As my plane started descending to Ljubljana, Robert Kolenik, my fellow passenger, an interior designer from Amsterdam, asked me how I planned to reach the downtown which was thirty minutes from the airport. I said I would take a cab but he offered me a ride to the city.
After collecting my luggage, I came out of the airport to be welcomed by the bitter cold of Slovenian winters. In a few minutes, Robert arrived in a fancy car and my initial dislike for Slovenia was replaced by excitement. This would be my first ride in the electric Tesla with an absolutely plush and high-tech interior with the speedometer touching 190km/h soon enough.
I was mesmerised by the sights of the Slovenian countryside on our way to the neat and eco-friendly Ljubljana, where electric cars recharging and parking spots were easily available. The downtown was a strictly no-car zone. Interestingly, there were some five separate containers for garbage collection, varying from those for organic waste to paper or glass waste etc. A person can be fined more than a hundred euros if found throwing the wrong waste in the designated bins.
The law is implemented as well; and that perhaps puts Ljubljana a hundred years ahead of us.
The city of Ljubljana (pronounced Lubliana) dates back to around the 12th century when it started developing as a small trading town situated at the middle of trade route between the northern Adriatic Sea and the Danube region. It was part of the famous Austro-Hungarian Empire under Hapsburg dynasty before becoming part of the former Yugoslavia in 1918 once the Hapsburgs were shown the door. Yugoslavia became a part of the communist block around WWI — eventually breaking down into some six countries in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A new country, Slovenia, with Ljubljana as its capital, was thus born.
The small town of Ljubljana evolved over centuries along a river — as is common with all historical towns the world over. The whole of the Ljubljana life from restaurants to castle to high street to town square is along this small Ljubljanica River. I am sure that most of you would not have heard of this scenic town close to the Adriatic coast. What’s more is that this neat little town with its cobbled streets does not allow vehicles inside downtown so you have to either walk or bike through the town; and the whole of Ljubljana is a free wifi city.
Preseren Square is the central square of the town with various restaurants, street vendors and stores spread around this central square. The 1660 Franciscan Church overlooks the square where people gossip over hotdogs, pretzels and hot wines. Cop Street leading to Preseren Square is a fashion hub of sorts with all the branded stores; and also has the oldest McDonald’s of Slovenia. The famous Triple Bridge over Ljubljanica River is just next to the square, and in the bygone times, the central path was for carriages and the two sideways were meant for pedestrian usage.
There are at least two other bridges worth mentioning — one is the Butcher’s Bridge, ironically also called the Lover’s Bridge as the fence displays thousands of typical padlocks fixed by couples as a mark of their eternal love. You would find these padlocks on bridges to be a tradition everywhere in Europe — from bridges in Paris to Salzburg.
Another bridge next to the Triple Bridge is Cobbler’s Bridge where once all cobblers would make shoes for the intense Slovenian winters. It was at the Cobbler’s Bridge where any baker found selling bread weighing less than it was supposed to would be punished with forced dips in the freezing Ljubljanica River.
There are a number of inexpensive and fine dining restaurants along the river close to the Preseren Square.
Another place worth visiting nearby is the Congress Square which is again a typical square surrounded by medieval buildings including a 17th century philharmonic orchestra hall, and the Ursuline Holy Trinity Church. The famous University of Ljubljana is also located here; and guess what… this is one of the largest universities in Europe with more than 63,000 enrolled students.
Like in all medieval towns, here too, the river creates a divide — with the rich living largely on the side where the square is and the not-so-rich living on the side where the castle is located.
The 12th century Ljubljana Castle overlooking the serene city is a 20-minute hike. On my way to the castle, the echoing rooftop bells of the 17th century Ljubljana’s St Nicholas Cathedral encouraged me to have a look inside the grand cathedral. The church organ was playing. The Baroque frescos on the walls and roof with centuries-old statues from Christian history portrayed all around. It was indeed a humbling experience to be inside such a grand structure.
The hike to the castle was steep but the views from the top were breathtaking. The castle is surrounded by a typical deep moat as is common in all the castles of medieval era. I crossed the main gate to enter the central verandah surrounded by various castle sections. The castle had an open roof prison, coat of arms, chapel and an assembly room and now a high-end restaurant as well.
The highlight of the castle visit was climbing to the top of the 1848 watchtower under the fluttering Slovenian flag. In the good old times, a guard would sit at the top and warn the citizens through canon fires about an impending fire, an approaching enemy, or even to welcome a dignitary. There cannot be a better bird’s eye view of Ljubljana than the one from this place.
Ljubljana is a nice stopover for a few days if you plan to explore southeast Europe with destinations like Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece on your itinerary. And the more adventurous can always think about driving through Istanbul to Pakistan like the generations preceding us used to do — and perhaps one day, this may become a convenient option. But until then dreaming of such a possibility do not cost you anything.