Ljubljana: Too Cool to Get Hot

By Scott Vogel
The Washington Post

You will no doubt recall that long ago time (2006, I mean) when everyone thought that Slovenia was about to catch on. Sure, it was a great place, especially on magical summer evenings in the capital, Ljubljana, when the streets filled with music, young lovers and only the occasional tourist gawking at the city’s architecture never crumbled by war. But for that very reason Ljubljana would soon catch on, and that would be the end of everything. Dilettantish hordes were preparing to descend upon the burek sandwich shops and leave Slovenia in ashes before decamping to the next hot destination, the place, say, where Brangelina holed up in the south of France while awaiting the twins.

Thus would Ljubljana, which had somehow survived the Romans, Napoleon, the Soviets and more, be ruined once and finally.

That didn’t happen, of course. And while such bullet-dodging might be convincingly attributed to a host of factors, I’ll arbitrarily single out one: Unlike every other beautiful city in Europe, Ljubljana (pronounced “Lee-oob-lee-AHN-uh”) is genetically incapable of marketing itself aggressively.

“Aggressiveness has been bred out of us,” agrees freelance tour guide Jan Orsic with a smile as we stroll through Preseren Square in the city centre. We are tempted to call this charming, auto-free zone “a little slice of heaven,” as former president George W. Bush called Slovenia during his first visit in 2001 (site of his first meeting with Vladimir Putin) or perhaps “a big slice of heaven,” as he put it during his second visit last spring. But we tell Orsic that Ljubljana is neither of these things. It is almost certainly a medium slice.

“Ljubljana is the only place in the world where the American and Russian embassies sit side by side,” he says, continuing to beat the drum for Slovenia’s aggressive non-aggressiveness. “Even our bears avoid conflict.”

We’ll discuss the ursine paradox in a moment, but first, a reminder of where we are: Preseren Square. Three years have passed since the city, despite a public outcry, closed the square to vehicles. (The country is home to several major auto plants, you see, and Slovenians love their cars.) In consequence, an impossibly quaint public space is now doubly so. The coral-coloured Franciscan church, which dates to the 17th century, still stares half-disapprovingly at the art nouveau buildings across the plaza, but it appears that feud was abandoned long ago. Leading out of the square we encounter several distinctive bridges traversing the city’s beloved Ljubljanica River, a charming but almost comically slow emerald waterway.

Cafes line the Ljubljanica’s banks, and even the barest hint of sunlight is enough to send the city’s 300,000 residents streaming to outdoor tables. That pizza you smell, by the way, is from Ljubljanski Dvor, a restaurant and take-away place with slices more than good enough to justify Slovenia’s western border with Italy.

“It’s true,” Orsic says. “Our bears are shy. That’s why we still have them.”

Oh, right. The bears.

“Germany used to have bears, too, but they were aggressive bears,” the sort that apparently thought nothing of wandering down city streets in broad daylight and terrorizing the populace. German bears, consequently, were shot to extinction. Slovenian bears, on the other hand, had the good sense to stay in the forest and not provoke conflict. And so they have lived long and prospered.

“The ones we have left are teddy bears,” Orsic says. Indeed, during our entire stay in Ljubljana, never once do we see a bear wandering down the street.

What the bears are missing: a welcoming city with an old town center that’s as quaint a combination of red-tile roofs and cobblestone streets as you can imagine. But Ljubljana has also made room for stunning, turn-of-the-20th-century architecture by favorite son Joze Plecnik (one impetus: a devastating 1895 earthquake), particularly the Triple Bridge that leads out of Old Town, with its stately balustrades and stairs leading down to tree-lined paths along the river.

The “Welcome to Ljubljana” tourist guide will tell you that one of the city’s mottos is “lean back and relax,” but just as with the bears, you’re never quite sure if nature or nurture is behind such equanimity. Thanks to Slovenia’s position in the centre of central Europe, Ljubljana has been in the cross hairs since before Roman times, a parcel of land regularly claimed by competing empires, as the Ljubljana City Museum just off the river amply demonstrates.

To get to the truth about Ljubljana, you have to start at the beginning, which in this case means descending a long, winding concrete ramp into the museum basement, where there is a decent collection of Roman sewer work (complete with ancient footprints made by vandals who wandered onto the job site before the construction was dry). And those won’t be the last footprints you’ll see. The other two floors of the museum offer a dizzying look at the various states, regimes and empires that claimed ownership of Ljubljana – from the Romans to Napoleon to the Austro-Hungarians to the Fascists to the Communists (Marshal Tito was half-Slovenian) to, at last, independence in the 1990s. Ljubljana has been part of no fewer than 10 nations since 1800, the museum reminds us, adding that “a man born in 1913 lived to see two emperors, four kings and four presidents of state.”

