Thursday, 3 August 2017

'This Is Going To Sound Crazy But...' | Ljubljana Of My Life

Hello everyone!

(P.S. from Holly who's just finished writing this; it's rather long, worth it, but long. You've been warned.)

Ok so who let August happen? Hmm?? This summer is disappearing a little too quickly for my's now only a few weeks till Sophie and I head off to Canada! It's all becoming incredibly real at the moment.

Today's post however, looks not at my adventure to come, but my last. If you read my last blog post then you'll know that in June I went travelling with my darling cousin, Victoria, around the Adriatic. We had the most beautiful trip and I loved every second of it.

We saw far too much and made too many memories for me to possibly fit them all in one post, so instead I'm splitting them up by destinations. I've already documented the first leg of that journey which we spent in Croatia, so if you'd like to read that one to get a little more context, click here. This is the second instalment of our Adriatic tetralogy, and so naturally comprises of the second leg of that trip, which took place in Slovenia's bewitching capitol, Ljubljana.

Prior to this holiday, I knew next to nothing about Slovenia. Mine and Victoria's cousin, Sarah, had visited the country a few years ago to attend a friend's wedding at Lake Bled, (which was to be our third destination), and had said it was beautiful, but other than that I'm ashamed to say I was rather ignorant of the country.

I am happy to say that now having visited Slovenia, it is one of my favourite places in the world. I was completely besotted with Ljubljana and Lake Bled was just surreal in its beauty. Slovenia is such a forward thinking country in terms of sustainability, technology, equality and culture that I was quite taken aback at how modern it felt. The people are so proud to be Slovenian and so content, they were modest and above all kind. I know we only saw a fraction of the country, but both the city and the countryside felt like a fairytale, it was so serene. Victoria and I both felt so peaceful and yet energetic  while we were exploring Ljubljana and Bled, I think Slovenia and it's people have an innate appreciation of life which really rubbed off on us both. We had an evening and two full days in Ljubljana, it was my favourite place we visited on the trip and it has undoubtedly become my favourite city in Europe; I completely fell in love with it, (hence the title of this post).

In the weeks before we went away, I researched each of our destinations and wrote down all the things I thought Victoria and I might want to do and see (and eat) whilst we were there. Even in the time before our holiday begun, I was already being drawn to Ljubljana; I scribbled down page after page of information about Ljubljana and the things I wanted to see, examples of architecture, history and 21st century culture. I couldn't wait to visit the source of my new found fascination.

We arrived in Ljubljana at about half seven on a Thursday evening, having travelled five hours by bus from Pula. We took our bags straight to the hostel which Victoria had booked a small apartment with, quickly spruced ourselves up and headed out for some much anticipated dinner.

We left the apartment to find that it was only about 200 yards away from one of the most famous attractions I had wanted to see since doing my research, The Dragon Bridge. Constructed between 1900 and 1901, the bridge is named so because it is adorned with four fierce looking dragons, one on each corner of the structure. The dragon is the symbol of the city following a legend that before the city was founded, a dragon lived upon the hilltop which for the past 900 years has been the site of Ljubljana Castle.

(These pictures were obviously not taken that evening but instead the following morning.)

On a high of excitement thinking what the next few days would have in store, Victoria and I wandered through the streets in search of food, our direction guided by hearty noise and lights. We soon found ourselves however in the main square of the city, Prešernov Trg, and the iconic Triple Bridge which connects the square to the parallel side of the city over the Ljubljanica river. We crossed the river via the central bridge and did not have to walk far before finding a restaurant that took our fancy.

Cafes, bars and restaurants border the river on both of its banks with waterside views in their hundreds. We chose a restaurant called Zlata Ribica for its stylish, bright exterior, waterside tables and it's wide menu of local Slovenian dishes. In my research I had found that Slovenia is a country that loves it's food and farming is a big part of Slovenia's culture and industry. Due to the varying Alpine landscape and the influence of their continental neighbours, each region has its own speciality dishes; for example the Karst region is famous for it's Pršut, an air-cured ham, and Idrija in the west for a pasta dish called Žlikrofi. Slovenia's red and white wines are growing in reputation as well which hardly seems surprising given the country's geography.

This was easily one of the best meals of the holiday. The food was fresh and lovingly made as well as flavourful and beautifully presented. The waiting staff at Zlata Ribica were also very kind hosts and more than happy to recommend dishes and advise on flavour. Victoria and I ordered a jug of local white wine which was light and dangerously easy to drink, whilst we chose our mains. Victoria had the Slovenian beef goulash with gnocchi, (I think I've remembered that right) and I opted for fried chicken and ham schnitzel and a side of grilled Mediterranean vegetables. As with most of the meals so far that holiday, we swapped forks and sampled each others choices and found our meals to be equally as delicious as the other.

