The One with Ljubljana, Slovenia

Friday, May 23, 2014

I'll be honest, on the last day of our vacation I just wanted to power through and drive straight home and skip staying the night and sightseeing Ljubljana (pronounced lyoob-lyee-AH-nah - crazy right?!). But you know what? If I had to come back and live anywhere in Europe, I would live in Ljubljana, honest to goodness! Can you believe it? And we almost didn't go! I'm so glad we did.
Tiny, overlooked Slovenia is one of Europe's most unexpectedly charming destinations. At the intersection of the Slavic, German, and Italian worlds, Slovenia is an exciting mix of the best of each culture and has stayed off the tourist track somehow. Rick says, "Be warned: I've never met anyone who visited Slovenia and didn't wish they'd allotted more time for this delightful, underrated land." It's so true! I wish we had more time! We have a Slovenia trip planned for next summer so we can visit the Julian Alps and give this country a more thorough viewing :) Today, it seems strange to think that Slovenia was ever part of Yugoslavia. Both in the personality of its people and in its landscape, Slovenia feels more like Austria. Slovenes are more industrious, organized, and punctual than their fellow former Yugoslavs... yet still friendly, relaxed, and Mediterranean. Locals like the balance. Visitors expecting minefields and rusting Yugo factories are pleasantly surprised to find Slovenia's rolling countryside dotted instead with quaint alpine villages and the spires of miniature Baroque churches with breathtaking, snowcapped peaks in the distance. Only half as big as Switzerland, Slovenia is remarkably diverse for its size. Travelers can hike on the alpine trails in the morning and explore some of the world's best caves in the afternoon, before relaxing with a seafood dinner on the Adriatic. Slovenia enjoys a powerhouse economy - the healthiest of all of Europe's former communist countries.

After being dominated by the Germans for centuries, Slovenian culture proudly emerged in the 19th century. In the aftermath of WWI, Slovenia merged with its neighbors to become Yugoslavia then broke away and achieved independence for the first time in 1991. The Austro-Hungarian Empire left it with a strong industrial infrastructure which the Yugoslvia government expanded. By 1980, 60 percent of all Yugoslav industry was in little Slovenia (which had only 8% of Yugoslvia's population and 8% of its territory). With independence, Slovenia continued this trend, pushing their mighty little economy into the future. Of the 12 new nations that have joined the EU since 2004, Slovenia was the only one rich enough to be a net donor and the first one to join the euro currency zone - very helpful for us to be able to use euros! The latitude is similar to Bismarck, North Dakota and at 7800 square miles it's about the size of New Jersey but with one-fourth the population. Tiny Slovenia has four extremely different terrains and climates - pretty crazy for being so small!: the warm Mediterranean coastline (just 29 miles long); the snow-capped, forested alpine mountains in the northwest; the moderate-climate, central limestone plateau that includes Ljubljana and the cave-filled Karst region; and to the east, a corner of the Great Hungarian Plain. Thanks to its long-standing ties to the West and can-do spirit, Slovenia already feels more "Western" than any other destination of our Croatian Vacation - probably why I'd want to live here! The country has a funny way of making people fall in love with it as I quickly discovered. Slovenes are laid-back, easygoing, stylish, and fun. It's hard to believe that Slovenia is not already overrun with tourists. Somehow this little country continues to glide beneath the radar. We explored just a little bit and felt like we were in on a secret :)

