Ljubljana Slovenia – European Green Capital 2016:
Guest post by Anna Van Leemputen
Carpe Diem. When someone suggests you visit a country you are only vaguely aware of and have only ever passed through as a stopover on a journey to somewhere else, whilst also offering cycling on snow (and you are a bit of an outdoor pursuit junkie), you jump. Thus I found myself in a car with a complete stranger who happened to have worked on a well known TV series and who had an equal love of cars and travel, to take a 4 day trip to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and the area surrounding it. The catch was that I had to write something about the city taking on the mantel of European Green Capital in 2016.
Taking on the M25 at 5am on a Thursday is probably the only time to do so when trying to catch a plane. We arrived at Luton, an airport that can only be described as a hell hole, a cold windy soul-less place, with broken concrete and pot holes and rubbish strewn behind Heras fencing – a bomb site for an entrance. It is certainly not a great welcome for any tourist arriving to visit London. I met further fellow travellers when I found my seat on the plane, as we were seated in a row. We were flying with Whizz airlines, the Icelandic budget airline. The crew wear bright pink shirts which I think is partly used to detract from the fact that this is a no frills air service where drinks, including water, are charged for, but the loo is free. It is a functional service, a bit like jumping on to a National Express coach. The flight itself was relatively short, through clear weather providing us with amazing views of the Julien Alps, with Slovenia being an hour ahead of UK time.
Our arrival at Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport was quite different from our exit from England, though the significant sensation was the cold and of eastern bloc cigarette smoke, hanging thickly in the air. Like England smoking is not permitted inside but many people do smoke and unlike the UK cigarettes are not hidden away, in shops.
The weather was grey and damp as we were bundled into a waiting OptiGo taxi van and the landscape was reminiscent of a backdrop for Fury or Schindlers List, with winter grass, low fog and tall pine trees on a flat landscape, and a road with high wire fencing leading to a very straight motorway. At this point we had no idea of the surrounding mountains as we simply could not see them.
Entering Ljubljana you are stuck by the mix of residential and industry and ‘projects’ (large square grey apartment blocks) and single houses, built in a typical Alps style, hanging onto their square plot of land. Further in there are more modern glass fronted offices which abut the 1950’s Tito era architecture, the two sharing much more space than you will see anywhere in the UK. Space is the most obvious difference when comparing Ljubljana with capital cities such as London; from the buildings down to the streets and parks there is an inordinate amount of space. Perhaps this is the reason why Slovenians seem much calmer, when they bustle about their business. Perhaps it is still the sense of national pride that prevails, a legacy from the time of Tito. Certainly it is a unique city where people from different nations mingle and where the American embassy is directly next door to the Russian embassy, something our taxi driver was very proud to point out.
We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Slon (www.hotelslon.com – Slon means elephant, perhaps a passing nod to Hannibal who took his elephants over the Alps), part of the Best Western chain, with minimal fuss, and were given suites.
This hotel has recently been refurbished, with the rooms being clean and functional. The furniture emulated the pattern of the street outside with chevron parquet flooring and substantial furniture placed around the space in such a way as to leave large open areas of floor. I had a small balcony with a table and chairs which had a view of the Post Office, and of the main walkway through to Park Tivoli and the International Centre of Graphic Art. My only gripe about the room was the lack of a green bin. Being that Ljubljana boasts about its recycling rate it seems odd that visitors are expected not to separate their rubbish in their rooms.
Having unpacked, some of the party had a rest whilst the rest of us got to grips with our new environment. At 2pm we all met in the lobby of the hotel and with the aid of a free map made our way to the funicular, which takes residents and tourists alike to the top of the Castle hill. That first step in a new town is always one made with trepidation but one not to be afraid of in Ljubljana as English is spoken by most.
The funicular provides great views of the town centre, which is based around the Ljubljanica river. We entered the restaurant where we were to meet our guide, located in the court yard of the castle, in bright afternoon sunshine, and as our guide wasn’t yet present took the opportunity to take photographs in the light.
The entrance ticket via the funicular allows you to reach the top of the tower and there are spectacular views. The internal staircase of the tower is also worth mentioning as it is two staircases wrapped around each other – a ‘Bramante’ staircase, allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending – giving the sense of being in an Escher painting.
The castle has had many roles over the centuries, from being a hospital to a prison, and has some enduring fables, including having been visited by Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason, escaping from having tricked King Aeetes, and having sailed up the Danube, trying to find a way across the Balkans to Greece, slays a dragon that is marauding in the marshes, that once surrounded the city.
Slovenia is a very Catholic country but surprisingly the church in the Castle is dedicated to St George and the Dragon – St George is thought to have been born into a Greek Christian family. The ceiling of the chapel is truly beautiful and whilst we were there, a gentleman was illuminating manuscripts. I asked him if I could take a photograph, to which he replied no problem, and then promptly handed me an example of his work to keep: Carpe Diem.
The Restaurant Gostilna na Gradu is in the heart of the Castle and reminded me of a restaurant in Hedin, near Agincourt, France. However, unlike the French restaurant, the waiter spoke English. We were treated to a ‘walk across Slovenia’, with a three course tasting menu. Slovenia is heaven for those who like their food fresh and undressed – bio-dynamic is an oft quoted phrase. There are few sauces but instead food is layered or wrapped with a condiment as an opposing but complementary flavour.