(These two images were taken on my iPhone, I'm sorry the quality's crap!)

Another motive for choosing Zlata Ribica was for the presence of a certain dessert on their menu. In my research I had found pictures Slovenia's most famous dessert, a layer cake from the easternmost region of Prekmurje, called gibanica. The cake consists of a shortbread base, with strudel pastry separating four different layers of fillings, usually poppy seeds, sweet cheeses and curds, walnuts and apples. We asked our waiter for the correct pronunciation as to not make fools of ourselves for the next week we would be in Slovenia, and he recommended that we share one as its very sweet.

When he brought it out to us only a few minutes later, we were thankful we took his advice! It's incredibly sweet as you'd expect, but still very, very good. The apples were complimented by the walnuts and poppy seeds whilst the cream and curds balance against the pastry and shortbread. I don't think I could have finished one by myself as I imagine a whole slice would be very heavy and we'd already had a hearty meal. We had such a lovely evening and meal at Zlata Ribica with a lovely view of the river that we were tempted more than once to go back again over the course of the next two days.

The next morning we got up early and crossed the Dragon Bridge to the other side of the river to visit the Central Market. The market had come up in my research as it is a daily ritual for produce sellers and Ljubljana locals. It takes place in the Vodnikov Trg and Pegačarnev Trg alongside the Ljubljanica river and is open 6am-6pm on weekdays and 6am-4pm on Saturdays. A wide range of produce can be found at the market including fresh Slovenian fruits and vegetables, dry-cured meats, flowers, fresh bread, biscuits, pastries and baked goods, cheese, fruit, nuts and oils. We wandered through the umbrellaed stalls and watched as the locals and the sellers carried out their business as they do everyday.

Opposite the central market and overlooking the river is 'Plečnik's Covered Market' which is a permanent market/shop front that again is open daily selling fresh, local produce. The shopfront here was named so after the architect who designed it, Jože Plečnik, who I'll talk more of later. We decided to stop here for breakfast at a bakery called Pekarna Pečjak which is located in one of the permanent shops in Plečnik's Market. We bought coffees and jam-filled pastries for less than two euros each and sat at one of their tables just outside the bakery watching the world go by.

'Plečnik's Covered Market'

As we sat sipping our coffees in the sunshine, we noticed that just by us a street food market was also taking place that day. It took me far too long to put two and two together and realise that it was a Friday and the stalls we could see and smell where actually all part of 'Odprta Kuhna', which in English means 'Open Kitchen'. This was another famous event I had come across in my research and takes place every Friday between 10am and 9pm, offering a huge selection of worldwide cuisines from local businesses and street food vendors. It was certainly very busy when we passed through later in the day, we'd planned to pick up a mid afternoon snack but decided it was far too hot to eat so instead we purchased some amazing smoothies from Green Republic's stall.

From here we headed back to the central square, Prešernov Trg, where we planned to join a walking tour of the city at 11 o'clock. We arrived a little early to soak in the scenery and people watch. The square sits right in the heart of the city, and is home to one of its most famous statues; the Prešeren Monument. The monument features a statue of Slovenia's national poet, France Prešeren with the muse of poetry holding a sprig of laurel above his head. It is also the location of the afore mentioned, iconic Triple Bridge, which is exactly what it says on the tin; three bridges that cross the Ljubljanica river. Before the whole area along the side of the river was pedestrianised, there was a valid reason to have three bridges, (one for cars and two for pedestrians) right next to each other, whereas now the whole thing seems a little eccentric, although it does look rather beautiful.

Ljubljana Castle over looking the city.

The Triple Bridge.

'Plečnik's Covered Market'

The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.

The Prešeren Monument.

This was, I think, an art installation in the middle of Prešernov Trg which featured a range of small sprinklers suspended on wires high above the square and created an area of artificial rainfall all day long. It provided much confusion and joy for little children as they walked through the "rain" and to us tourists a wonderful burst of cool against the heat of the day. 

Just before 11 we joined the large crowd forming outside of The Franciscan Church of the Annunciation where our walking tour was to begin. The company who provided the tour was called The Ljubljana Free Tour and is part of United Europe Free Tours, we found information about them through a leaflet at our hostel. We didn't need to book in advance, only turn up and sign our names on a clipboard so it was very hassle free. There was a rather large turnout that day so they split us into three groups of about 25 people. Our guide was called Janez who was a historian and had taught at the university of Ljubljana for seven years. He was very funny and gave us all so much information about the city and Slovenia's history, including some context about the former Yugoslavia and communist rule. 

