Ljubljana, An Up and Coming Capital City
Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blee-ah-na) is a European capital city that I neither knew about nor could pronounce until my less than two day visit in 2008. During my visit, I discovered a small capital city with only 280,000 residents, but a city chock full of history and charm. Locals say that in the past, people didn’t go to Ljubljana; they went through Ljubljana.
Too bad! Despite its lack of world-renowned tourist attractions, the city and its surrounding region have much to offer.
Situated in central Slovenia, a small country about the size of Massachusetts, Ljubljana is located at the crossroads of major transport routes between east and west and between northern and southern Europe.
My train arrived in Ljubljana in the early afternoon. Having read about the many fine Slovenian wines, my first stop was at the Winery Movia, Ljubljana’s oldest wine bar. Back at home, my wine drinking is usually limited to California White Zinfandel and an occasional Sauvignon Blanc. So I really enjoyed listening to Movia’s wine staff detail the characteristics of each of the two red and two white wines that I sampled. The thinly sliced Pršut (purr-SHOOT), an air-cured ham soaked in salt and hung in open-ended barns for up to a year and a half for drying, was served with the red wine. It was an outstanding complement and well worth the extra dietary sodium.
After the wine degustation, I met the guide in front of Ljubljana’s Town Hall, the seat of the Ljubljana City Council. We briefly stepped inside to see the baroque arcades of the courtyards and Narcissus Fountain. The Town Hall faces onto Mestni trg square or Town Square with the famous Robba Fountain, said to be the most beautiful Baroque monument in Ljubljana. Stone pavers cover streets surrounding the fountain and most of the sidewalks and pedestrian-free zones throughout Ljubljana.
From Mestni trg square, we headed toward Prešeren Square, the center of Ljubljana’s street life.The present-day square was developed from an intersection that in medieval times originated in front of the entrance to the then walled city. In the center of the square stands a statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia’s greatest poet. So inspiring was his poetry that one of his poems, A Toast / Zdravljica, became Slovenia’s National Anthem. Tourists and young Slovenes like to sit around the base of the statue to people watch or to enjoy the view of the old town and Ljubljana Castle.
To reach the square, we crossed the Triple Bridge to the left bank of the Ljubljanica river. The Triple Bridge, one of the architectural gems of Ljubljana, consists of a stone central bridge that originally connected the northwestern European lands with southeastern Europe and the Balkans along with two pedestrian bridges. In the early 20th century, Architect Jože Plečnik removed the metal railings from the old stone bridge and furnished all three bridges with massive stone balustrades and lamps.
Architect Plečnik also redesigned the banks of the once flooding prone Ljubljanica river with attractive concrete embankments then softened its appearance by planting multi-level willow trees along the embankment. Today the river promenade, lined on both sides with cafes, restaurants and bars, and the centrally located Triple Bridge leading into Preseren Square form a small, vibrant and historic center that is full of activity. From the number of young people milling about, it appears that this area provides a convenient social gathering point for Ljubljana’s 50,000 plus college students.
We retraced our steps to the right bank of the river then turned left and walked under the covered colonnade of the Central Market. The market runs from the Triple Bridge to the Dragon Bridge. The Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge is Slovenia’s first bridge paved with asphalt, the first reinforced concrete bridge and one of the earliest reinforced concrete bridges in Europe. On their perch at each end of the bridge are four bronze dragons, the symbol of Ljubljana.
From the Dragon Bridge we headed for Ljubljana’s number one tourist attraction and the city’s most historic and striking landmark – the Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad). We boarded a glass-enclosed funicular for the short ride up to Castle Hill. I stepped out of the funicular onto a beautiful paved courtyard then climbed non-stop all 91 steps to the pentagonal Castle outlook tower, the highest point in the city. I must confess that the climb was quite a challenge after the wine degustation.
The Ljubljana Castle's history dates back to the 12th century BC and has a long storied past which includes a stint as a garrison, a provincial prison and a residential dwelling. Most of the present day castle was either built or rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. Set high on a hill overlooking the town, the Castle courtyard provides a picturesque venue for concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions, conferences and official and social functions.
From the top of the tower I had an awesome view of the centuries old baroque homes facing the Ljubljanica river as it meandered slowly south out of the city. On the other side of the river I could see high rise office and residential buildings in the newer section of the city.
I had a bird's eye view of Preseren Square and the Fransciscan Monastry Church of the Annunciation and Hauptmann House, two of the main buildings facing the square. To the south I could see the custard yellow Church of St. James built in the early 17th century by Jesuits. Its belfry is the highest in Ljubljana.
Since we had gotten one-way funicular tickets up to the Castle, we chose to take the 15 minute walk down Castle Hill following the paved footpath that led into Gornji Trg or Upper Square and the narrow streets of the oldest section of the city. Dominating the square is the more than 300 year old Church of St. Florian commissioned by the citizens of Ljubljana in memory of the great fire that devastated two of the city squares in 1660.
The next day I took an excursion to Bled, less than an hour from Ljubljana by train. Bled Island (Slovenia’s only island), Bled Castle and the 1600 meter (one mile) walk through Vintgar Gorge are absolutely awesome sites that should not be missed.
Ljubljana is the cultural, scientific, economic, political and administrative center of Slovenia, located in central Europe and sharing its western border with Italy. By most standards, it is a small capital city. It manages, however, to pack a wealth of fun and excitement in the city and in the nearby surrounding region. If sightseeing isn’t enough, visitors will also find a thriving nightlife and social scene.
While Ljubljana may have been in the past a place where people passed through, today it’s worth spending a few days getting to know the city that seems to be just below the tourist radar.