If you looked at the title of this post and thought, "Huh? Ljub- what?"...you're not alone. Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah) isn't somewhere that was ever on our list of places to visit, or to be really honest, somewhere we even knew existed prior to a few months ago.
Ljubljana is the capital and largest city of the central European country of Slovenia, and after spending three nights and two and half days there, we have plenty to say about not only what we did, saw, and ate, but also the overall feel of the city.
We took a four-hour train from Salzburg to Ljubljana, and when the engine and cars pulled into the station we immediately noticed a stark difference between this train and the ones we had taken earlier in the trip. This train, covered completely with graffiti, had a distinctly outdated vibe and was evocative of similar trains we had taken in Morocco, with its flickering lights and old-fashioned cabins. The scenery outside our window made it hard for us to focus on anything for any length of time - the tracks followed a river and led us through a winter wonderland until we arrived in Ljubljana mid-afternoon on Thursday.
D - The train ride to Ljubljana was certainly very interesting! Upon boarding the very stereotypical eastern European train (at least that's what I felt), we sought out an empty compartment and hoped we would be the only ones occupying it throughout our journey. Our hopes were dashed when an older woman, draped in a heavy fur coat, was escorted to the cabin by a friendly man who had volunteered to help her find her seat and wrangle her luggage into the overhead compartment. If you think that it would be a little awkward to sit in a cramped train compartment across from a complete stranger for a couple hours while trying to avoid looking like you'd like to strike up a conversation, you would be right. Shannon and I both had our headphones in listening to podcasts and the woman basically just looked out the window while pretending not to steal glances of us every minute from us across the compartment.
At one point in the journey, the train went through an extremely long tunnel and that was when I realized that there were absolutely no lights in the interior of the train. After it was pitch black for about 30 seconds I got a little spooked and decided to pause my podcast so that I could hear anyone trying to sneak up on me, a la "Murder on the Orient Express." After another minute I started wondering if I should turn on my phone flashlight. If you think it's awkward sitting across from strangers in a train compartment, let me assure you, removing all the lights from the environment does nothing to ease the tension. If anything, in fact, it may only increase it. Thankfully, we eventually made it out of the tunnel and I managed to just catch a glimpse of our compartment mate slipping the hilt of a diamond-encrusted dagger back under her coat. Okay, that last part was a joke but you can see how something like that would have fit perfectly with the story. In reality, after the tunnel she struck up a conversation with us (despite her broken English and our lack of German) and we learned she was a nice Viennese woman visiting a friend in Ljubljana. See people? It's nice to be friendly after all...
After wheeling our suitcases about 30 minutes through a moderate-heavy snowfall, we finally arrived at our Airbnb for the next three nights (aside from the fact that it was garden-level, meaning it didn't get lots of natural light, we absolutely loved it) and then walked directly to the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum. En route, we started to get a feel for the city as we walked along the Ljubljanica River and through the historical heart of the capital.
We arrived at the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum just about an hour before it was closing for the day, which was a shame as we found the exhibits, overall, to be really good. The front desk staff told us in advance which ones had English as well as Slovenian information, and a favorite was the temporary exhibit on Afghan culture and history and the stories of over 20 Slovenes who have traveled to Afghanistan for different reasons. Finally, we didn't feel so bad only spending an hour at the museum since we were able to use our student visas for the nice student price of €2.50 per person.
We finished the evening with dinner at the international vegan chain, Loving Hut. It's a little surprising that after nearly six years of varying levels of veganism, we've never tried out a Loving Hut (okay, so maybe it's due to the interesting beliefs of its founder), but now that we've gone, I think we're eager to check 'em all out! I can't speak for all 140 branches, but at this one, there was a buffet line (food taken from here is weighed by the kg) as well as a set menu. We opted to choose food off of the buffet, and while I'm usually concerned by how much we'll spend in this sort of set up, it was quite cheap, and we even went back for small helpings of our favorite dishes. Don't expect gourmet, fresh from the oven/skillet/you name it food here or you could be disappointed - I think the name of the game here is you get what you pay for, and if you're prepared for that, I think you'll leave quite happy, as we did.
D - Despite the part of me that's always trying to be healthier, I just pretty much love all buffets.
On our first full day, we ate breakfast at Barbarella Arkade Bistro, located in an old building along the river and for sure one of the best breakfasts on our trip. We shared an oatmeal bowl, an acai bowl, and a slice of peanut butter chocolate chip bread, plus a few glasses of hot chocolate, and I have to say, it would be impossible to pick a favorite. This turned out to be our first of three meals at Barbarella while we were in Ljubljana, but I make no apologies - if you're looking for a tasty, healthy, vegetarian spot in the center of the city for breakfast, lunch, or an early dinner (I think they close at 5pm), this is an excellent choice.
