Ljubljana with Veronika

A book about suicide and madness, about shocking someone into wanting to live by convincing them death is imminent. Oddly, Veronika Decides to Die most of all made me want to see Ljubljana. Nearly 20 years later, and seemingly random, I’m on my way. The invite popped into my mailbox just a week ago.

I’ve been meaning to visit Slovenia for ages. Been once before, briefly. A party-filled week on the Adriatic coast, in Portoroz, when I was 19. The country was Yugoslavia then.

Ljubljana has drawn me especially, partly because of Veronika, partly because it’s one of few European capitals I’ve yet to visit, (I’ll get to you soon, Tirana and Podgorica), and partly because in the intervening two decades, everything I’ve read – blogs, articles, news stories – all praise the charms of this little village of a capital.

My books are all in storage. I’ve been living in exile for a good 8 months after a massive water damage forced me out of the house, but fortunately, libraries still exist. On a battered Air Croatia aircraft between Copenhagen and Zagreb, I re-read the peculiar story about Veronika, and about Dr Igor, who thinks he has found the ultimate solution to prevent suicides, based on his idea that we’re infected with a silent substance that slowly poisons us over time. He calls it vitriol, bitterness.

And the book now? I don’t remember being so irritated by many of the characters; even Veronika annoys me at times. That might say more about me, but in my head, any book that speaks to readers’ emotions – one way or another – is doing something right.

As I walk around town, I look for Villete, the psychiatric hospital in the middle of Ljubljana’s old town. The central square plays an important part, with the statue of the early 19th century romantic poet France Prešeren. From her room at Villete, Veronika looks down on this square.

When Petra, inimitable guide, shows me Prešeren Square – with Prešeren on a pedestal – I look around, wondering if any of the surrounding buildings might contain a present or former mental hospital. Petra assures me that is not the case.

Even so, I have to check, and discover there’s a Psihiatrična klinika Ljubljana, the university psychiatric hospital. Could that be Villete? No, much too far away. In the end, I settle for the author having spent time on Prešeren Square, and the hospital being a figment of his imagination.

He also frequently mentions the statue. Perhaps the famous Slovene poet served in part as inspiration for this book about attempted suicide? Prešeren, you see, had a few attempts himself. According to Wiki: ‘In general, Prešeren’s life was an unhappy one.’ Much of it having to do with excessive drinking – and unrequited love for one Julija Primic. That, however, didn’t stop him from having three children with Ana Jelovšek. I can’t help but think of the line from the 60s folk rock track Love the one you’re with. In this case, I think that philosophy would make sense, because 3 kids!

Prešeren died at 48, from liver damage. Considered Slovenia’s national poet, you can see him on Slovene 2-Euro coins. One of his songs, Zdravlijka, has been declared the Slovene national anthem, and his death day is a Slovene cultural holiday.

The most famous amongst his poems is perhaps Sonetje nesreče, Sonnets of Madness and other Misfortune. Here’s a little taste:

 

your eyes show me how to see again
like mirrors of water, understanding all,
there’s no mystery they can’t solve—
a single glance is more than enough

your eyes see, listen, touch, speak.
are beacons on the horizon
shedding light on shades of life
beyond the reach of words

so I start to read your body,
pausing at every mole, as if
they were commas or periods

how I love to scribble on your chest,
use the muscles on your back as lines—
you and I are both page and pen

But let’s leave authors of existential dramas and romantic poets behind, and get on with Ljubljana, the beloved. ‘Beloved,’ you ask? Am I still lingering in the universe of romance then? No no. If you exchange an ‘a’ for an ‘e’, you have ljubljena – the Slovene word for beloved.

A coincidence? The jury’s out on that one. What is certain, is that Ljubljana is lovely. No wonder Petra adores her city. And if this is how it presents itself in the dreariest month of the year, I can’t wait to see it in a more friendly-weather season.

