One of the greatest gifts in life is the discovery of the unknown. The journey into the unknown is central to the traveling experience and in the case of Llubljana, it was one of the best surprises of our European adventure. Often overlooked, Slovenia is a small country to the east of Italy. A hidden treasure that is being polished off by the progress of the last decade forged in central and eastern Europe.
Slovenia is a country with many neighbors. Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia hug its borders and it was once the wealthiest region of Yugoslavia. It is a small country of about 2 million and declared independence in 1991. From that point it went through the process of denationalizing and privatizing its economy. Its geographic location and history as a former Soviet Bloc nation and now a NATO ally shows its unique blend of both eastern and western Europe. Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana is a smaller city of just under 300,000. It is well known for its large university population of over 60,000 and the thriving energy of a college town. Unique to the city is its large center prohibited to cars. As a result, the numerous plazas swarm with people on foot and bicycles. An abundance of stores, boutiques, bars, and restaurants line the busy streets and rivers criss-cross the town connected by bridges filled with public art.
Immediately upon arriving in the city I was struck with how livable and vibrant it was. At all hours, the restaurants were filled with people eating, drinking, and listening to live music. The restaurant tables spill out into the street and onto the banks of the rivers. There was a certain vitality and buzz in the city that I couldn’t get enough of. The fact that almost one in four are university students probably contributes largely to the easygoing and approachable energy of the city. It probably also played a part in how diverse the food options were. Restaurants of all genres and calibers were available and rivaled big European capital cities. Outside of the big cities, food choice can be limited to the local cuisine, so the variety was a welcome change. Everyone in town was incredibly friendly and eager to give advice and make small talk. The streets were lined with cobblestones and buildings that looked to be hundreds of years old. Towering over the city and visible from almost anywhere in town is the Llubljana Castle built in the 12th century. The castle displays an immense city flag which is a Dragon on top of a tower in a white and green backdrop. The Dragon is a symbol of Ljubljana and can be seen in statues, artwork, and references throughout town. We spent our time walking the streets, enjoying the restaurants, exploring the castle, and shopping at the various boutiques. It was a very easy and relaxing city to spend time in.
Our second full day in town was spent touring the surrounding countryside. Since Slovenia is a very small country, you can cover quite a bit of ground in a day. Our first stop was at a castle built into a cave in the side of a cliff. It was home to a wealthy family in the area for many generations and looks like it was literally carved into the rock. The castle was practically impenetrable at the time and survived countless sieges. It had a back exit though an elaborate cave system, so the lord of the castle could easily resupply in times of siege. In many cases during months long sieges, the lord would have fresh meat and fruit sent out to the attacking force to taunt them. This caused many rumors of the magical powers of the lord because of his ability to create food out of seemingly thin air. The lord was very cruel to his subjects which lead to the eventual capture of the castle. The room that housed the toilet had weak walls and one night while on the pot, a traitor tipped off the invading party by leaving a lit candle in an open window, and they subsequently launched a huge stone at that precise spot, crushing him to death – not the best way to go.
After a short lunch we spent some time at Lake Bled. This lake was once home to the prime minister of Yugoslavia’s summer house and it was reported to be his favorite place to visit. The sparkling lake is surrounded by mountains and almost in the exact center of the lake is a small island that houses a large church. The local people in the area are the only ones allowed to operate boats on the lake, and thus have a monopoly on the ferries. Multiple generations of local men spend their entire adult lives rowing the large ferries back and forth across the water.
The last stop of the day was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life – Postojna Cave. This vast cave system is 24 kilometers long and 377 feet deep. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites line the caves forming over millions of years. It felt like being transported to another planet. We boarded an open-air train and rode into the center of the cave. The air quickly cooled as the train raced below ground and our heads careened by just under the limestone. The cave opened into a huge room the size of a cathedral. The formations though organic in shape, looked like nothing I had ever seen before. It was hard for your mind not to drift off into imagining what other worlds in the universe look like and what discovering a new place would be like to experience. The older I get, the fewer things in life that surprise me and it was a great experience to see something totally new and different. I think the feeling of awe I got, taps into what makes human beings want to explore discover. We spent the next few hours being guided through the caves learning about how they were formed and how long many of the aspects of the cave took to develop. The cave system is home to what they referred to as baby dragons (technically called Olms). This incredibly rare salamander is completely aquatic and blind due to the perpetual darkness they live in. They have a highly adapted sense of smell and hearing to survive and lack any skin pigmentation whatsoever. These amazing animals can live up to 100 years and can go up to ten years without food. I had never heard of these creatures before and was fascinated by them.
Ljubljana is often overlooked because of its size and location but it can’t be missed. I am glad we decided to put it on our list because it reinvigorated my love for travel. It was a completely new place I had no preconceived notions about and I am better off having seen it. It provides a good window into what central Europe has to offer. I am confident that the appeal of Central Europe will grow both in Slovenia and beyond its borders. After spending so much time in the shadow of the Soviet Union, it has in the most recent generation began to take on its own identity. This new-found identity is one that others will easily come to love and appreciate. I feel like I have just scratched the surface of this area and intend to explore it more deeply. I also expect that it will appeal to visitors more and more in each coming year. // Jeff