Europe Day 8- In The Nooks and Crannies

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.

Europe Day 7- The ABCs of Ljubljana, Slovenia

By “ABCs” I mean my Arrival, the city’s Background, and the Cuisine. Don’t ask me about the Slovenian ABCs. I had a hard enough time figuring out how to pronounce the name (Answer: Lee-OOH-blee-AH-na).

Even among knowledgeable Americans, saying that you’re visiting Ljubljana will often draw blank stares; it’s off the beaten path, internationally speaking. But after reading about it in an article on up-and-coming European cities, I was intrigued. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, which is a small country of just 2 million people. But despite (or perhaps because of) its size, Slovenia is easily the most economically and politically successful of the former Yugoslav republics. After holding a referendum in which over 90% of the people voted for independence, it declared itself a sovereign nation in June 1991, and soundly defeated Yugoslavia in a ten-day war of independence. It joined the EU in 1996, seven years before the next of its “siblings” to do so, Croatia in 2003.

Still, Ljubjana has the most “Eastern European” feel of any city I’ve visited. Except for parts of Berlin, it’s the first city I’ve seen which was behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet days, and the difference is visible. The city’s a little less clean that the major Western European cities I’ve been to, the public transport system isn’t quite as great, and new buildings seem less common.

Not that the city felt dirty or unsafe, by any means. Walking down the streets at night, I still felt safer than in pretty much any American city I’ve been in. And in fairness, the lack of any sort of metro train system is probably due to the city’s size: only 280,000 people, which makes it one of the smallest capitals in Europe. And to walk along the Ljubljanica River on a summer evening, when street performers come out and all the cafes and bars have moved their tables outside, and the air is alive with a mixture of music and hundreds of conversations… it’s great. It’s a perfect mixture of quaint and urban, historic and modern. It still has the charm of a small European town, but it’s smart, ambitious, with aspirations of grandeur. I think I could live here pretty easily.

But let me back up a bit. As I was researching the trip, I found a lot of reasons to visit Slovenia: it’s over half-covered in forest; it touches both the Alps and the Mediterranean; Ljubljana is an extremely well-educated city, and the majority of the population speaks English. It’s also fairly inexpensive, compared to major cities in the West. But when I was in Munich, deciding where to go next, the decision came down to something even simpler– namely, it’s on the other side of the Alps. Getting to Ljubljana would be a six-hour train trip across some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Sign me up!

On the train, I had a six-seat compartment to myself after the first hour, and spent the entire trip with my camera out, darting from one side of the train to the other as I searched out the best views and experimenting with ways to take pictures out of a dirty train window with lots of glare. (Answer: hold your camera lens as close as possible to the window, and take a LOT of pictures. Then find the good ones later.)

As the train trip progressed, I found myself falling in love with Austria, much as I fell in love with Switzerland when I passed through it in 2008. Every few minutes we would pass a tiny village, surrounded by green fields and farmland, and just a short distance beyond, the landscape would soar upward at impossible angles, reaching into the sky, until the lush green trees and verdant fields gave way to gray, craggy cliffs and banks of white snow. A whole other world, just a few miles away.

Once I reached Ljubljana, I checked into a private room at a hostel for slightly less than the dorm-bed-from-hell had cost in Munich. After that, I negotiated my way via bus to the a place called the BTC City shopping district, which was easily the largest shopping complex I’ve seen in Europe. Hundreds of stores, housed in several long, narrow, multi-story indoor malls. There was an electronics store there which spanned multiple buildings (connected via an overhead walkway) and put any Best Buy I’ve ever been in to shame.

For dinner, I ate at a place called the Hot Horse. Yes, they served horse, which seems to be a feature of Slovenian cuisine. I had a horse burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and nacho cheese on it. Surprisingly tasty, actually… the flavor and texture were reminiscent of venison.

The day ends at the hostel, which doesn’t have wireless Internet access but someone nearby has been silly enough to leave their wireless network unlocked. Thanks, random someone!