by Sarah Naimark
The unexpected is something we can forget to love. The secure ritual of daily life in consistent surroundings provides a warm familiarity that can be hard to cast off.
This, interestingly enough, extends to our travel selves as well. We seek what we know, or at least what we can envision, chasing after a preconceived mental picture of what our trip will be like. I see myself on the beach: book a trip to Hawaii. I see myself trekking through mountains: call the Himalayas!
But when was the last time you journeyed somewhere you truly had no idea what to expect? No photos to guide your fantasies, no friends who’ve been there to coax your imagination. When was the last time your mind was a total blank, and the future destination not more than a fuzzy question mark?
For me, that hard-to-grasp question mark was Ljubljana, Slovenia. The blank feeling extended beyond how I should pronounce the name of the capital (“Lee-oob-lee-ana”) —I simply had no notion of what it would look like. The empty canvas was soon filled with bits and swaths of the small Central European city nestled in miles and miles of green forest, and I left feeling like I had a new secret to share with those who never imagined Ljubljana.
Rumored to have been founded by Jason and the Argonauts themselves, Ljubljana is everything a first-time solo traveler wants Europe to be: manageable, antiquated, friendly and indescribably enchanting. But the city charmed even this longtime (and sometimes jaded) traveler with pastel baroque houses along the thin, winding river that cuts through the town and the small bridges that arch over the water, like a row of iron-wrought house cats stretching in the sun.
Ljubljana was a true and unexpected joy. Here are my suggestions of how to fill your blank canvas in Ljubljana:
Visit the Castle.
As in all good fairytale cities, the Ljubljana castle sits on a rounded hill, a steady guard of the city huddled around it. The short but steep climb up the winding forest path is worth the sweat. Recently touched with technology’s magic wand, the castle is a comfortable blend of 16th century stonework and artful restoration. An art gallery and Virtual Museum occupy the top floors, but the real treat is to be had at the tip-top of the clock tower where you’ll get the best view of sprawling Slovenian countryside. The massive green and white Slovenian flag fluttering in the wind evoked misappropriated patriotism in me. Concerts and theater performances are frequently held within the castle walls. Tip: there’s a photo booth near the entrance where you can take and email your picture for free. Wouldn’t Rapunzel be jealous…
Explore the Botanical Gardens.
The Botani?ni vrt Ljubljana (botanical gardens) are a ten-minute walk outside the city center and the grounds were almost empty when I visited. Almost 200-years-old, the gardens show no signs of aging with tidy rows of flowers, clusters of native flora and a massive weeping willow that made me want to crawl underneath and set up leafy house forever. Small ponds are home to mossy turtles, swishing cattails and wiry elephant grass. Where else can you get your picture taken with Juvan’s houseleek and the endemic bog arum?
Walk along the Ljublanica.
Ljubljana’s river carries its name and meanders directly, albeit narrowly, through the middle of town. Ducks and small riverboats casually float along, watching the city from the water. The avenue that lines the river feels like it leads into a lost century of European grandeur, with baroque and art deco buildings standing straight against the bloom of frothy green trees. Colors you haven’t thought of since your giant Crayola box days come to mind: ocher, burnt sienna, goldenrod, pale lavender, carnation pink, mulberry and raw umber are given life outside a coloring book. Make a stop at the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most) for a look at the beautifully crafted, and only a little creepy, sheet-copper dragons that guard the passing.
Wander at night.
This is one of the safest Central European capitals, and a nocturnal stroll feels comfortable and cheery. Lanterns illuminate the riverbanks and happy chatter can be heard echoing back from the many riverside cafes and pubs, such as Makalonca. Walk a few streets deeper to find great bars like Kuriln’ca, smoky jazz clubs like Geonavtik and Art Nouveau cafes that will give you the urge to discuss Sartre over espresso until the sun comes up.
Prešeren people-watch at Samsara.
This summertime restaurant sits right on Prešeren Square, undeniably the city’s human hub. Pick something sweet from their long menu of ice creams (or cocktails, depending on your mood) and enjoy the perfect view of the pinkest church this side of Candyland, as well as everyone who’s coming and going through this vital node. I saw the same handful of people over and over again– by the time we’d seen each other at the castle, the Dragon Bridge and the flea market, we finally started waving in acknowledgement.
To market, to market.
Sprawled over the finite Vodnik Square, the open-air fruit and vegetable market also sells dried herbs in open canvas sacks, yellow beeswax candles of various heights and girth, and traditional Slovenian costume. My favorite stall was the cabbage and beet vendor, but I definitively have Slavic taste buds. Even those with a taste for the tangy will find bright oranges, sharp cheeses and dark rye breads. This is a great place to get your lunch and your souvenirs in one fell swoop.
Where to stay:
For you pseudo-masochists looking for justice, try Hostel Celica, an “artistically renovated” former prison in the center of Ljubljana. There might not be mints on the pillows, but there are bars on the windows.
I stayed in the minimalist but pleasant Hotel Emerac just off the main square. The rates are reasonable and they will help arrange tours.
Address: Wolfova ulica 12, Ljubljana
Phone: +386 (0)1 200 15 20
Fax +386 (0)1 200 15 21
Where to eat:
I can safely say that the best sandwich I’ve ever had is at Paninoteka, a tiny shop with no room to sit but a winning formula for sandwich-making. In the traditional Italian “panino” style, they press two large pieces of bread together in a heated grill, melding and melting the delicious ingredients. Perfect for your mid-wander lunch.
Address: Jur?i?ev trg 3, Ljubljana
Dinner is divine at Gostilna As, a seafood and Slovenian fare restaurant off the pedestrian walkway that connects Wolfova and Slovenska streets. The outdoor patio is a pleasant place to enjoy the food in the sunlight or under the stars.
Address: ?opova 5 (entry from Knafljev prehod)