We begun in the square and he told us about the buildings and sights around us which I've already mentioned, and then lead us down the river explaining the artwork featured at each of the bridges that cross the Ljubljanica and when they were built. He lead us back to the Central Market and told us about the food and heritage of the tradition as well as how the the city was working to reduce its waste as Ljubljana has been awarded 'Europe's Green Capitol' for its work on sustainable development.

Next Janez took us to Ljubljana's cathedral; St Nicholas' Church. He explained the symbolism of the design on the west door of the church which depicts the complete history of Christianity in Slovenia.  He also told us that if you rub the nose of one of the faces in the bottom right hand corner of the door it is supposed to keep you safe. In fact so many people have taken part in this superstition, that despite the door being made of bronze the nose has now turned gold. 

We walked the short distance from the cathedral to the Town Hall and the Robba Fountain: The Fountain of Three Carniolan Rivers. The fountain depicts three river gods, one for each of the Carniolan Rivers: the Sava, the Ljubljanica and the Krka. 

The Robba Fountain, designed by Francesca Robba, 1751.

Ljubljana Town Hall, as we were sat on the steps listening to Janez explain a little about the politics and future of Ljubljana, the mayor and his wife were leaving the Town Hall and came over to say hello.

We continued walking one street parallel to the river and marvelled at the quaint beauty of the city. The buildings were irregular and baroque in their style, each a different faded, pastel in colour. Many of them were shops or restaurants on their ground level and Victoria and I took note of a few we wished to come back to and investigate. What struck us most was how clean and pristine the city looked, I started comparing it to Duloc from Shrek because the modest, but slightly gothic, architecture of these buildings felt like a fairytale. 

We crossed the river again and Janez took us to see the library of the University of Ljubljana, designed by the famous architect, Jože Plečnik. The city has sometimes been nicknamed 'Plečnik's Ljubljana' because his work defines so much of the city's aesthetic identity. He was Slovenian born and had many triumphs in Vienna and Prague before returning to Ljubljana in the 1920s and transforming the city to its current splendour. He was devoted to his work and put a lot of meaning into the smallest details of his work; for example, the windows of the university library do not lie flat but instead are in the shape of an open book to reflect the pursuit of knowledge of university students. Plečnik's also designed the two side bridges of the Triple Bridge, as well as the covered market, and did a lot of renovation work around the city's bridges and churches.

The University of Ljubljana Library, designed by Jože Plečnik. It is supposed to look like something from Harry Potter on the inside!

Ljubljana University.

The Slovenian Philharmonic.

We finished the tour in Kongresni Trg, just a two minute walk from where we began it in Prešernov Trg. Ljubljana is very compact city and so it's perfect for a weekend city break as you don't have to walk miles or pay for public transport to see everything. Janez gave us a final roundup on Ljubljana, telling us about the university and a little more about the politics and future of Slovenia. As the name 'The Ljubljana Free Tour' suggests, the tour was free but donations are welcome to help support volunteers like Janez who provide the tours and allow them to share their city with visitors. I'd highly recommend the tour, it took about an hour and a half in total and we saw nearly every sight on the list I'd complied and more that I had missed in my research. If you're in Ljubljana for a few days then its a means to quickly engulf yourself in the culture and learn about the short but beautiful history of Slovenia.

We spent the rest of the day wandering round the city, revisiting places we'd passed and monuments we wanted to see again. That afternoon the heavens opened in a Noah-like downpour which was so torrential it was comical. My umbrella did little to save Victoria and I from getting drenched and so we spent a little while standing under doorways and visiting churches and shops to escape the rain outside.

We stumbled across many beautiful independent shops selling Etsy-like interior items, fashion and artwork. There was one in particular we fell completely in love with called 'The Gud Shop' which sold geometric prints, illustrated notebooks and beautiful mugs and crockery. We couldn't have found a more Pinterest-worthy shop if we'd tried and we both could have easily bought the entire place. We decided we'd head back to the room a little earlier than usual to have a little rest then when the rain had subsided got dressed up and headed back out to dinner. We ate this time at a restaurant called Paninoteka where we again enjoyed good food, waterside views and a lovely atmosphere.

The next morning we went back to the market for breakfast and fuelled ourselves up on more pastry in preparation for the steep walk up to Ljubljana Castle. There are many trails that lead up to the castle, we found one leading up the hill just behind Vodnikov Trg where the Central Market is situated. The ascent took us about ten minutes, I think, as even for 9.30am it was already pretty hot.

Once we reached the walls of the castle, we were confronted with a pretty beautiful view of Ljubljana.

We paid our admission to the castle including the audio guide, and walked through an archway into a beautiful courtyard. We picked up our audio guides and spent the morning exploring the castle's various parts including the dungeon, chapel, armoury and towers, Ljubljana Grad (Slovenian for 'castle') also has a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as restaurants and shops. The castle, again, looks very modern in the way they've turned it into a museum and exhibition space. The lower floors of the castle, under the courtyard and next to the dungeons, have been converted into conference rooms and there was a beautiful art gallery space there as well.

