After Venice we stopped off briefly in a cold and wet Trieste on our way to the Italian/Slovenian border. We had heard great things about Slovenia and were keen to see it for ourselves. Crossing the border was no trouble at all, you just have to remember to purchase a road tax ‘vignette’ before you enter. This is basically a sticker that you put in your windscreen to show that you have paid road tax for the period you will be driving in the country and it means that you don’t have to keep stopping to pay tolls when you travel on their motorways. It costs €15 for a week or €30 for a month (for a car or motorhome with or without a trailer) and they check it as you pass through the border.
I have to be honest with you and say that before this trip, if you had asked me to identify Slovenia on a map of Europe, I wouldn’t have had a clue which one of the many Eastern European countries it was. And I suspect I am not alone in that ignorance. When I was a child, it was part of the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ruled by President Tito, along with Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. It became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, following a brief period of conflict between the two (called the Ten Day War), and managed to disentangle itself with barely any violence at all. It was, and still is, the wealthiest of the former Yugoslavian states and it joined the EU in 2004. It is now not only a parliamentary democracy, but also a republic, which means that it has a constitution of rights for its citizens that cannot be taken away by a government, even if it has been elected by a majority of voters.
Our first impressions of Slovenia were very good. It is incredibly green, on account of the fact that over half of its land area is covered with forest. It is also very mountainous, counting the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, the Karavanke Alps and part of the Julian Alps within its borders. It is a small country of about 2 million people and it is mostly land-locked, having only 46km (28 miles) of coastline, squeezed in between Italy and Croatia. It also seemed very clean and new. After all the graffiti and dry scrubland of Spain and the crumbling architecture and infrastructure of Italy, our eyes took in a Slovenia that was polished and shiny. The roads and buildings seemed so new, the landscape and the towns so tidy. One of its main industries is car manufacture, and during our time travelling around the country we saw more car transporters loaded up with gleaming new cars than we have seen on the whole of our trip so far.
Fun With Language
I love passing into a new country and observing all of the differences, but it is also hard because nothing at all is familiar and you have to start over with the language, different road signs, different foods in the supermarkets etc. And the change moving into Slovenia was quite marked compared to the other countries we have visited so far. For a start off the language is tricky and we struggled to know how to pronounce a lot of the words. They use strings of letters here that are so unfamiliar, it is hard to know where to start with them – drz, brn, brd, lju, crn are a few examples. Just doing some food shopping in the local supermarket had us resorting to Google Translate every few seconds to work out what we were buying. Fortunately, virtually everyone we came into contact with seemed to speak very good English indeed, and not just the staff working at the campsite reception, but bus drivers, bar staff and shopkeepers too. This encounter was quite typical:
Us, “Do you speak English?”
Shopkeeper, “A little, how may I help?”
The guy was of course extremely modest about his abilities and spoke flawless English! Sadly, the only Slovenian word I can remember, which we found ourselves using all the time, was “Hvala”, which means “Thank you”.
Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana (pronounced Lyoo-BLYAH-nah) is a small, vibrant city along the banks of the Ljubljanica River in the north west of the country. For us, it was the perfect capital – not too big, but with plenty to see and do, lots of history and delightful architecture. It was also very clean and felt very safe, with a lovely relaxed atmosphere. In fact, it was so clean and pretty and perfect it almost didn’t seem real. It was as if it was a place created by Disney and yet that analogy doesn’t do it justice as it had a huge amount of character as well.
One of its best features is that the city centre is virtually all pedestrianised. Cycling is permitted, but cyclists are requested to go slowly. The only vehicles are the tiny electric buses called Kavalir (Gallant Helper) that you can hail for a free journey anywhere in the pedestrianised area. They were originally envisaged to be used by the elderly or mobility impaired, but in actual fact they can, and we’re, being used by everyone.
Its small size means that all the main sites are within walking distance. The city is watched over by a fairytale castle on the hill in the centre and most of the cafés and bars are strung out alongside the river, where we stopped for a drink and some traditional Slovenian cured meats and cheese.
From here we also watched as some tightrope walkers traversed the river along straps they had strung from one side to the other. It looked as though anyone could have a go, although most people were just watching and applauding whenever anyone managed to stay upright for any length of time. They had also set up tightropes on the bank for children to have a go, but these ones were on wooden frames only a foot or so off the ground. The girls really enjoyed going backwards and forwards on these.
