By Jim Ferri
I arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, late on a Monday evening, very tired after a 12-hour trip.
From Assisi, Italy I had to take a train to Florence, then another to Venice, where I then took a bus to Villoch, Austria, to catch my train to Ljubljana. The only other option, one that I didn’t want to take, was a night train that gets you here after 1:00am.
I had booked a hotel not far from the station, since I didn’t want to traipse about a strange city in the middle of the night. But despite how tired I had been, the next morning I found the trip was well worth it. I woke up in one of the most charming and beautiful cities in Europe, complete with a castle on a hill right in the middle of town.
Ljubljana is so small everything is fairly close so after breakfast I set out on the 10-minute walk to Stari Grad, the city’s old town. But while walking along Miklošičeva Street I found myself so absorbed by the beauty of the art-nouveau architecture that the walk took me almost 40 minutes to reach Prešeren Square. There I walked across the Triple Bridge above the narrow Ljubljanica River and into the old town on the right bank.
I headed straight up the street to the beautiful Baroque Robba Fountain of the Three Rivers (it’s a replica; I found the original in the National Gallery over on the left bank) near city hall and immediately felt as if I had stepped into another century. I walked about a bit, looking at the many cafes and poking my head into several small shops, and was then drawn over to St. Nicholas Cathedral by the tolling of bells reverberating down the cobbled streets.
St. Nicholas is a small, beautiful Baroque cathedral and when I entered I found a Japanese tour group rushing through, with their guide hurrying them in the back door and out the front without stopping, all the while keeping up her banter. A few did stop to take photos of the church’s beautifully painted and gold-decorated interior, so I guess its exquisiteness wasn’t lost on everyone.
I left the church and walked past a group of flower vendors on the little street next to it, and a minute or two later found myself in the middle of the city’s outdoor market. Filled with stalls selling fruits, vegetables and clothing, it was very colorful and interesting, and as I wandered about a light rain began to fall. It was late spring and almost on cue just about everyone reached into his or her pocket or pocketbook for a small umbrella.
The market, with all of its produce neatly cleaned and stacked, is wedged between a hill crowned by Ljubljana Castle, and the Market Colonnade, a long and low building of little outdoor cafes, cheese shops, bakeries and butcher shops along the riverbank. Regardless of when I passed it I saw people at the little tables here sipping coffee or beer, engrossed in conversation.
At one end of the Colonnade I came across a few stands where little art nouveau glass figurines and other tourist trinkets were for sale. There was a group of Americans gathered around their guide there, being told where their bus would meet them later in the day. I found out they were on one of their final stops on tour that had come up the coast through Croatia.
At the other end is Ljubljana’s famous Dragon Bridge with a dragon sitting atop a pedestal at each end. It’s the symbol of the city, and one of its more photographed attractions, and just a three-minute walk from the modern funicular that goes up to the castle (€8 per adult, €5 for those over 60).
I went up to the castle one morning to see the rooftops of the city with the snow-capped Karavanke Mountains in the distance. I had a great view from the ramparts and then when walking around mistakenly entered a gift shop thinking it was the way into the coffee shop overlooking the castle courtyard. It was selling quality local crafts, including scores of those good-luck witches flying on their little broomsticks. Everything seemed to be well made and I probably would have bought a few things if I could have fit them into my carry-on.
Ljubljana is a great walking city and for the rest of the day I wandered about the old town. All of it, as well as a good-sized area on the left bank, is car-free, open only to pedestrians and bicycles. It helps keep the pollution down, and the noise as well, which is probably one of the reasons Ljubljana is so tranquil. It’s also exceptionally clean.
I had earlier looked up local restaurants on TripAdvisor and found that the #1 and #2 restaurants in the city, Marley & Me and Julianne, were right next to one another. In fact, while wandering about I saw that several restaurants were on this same block in the old town.
That evening I went into Marley & Me, but then decided to go next door to Julianne, because it looked more upscale with candlelight and prints and small posters on the wall, which gave it an old world look. I ordered lemon scallops as an appetizer along with Mediterranean lamb for the main course and a glass of local Cabernet Sauvignon, all very good, with the bill coming to €32.30, about $40.
Interestingly, several of the waitstaff spoke very good English, something I encountered all over the city. That was an additional comforting factor in this incredibly charming city.
Next week I’ll share my discoveries on the other side of the river.