Our tickets allowed us access into all of the exhibits and museums, including the 'Plečnik Above The City' exhibit. The temporary exhibition was created to mark the 60th anniversary of his death and lasts until the 1st of October. It celebrates his work on the city's architectural identity and features his plans to restore and transform Ljubljana castle into first a cultural space, and secondly his dream of it hosting the Slovenian Parliament (these plans were never followed through but none the less are very impressive).

Our tickets also granted us access into the Slovenian Puppet Museum which must have been one of the highlights of the trip for Victoria and I. We spent about an hour in the museum even though you definitely could have done it ten minutes, but the puppets provided us with such a bizarre fascination we lost track of time! They were, without a doubt, some of the creepiest things I've ever seen which made them hilarious to the both of us. The museum is interactive and located up in the rafters of the castle in two rather dark rooms. We were the only ones there at the time which meant we could take our time sitting in the musical chairs that played you soundtracks from popular puppet films, watching puppet films that range from the 1950s to present day and playing with the shadow screens.  It was honestly just such a bizarre and surreal exhibit that when we left and walked back out into broad daylight we felt like we'd forgotten the rest of the world was still there. I don't know how to describe it succinctly or truly but I don't think we stopped laughing all the while we were there. It was just very odd.

The courtyard.

Lower levels and event space.

The chapel.

I'm afraid I don't have any pictures of the exhibits because some did not permit photography and others were too dark for photographs.

Last on our castle tour was the tower. The staircase of the tower consists of two red, metal staircases that are intertwined, spiralling up and down in perfect symmetry. We climbed the ascending stairs to the top and were confronted with a view that easily outshone the one we had seen below the battlements...

We left the castle around lunch time and headed back into the city; there was one place left on our list of must-sees and one that Victoria had been waiting months to visit. Prior to this trip she had read a blog called '24 Hours In Ljubljana' and seen a beautiful rooftop bar on the top floor of one of Ljubljana's tallest buildings, Nebotičnik, which is Slovenian for 'skyscraper'. At the time of it's construction in 1933, it was the 9th tallest building in Europe and has since been home to residential flats, shops and business offices. It is popular amongst locals and tourists for its romantic roof terrace and stunning views. We stopped there for a drink and lunch, even though it was a little pricey, I'd pay for that view any day!

After lunch the afternoon was gorgeous and clear so we walked ten minutes from Nebotičnik to Tivoli Park, Ljubljana's biggest park stretching nearly 5 square km and apparently a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon. We took our books and enjoyed an hour sat on the grass soaking up the sun.

We began to feel like we were cooking so headed back into town for ice cream and a final wander around what was firmly our new favourite European city.

The National Gallery of Slovenia.

The Slovenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre.

For our final evening in Ljubljana we went out to diner at another restaurant along the river bank which served traditional Slovenian dishes. We fell slave to our stomachs and were tempted by the risotto with prosciutto, asparagus, tomatoes and mozzarella, it was divine. We finished the evening by going for drinks in one of the bars below the street level, right on the banks of the river where we enjoyed cocktails and nutella and caramel pancakes for dessert! 

I did not anticipate this post was going to be so long, I am so sorry! As is blatantly obvious, Victoria and I adored Ljubljana, it truly is an incredible city and I've struggled to shut up when telling people about it since. I think the reason I loved it so much was how much fun we had there; it gave me the same sort of feeling I get when I think back to university and how alive and free I felt in Newcastle. They are quite similar in some senses; both huge university towns that cater very much for young people with great bars all through the city, there are some of my favourite restaurants in the world in Newcastle and the food was insanely good in Ljubljana as well, they are also quite green cities with large parks in the centre of the city and they both have such friendly people with a really strong identity. I think every evening in Ljubljana when Victoria and I went out for dinner and drinks, we felt that we had such an electric mood which seemed to make every moment glow. I wish I could find the words to articulate it, but in Ljubljana we felt freedom, and that feeling is rarer than it ought to be.

Again I'm sorry this was such a long post but I hope you enjoyed reading it, I couldn't recommend Slovenia enough to anyone; it is a stunning, fairytale-like country where the people are kind, considerate and fun. For a capitol city, Ljubljana didn't feel expensive but it has so much to offer, I want to go back tomorrow. Our next destination was Lake Bled, an hour and a half's drive north from Ljubljana, pictures and stories coming soon!

I hope you're all enjoying the summer so far and make the most of what's left of it. If you're travelling, just soak everything in, you never know what may inspire you or change your mood for the next three months.

Thanks for reading, see you all next time.


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