D - One thing I will note is that the service wasn't quite as friendly as I had expected it to be. It wasn't unfriendly per se, just sort of nonchalant. I mean, went there three times and had the same server every time and she never even acknowledged that she had seen us before.
We had to rush a bit at the end of breakfast as we had a walking tour at 11am to catch (okay, it was a late breakfast). After our very shaky start to free walking tours on this trip in Munich, I'm not sure how we decided to go for another, but seeing how we truly knew nothing about Ljubljana, we were willing to take a gamble and see what we got. This time around, we loved our tour guide - a Ljubljana-native! - and all of the interesting info and wit she brought to the tour. It was a few hours very well spent, and proves my theory that free walking tours are very hit and miss - some great (like this one in Ljubljana), some not so much (like the one we took in Munich) - unfortunately it depends very much on the guide and it's pretty much impossible to predict ahead of time when one will be good and when one won't be.
On our tour, we saw some of Ljubljana's best like St. Nicholas' Cathedral, a three-hundred-year-old church located in the center of the city with a yellow exterior and an abundance of frescoes all around the interior. Tromostovje/Triple Bridge is one of Ljubljana's most well-known sites, a group of three bridges connecting the historic section of the city with the more modern part. The middle bridge has stood for over 150 years, and the side bridges were added for pedestrians in later years, although the entire area has been a part of the large pedestrian-only zone in the city since 2007. We started and finished our tour in Prešeren Square, anchored by the Church of the Annunciation, the center of the downtown, and directly in front of the entrance to the historic medieval part of town. Another noteworthy stop on our tour was the Dragon Bridge, a very famous landmark in Ljubljana, and while I thought the dragon statues on the four corners of the bridge were nice enough, it wasn't a big highlight for us.
D - Something interesting from our tour: when the mayor decided to pedestrianize the downtown area the local residents were originally furious. To appease the angry masses the local government hired golf cart style taxis to give free rides to anyone who wanted one throughout the pedestrianized zone - a program that continues to this day!
As far as sights go in Ljubljana, the triple bridge was definitely one of my favorites. Having traveled around more than your average Danny, I can safely say that I haven't really seen anything similar anywhere else in the world!
We ate lunch at Ajdovo Zrno, a small vegan place in downtown Ljubljana where we enjoyed their fresh, homecooked meal of the day, which included salad, soup, a main dish, and a dessert. We were happy to have some blue skies in the morning before the late afternoon clouds and mist rolled in - typical winter weather in a lot of Europe, it seems! - and we stayed warm visiting many of the local shops on the historic side of the Ljubljanica River and eating a light dinner of soup back where we began the day at Barbarella Arkade Bistro. We came upon some special festivities as we walked around the area, including a parade that featured not only Santa, a marching band, and many excited participants, but also several Easter bunnies! Not far away from the parade, was the Christmas fairy with a line full of kids ready to have their Christmas wish granted - even though it was after Christmas, Danny was up for telling the fairy his most important wishes, and even inspired some other adults to get into line!
D - One does not simply pass up the opportunity to have the Christmas fairy put her magical
fishing wishing pole upon the top of one's head.
On our final day in Slovenia, we took a bus to Lake Bled for a day trip (but we'll save that adventure for another blog). When we returned to Ljubljana in the afternoon, we enjoyed some final glasses of hot chocolate at Barbarella and talked about our goals for the new year (it was December 30th, after all!). It was on this chilly trip that, after being rather averse to hot drinks for most of my life, I think I decided I do like hot chocolate, provided it's really good hot chocolate. Not to be overly fussy about it, but if I'm going to drink calories...they should be worth it ;)
We enjoyed our last moments in Ljubljana walking around and watching the ice skaters on the track (that took up almost the entire Zvezda Park) - it provided a lot of entertainment for us, and like every time we watch amateur ice skaters, reminded me why I prefer the sidelines to the rink...
I'm so happy we took a chance on a place we couldn't pronounce and knew nothing about and added Ljubljana to our trip around Europe over Christmas and New Year's. The city is, at least in our experience, clean, safe, pretty, historic, and has a lot to offer in a small area. We also really enjoyed our day trip to Lake Bled, and would have loved to visit the nearby Pedjama Castle as well, but decided that December isn't the best time for visiting (do check it out if you come with a car or at other times of the year though!). Vegetarian food was easy to find, tasty, and cheap, and our Airbnb accommodations were fantastic and reasonable as well. We've hardly scratched the surface of Slovenia with this initial trip, but are excited to hopefully have a chance to see more in the future - lakes, mountains, countryside, cities, you name it - there's a lot to explore!