I had been wondering where to go for my last free weekend while teaching for the UNO Innsbruck program this past summer 2013 and finally narrowed it down to two places: Budapest, Hungary or Ljubljana, Slovenia. I chose Slovenia because of the train timetables and cost and decided that I would definitely visit Budapest on another trip. Plus, I've heard and read about Budapest for years. Slovenia, whaaa? So....I thought it would be a little less on the proverbial "beaten path". I must say, Ljubljana was LOVELY and the PERFECT choice for me this time around. I had a fantastic time!
Once I decided on Slovenia, I began to search for things to do there and info about Ljubljana. I knew nothing about the country itself, its history, or what it was known for. I learned that one of the most popular things to do there was to take a hot air balloon ride and I got super excited about the possibility of doing that. Once there, I learned from various travel agencies and a tour guide that there had been a major balloon accident a few years back where someone tried to take over 30 people up in a basket and then crashed in the outlying marshes. There was a large fire, many injuries, and some people died. So, Slovenia passed an ordinance banning ALL balloon travel because it lacked proper regulation.
I understand that very recently, they have again begun to examine regulations and opening ballooning back up for the tourist industry! Maybe next time, I will get to do that!
Here is the article on the accident: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19354150
So that idea was out......and I started looking at museums. I found that Ljubljana has a Narodni Musej Slovenje (National Museum of Slovenia) that is in two locations. One location contained exhibits that were more archeological in nature and included a find that is said to be the oldest musical instrument in the world.
That sold it for me! I told myself "they'd better be open when I get there!" :-) and so they were and I went and saw the instrument. It is a flute made from a cave bear femur and said to be 55,000 years old.
Here is a link to my blog post with info about the Divje Babe flute: http://carsonia.blogspot.com/2013/08/oldest-musical-instrument-in-world.html
Ljubljana is situated in a valley between a ring of Alps in the distance so after a ton of tunnels, the ride finally settled into a flat countryside, dotted with farms and small lakes. I arrived around 9:30 and night had fallen before I expected it so I worried a bit about walking from the train station to the hotel as I had no idea where to go except the name of its street. I would have used my phone, but it was on Airplane mode the whole summer and using wifi only, when available. Luckily, the train station was a fairly large one and lots of people were around both inside and out. I started walking down a main street and stopped at a restaurant to ask directions and lo - the street was the next one over and the Central hotel only two blocks down the street! YAY! I checked in and bought a bottle coke (a.k.a. HEAVEN) from the bar to take upstairs. When I got in my room, I found a greeting from the hotel on my TV - nice touch!
The next morning, I had coffee with a wonderful new friend and she walked me around downtown a bit and led me to the museum. I usually travel by myself and never have the opportunity to meet friends of friends. This was so terrific! I ended up having dinner later with her and some more new friends! After the museum, I took a two hour walking tour of the city. I also usually do not do prescribed tours. I usually wander about aimlessly.....well sometimes I have a loose plan, and find the treasures the city has to offer on my own. I think because it was so damned HOT, I wanted to ensure that I would get out and do something exciting so I bought a tour ticket!
Slovenia borders Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Croatia to the south and southeast and Hungary to the northeast. The architecture in Ljubljana, the capital (300,000 people), reminded me a little of what I have seen in Romania and Bulgaria. It was mostly the tops and edges of buildings that conveyed this feeling. Here is one building, the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Prešeren Square.
The country has a large Catholic and Lutheran population and a mix of languages. While I was there, I heard Slovene, Italian, and French. I'm sure there are plenty of other mixes when it comes to languages. This area was first part of the Roman Empire, followed by the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The State of Serbs, Croats, and Serbs merged into a kingdom of the same. Then it was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ! Finally in 1991, Slovenia became an independent country, joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Wars have dealt this little country a hand of being annexed and occupied by others. Amazingly, they have managed to preserve plenty of their history, culture and identity. The city itself has been rebuilt more than a few times.
