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Even in the Rain, Ljubljana is Luminous

I was convinced I was heading to Dracula’s castle even though my train ticket said Ljubljana, Slovenia.  The train weaved its way through a valley of foggy, ominous hills while large, stern looking Slovenian guards checked my passport four different times.  I squirmed in my seat and wondered what had possessed me to take this God-forsaken trip in the first place?

Maribor, Slovenia had possessed me.  During a prior trip to Eastern Europe I had been to Maribor and fell in love with the gorgeous Slovenian city streets and their loud Italian and Austrian influences.  When I next was visiting friends in Eastern Europe I was invited on a Ljubljana daytrip and jumped at the chance.

The train pulled into Ljubljana’s train station (which also conveniently features the city’s bus station) on Masarykoa cesta and Jan (my friend and companion for the trip) and I sprang out into the rainy, cold streets of Slovenia.

“You should have come in the Spring,” Jan said and would say every time the rain got heavy.  Since Ljubljana is most certainly a walking city and Jan’s advice was really quite useless given our circumstance, we pulled out our umbrellas ready to slay the city of dragons, Ljubljana.

Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital city with 280,000 residents and is a pedestrian friendly city indeed – we picked up a city map at one of the many helpful Tourist Information Centers located in the city and began at Preseren Square.

Preseren was Slovenia’s favorite poet – the national anthem, the Toast, is even one of his poems in song – and there is a touching statue honoring him and his muse in the central part of the city.

Right across from the Preseren monument is the architecturally stunning Triple Bridge.  The name says it all but given its location on Ljubljanica River with Ljubljana’s decorated Roman cathedral as a back-drop I couldn’t blame Jan for taking the same picture over and over…even in the rain.

We then headed west of the river where the shopping beckoned me.  While Slovenia does use the Euro along with their currency the Tolar, the prices are still well below the majority of the western world while the styles seem to be well ahead.

The Slovenian people in general are pleasant in an Eastern European way (meaning don’t expect any type of “excuse me” when you are bumped into) – and about half of the people I encountered spoke English.  But while shopping in department stores like the Slovenian Nama or the German Mueller, I quickly learned: English is not the world’s language, money is.

Jan seemed content to be out of the rain while I stood in Mueller ogling the sbountiful array of facial products and body lotions.  It was also in Mueller that on top of shopping their delectable Eastern European candy bars (Croatia’s KRAS still ranks top for me) that I came across a selection of chocolate bars for dogs, fantastic.

Despite the ever-present rain, we strolled some of the charming back streets and took in the poignant but hidden tomb of national heroes, the ornate parliament building and the adorable small parks that dot the city.  Just when Ljubljana seemed as picturesque a city as one could imagine, there they were.  The two ugliest buildings I had ever seen sitting right off Republic Square.

They are dirty, large box-like structures with enormous antennas and satellites on top and sure look like the perfect dormitories for all those scary border patrol guards from the train.  However, they are merely office buildings.

Nonetheless they literally and metaphorically feel like aliens in the city.  And their caked-in-black-soot façade only further confirms my longstanding theory that Eastern Europe has not heard of power washers or I imagine they would use them.

As they are two of the most unpleasant buildings you will ever see, my only suggestion is to avert your eyes, run back to the Triple Bridge, cross over and relax in the open markets both within and next to the Plecnik Colonnades.  There are stalls featuring croissants dipped in chocolate, scones decorated in cheese, pastry as light as air with fresh spinach inside and Danishes with their ever-present maraschino cherry filling.  Those divine cherries are everywhere and make the world a better place for it.

Don’t let the harsh exterior of the women working these stalls intimidate you even though they do tend to feel a lot like Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”.  When I asked a woman to pose with her beautiful desserts for a photo she went from dower babushka to flattered schoolgirl in a matter of seconds.  She blushed and smiled and showed me a glimpse of what is underneath those harsh Eastern European exteriors.

Also at the markets are non-food stalls featuring all types of souvenirs – especially the ubiquitous dragon.  From the dragon bridge located right off the market to the city’s coat of arms these dragons are omnipresent.  Legend has it that Jason of the Argonauts founded Ljubljana by stumbling upon it while he was fleeing with the Golden Fleece; he was confronted by a dragon which he slayed that thus became known as the Ljubljana dragon.  So basically, if you need a souvenir, buy a dragon.

After touring the mainstays of Ljubljana (the cathedral, the Roman Wall, the Cobbler’s Bridge), shopping and eating till maraschino cherries came out of my eyes, we were ready to ascend to the magnificent Ljubljana Castle.  From Kresen square, right beside the open markets, one can either take a trolley up to the top (cost is four euros) or walk up one of the many footpaths.

Much to Jan’s chagrin, I chose the footpaths.  Jan has a funny way of announcing when things are a “katastrofa!” (Croatian for catastrophe) – he proclaimed this hike a katastrofa from the instant it started to the instant it stopped and then for days after – nonetheless I found it invigorating.

Ljubljana Castle is obviously quite old, this one dates to 12bc and apparently served as a typical castle overlooking its medieval city, but the air at this castle was compellingly modern.  Both the entrance and bottom of the castle have been completely renovated and are now both sleek enough and steel enough to placate any London modernist.

The castle features the chic NuBrand Café, an art gallery explaining the castle’s history and the cleanest, most stylish public lavatories I have ever seen.  Incidentally, if you ever had the urge to marry in a Slovenian castle you can – they have different rooms you can rent for various occasions.

The surrounding area of the Castle is a beautiful park with many walking paths amid manicured mini-parks while the powerful “Peasant Uprising” statue sits in the middle.  Past that there are multiple paths, fields and scenic overlooks to enjoy.  While Jan quietly mumbled something resembling “you should have come in the Spring” – even in the rain, the castle and it’s parks were thoroughly enjoyable.  To punish Jan for his mumblings I made him walk down from the Castle instead of using the alluring trolleys his feet ached for.

Being that I only had a day in Ljubljana I had to make a decision to either stay outdoors and continue to tour the city afoot or to take in some museums.  I chose to walk but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many indoor cultural options.  A few are located in the same corner of town right off Republic Square; the Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery and the City Museum of Ljubljana.  While the first two museums feature the work of Slovene artists along with other 20th century works, the latter is strictly about Ljubljana’s path through history.

As Jan and I walked our numb legs back to the train station he wearily turned to me and said, “Spring is better but anytime here is also good.”  I nodded triumphantly and realized we had spent the last six hours hiking about the city in a cold, heavy rain and still enjoyed every second of it.  Not many cities are worth that effort but Ljubljana was indeed.

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