We arrived at our apartment around dinner time. A 4th floor apartment in a brand new complex. 
We rented Tadej's apartment in Trzin for... $42! Can you believe it? I don't think we'll ever stay in a hotel again, thank you airbnb! Tadej and his family live in Brussels most of the time so they rent their apartment to travelers like us. It's fully equipped with toys for the kids since they have young kids themselves and pots and pans and towels and all of their household items. It was like staying at a friend's house, that we didn't know :)
The apartment was an IKEA showroom! We loved it! Open, spacious, clean, fresh, had everything we needed, parking out in front, free internet, etc!
The toilet was separate from the bathroom which was super helpful.
Fox and Jane loooooooooooved having a million (thank you Marco Polo!) toys to play with!
The only thing about these apartments is most of them didn't have a microwave so this is how we had to warm Jane's bottles since she ONLY drinks her milk warm. Can't complain though for $42 a night!
This was our view from the balcony. Stellar.
We had a good night's sleep and then woke up the next morning ready to take on Ljubljana!
Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, with a lazy Old Town clustered around a castle-topped mountain, is often likened to Salzburg - but only if you inject a healthy dose of breezy Adriatic culture, add a Slavic accent, and replace favorite son Mozart with local architect Jože Plečnik. The town feels like an idyllic place that sometimes feels too good to be true! Festivals fill the summer and people enjoy a Sunday stroll any day of the week. Fashion boutiques and al fresco cafés jockey for control of the Old Town, while the leafy riverside promenade crawls with stylishly dressed students sipping kava and polishing their near-perfect English. Laid-back Ljubljana is the kind of place where graffiti and crumbling buildings seem elegantly atmospheric instead of shoddy. But more and more of those old buildings have been getting a facelift recently as a spunky mayor has been spiffing up the place and creating gleaming traffic-free zones left and right - making what was already an exceptionally livable city into a true pedestrians' paradise.
In ancient times Ljubljana was on the trade route connecting the Mediterranean (just 60 miles away) to the Black Sea (toss a bottle off a bridge and it can float to the Danube and eventually all the way to Russia). Legend has it that Jason and his Argonauts founded Ljubljana when they stopped here for the winter on their way home with the Golden Fleece. The town was Romanized before being overrun by Huns, only to be resettled later by Slavs. In 1335 Ljubljana fell under the jurisdiction of the Habsburg emperors. After six centuries of Habsburg rule Ljubljana still feels Austrian but it has a Mediterranean flair. Napoleon put Ljubljana on the map when he made it the capital of his Illyrian Provinces, a realm that stretched from the Danube to Dubrovnik and from Austria to Albania. In the mid-19th-century the railway connecting Vienna to the Adriatic was built through town and Ljubljana boomed. An earthquake hit the city in 1895, damaging many buildings. Locals cleverly exaggerated the impact by propping up buildings that were structurally sound and even tearing down unwanted old houses that had been unharmed in preparation for the visit of Emperor Franz Josef who took pity on the city and invested generously in its reconstruction. Ljubljana was made over in the Art Nouveau style so popular in Vienna, its capital at the time. A generation later, architect Jože Plečnik bathed the city in his distinctive, artsy-but-sensible, classical-meets-modern style. In WWII Slovenia was occupied first by the Italians then by the Nazis. Ljubljana had a thriving resistance movement that the Nazis couldn't suppress - so they simply fenced off the entire city and made it a giant prison for three years, allowing only shipments of basic food supplies to get in. But the Slovenes - who knew their land far better than their oppressors - continued to slip in and out of town undetected, allowing them to agitate through the end of the war. In 1991 Ljubljana became the capital of one of Europe's youngest nations. Today the city is filled with university students making it a very youthful-feeling town. Ljubljana has always felt free to be creative and recent years - with unprecedented freedoms - have been no exception. This city is on the cutting edge when it comes to architecture, public art, fashion, and trendy pubs. Rick says Kraków Poland is the "next Prague," but Ljubljana is the "next, next Prague" :)

