Ljubljana: A European capital that’s hard to say but easy to love

LJUBLJANA — Slovenia has the one capital in Europe no one can pronounce, let alone spell. Ljubljana has remained obscure, not only by its tongue-twisting appearance in world atlases but by being in the far background of so many surrounding conflicts. Serbia. Bosnia. Kosovo. Croatia. As the other former Yugoslavian republics battled in the 1990s like a round-robin war, the Slovenes sat in the northwest corner and calmly drank their luscious wines.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Ljubljana Town Hall was erected in the 15th century and reconstructed in 1718
Ljubljana Town Hall was erected in the 15th century and reconstructed in 1718

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights

Slovenia’s capital gives almost no evidence that this was even part of a communist country 25 years. Ljubljana (pronounced lube-lee-AWN-a) made me want to dance — and I hate to dance. But I found myself tapping my foot to a tune in my heart as I looked out the eighth-floor window of my Ljubljana accommodation in the heart of the city of 277,000 people. Just a few blocks away were the steeples of churches in the old town. To my left just above eye level was the castle, Slovenia’s white, blue and red flag flying in the soft breeze. Below me was a narrow pedestrian street with boutique shops, casual restaurants and funky local bars. A cross-section of Slovenes in coats and ties, tattoos and dirty overalls gathered on the street with big steins of cold beer. The only obstruction was the apartment building next door, a tall, rundown eyesore of communist-era architecture that could pass for any 1960s socialized housing from Prague to Vladivostok.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: 17th century Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
The 17th century Franciscan Church of the Annunciation

Wine and Bars by the Ljubljanica River

But this is what I love about the old Eastern Europe. You see a crumbling, charmless, concrete block of an apartment building next to an upscale wine bar. You talk to a guy in his 30s about his vacation to Sri Lanka at one table and at the next table you talk to a guy in his 50s about standing in line to buy apples when he was a kid.

Of course, the wine is good. On a cool, overcast evening, I sat down by the soothing Ljubljanica River where all the bars seem to run together. A pretty blonde named Yetna served me a crisp red wine called Refosk or Refosco which seemed to summarize my feelings about this city. Clean, cool, refreshing. All the yuppies around me laughed, chatted, hugged, kissed, smiled and drank. They seemed oblivious to an economy that has gone from one of the best in Eastern Europe to among the struggling with the rest of the continent.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Ljubljana Clock Tower
Ljubljana Clock Tower

Dragon Bridge

Looking over my shoulder down the river stood Ljubljana’s charming town symbol. It’s a dragon, two of which lord over both sides of Dragon Bridge. According to legend, a giant dragon watched over the city. Apparently, it did nothing but drink mead while Ljubljana was being sacked by groups of savages: Huns, Ostrogoths, Lombards. Then St. George, the patron saint of the castle chapel, slayed the dragon who still has a spot in Slovenes’ hearts — not to mention on nearly every souvenir you find in town.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Ljubljana Dragon Monument
Legend has it, a giant dragon watched over Ljubljana until slain by St. George, patron saint of the Ljubljana Castle chapel. The dragon remains the town symbol and two stand guard at Dragon Bridge.

Ljubljana Castle

The Ljubljana Castle is one of the best in the world. It’s an easy, tree-lined climb up narrow cobblestone paths from the old town. Once on top, I walked along the ramparts and saw a panoramic view of a city lined with red-tiled rooftops. To the left was a wooded area that fell all the way to  the river below. A cool breeze came in from the rolling green hills beyond. The sun was on my face. A film clip inside the castle said people have been doing what I did since the 13th century B.C. The Celts lived here in the 9th century B.C., then came the Romans who built a fort and stayed 400 years. The Romans hadn’t packed up their last cappuccino machine when Attila the Hun raped, pillaged and plundered in the 5th century and the Slavs did the same in the 9th century. The castle went up in 1456 to protect them from the Turks and it’s still standing today.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Ljubljana Castle view
View of Ljubljana Castle from my AirBnB near Ljubljana’s old town

Slovene Cuisine

Inside the castle is a very good restaurant fitting Ljubljana’s restaurant scene which, like the rest of Eastern Europe, has exploded. In the university area north of old town, a restaurant called Eksperiment is an example of the growth. In the ‘80s, there was one cafe or restaurant on the narrow street. Today, they’re all up and down the street. Slovene cuisine is real heavy. Lots of grilled meats. Order a mixed grill plate of sausage, turkey, sirloin and chicken and you have enough protein for a Super 15 rugby banquet. I went relatively light with a Pleskavica, a ground beef patty stuffed with mozzarella.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Ljubljana AS-Aperitivo bar
AS-Aperitivo Bar, one of the many modern establishments that have popped up since independence

Wars, Bloodshed and Disney World

It’s hard to imagine the blood that has spilled in Slovenia. The whole place feels like the USSR leveled the place in the ‘80s, and Slovenia rebuilt its capital on the model of Disney World. Since independence, Slovenia managed to avoid much of the Balkan bloodshed that made so much news. I toured Ljubljana’s terrific city museum which breaks down the country and its capital from prehistoric times. What I found interesting from the history is after a couple millenniums of war, Slovenia has had a relatively peaceful existence since independence. Well, in the summer of ‘91 the Yugoslavian army marched on Slovenia when it quit the Yugoslav Federation but the war lasted all of 10 days. Sixty-six people died but it has been uphill almost ever since.

Ljubljana Slovenia Top Sights: Mackova Ulica Street in old town
The quiet, romantic street of Mackova Ulica in old town, one block off Ljubljanica River

European Union

Slovenia always was the richest of the Yugoslav republics. In 2007 Slovenia became the first of the 10 new European Union states to adopt the euro and experienced an annual economic growth of 7 percent. Like most successful countries rebounding from economic hardship, they banked heavily on tourism. They promoted a country that’s 58 percent covered by forest, the third most in the EU. It promoted its inexpensive and exotic ski resorts. The economy is a mess today.

However, I don’t live here. I don’t work here. But I sure love visiting here. I can see why that dragon stuck around so long.

About John Henderson

Website: http://www.johnhendersontravel.com

John Henderson worked nearly 40 years as a sportswriter, the last 24 with The Denver Post, including eight as a traveling food columnist. Worked since 1984 as a free-lance travel writer. Traveled to 98 countries and retired to Rome in January 2014. Originally from Eugene, Ore., and also worked in Kent, Wash., and Las Vegas. Graduate of the University of Oregon in 1978. Check out my blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Twitter @JohnHendeRome

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5 Responses

  1. Avatar for John Henderson

    John Henderson

    The Refosk reference has been corrected. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Avatar for John Henderson

    Matt

    Dear John,

    I seem obliged to inform you that the USSR couldn’t have levelled anything in Ljubljana, as it never made it that far. Yugoslavia has never been a part of the USSR.
    Also, Refošk is the furthest you can go from white wine as it is the darkest shade of red possible. You would love it nonetheless.

    Glad you enjoyed the place and took the time to write such a lovely blog post about it!

    Reply
  3. Avatar for John Henderson

    Tina

    just wanted to say…Refosk is a red wine:)

    Reply
  4. Avatar for John Henderson

    lou

    Refosk is actually a dark red wine.

    Reply
  5. Avatar for John Henderson

    KB

    So sorry, but refosk is never ever in no way a white wine. Cannot be made into a white wine. I was born in the region where it grows. Never white.

    Reply

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