The Grand Eastern European Adventure: Ljubljana, Slovenia

11 June – 12 June, 2014

Jill and I woke in our hostel in Bled and packed up.  With the pull handle of my suitcase now officially broken, I succumbed to dorky backpacker style, mounting the small detachable daypack on my front like a Baby Bjorn and the giant one on my back like an awkward turtle.  With only a week left of my trip, buying another backpack was not an option.  The chatty guy in our dorm room assured me that I looked like a really hardcore backpacker, adding that the large knockoff designer watch I’d bought in Bulgaria helped.

At the bus station, I greeted the attendant with a “Dober dan”, “hello” in Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian.  My accent had gotten so good from weeks of travel in the region that the woman thought I was Slovenian and was confused when I spoke English!  What a compliment!  I only used a few phrases when I was there, but the ones I took the time to learn I really nailed.

Slovenia is a tiny country, and it was a short bus ride from Bled to Ljubljana, the capital.  Our hostel, Hostel Celica, was only a short walk from the station.  That was a cool hostel, in a very cool area.  Metelkova Mesto had been an army garrison, and after the Yugoslav wars was taken over by artists and converted into galleries, studios, and funky bars and performance spaces.  It’s a groovy place to walk around, with eye-catching graffiti and art everywhere.  Our hostel used to be a prison (the private rooms are cells, hence the name Celica) and is now a super-sleek, modern, and fun hostel.  Our dorm was in the attic, and the natural wood floors and beams made it feel like a treehouse.  We dropped off our stuff and made our way to the center for a walkabout.

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The subversive artiness of Metelkova Mesto

Ljubljana is the cutest city ever!  A little river flows through it lined with artistic bridges, cafes and bars with outdoor seating.  With cobble-stoned streets, Austro-Hungarian architecture, it has the essence of a true European capital city, but quaint and bite-sized.  We did a self-guided tour from my Rick Steves guidebook of the main square and a little picnic by the river.  We made our way over to the riverside market and picked up some distinctly Slovenian souvenirs: delicious honey brandy in rustic bottles and traditional painted beehive covers.  Clearly the bee industry is important to Slovenia.

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Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana
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Ljubljana city center
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Quaint buildings in Ljubljana

Like all great European cities, Ljubljana has a castle, and Jill could not let it go unexplored.  We took the modern glass funicular to the top of the hill and had a look around.  It was an interesting castle, more of a Baroque palace than the medieval fortresses that one usually thinks of.  Jill pointed out that this is actually pretty normal, as the buildings were used and conquered and repurposed for years, not merely sitting around to be museum pieces in the centuries to come.

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View from Ljubljana Castle

My favorite part of the castle was down in the chapel where a thin, middle-aged Slovenian man was writing people’s names in fancy script, like the style used to illustrate manuscripts. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor and seemed to enjoy poking fun at us.  He also poked fun at himself about how low-tech he was, and loved my film camera.  In addition to writing our names, he wrote each of us a personalized phrase: “Happy Wife, Happy Life” for Jill, who is married, and “Carpe Noctum” for me.  How well he had us figured out!

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The “scribe” in the chapel

The exhibit on Slovenian history at the castle was pretty great as well.  It documented the history of the region from early settlers in the Roman and Bronze ages all the way through the war and beyond.  It was fascinating in its use of technology.  Exhibits would light up and films would play automatically as you approached, and the free audio guide really helped to color the story.  I liked the modern section best.  For me, it filled in the gaps of my knowledge of Yugoslav history, and for Jill it got her curious to know more.

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Jill in the history exhibit in Ljubljana Castle

Back at the hostel, we spent a while reading and chilling and made friends with an Indian girl named Kush, with whom we made plans for drinks later.  But first we needed to eat.  One of the best things about Hostel Celica was the great hangout spots to be found, including a restaurant that had nightly meal specials.  That night was an all-you-can-eat barbecue for 6 euros, easily the best deal in town.  We stuffed our faces and met up with Kush and accompanied her to the main square to find 3 Irish girls that she’d met on a tour that day.  I love how easy it is to make friends while traveling!  We strolled the river front, which was pretty happening that night, but all agreed the prices were a little higher than we’d like.  So we ambled back to Metelkova Mesto, knowing that where artists squatted, cheap booze followed.  We quickly found a dive called Jalla Jalla that only sold cheap beer in tall cans and ridiculously strong homemade fruit brandies in plastic cups.  I tried the pear brandy, but it was a little lacking after the amazing pear rakia I’d tried in Belgrade.  We all grabbed beers and sat outside by this crazy jungle gym type where all the cool kids were hanging and chatted for a while.

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Our friends for the night: Kush the Indian girl and 3 Irish girls

Around midnight or 1 we called it a night, and something about the beer and sun and hard mattresses made us crash really hard and sleep in the next day.  We took it easy and took care of minor bits of business until 13:45 when a dreadlocked woman in a van picked us up for a tour we’d booked.  On my entire trip I only splurged on two-day trips, the first to Plitvice Lakes in Croatia and now to Postonja Caves and Predjama Castle, two top sites in Slovenia.

Postonja Caves was amazing.  They are some of the biggest caves in Slovenia, made of karst (a type of limestone) that has been carved by water for ages, and have crazy stalactites and stalagmites and strange sparkling rock formations.  For part of the visit, you ride a little tourist train that feels like something out of Harry Potter or Indiana Jones- only real!  The middle portion of the visit is a guided tour.  The English-speaking group was massive, and Jill and I lamented that we didn’t speak German and couldn’t join their tiny group with its lack of rowdy British schoolboys.  Our guide was adorable and informative, and the experience of being there was just so unreal.  I loved the end of the tour, where in a dim tank you could see a few native inhabitants of the region: the blind, albino salamander unique to Slovenia.  It was quite cute and quite strange.

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A snapshot of the caves taken while riding the tourist train
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Me and a plush toy of the blind albino salamander in the gift shop. I do love a good gift shop.

Our next sight was equally enchanting.  Predjama Castle is a beautiful Renaissance castle located in the mouth of a cave.  Jill went nuts when she saw it.  While on our tour, our guide pointed out the ingenious design that utilized many of the natural features of the cave, and told us of the knight that inhabited it who was like a Slovenian Robin Hood.  Because of the castle’s location, he and his troops managed to be under siege for an entire year before being taken over.  They would sneak out secret passages in the back through the mountain to neighboring villages for food and supplies.  The castle also had some great exhibits with costumed dummies, including a strung-up dummy being tortured in the dungeon!

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Jill and Predjama Castle
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Predjama Castle in the mouth of the cave
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Tortured dummy in the dungeon of Predjama Castle

At the hostel we took advantage of that night’s meal special: burgers with a toppings bar with cheap beer and fries.  We had a nice stroll after dinner, but the streets were dead that night, except for bars with TVs.  We happened to be in Slovenia during the world cup, and that night was the Croatia-Brazil game.  As I was told by one Slovenian at the hostel, “I support Croatia because they are our neighbor and Brazil are too full of themselves”.  We took in some of the game at the hostel bar.  It was a momentous occasion: I, Mo Stone, willingly watched a sporting event.  Shocking, I know.  In my defense, everyone else was doing it, and I’d spent so much time in darling Croatia that I felt I owed them some allegiance as well.  When in Yugoslavia. . .

Good Luck and Happy Travels,

Mo

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