The Ljubljana Dragon
Legend has it that Ljubljana was founded by the Greek mythological hero Jason, who, having stolen the Golden Fleece from King Aetes, passed nearby with his Argonauts in their way back to the Adriatic and from there to Greece. Near to where the city now stands, Jason fought and killed a monster – the dragon that is now the symbol of the city and adorns its coat of arms as well as the famous Dragon bridge.
This square is the heart of the city today and is dominated by the brightly coloured Baroque-style Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. The square is named after the greatest Slovenian poet, France Prešeren (1800 – 1849) whose statue is at the centre of the square and whose poem A Toast (Zdravljica) was adopted as the words for Slovenia’s national anthem:
God’s blessing on all nations,
Who long and work for that bright day,
When o’er earth’s habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see
That all men are free
No more shall foes, but neighbours be.
You can’t visit Ljubljana without coming across the name and work of the architect and urban planner, Jože Plečnik. He is considered to be one of the world’s most important pioneers of contemporary architecture and he has left a huge imprint on Ljubljana, the city in which he was born, as well as in Vienna and Prague. In Ljubljana he designed the unique Triple Bridge crossing the river in the centre of the city as well as the Central Market colonnade, the Cobblers bridge and many other structures. The Triple Bridge was built in the 1930s when Jože Plečnik added two pedestrian side bridges to the original stone bridge across the river.
Butchers’ Bridge, just off the central market, was constructed in 2010 and very soon after it opened it became somewhere that newly weds and lovers chose to symbolically leave a mark of their love. What they do is to attach a padlock (some of which are engraved with names and dates) to the bridge and then drop the key into the Ljubljanica River below. This is not unique to Ljubljana and you can see these padlocks attached to bridges the world over. I have to say that the name of the bridge seemed a little incongruous with the current use, but it is on the site of the former butchers’ booths of the market. It also has a number of sculptures along and around it which are rather grotesque and creepy, showing deformed creatures, skulls and weird figures, which also made it an odd choice for people in love, but there you go. I assume it was just that the bridge had ready made steel railings on which to hang their padlocks.
Museum of Illusions
We mostly just wandered and soaked up the atmosphere in Ljubljana. We didn’t go in the castle as we are a bit ‘castled-out’ on this trip, but you can take a funicular up there and apparently get great views out over the city. We went in one museum which we stumbled across by chance on our way back to the bus stop and it turned out to be great fun: the Museum of Illusions. Here there are three floors of mind-blowing illusions that prove just how much your eye and mind can be deceived.
One of our favourites was the Ames room where the room visually distorts things so that a person standing on one side of the room appears to be a giant, whilst one at the other side appears a dwarf.
There is also an upside down room where you can take a picture, rotate it 180 degrees and it looks as though you are hanging from the ceiling!
Not only was the museum great fun, but it was also educational as it provided information as to how and why your eyes had been deceived.
The only part I didn’t like was the vortex tunnel, where you attempt to walk across a straight (and fixed) bridge through the middle whilst the outside of the tunnel, which is dark but with sparkling lights in it, turns around. It made me feel physically sick and I found it really hard to stay upright as I walked through! Weird and unsettling!
Slovenia prides itself on being an environmentally green country, and Ljubljana was voted European Green Capital of the Year 2016 by the European Commission. Recycling is huge here and Ljubljana recycles almost two thirds of its waste. The city has ambitious plans for sustainable transport, conserving green space and recycling. Credit for much of it goes to Zoran Janković, who became Ljubljana’s major in 2006 and implemented the ban on cars in the city centre in his first year in office. At the time it was contentious and unpopular, but it wasn’t long before visitors and residents were experiencing the benefits of cleaner air, safer streets and quieter public spaces and, far from killing local businesses as was feared at the time, business and tourism in the historic centre have increased. Other European cities have taken note and are trying to replicate Ljubljana’s success for themselves.
Ljubljana quickly became top of our list of favourite cities we have visited so far on this trip. And, as you will see from my next post on the other things we did in Slovenia, we loved the rest of the country too.