A collection of paraphrased comments from recent Facebook and Instagram posts:
“Who the, what the, where the hell is Slovenia?”
“Have fun in Slovakia!” (← Not the same country)
And of course, in reference to the Capital city’s name, Ljubljana:
“I hope Grant takes good care of you Kate, because you clearly had a stroke in the middle of typing that.”
Based on the social media reaction it seems fair to say our introduction to the Balkans, the lush rolling hills of Slovenia and it’s “gnarly named” capital city of Ljubljana (lyoo-BLYAH-nah), will be several of our readers introduction to the country of Slovenia. So, let’s get a couple of things out of the way first.
Here’s where it is:
It’s been an independent nation since the breakup of Yugoslavia, being the first region to declare Independence and reach a peace agreement in 1991. It’s been a weird version of market communist under Tito, ruled by the Hapsburgs, was chopped to bits by the Axis in WW2, held a somewhat insignificant Roman outpost, and had more than it’s share of mythical heroes & monsters roam it’s swamps and rivers over the millennia.
Today it’s a small country of 2,000,000 people flashing the best of Italian, Austro-Hungarian, & Balkan culture. Slovenes proudly tell you about how you can meet with the country’s President at the local market, how you can drive from one corner of the country to the other in a few hours and that they each own 2cm of the country’s tiny coastline tucked between Venice & Croatia. Our host city, the capital of Ljubljana (gnarly name and all) is a burgeoning European culture hub despite it’s pint size.
Get it? Got it? Good.
We arrived in Ljubljana (yes, still thinking hard how to spell it every time) on a train full of Irish backpackers, Argentine vacationers, and one crazy old local. He was hilarious & it was one of our more enjoyable train rides.
Not unlike many European cities, you’re greeted with a pretty gritty version of the city near it’s public transit hub. Old communist architecture mixes with graffiti and the scenes of work-a-day life in the northern section of town surrounding central station. Don’t take that as a bad thing though, because without graffiti we wouldn’t have our newest superhero, DRAGON PIG!
Unlike it’s massive brothers and sisters throughout the rest of Europe, however, it only takes a short 10-minute walk to be greeted by the beautiful city center and it’s 3 millennium old guardian, the non-pig variety of dragon.
Well, the Dragon Bridge and it’s four imposing guardians aren’t 3 millennium old, but legend has it that Jason & The Argonauts’ fabled quest took place in what at the time were swamps surrounding the city. Here they tamed the dragons who forever stood guard on the city. There’s also a legend about baby dragons (which turned out to be cave-dwelling albino salamanders), so the mythology of the beast runs deep here. It makes the city that much more charming.
Downtown is dominated by the Ljubljanica River, which cuts the city in half and provides the perfect backdrop for the city’s excellent cafe culture. Unlike many of Europe’s capitals, there is no dominating square or piazza. The river is the focal point, with large avenues spreading in all directions hosting shops and cafes. The only main square in the city is almost an afterthought, serving more as an extension of a city park & concert venue. Different, but good different.
After checking into our AirBnB we emerged to take in the cafe culture and quickly found Slovenes to be engaging, friendly, and thankfully excellent English speakers. Deciding to settle back in early with a bottle of wine and just relax for the evening, we stopped at a wine shop we’d seen just outside our apartment. Our “quick stop” turned into the proverbial “just one beer.” We met the most hospitable proprietors with whom we quickly passed an hour discussing the finer points of Slovene, Italian, & California wine, “sampling” lots of their product, and just generally lost in conversation.
We passed so much time that when we were ready to leave, it was too late for them to legally make any sales under the terms of their license. Without even thinking of it, the owner simply said, “take it, pay me tomorrow.” Ljubljana is truly the world’s biggest small town.
The next two days were spent playing tourist and relaxing. We did our usual free walking tour where we visited churches, markets, a crusader monastery, and learned about the city’s famed architect Jože Plečnik who designed pretty much everything cool in the city.
Much like Salzburg, the city’s overlord is it’s millennium old castle. Suffering from castle fatigue, we visited a few of the free attractions like the gruesomely interesting museum of torture, but called it quits instead of taking the not terribly well reviewed paid tour of the castle and it’s full museum. The views from the top & smaller free exhibits were still well worth the physical outlay to climb the castle mount.
