One of my favorite things about the “get lost and explore” method of sightseeing is that occasionally I’ll stumble on something totally unexpected, a little place off the beaten path that’s given nary a mention in the guidebooks. It may not even be very spectacular, in and of itself, but it’s the surprise that makes it worth it, like receiving a little unexpected gift from a friend.
I had one such moment in Ljubljana today. After a quick breakfast at the hostel, I shouldered my camera bag and set off toward the Old Town in the center of the city. Walking around the Old Town is fun, even without a destination in mind. There are no cars, just narrow cobblestone roads that thread their way between the densely packed buildings. Like in Germany, the cafes and restaurants have moved most of their tables outside, and even in the heat of day plenty of customers relax in the shade under an umbrella, having a cup of coffee or a beer, and chain smoking cigarettes. (Okay, so not all of it is pleasant.) Lots of little stores line the street, and the city hall in particular looks like it’s right out of a painting.
After a lap around the Old Town, I take a small but modern-looking cable car up to the most prominent landmark of the city: Ljubljana Castle, situated at the top of a hill which dominates the city center. Once I reach the top, I don’t really feel like touring the castle’s official museum, so I do a slow, lazy walk around the castle, taking pictures of the city skyline and of the scattered wildflowers which line the path.
Afterward, feeling restless but still not wanting to go into the museum, I find myself standing in a wide “foyer” underneath the castle, near where the cable car drops off its passengers. It’s not so much a foyer, though, as an underground cave, with a high ceiling, and stairs climbing up from it in three directions. To the left is an art gallery, to the right is the main castle exhibit, and to the rear is a little unmarked hallway, separated from the main foyer by glass doors. There’s no sign indicating what it is, and enough of this area is under construction that I’m not even sure it’s open to the public. But my modus operandi tends to be “if it doesn’t explicitly say it’s closed, assume it’s open.” Besides, the glass door is ajar, and even though there’s no one inside, it’s certainly accessible. So I walk up the deserted stairs to the glass door, and find a tunnel through the rock. One side is lined with framed pictures from local artists. At the back, a floor-to-ceiling glass window looks out onto a tiny, inaccessible grass courtyard surrounded by the high walls of the castle.
At the far end, I find a tiny opening in the rock wall, leading into what appears to be a dark, empty cavern cut into the rock. The floor comes to an abrupt end at the cavern’s entrance, and only two narrow wooden planks serve as a walkway over the uneven rocky bottom of the cavern a couple feet below. It sort of blends in with the “under construction” motif that seems to dominate much of the area underneath the castle, and the rickety-looking wooden planks definitely suggest that this is somewhere I shouldn’t go. Are they even safe to walk on? The only sign suggesting that this is more than just an empty cavern under the castle is a sign saying “Fluid”. Is it an official exhibit or not?
Part of me is afraid that at any minute I’m going to get arrested by a security guard for straying into off-limits territory, but I decide to go in. As I leave the light of the hallway behind, I see that the cavern walls are bare, rough rock, much like outside. But embedded into the rock are patterns of three-dimensional lights, like illuminated tentacles sticking out from the dark wall. It’s beautiful, almost entrancing, and the mystery of this place, tucked into the end of a quiet hallway underneath the castle, only adds to the atmosphere. In a way, it’s far more exciting than the views of the Ljubljana skyline, as if this magical room was just sitting here waiting for someone to discover it. I stand there for a minute, in complete isolation, not even so much as hearing the sound of another human being, as if this little room in the city’s biggest tourist attraction doesn’t exist to anybody else but me.
I walk back out the hallway and into the waiting room for the cable car back down to Old Town. There are other tourists here, and I feel like I’ve re-entered reality after a brief sojourn into another world. My own little “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” experience in the middle of Ljubljana.