We parked our car in a parking garage and then walked to Prešeren Square.
The heart of Ljubljana is this square - it's always been bustling, but now it's more people-friendly than ever since the mayor recently outlawed buses and taxis here. 
The city's meeting point is the large statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia's greatest poet whose works include the lyrics to the Slovenian national anthem. The statue shows Prešeren being inspired above by a naked muse which sparked outrage and the poor lady who modeled for the muse was banished. 
The bridge across the Ljubljanica River is one of Ljubljana's most important landmarks, Jože Plečnik's Triple Bridge. 
The middle part of this bridge already existed but Plecčnik added the two side spans to more efficiently funnel the six streets of traffic on this side of the bridge to the one street on the other side. 
When Ljubljana was hit by an earthquake in 1895 locals took the opportunity to rebuild in style. Today Ljubljana - especially the streets around this square - is an architecture-lover's paradise. 
I for one fell in love with all of these buildings!
The pink church dominating Prešeren Square is the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.
 Its red color is symbolic of the Franciscan monastic order. Since 2008 the church has been protected as a cultural monument of national significance of Slovenia. | A really pretty blue door.
We walked across Triple Bridge.
Then we walked through the riverside colonnade which echoes the long-gone medieval city wall.
The first stretch through the colonnade is good for souvenirs like woodcarvings, miniature painted frontboards from beehives, honey products, and lots of colorful candles. Farther down the Riverside Market is almost all local and the colonnade is populated by butchers, bakers, fisherman, and lazy cafés. We reached a market selling allllllll kinds of food. The vendors in the row nearest the colonnade sell fruit from all over, but the ones located deeper in the market sell only locally grown produce. These producers go out of their way to be old-fashioned - a few of them still follow the tradition of pushing their veggies on wooden carts to the market from their garden patches in the suburbs. 
The 10-foot-tall cone was from Plečnik who wanted to make Ljubljana the "Athens of the North" and imagined a huge hilltop cone crowning the center of a national acropolis - a complex for government, museums, and culture. The idea never got off the drawing board except for this Greek-inspired market they call agora. 
We walked to the Butchers' Bridge which was originally designed by, you guessed it, Plečnik, but like so many of his designs the original roofed bridge plan was scrapped. Decades later, once tourists started to come seeking his work, some town politicians dusted off the old plans and proposed building the bridge. The project stalled for years until one mayor swiftly constructed this modern version of the bridge. While it looks nothing like the original plans the bridge kept the name and has been embraced by the community. 
Almost as soon as it was built the bridge's railings were covered with padlocks - part of the recent Europe-wide craze for couples to commemorate their love by locking a padlock to a bridge railing. Weird. We've seen it e'erywur. But all those locks are just too much for the railing to support and are regularly cut off, soon to be replaced by new ones.
The sculptures on the bridge by local artist Jakov Brdar were originally intended to be temporary, but people loved them so they stayed. The left and right pictures are of a mourning Adam and Eve after being evicted from the Garden of Eden. I think these are super creepy, albeit cool, statues. What's with the tail on the middle statue?
We couldn't miss the bizarre smaller sculptures that look like mischievous lizards breaking out of their eggs. 
Then we walked down to the Dragon Bridge. 
The dragon has been the symbol of Ljubljana for centuries - ever since Jason (of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame) supposedly slew one in a nearby swamp. This is one of the few notable bits of Ljubljana architecture not by Plečnik but by Jurij Zaninovič, a fellow student of Vienna architect Otto Wagner. The dragon is the star of this very photogenic Art Nouveau bridge.
From Dragon Bridge it was a short walk to the funicular that goes up to the castle. 
There was a row of tattered but awesome-looking buildings leading up to the funicular.
We bought our tickets and waited about 10 minutes for the next ride.
Typical. We were the only ones until 30 seconds before the tram got there... Look how many of them are staring at Jane!
Sweet view looking down the funicular.
The castle above town offers great views of Ljubljana and the surrounding countryside. Check out those mountains way far out there!
There has probably been a settlement on this site since prehistoric times, though the first fortress here was Roman. The 12th-century version was gradually added on to over the centuries until it fell into disrepair in the 17th century. Today's castle was rebuilt in the 1940s, renovated in the 1970s, and technically still unfinished as it's subject to ongoing additions. 
We went inside the old prison and took a gander at the clock tower. 
Prison cells.
Then we went inside the Gothic chapel next to the prison (funny to have bad right next to good!) filled with Baroque paintings of the coat of arms of St. George.
Check out the doors of this museum.
Pretty cool! Everything here is so cool!
At the funicular waiting area is a place where people can place and exchange books. This seems so American to me, never seen this anywhere in Europe but here; another reason I would so love to live in Ljubljana.
The foundations are all super modern and built right in to the super old castle parts. Love love love it.

