Tag Archives: Slovenia

3 Days in our City of Love – Slovenia

Sometimes when you’re traveling, you just have to go in the direction the horse wants to go.

When we were on our recent trip to Croatia, we’d planned to take a side trip to Venice. The only other time we’d been in the “City of Love”, we’d been treated to two days of non-stop rain.

Romantic Venice by Gondola

“This wasn’t what I had in mind for a romantic proposal in a gondola in Venice!”

After several frustrating hours searching Google Flights and Rome2Rio, we reached the conclusion that cheap flights across the Adriatic came to an abrupt halt in mid-September. Since we were already scheduled to fly into Zagreb from Frankfurt, we opted instead to double back two hours by train for three days in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenia.

Slovenia - I Feel Love

The Official Travel Guide by Slovenian Tourist Board

Through AirBnB, we booked the top floor of a heritage building apartment in the old town, right on the Ljubljanica River. We were looking forward to meeting our host, Sara, and getting to know a bit more about the city. As the date of our arrival grew near, Sara decided to go on a round-the-world sojourn, and told us we’d have the entire place to ourselves. A friend would meet us there and let us in. By then we knew that the train connection in Zagreb would have us arriving in Ljubljana around midnight, so we hoped Sara’s friend was a good one. We checked the walking route from the train station to the apartment – looked at a couple Google street views – and convinced ourselves it would be safe enough, even at that late hour.

Dragon Bridge

We first crossed the Dragon Bridge after midnight, but returned late the next afternoon.

Likely the most dangerous thing we did was to walk down 20 minutes of cobblestone streets with our suitcases mimicking rolling thunder. Such unneighbourly behaviour might soon be banned in Venice – and I completely understand. (Does anyone make a suitcase with soft rubber tires?) Fortunately, no one pelted us with tomatoes, Sara’s friend was right on time, and we crashed into a comfortable loft bed in our old town apartment.

Apartment on Mestni Trg

Our apartment building from across the River, with Ljubljanski grad above.

Jet-lagged from our overnight flight to Europe, it was 11am before we awoke to a sunny September morning and a view of the hilltop Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) a few blocks distant. We decided to climb the hill first thing, get an overview of the city, and perhaps spend a couple of hours in the castle. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon: going on a castle tour, visiting the small museum, and eating at a tasty yet reasonable heritage restaurant. We learned that the area has been settled for thousands of years. Six thousand years ago there were stone-age farmers living in houses on piles in the marshes. The oldest wooden wheel ever discovered was found in this area. Exactly 2000 years before our visit, the Romans founded the city of Emona on the site of present-day Ljubljana. And we also learned that Slovenians love their ice cream – which is very good, and quite similar in style to the Italian gelato. We had our first of many in the castle.

Mural in Ljubljana Castle

A mural in the museum in Ljubljana Castle reminds us that, peasant or noble, we are all equal in death.

For the rest of the day, and the following morning, we simply wandered around the pedestrian streets along both sides of the river. The river is criss-crossed with foot bridges in the old town, and at the edge of those limits is Zmajski most , the famous Dragon Bridge. The town is a peaceful and attractive place to while away a day. With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana must be one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. It’s clean and comfortable, and offers many outdoor cafes and restaurants. And ice cream on every corner. On the riverside walk right outside our apartment was a wonderful cart offering homemade flavours such as black sesame, and pink grapefruit with fresh basil. I went back for seconds.

Triple Bridge (Tromostovje)

The Lower Bridge, designed in the Venetian style by Giovanni Picco, became the distinctive Triple Bridge when Ljubljana’s best-known architect Jože Plečnik added the two side bridges in 1929.

We found the people of the city friendly and helpful. The fact we knew only ten words of Slovene was no hindrance. Almost everyone we met spoke fluent English. The Slovenians liked to tell us that their home was a country of poets. Their streets are named after literary figures not generals, and the central Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg) is named after a 19th-century Romantic poet. The Slovenian poets were out in full force the morning we visited, gathered around the statue of France Prešeren for a “day of solidarity” for Edward Snowden. A placard quoted the poet and followed up with, “Hang in there, Edward, Slovenian poets are with you!”

Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg)

“Less fearful the long night of life’s denial than living beneath the sun in subjugation!” ~ France Prešeren

For the last day and a half of our stay, we elected to take a couple of day tours with a local company called Roundabout. The company offers several half and full-day tours out of Ljubljana, and is well regarded. Our first one was a long “half-day” tour which allowed us visit the famous Postojna Cave, where an electric train carried us several kilometres into the mountain. Nearby is Predjama Castle, where a 15th-century “robber baron” weathered the Holy Roman Emperor’s military siege for over a year by means of secret caves through the mountain behind the castle.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle is built into a cliffside cave. The baron met his end with a cannonball fired into the toilet on the far left.

We especially liked that each tour was limited to four people plus a guide. This allowed us a lot of flexibility on the various options along the way. On our second tour, we were all energetic enough that when offered a choice of a hike through Vintgar Gorge, or a boat ride to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island, we opted for both – an excellent choice as it turned out. While the highlight of this day was a visit to Lake Bled with its hilltop castle and island church, the stops at the glacial lake of Bohinj and the medieval town of Skofja Loka were equally as interesting. Throughout both days, our personable guides were able to keep answering our questions and providing us with interesting historical detail.

Lake Bled with the Church of the Assumption

A sacred site since prehistoric times, the famous Church on Bled Island recently hosted its first gay marriage.

We enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana, and could easily have made a longer visit of it. Given its small size, so many of its attractions were within walking distance of our apartment on Mestni trg. We enjoyed walking down streets at random, and checking out anything that looked interesting. Returning from Tivoli Park one morning, we stopped at an open-air café near the Narodna galerija. A sign advertising evening jazz had us return after dinner for a drink and a little sax by candlelight. If you want to know where it is, we can’t help you. The place is only open in the summer, and had recently moved. Next year it may be somewhere else. So you’ll just have to go wandering and see what you find.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

View from the Castle toward Tivoli. Our apartment was on the river in the foreground, with the Triple Bridge to Prešeren Square on the right. The “square” is actually round. The open space near the left is part of Congress Square (Kongresni trg)

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Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

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