Is Ljubljana the best little city in Europe?
I had high expectations of Ljubljana before I turned up, despite knowing little about the city except the difficulty of spelling or pronouncing it (hint: the j’s are silent and always end up in the wrong place when you’re typing).
Anybody I knew who had been there raved about the capital of Slovenia – the baroque architecture, the compact old town, the views from the castle. Formerly part of Yugoslavia but avoiding most of the horrific civil war that tore it apart, I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of language, food or anything else. And so I went.
Given the short distance it is surprisingly difficult to get to Slovenia overland from much of Italy, but I had found the world’s shadiest looking website promising a once-daily bus service from Venice to Ljubljana for 25 euro. I was far from certain that it actually existed, but options were limited and hey, who doesn’t love an adventure? Emerging onto a back street behind Mestre train station, I lingered over a mediocre kebab and waited for my imaginary bus to show up.
About ten minutes before the supposed departure time, a small minivan drove past with the same Microsoft Paint-style logo as the website. Success! It turns out there at least two different companies that run that route at similar times. Yes, I was shocked too.
After several days in Ljubljana I realised that there was something special about the place. It’s not a single factor that entranced me, but rather a combination of many.
1. It’s small. Fewer than 300,000 people live there, and it doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to walk from one end of the old town to the other. There’s buses if you want them, but as a visitor you really don’t need them. I like that a lot.
2. It’s gorgeous. Amazingly, incredibly stunning. It’s almost certainly the most attractive city I’ve ever been to, in a way that is hard to put into words. It looks like something out of a fairytale, cleaned up and beautiful but (somehow) still retaining its soul. I had no idea such places existed. In Slovenia, at least, they do.
3. It’s easy. Residents and visitors mingle in the bars along the river and stretching out either side. English is widely spoken, and a friendly efficiency permeates every encounter. Even though adopting the euro doubled prices overnight, it’s not an expensive city by European standards. I have no idea why the place isn’t completely over-run by tourists. Long may it remain so.
4. It’s relaxed. A progressive new mayor closed the centre to traffic a few years ago, and it was the smartest thing he could have done. Buskers strum guitars beside the famous Triple Bridges, entertaining tourists enjoying a gelato in the late afternoon sunshine. Walking down another gorgeous cobbled boulevard one evening, I passed a dozen restaurants satisfying the outdoor diners. Glasses clinked, plates scraped, people laughed. Life was good.
5. It embraces its culture. This city loves the arts. An orchestra launched show tunes from the steps of the Town Hall to an appreciative crowd. A hundred paces further down the street a Barvarian band struck up a brass-filled chorus. An odd dance routine played out on a stage in a city square one afternoon, while an outdoor ballet was performed in the same place a few days later. There always seemed to be something happening that was worth stopping for – remarkable in a city this size.
6. It’s a healthy place. I read a statistic recently that said that one in three Slovenians regularly participate in outdoor activities, and it shows. Young and old, people seem to take advantage of the widespread cycle lanes. With two large parks and forests right on the edge of the old city, I joined dozens of others out for a run along the trails one morning. The famous Saturday market serves up locally grown produce to the hungry and discerning, from the President down.
7. It’s a crossroads. I like diverse places – homogeneousness doesn’t excite me much. Give me a melting pot any day. Ljubljana feels.like a product of its central European location, looking westwards but with an undeniable eastern influence permeating daily life.
And that’s just the beginning. Ljubljana is a hard place not to fall in love with, and I didn’t even try to resist. It was with genuine regret that I handed back the keys for our stylish apartment and headed to the train station. I had no desire to leave.
The lovely owners had offered us a lift, and we swapped stories during the short ride. They were toying with the idea of living somewhere else for a while, they told me. "We’re thinking about moving to New Zealand."
"Isn’t that funny?", I replied.
"We’re thinking above moving to Slovenia."
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