All this was mixed with long afternoons lingering over drinks at cafes fronting the river, listening to the street performers who always seemed to always get more talented the longer we lingered over those drinks, and again…doing more travel planning.
Friday is a favorite day for locals and tourists alike in Ljubljana as the market area comes alive with local restaurants and up and coming chefs who all open up street food style stands for the weekly “Open Kitchen.” Like a pretensionless food truck night in LA, the food is cheap, delicious, and served up in portions that encourage one to bounce around to several vendors trying multiple dishes. The highlight was far and away the fried calf liver with crimini mushrooms & onions, though the Slovene national dish of herbed potato dumplings covered in a stewed lamb sauce was no slouch. Naturally, all was ritualistically washed down with the local Union beer.
In it’s effort to expand a tourist economy still largely in it’s infancy the city hosts an all summer long music festival that officially kicked off on Friday night. All were treated to a free big band concert in Congress Square.
Our original plans had us leaving Slovenia for Croatia after four days, however one of our biggest “must-do’s” while in Europe had presented the perfect opportunity to extend our time in country.
Those who know us personally know we’re American’s through and through when it comes to our sports. We love baseball and football is a sport played on Saturday & Sunday with an oblong ball that almost never touches a foot. But we knew while we were in soccer mad Europe, we had to get in on the action. Luckily, with the main European leagues having already concluded their schedule, an international tournament qualifying match was scheduled for Sunday the 14th in Ljubljana so we extended our stay two days and bought tickets to get rowdy with the futbol crazies of Slovenia.
With a day to kill before the match, we spent Saturday in the oft-photographed resort of Lake Bled 80km to the north. Bled is famous for it’s picture perfect church on an island in the center of the lake flanked by a castle. Relaxation was the name of the game and in that, our Bled visit was a rousing success.
Back early for the match we tucked into several of Slovenia’s finest beers for a whopping $2 per half liter, which is cheaper than an equal amount of water. We love Slovenia. Properly lubricated, it was off to watch socc, fut…footba, oh that damn game played with your feet and a round ball.
How soccer mad is Europe? Well, when a half naked fan climbed 50 feet above the crowd, with his bullhorn, on the protective net so he could rile them up his adoring masses more, the police greeted him at the bottom. To shake his hand and celebrate with him.
The match itself featured the fabled English “Three Lions” and Slovenian National Team playing for a spot in the 2016 EuroCup tournament. The English turned out in force to watch their team, but little Slovenia showed up in a big way. Their fans were louder and rowdier despite an almost equal number of English fans in the stadium. Also, despite dire predictions around town the week before, the home team came to play. Everything everyone says about how much fun a soccer match is 100% true, the atmosphere is simply electric.
The game was back and forth the whole time, including a goal by the home team with only 4 minutes left to tie the match at 2 goals a piece.
Alas, it wasn’t Cinderella’s night. The English answered seconds later and won the match 3-2.
Saying goodbye to Slovenia the next day was harder than we expected it to be. So, we softened the blow by tucking into Union Brewery’s pub the next day and sampling their wide variety of beer. After three weeks of German beer which is very uniform in flavor, it was great to be back in a craft beer culture. Experimentation is the name of the game and we love much of what Slovenia has to offer. Union beer is the big boy in town which acts something like a Sam Adams, turning out a high production but delicious lager while also doing several “craft” brews. The rest of the scene is dominated by true small craft shops and we sampled everything from Black IPAs to Pales that would compete with the best anywhere. Top it off with their blend of “Slav-talian” cheeses, sausages, and more, ummm, “creative dishes” (braised cow tongue in pumpkin seed oil, sounds awful, tastes incredible) and our separation anxiety was abated.
After 6 weeks of castles, museums, and picturesque river towns, it was time for some salt air. Off to stop two on our Balkans trip, the 3500km of waterfront known as Croatia.
Na zdravje! (Cheers!)
Mr & Mrs. Trading Paradises
Filled From: A ferry in the middle of the Adriatic Sea.