Ljubljana is a very human city – its size, its walkability – all made for humans, not vehicles. Everywhere seems to be less than 10 minutes away. The old city can be circled in minutes, or hours – if you stop and look at all the delightful details. Along the short way you’ll pass open spaces, you’ll stroll along the dark green waters of Ljubljanica river, and you’ll cross many, many little bridges.

Ljubljana was European Green Capital 2016, and has an ambitious zero waste agenda – first Zero Waste Capital in Europe is the plan. The inner city is pedestrian only, city bikes are free, and whatever you pop in public waste bins is recycled below ground.

60 000 of Ljubljana’s 270 000 residents are students. That does something to the atmosphere. Even during the very chilly November days I’m here, people are out and about, even dining or drinking outdoors. Winter or summer, rain or shine, Ljubljanians simply adore being outdoors, I’m told.

And sure enough, when I meet up with Janez, a Slovene colleague from my civil servant days, i.e. way back when, we drink wine outside – underneath blankets, with heating lamps above. To a Scandinavian, it’s just like home.

Who visits Ljubljana? Those who have been everywhere else, and are bored with same old? That’s what the manager of my hotel says. Petra loves the international visitors. People who come to Ljubljana are curious about the world’s more unusual destinations, she says. They are ready for something new. They are INTERESTED! Considering this little blog is about the world’s curious places, it seems I’m in the right place.

So what to see?

Art Nouveau architecture

Ljubljana has a fascinating mix of urban architectural styles. After an earthquake ruined three quarters of the city in 1895, some of the old baroque buildings were rebuilt. Also, the late 19th century saw the introduction of that delightful style, Art Noveau. The combination works beautifully here.

Opaque glass, ornamental door work… just look at this lovely structure.

Galerija Emporium from 1903

If Soviet-era chic is your thing (I find concrete oddly attractive in its very own way), you have to go out of the city centre a bit. The nearest is probably the modernist district Ferantov vrt, on Slovenska and Rimska streets.

 

Ljubljana Castle

Top spot in town goes to Ljubljana Castle, standing guard over the city for 900 years. Not to be missed. In fact, you can’t miss it; it’s visible from just about everywhere. The castle houses several museums and historical rooms, but even if you’re not that interested in history, the spectacular vista is a good enough reason for getting on the funicular to the top.

Best views over Ljubljana, the rooftops, the winding river, the quaint bridges and the surrounding Alps, can be had from the appropriately named Outlook Tower.

There are two restaurants here, and a jazz club in the Rock Hall, a cool, subterranean space underneath the castle. The castle is a popular wedding venue; you can have the ceremony in one of several halls indoors – majestic or cosy, your choice – or outdoors in the courtyard.

Crusader street

One of the oldest and most charming streets in the old town is Križevniška ulica (Crusader Street). In the 12th century, this area was a stronghold of the Knights Templar/Teutonic Order (not the first time those rogues are mentioned here on Sophie’s World). A family of nobles, the Spanheims, who reigned this area for 150 years, founded a church, a hospital and a school for poor children on this street.

Four centuries later, in 1511, Emperor Maximilian decided the Jews in Ljubljana had too much money, so they weren’t allowed to work or own businesses. Consequently, they left, so by the time World War II rolled around, there weren’t very many left, says Petra. Today, there are about 100 Jews in Ljubljana; they have a new Jewish Centre here on Crusader Street. Christmas meets Hanukkah through the decorations that light up the street at night.

Ljubljana’s bridges

Ljubljana is a city full of bridges – and wherever there are bridges, you find love locks, it seems. I’m not fond of this phenomenon, as the sheer weight of all the locks ruins monuments around the world. Also, there’s something about love and lock… these words just don’t go together.

Ljubljana things to do

Scene of the crime in Ljubljana: Butcher’s Bridge.

You lock, then throw the key in the river. But what to do if love goes awry? As far as I can see, you have three choices:

  1. Not care about the lock – although, your new boyfriend might not like the idea of it being a permanent fixture on a bridge; it’s a bit like having ‘Jim Bob forever’ tattooed on the front of your hip – or
  2. Get a circular saw, or
  3. Jump into the river and retrieve your key, searching among hundreds.

