious struggle during the Reformation was symbolized by the Bible and the other religious books. 
There were figures of three heads who symbolized the most important bishops and missionaries. It was amazing how the one door depicted the hsitory of Chritianity on Slovenian lands. There was no autograph in the door but the sculptor left his own mark; that of his face in the lower right corner.
Another gorgeous entrance to the same church. This one is called the Holy Door and has reliefs portraits of the 20th century bishops of Slovenia.
We luckily had a few minutes to admire the stunning interior of the Baroque church too.

We walked to Lovers' Bridge, not as poetically also known as the Butchers’ Bridge. Couples in love have their names or initials engraved on small padlocks, pledge their eternal love to each other and place the locks on the bridge before throwing the keys into the river. 
The bridge was partially made of glass to harmonize with nature, we were told. When the sun is not reflecting on the glass, fish can be seen swimming underneath. It sure looks beautiful in the summer but is impractical during the winter when the glass freezes and there are lots of accidents. Tina recounted how the glass also presents issues during the summer when women wear skirts on the glass part and there are open boats passing by underneath!
The fascinating Central Market started at the Triple Bridge and extended until Lovers' Bridge. It was laid out in the 1930s by Plecnik in the style of an ancient market with long columns, porticoes and small shops. Slovenians are huge coffee drinkers, but unlike the nearby Italians, they prefer to sit for hours with friends over a cup of coffee. Slovenians are the fourth biggest consumers of coffee in Europe and, according to Tina, can’t live without it. 
The open air market that we had walked through briefly a short while earlier, sold both new and secondhand clothes, lovely fresh produce, herbs and flowers and market stalls sell a variety of prepared foods. The whole area is packed on Saturdays when everyone comes to do their shopping and meet friends for coffee. Tina explained how so many city residents work in the city but also consider themselves to be city farmers as they grow as much of their own produce as possible. Most of the vendors are themselves farmers which is rare to have the actual farmers sell their own produce in a market this size.
As Tina was talking about the market, a man walked by who just happened to have been the sculptor of the works of art on the bridge. What a small city Ljubljana is as Tina said.
On the other side of the market is the Dragon Bridge which was the first Art Nouveau bridge built in Europe of concrete and reinforced metal unlike most stone bridges. Vienna had wanted to be the first city to have such a bridge but was skeptical of its design so decided to wait to see if Ljubljana’s worked first. It did, so Vienna later followed suit!

Dragons are the official symbol of the city and are on the city’s coat of arms and flag. Many local companies have also incorporated dragons in their product designs.

Tina bought some pickled cabbage from a market vendor and mentioned what a great product it was when no fridges were available as it would last for several months. In Slovenia, it is eaten as a salad with oil or cooked with sausage and mashed potatoes in winter. 
Tina pointed out another free water fountain and how it helped to reduce the ecological impact.
The Fountain of Three Carniolan Rivers in front of Town Hall was built during the 18th century and designed by an Italian as were most of the Catholic and many other churches. It was based in the main medieval square and between two very important other medieval buildings, the Church and the Town Hall.
Town Hall Square:
The Town Hall, built in the 15th century, is the oldest building in the city. All official buildings have three official flags: the blue European Union flag (Slovenia has been a member since 2004), the national flag and then the city flag which has the coat of arms which contains the castle. (I had to take so many photos until I was able to get one with the flags at least partially unfurled!)
Tina recounted how you can’t be a ‘true’ Slovenian without climbing the highest mountain in the country which is depicted on the national flag. Once you reach the summit, you are then ‘baptized’ by a slap on the bottom or a swat with a climbing rope for women and men respectively. You can then celebrate your achievement by drinking schnapps!

What more could anyone want but tea and chocolate?! This surely must be my dream shop but, alas, I could not linger but had to trot along to keep up with the rest of the group.
A view from Shoemakers’ Bridge, the second biggest bridge in Old Town:
The square cum bridge is so wide because it was designed so that people could build connections with others, a place to congregate and have fun and for street musicians to play.
Jews settled during the 14th century in an area by the bridge. In Ljubljana, they were permitted to buy their own homes unlike in other cities where they were only allowed to rent. But at some point (sorry, I guess I missed that salient piece of info!), all the Jews and Protestants were expelled because so many people were in debt to them. There are only 200 Jews still remaining in the city, Tina thought.

