Never confuse Slovenia with Slovakia or Slavonia, as long as you want to feel smarter than George Bush...........and who doesn't?!
Slovenia is the northernmost of the former Yugoslavian nations. Despite having Austria as its northern neighbour and Italy taking up most of its coastline it has no identity problems!
We drove to Ljubljana from Zagreb in less than two hours, paying a toll in Kunas to leave Croatia, and buying a "vignette" with euros to avoid tolls in Slovenia!
Slovenia joined the EU ten years ago, and adopted the euro in 2007. Slovenes are generally more "western" than other Slavic nationals, and, perhaps owing to their easier transition to independence, seem happier and more relaxed than Croats. Ljubljana, on the Ljubljanica River, is the tiny capital of their small nation and is full of charm and surprises!
We are staying in a hostel right on the river in the centre of the city, the mustard-coloured building shaded by trees, just steps away from one of its most famous bridges, the Dragon Bridge, which we can see from our bedroom window! We have a bright sunny room with an ensuite and a view in a central location for just 40€ a night - up 3 long flights of stairs, so small it just barely fits the bed - you can't have everything!
In the hallway downstairs is a poster advertising a "Free" city walking tour with a knowledgeable guide......... Sounds like a good deal? It was! Our guide, a 30 year-old Slovene taking a break from writing his thesis, was old enough to remember the excitement of Independence Day, and some of the pros and cons of life in a communist country, while being young enough to give a fresh perspective on Slovenia's place in Europe today. He talked and walked for two-and-a-half hours and we enjoyed every minute (enough to give a generous tip which is how he earns a living!)
The tour started in Preseren Trg (that's not an abbreviation, Trg is the word for square, Slovene is another language with no respect for vowels!) Preseren is the National Poet of Slovenia and stands proudly with a semi-naked muse on his shoulder! This statue so offended churchgoers when it was erected 100 years ago that the trees were planted to mask her nakedness from those coming out of the pink Franciscan church to the left!
The next most famous Slovene we learned about is Joze Plecnik, the architect whose influence defines Ljubljana. His creations are liberally sprinkled all over the city and include the famous triple bridge. (I'm borrowing an image from Google as its best seen from above) The middle bridge was the original medieval entrance to the city, but became a traffic nightmare so Plecnik designed Venetian-style side-spans, redundant now the mayor has banned all vehicles except bicycles from the centre of the city, but still a great tourist attraction!
Plecnik also borrowed from the Greeks, with the market that stretches along the river and holds vendors of everything from souvenirs and clothes, to fish, meat, bread and vegetables. Not much going on here on a Sunday, but a bustling place the rest of the week.
Our guide also pointed out machines that sell fresh, unpasteurized milk. BYO bottle, or buy one from the machine on the right, then fill it on the left for 1€ a litre! I'm amazed the EU will allow that when they try to control the curve of a cucumber!
Similarly, check out this Slovene delicacy! Yikes!
Here's Plecnik's national library, which contains every book written in the Slovene language, that's 2.5 million, more than one for every Slovene, and built, as you might have guessed, during the communist era.
Plecnik knew what was good for him and here's a great example of his adaptability...... Look for the hammer and star rubbing shoulders with Jesus and Mary!
Our guide, pictured here showing off the fascinating modern door to the cathedral (spot Pope John Paul at the top, who visited right after independence) talked about how different Yugoslav communism was from the countries behind the Iron Curtain, thanks to Tito's vision and desire not to ally with Russia. Yugoslavs could travel - he remembers trips to Italy to buy jeans, people would buy as many pairs as they could wear one on top of the other, then travel home or better still to Hungary, and sell them at an enormous profit!
In more recent times, Slovenes were the lucky ones in their quest for independence which came with very little bloodshed because 80% of the population was Slovene, unlike the other nations where the ethnic mix caused such appalling violence.
After our walking tour we fortified ourselves with lunch and walked up to the castle. Like Saltzburg, Ljubljana has a massive fortress atop a hill in the middle of the city (think Sound of Music!) you can see it at the end of just about every street.
We avoided the funicular, since it had no character compared to Zagreb's, and hoofed it up a zillion steps to the top.
The view was worth every drop of sweat! Take a look at the Julian Alps in the distance! We'll be there in a few days!
We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Ljubljana, which is as packed with tourists as Zagreb is devoid of them - in fact the two cities couldn't be more different, but we loved them both! One very noticeable difference was the lack of graffiti in Zagreb and the disappointing excess here. We wonder if the proximity to Italy has encouraged this trend?
Certainly Italy has influenced the food, there's a gelato stand on almost every corner here, and pizza is eaten on the go from a custom-made triangular cardboard plate - delicious!
That's the main administrative building of the university behind me. Ljubljana University has 65,000 students! Higher education is still free, a hang-over from communist days, but our guide thinks it can't last much longer.
Tomorrow we drive up to the Kamnisko-Savinjske mountains, due north of Lujubljana near the Austrian border, but for now I'll leave you with a few more examples of the varied architecture of Slovenia's lovely capital city.