In the reading I did before our trip, Ljubljana was written off as small capital city that is easily ‘done’ in a day. While it cannot be denied that Ljubljana is small, its size does not hinder its character. Ljubljana has an intimate and quiet atmosphere, it feels like a large town rather than a leading European capital city. The Ljubljanica that runs though the city is the focal point of activity for the city; cafes, bars and restaurants line the banks of the river, providing ample spots for sipping from a glass of Slovenia’s beloved Schweppes bitter lemon.
Ljubljana strikes a curious aesthetic. Nestled between its skyline of Baroque churches, onion domed towers and red terracotta roofs are the concrete blocks of its socialist past. There is no definite line between old and new in this city. What are usually considered architectural monstrosities elsewhere here act as examples of Slovenian history and culture and are celebrated as much as the city’s beloved architect Jože Ple?nik. These buildings honour Slovenia’s colorful past as a founding member in the re-establishment of a second state of Yugoslavia. The river is also a central point of the city’s architecture; numerous bridges line the river bearing the city’s symbol, the dragon. They are a haven for quiet strolls or perusing any of the many stalls selling artisan jewelry. This sense of solitude is rarely achieved in the centre of any other European capital city.
Slovenia’s National Gallery is a display of the country’s pride in the influence it has had on European art since the Renaissance. Testament to Slovenia’s inclusive spirit, it was uplifting to see that Slovenian artists who moved to Vienna and identified themselves as Austrian rather than Slovenian were celebrated as lost sons and daughters. Secluded, light and airy, it was a tranquil place to indulge in peaceful contemplation away from Ljubljana’s stifling heat. On the other end of the spectrum is the Slovenian Gallery of Modern Art. This gallery shows the rapidity of Slovenia’s artistic progression and rise of grass roots counter culture in the 80s. The exhibition about the avante-garde band, Laibach, is a startling and sometimes unnerving display of the band’s ambiguous and complex political ideology regarding its relationship with left and right wing ideas. It is particularly of significance now, as they are the first western band to ever perform in North Korea.
By night, the city retains this feeling of quiet intimacy. The tapping of wine glasses and murmur of chat from the restaurant terraces ripples along the willow trees lining the bank of the river. However, Ljubljana is no social backwater; in the suburbs an alternative night scene is thriving at Metelkova. During the days of socialism, Metelkova was once an army garrison and prison. Now, it is the home of an artist’s collective, where an alternative music scene thrives and counterculture is celebrated. It was in this area of the city that we stayed in a former prison, now named Hostel Celica. Since its closure as a prison, artists have taken over the site and transformed it into an artistic paradise for travelling musicians, artists, and actors. Visitors are invited to spend the night in one of its prison cells or attend one of the many events put on by the hostel. During our stay we were treated to an evening of Café De Paris jazz from a group of French musicians in the old exercise yard of the prison.
Initially, our reasoning to stay in Ljubljana was merely to use its train station to transport us to Lake Bled. Instead, we were met with more than just a busy capital. Safe, peaceful and quiet, it deserves more time than the day guidebooks suggest. The strength of Ljubljana lies within art, history and architecture. The city stands on the forefront of change in a country that has reinvented itself politically, culturally, and socially numerous times since the turn of the 20th century. It is a celebration of Slovenia — a haven for creative free thinkers.