Some Slovenes have found a more pragmatic solution: combination locks.

Barka Ljubljanica

Janez thinks it’s a shame I don’t have time to take a boat along the Ljubljanica. In fact, I must promise to return in a warmer season, because this is particularly enjoyable way to see the city, he insists. He is a local! One such is Barca Ljubljanica, a little boat, handmade of larch wood.

Imagining dragons

This snap of one of Ljubljana’s many bridges neatly brings me to dragons. (Strange that I didn’t snap a pic of one, but there you are). What is it with those mythical creatures of fear and fire? The ancient Mesopotamian dragons of Sumerian poetry,  the dragon Níðhöggr chomping on the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, the dragon on the Welsh flag, a dude named George slaying them in neighbouring England. I could go on. Here in Ljubljana, four dragons watch over Zmajski mos (Dragon Bridge – also known as mother-in-law bridge by locals; fiery place, apparently). It isn’t entirely clear which role dragons play in Ljubljana, but one theory has to do with Jason, the chap with the Argonauts, remember? Rumour has it, he founded Ljubljana. And as he also killed a dragon…

Shopping

Ljubljana has its share of chic boutiques, as well as shopping centres housed in exceptionally beautiful buildings. Luxury goods and high fashion are for sale at the Art Nouveau palace, Galerija Emporium. Most fun, though, even on this drizzly cold day, is the Central Market on Vodnikov trg (trg means square) and Pogačarnev trg. Between the two, there’s an indoor market. There’s also little food shops in a 1940s colonnade along the river, designed by local architect Jože Plečnik. The market is open every day. If you happen to be here on a Friday between March and October, you’ll find local chefs cooking here.

Food and drink

I mentioned restaurants in the castle. One of these is Strelec on top of the Archer’s Tower. Dinner with spectacular views. Award-winning head chef, Igor Jagodic, serves up innovative and delicious food and excellent wines. The service is equally excellent.

Down in the city centre, Ateljé in Grand Hotel Union is another winner. Ever noticed how the starter so often is the best part of a meal? In fact, why can’t it all be starters? At Ateljé, up-and-coming young chef, Jorg Zupan fuses the cuisines of Ireland, Australia, Norway, London and Ljubljana, creating culinary delights, not least starters, so I’m having two!

Here’s hummus with marinated shrimps – and a hot, delicious apple/celeriac soup with roasted walnuts. Just the thing on a windy, wet day. And let’s not forget the wine. Can’t leave out the Verus Sauvignon Blanc from Stajerska. Fruity, aromatic, intense, yet light. Simply superb. At night, there’s 7-course (70€) or 9-course (85€) menus for your tasting pleasure. Lunch offerings are cheaper, and just as tasty.

A little on politics

I started this post with a literary reference, a rather long one at that. Seems fitting to end with another slightly off topic… topic:

In these Brexit times, I think it’s interesting to hear how other countries feel about that great European experiment that is the EU. I ask a Ljubljana local who works in tourism:

‘Everyone loves the EU,’ he says. ‘No one wants to go back to how it was. We want the Euro. Everyone talks about how things have gotten more expensive with the introduction of the Euro, but they forget that salaries almost doubled as well. Also, I remember well how we had to queue at the non-EU lines at airports. It is horrible just thinking about it. I never want to go back to those times. Everyone loves the EU.’

A government employee I speak to, who travels frequently to Brussels for meetings, thinks differently:

‘If there was a referendum tomorrow, it could go either way,’ she says. ‘People recognise that we have very little influence in Brussels. We are a small country, with no important EU institutions present. We don’t count for much.’

Disclosure: I was in Ljubljana on a press trip, hosted by the Slovenian Tourist Board. As ever, all opinions are mine and mine alone. Otherwise, this would be pointless.