Evans family in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Friday May 9th 2014. Thank you to the funicular worker who took this pic of us :)
Back down on the main level, I saw this wonderful hand-drawn poster. I kept seeing really cool logos and designs all over Ljubljana! So hip! I love this city!
We walked through the colorful flower market and breathed the wonderfully scented air. 
Then we came to the Cathedral which is dedicated to St. Nicholas, protector against floods and patron saint of the fishermen and boatmen who have long come to sell their catch at the market. 
The intricately decorated doors were created for Pope John Paul II's visit here in 1996. 
The cathedral's interior is stunning Italian Baroque.
The transept is surrounded by sculptures of four bishops of Roman Ljubljana when it was called Emona or Aemon. 
The ceiling frescoes were recently restored. This is definitely one of the more ornate churches we'd been in - especially on this trip!
How fun is this graffiti?!
We met back up with Jaylie and they were eating a quesadilla that made our mouths water. We had to have one too. They got it at one of the stalls in the market so we backtracked and ordered one for our family. 
While the quesadilla was prepared Fox and Jane sat at this little made-for-kids table complete with markers and drawings. What an awesome idea!!! Thanks Ljubljana!
More pics from our day in Ljubljana.
We'd seen 2 of the 4 bridges, might as well see another, so we walked down to the "Ugly Duckling" bridge. That's it's name for reals.
Looking down the Ljubljanica River from the Ugly Duckling Bridge.
Another family photo :) Jane had fallen asleep, always on Daddy!
Across the bridge is Congress Square - this grassy tree-lined square is ringed by some of Ljubljana's most important buildings: the University headquarters, the Baroque Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity, a classical mansion called the Kazina, and the Philharmonic Hall. Once clogged with traffic, the area surrounding the square was recently pedestrianized.
What the what? I hope that's not a real skeleton!
Then we walked to the Square of the Republic. This square is essentially a parking lot ringed by an odd collection of buildings. This is where Slovenia declared independence in 1991. The world's biggest digital watch, flashing the date, time, and temperature is on the top right of the right building. These buildings were supposed to be the Slovenian Parliament buildings (and twice as tall connected by a sky bridge), but Tito didn't approve since it would have made Slovenia's parliament bigger than the Yugoslav parliament in Belgrade.
Instead the Slovenian Parliament was built across the street. It's a strangely low-profile office building with a sculpted entryway. The carvings are in the Socialist Realist style, celebrating the noble Slovenian people conforming to horrible communist ideals for the "good" of the entire society.
Passing the grassy park called Trg Narodni Herojev. Say that 10 times fast!
We found the quaintest US Embassy building of all time! Such a pretty yellow chalet with brown trim and a red roof!
We passed the Modern Art Museum. If we didn't have children in tow we'd love to go into all these art museums around the world. Some day :)
Across from the Modern Art Museum is the Serbian Orthodox Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
Ljubljana's most striking church interior isn't Catholic, but Orthodox. This church was built in 1936, soon after the Slovenes joined a political union with the Serbs. Wealthy Slovenia attracted its poorer neighbors from the south, so it built this church for that community. Since 1991 the Serb population continues to grow as people from the struggling corners of the former Yugoslavia flock to prosperous Slovenia. 
We stepped inside. Pictures weren't allowed so I had to be sneaky about this one. The church is colorfully decorated without a hint of the 21st century, mirroring a very conservative religion.
A few pictures from our walk back to the car: National Theater. Such a pretty pink building!
There are recycling bins for all kinds of rubbish on every corner. Also seems very Western to me! I love that they try to keep the city clean.
There are no words.
For some reason I love the graffiti around this modern telephone booth.
And that was our morning in Ljubljana! I'm soooooooo glad Chris and Jaylie convinced me to go instead of driving home! And who knows, maybe we'll live here some day :)

We had one more stop to make before the looooong drive back to Germany. Lake Bled, Slovenia, just 45 minutes from Ljubljana. 
I'm not going to do the write-up and history of this place this time because we have a trip planned back next summer where we'll spend the night and walk around the entire lake and really "get to know" it. But here are some pics for us to remember why we want to come back! It's so stinkin' PRETTY!
Evans family at Lake Bled, Slovenia on Friday May 9th 2014.
Oh Jaylie. We miss you!
We ate the town's specialty dessert, a cream cake called kremna rezina - a layer of cream and a thick layer of vanilla custard sandwiched between sheets of delicate, crispy crust.
A short and sweet trip to beautiful Lake Bled and a long drive back home.
That concludes our epic Croatian Vacation! Whew!! Best. Vacation. Ever. So far :)


  1. Wow wow wow! What a gorgeous place!!! Loving that photo of Chris in front of the Dental Studio poster! HA!!!!!

  2. This really was an incredibly pleasant surprise! I can't wait to go back to Slovenia and explore even more!

  3. I would love for you to be my guide on a vacation ANYWHERE. Thanks for sharing this wonderful vacation with us.

  4. Love that first photo with the mountain behind the cottage, and the dragon bridge!! And the lock thing on the bridge is strange, but cool. Never heard of that before!!

  5. Wow....amazing sights! You do Rick Steve proud!! Love seeing your traveling posts! Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. Thanks so much for these posts on your recent holiday. I am sure those of us who have been reading them really appreciate the time you have taken to post them. I am looking forward even more now to seeing Dubrovnik, Ljubljana and Lake Bled myself in the next couple of months.

  7. oops, sorry wrong account. should have been mine.

  8. Oh wow! I want to live there too! So pretty!!!!

  9. We have "little free libraries" all over our neighborhood, so yes, it is very American and I love it. Glad to see Slovenia has adopted such a great idea!


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