The most famous rebuilding came after its earliest stages when it was the city of Aemona (Emona), occupied well before Roman times on the banks of the Ljubljanica river. It was destroyed by battles from time to time and was devastated by the Huns in the mid 400's.
Emona / Ljubljana was said to have been founded by Jason and his Argonauts on their quest to obtain the Golden Fleece....... Here is another link to a clearer rundown of the backstory. When Jason and his Argonauts sailed across the Black Sea, they supposedly got lost and into the river systems which eventually led them to the rivers surrounding Ljubljana. When they arrived, they ran out of river, took apart their ship to carry it across the mountains and back to the Adriatic sea. While they stopped, Jason defended the settlement and fought a mighty dragon which enabled him to get the Golden Fleece that it had guarded for many years. From this story also comes the use of the dragon as the symbol of Ljubljana!
I LOVE DRAGONS!
The Dragon Bridge is a main city sight and there are tons of other monuments and sites, but the city itself does not have any world famous tourist attractions. I liked this because I could concentrate on getting to know the history of the place rather than feel obliged to go certain places. One important national monument in the main old town area is that of France Prešeren, a national poet and his muse. Once regarded as smutty because the muse was half-naked and across the square from the Catholic church, the statue now is simply an expected part of the cityscape.
This is located in the square on the Tromostovje bridge (Triple bridge) over the Ljubljanica river. It, along with tons of things in the city, was designed by a nationally famous architect Jože Plečnik. The airport is also named after him.
One site I liked is the Robba Fountain, the Vodnjak treh kranjskih rek - or - (Fountain of Three Carniolan Rivers) near the Town Hall. (The original is in the national gallery, but the replica is great). It has three men with jugs and three fish of differing sizes representing the three rivers flowing into Ljubljana - the Sava, Ljubljanica, and the Krka. The fountain was also featured on a Slovenian banknote and is a national symbol today.
One of my favorite spots is the Stolnica Sv. Nikolaja - St. Nikolaus cathedral located on Cyril & Methodius Square. It was originally a Romanesque and then a Gothic church, but was burned down by the Turks in 1469 and rebuilt as a Baroque masterpiece. We only had about 15 minutes there and there was about to be a mass so I planned on going back the following day, but I was unable to. NEXT TIME. At least I was in awe of the overdone décor and contrasting calm reverence for a few minutes though! I also decided to photograph the sanctuary from the point of view of the candles! :-)
Stolnica Sv. Nikolaja
The door of the cathedral was FASCINATING. It depicts Slovene history to commemorate the 1250th anniversary of Christianity in Slovenia. Our tour guide told is about every crevice and figure and that before the door was dedicated and cathedral blessed by the Pope John Paul II, Tone Demšar, passed away. Then, he showed us the camouflaged figure of the builder on the door! Sneaky, but effective! :-) Sadly, I did not get a picture.
It was INSANELY HOT while I was in Ljubljana so after doing the walking tour, I took a boat tour to try and cool off.
That was great, but it didn't stop the heat! That night, I had dinner with my new friend Meta and some of her friends from Slovenia and France. So much fun! We attended a free jazz concert in one of the squares and then had some AWESOME GELATO. After that, we had dinner and hung out for a while. On my way out, I noticed a sign for Human fish.....
What is that? you ask....I will tell you!
Human fish is a beer, named after an unusual type of fish found in nearby caves. in the Dinaric Alps. This fish is rather translucent and has feet-like appendages! It is called the Olm.
The next day, I made plans to go paragliding and spent some time in the cool hotel wifi waiting for the weather and the contacts to work out. Tomorrow, I will post about my paragliding experience!
So, I REALLY hope to go back to Ljubljana! It is a gorgeous city, friendly to all ages groups, has an enjoyable city market, plenty of tourists, is clean and bright, has culture, has nightlife, and has an appreciation for the arts and history. I felt safe the entire time I was there. The train station is not far from downtown....it's a pretty short walk. There are plenty of food places, lots of surrounding activities, a castle one can go up the hill and visit, sporting activities, and everyone I spoke to seemed happy to help with questions or directions. I highly recommend a visit!!!!!!!