Not to mention multiple economic meltdowns, a fact we’re reminded of while staring in the windows of the city’s big department store, Centromerkur. The whimsical art nouveau building near Preseren wears something of a forlorn expression these days.

A long-planned renovation is on hold for now, and the store sits vacant, a casualty of an economic crisis that…

“Actually, we don’t call it a crisis here,” Orsic interrupts. “Here we are used to crisis, and this is not yet a crisis.”

Whatever it is, this much is clear: There are even fewer Americans now than before Slovenia almost but not quite caught on. The shops on Mestni trg, where tourists once came to buy the country’s celebrated lacework, sit mostly empty, as do the stores selling Teran wine and its famous salt from mines near the Adriatic.

“Go ahead, try it,” says an ebullient clerk at Piranske Soline, handing me a salt-infused morsel of chocolate, confirming that the shop is selling fewer and fewer canvas bags of salt (once the brightest star in the Slovenian souvenir pantheon) to Americans. Things aren’t much better at the nearby Krasevka boutique, which may be why that shop’s proprietor took one look at me, asked my nationality, nodded and reached for a bottle of juniper berry brandy.

“This is medicine,” she says softly.

I start to laugh. Medicine. Right.

“I am serious,” she says. “This is good for the stomach, good for the digestion.”

It was as if she knew that later I’d be offered a plate of “deep-fried bull testicle with tartar sauce” at the Restaurant Sokol, as the waiter memorably detailed. I met this challenge calmly, you’ll note, muttering something to the effect that I didn’t want to order something I could eat anytime at home – meaning, of course, the tartar sauce.

Soon the waiter arrived with something called a country feast. This was a plate that the menu had described as fried sausage, krvavica sausage, “dried pork chops,” a buckwheat dumpling and something else just called “roast meat.” No wonder the bears are so scared. Still, the wild mushroom soup in a bread bowl was terrific, and Slovenia’s best beer, a lager called Lasko, clearly deserves wider attention.

By 9pm, having recovered sufficiently from the meal to attempt locomotion, I made my way back through Preseren, stopping at the statue of France Preseren that sits in the plaza. There’s something special and completely Slovenian about the city’s most important square being dedicated not to a statesman or military leader but to a 19th-century poet whose entire reputation depends on his girlfriend’s father’s not allowing the pair to marry.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” reads a sign painted inexplicably on the asphalt – in English – at the entrance of Ljubljana’s large outdoor market. Preseren embraced this citric creed with a vengeance. Having lost his beloved Julia, whose smaller statue today looks out at Preseren’s from the opposite side of the square, he proceeded not to demand her love or impale himself on a sword or anything else utterly un-Slovenian, but to write achingly beautiful love poetry such as you’ll find in his “Wreath of Sonnets.” It was yet another victory for non-confrontationalists everywhere.

And in 1905, when Preseren’s statue was erected with a nude angel hovering over his shoulder, the ensuing uproar might have led to desecration elsewhere. The statue sat just steps from that Franciscan church, after all, and its adjacent monastery. But then someone thought to plant a row of trees between the two, the idea being that the clergy wouldn’t mind the nudity if they weren’t confronted by it every time they entered the church. The gambit worked.

“That is our way of solving problems,” Orsic says. “With trees.”

On June 25, 1991, after eons of shifting loyalties, Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, an announcement that led to a 10-day war in which fewer than 20 Slovenians lost their lives. The country was at last free to imagine a future in which it would need to be loyal only to itself.

“People said this would be a chance for Slovenia to at last get the recognition it deserved. Other people thought, `Hmm,’” Orsic says. The country brokered the transition to a free-market economy, joined the European Union in 2004, adopted the euro in 2007 and somehow, throughout the tumult, managed to stay marvellously ambivalent when it came to tourism.

In all of 2008, there was not a single murder in Ljubljana. In fact, only one policeman ever drew his gun, and that was to fire a single warning shot into the air, Orsic tells me. And it’s from the air that Ljubljana (its people and its landscape) is best understood. Just on the edge of the city and visible from nearly any point in town is Castle Hill, and atop it a 15th-century fortress, a structure that tends to tilt the city even further toward storybook endings. There are steep footpaths leading to the castle from downtown but also a modern funicular that rises gracefully over the trees and green-domed churches, stopping only after giving you a spectacular glimpse of the Julian Alps, which surround the city.

Austria to the north, Italy to the west, the Balkans to the south. At every turn we are reminded of Orsic’s line about Slovenia not needing to invite trouble, which always seemed to find the country without any help.

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