We next all trooped over to Kongresni trg, the city’s second largest square. It was named after the 1821 Congress of the Holy Alliance, the political settlement of the Napoleonic Wars. There were big concerts and political parades while the meetings took place.
Tina pointed out the oldest and biggest (with 60 thousand students) university in the country, University of Ljubljana, right on the square. She revealed that it only opened in 1919 because, prior to that, the Slovenian language was not allowed to be spoken in public. If it were spoken in private, even in schoolyards, students were expelled. 
Apart from a 30 euro (about $34) yearly administrative fee, higher education is still free for all citizens. All children learn English in school and then one other foreign language, normally German or French. Tina said that in Slovenia, like all small nations, everyone must know English.

We were standing in front of the Slovenian Philharmonic below when I took the previous photo of the University off to our left. Founded in 1701, it is one of the world's oldest musical institutions.
She pointed out the National University Library next which is also known as the Temple of Knowledge. The outside resembles a carpet with its natural bumps and weaves, we were told. I am not sure I would have figured that out so glad Tina told us! 
She then proceeded to tell us that Plecnik designed it so that the sun only enters the windows later in the day, symbolizing students "start in the darkness of ignorance and then proceed to the light of knowledge." Construction of the library was completed on the eve of WWII, Tina said, but other sources say it was not finished until 1941. Plecnik, the foremost Slovenian architect, was responsible for much of the architecture of modern day Ljubljana.
Our last stop was the Crusaders’ Monastery which was formed in the Middle Ages by crusaders on their way to conquer Jerusalem and other cities for the Pope. 
The Monastery stayed open until the end of WWII when it was nationalized. The monks left and a major renovation was undertaken by Plecnik. The monastery was converted into a summer theater and details were added like the balconies, dragon details and art work on the walls. This is one of three courtyards in the complex. The band, Deep Purple, played in the bigger one, Tina said.

The country's Communist rulers told Plecnik the redesign was too bourgeois and that he couldn’t design for the city again. It was a loss for the city and country as he was then forced to work abroad in Vienna and Prague instead. Plecnik had done most of his designs for free as Ljubljana wasn’t able to pay him. He was satisfied with that as he had personal money of his own and he purposely hadn’t married so he could devote his life to his work and art. He is considered to be one of the fathers of 20th century European architecture. Some of his buildings are now up for consideration by UNESCO.

Tina had been a really good guide but we were certainly ready to wander around on our own for a while after getting a pizza at one of the most appealing waterfront cafes. It is hard to imagine a more delightful city than Ljubljana. It just oozes charm and invites tourists to walk its many pedestrian only streets and bridges and sit a while enjoying a coffee or meal while gazing at the passersby.

Seeing this sculpture made me smile and agree that Ljubljana is certianly a WOW city!
Mindy: Couldn't help to think of you here when I saw this banner!
In my previous post, I had mentioned that my formerly trusty Canon camera had gone kaput when were in a stunning church in Kiev. As a result, all the pictures in this post were taken with an older Canon. Since we were only still a couple of weeks into our four week adventure, we decided that it was time to go buy another camera while we could. Later on this trip, we’ll be in some pretty isolated spots where the prospect of buying a camera would be unrealistic. Ljubljana luckily wasn’t one of them.

Our Aibnb host’s husband had suggested a huge electronics store and that same store was also recommended by one of the people working at the Tourist Information office so off we went to find Big Bang. It was located in a large commercial area in eastern Ljubljana about 30 minutes away by bus. That didn’t matter of course when I found a Nikon Coolpix that was a decent price and was well reviewed online. I had lost my faith in Canons after having had three of them and was ready to switch to another brand.

About 6:30, we got our second wind and decided to walk up the steep hill to Ljubljana Castle. 

What lovely views of the city below us from the castle:
The Castle's exhibits were open and free so a perfect combination!

The Castle Penitentiary opened in 1915. These are photos of Italian POWs who helped with renovations around the castle.
The Castle Chapel which, like the prison, was also located in the basement.

A view of the lovely town on the walk back down:
What a perfect way to end another lovely day: on Lovers' Bridge!
One of the sculptures done by the man Tina had pointed out in the market earlier in the day.

After seeing some of these photos and reading about Ljubljana, don't you just want to pack up your bags and hit the road too?! If you can't, just stay tuned til my next post.


  1. Who knew about Ljubljana? Looks lovely! How expensive it it? How many people speak English. Are there lots of ex-pats? I'm asking because I'll be in Zagreb in October and might visit.

  2. Glad to read that you were able to find a new camera. Looking forward to seeing all the new pictures!

    1. I count my lucky stars that the camera broke when it did and not in one of the tiny towns we've been to more recently. The new camera has some features I'm not crazy about AND a disturbing message from time to time about the shutter, too, which gives me the heebie jeebies but all in all, it's been good.

      Love you.

  3. Chocolate and Tea, Oh my. Lil Red


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