At this point I must mention I am vegan; not for ethical reasons but because of a medical issue. I have travelled many countries and survived though I was a little worried when the mixed starter platter offered contained fish, beef, sausage, and a common vegetarian alternative of cottage cheese. However, a salad was prepared for me, with sesame seeds which was much appreciated.
The options available for the main course reflected the sea to the mountain theme with either sea bass or deer shoulder. Hunting still plays a major role in Slovenian society and there are wild boar in the woods, which are hunted for meat, along with rabbit and deer. I was presented with polenta cakes and wild mushrooms. For desert my compatriots had the first of several strukelj, a dumpling filled with various sweet or savoury mixes, in this case walnut, served with baked apple sorbet. There are 24 culinary regions, each with an influence from a border country as well as the many elements of history that have passed through the region – from the Celts to the Austro -Hungarian empire. However, the greatest influence has been Italian as the area was occupied by Italy during the Second World War.
Slovenians are proud of their wines, and their ability to be self-sufficient in producing both red and white varieties, as well as the vast range of spirits produced across the country. There is a boutique distribution of wine and the variety of grape means that Slovenia boasts the ability to grow 95% of the different types of grape available across Europe. However, the production of small quantities of good wine means that producers can’t often meet export expectations and thus the wine is not well known internationally. We were offered Simcic and Movia produced wines. The Movia Estate was graded internationally as one of the top 100 wineries in 2015.
During the meal we discuss everything from Tito and life under a dictator to the changing traffic system within Ljubljana. It has taken 10 years for the Mayors vision of a traffic free centre to the city to be achieved but it works well and makes the centre a bustling metropolis where children run about happily. Those that live in the centre do have cars and in the evenings there are a few dotted around the streets, but residents are provided with an underground parking space in the main parking garage. Just as Hyde Park has its underground parking Ljubljana has dug deep to move stationary vehicles, whilst the central tram has been removed. There is a ‘taxi’, the green Kavalir which can be hailed anywhere on it circuitous route, as they pass at walking speed. In winter they are heated and are ideal for the older traveller who might find the cobbles a bit much after a while. For the fitter visitor everything is within easy walking distance and there are bicycles which can be hired, in a very similar way to the ‘Boris’ bikes in London. Locals pay 3 Euros a year for a card which allows them one hours free use: many simply swap bikes at various points around the city, if they are travelling any distance, in order not to be charged over the hour. As with any city a map is useful and I would recommend the app A to B: Ljubljana, available free of charge from Google Play, though I was quite happy using the paper version.
Having had quite a substantial meal we were then taken on a tour of the city and the ethos behind the Christmas lights were explained. The temperature had dropped considerably – in the evening it ranged between -2 and -6 and a hat and gloves are vital if you are walking around at this time. Despite the obvious attractions of the town centre, from the Christmas market stalls to the impromptu concerts and food and drink bars, our guide stated that there were more tourists under Tito. It could be that there is a lot of nostalgia to this era, or that those in the west came to the area because of the regime, but certainly there is none of the obvious destruction that other Balkan countries have suffered.
During the winter months the fountains are covered and the water points are drained because of the low temperatures. However, hot tea was available in the city hall, where Ljubljana’s awards are proudly displayed. Hot tea in the low temperatures, is very welcome and was again offered on our boat trip. This was a short journey up and down the river on an all wooden boat that had been handbuilt in Bled. It allowed us to see the bridges and the lights form a different perspective. These lights are a talking point in themselves and pretty unique across Europe, given there wasn’t a kitschy Santa or reindeer pulled sleigh in sight and certainly no Disney characters. The theme is creation, which has been interpreted in everything from the Big Bang and constellations of the universe to sperm entering an egg. There was even a foetus with a beating heart. Further out from the centre there were equations for life and astronauts hurtling through space.
Our final meal of the day was at restaurant Spajza (www.spajza-restaurant.si), that catered mainly for those who didn’t mind whether their food used to run, hop, or swim. Certainly cheese was an option but this was a restaurant where horse was listed in the menu, alongside frogs legs. Frogs legs are a common menu item in the Ljubljana region because of the marshes. I was served a salad and chicory with runner beans. Lentils, kidney beans, even chickpeas are not a common item in the Slovenian kitchen. The service was again in English.
I declined the heavy metal concert that was offered, as it was not particularly my scene and I wanted to take an early morning run through the town. I find running around a town helps to get a feel for the real city life, and early in the morning it was possible for me to video the clean up operation that makes Ljubljana a unique green capital city. One of the things that, as a non-smoker and recycler, I was very aware of was the lack of rubbish. Given the partying in the city centre carries on well into the small hours, the streets are remarkably clear of chewing gum, cigarette butts and general debris. The bins seem quite small until you realise that they are only chutes into larger containers buried in the ground. On a daily basis these containers are emptied by lifting the ‘lid’ and emptying the whole container into a truck.
Slovenians also love their dogs and late at night and certainly first thing in the morning they can be seen walking their animals around the town. Clearing up after them is heavily policed by other citizens. The streets are thus exceptionally clean, important when they have unique paving, repeating the Escher style, in the main bus street, Slovenska cesta and a poem in brass embedded in the path on Copova ulica heading towards the Preseren Square and the three bridges.
Sinking into bed I suddenly realised it was 1am. Ljubljana is a city that naps rather than sleeps.
Our tour of the Christmas Market, Ljubljana was part of a trip as guests of the Slovenian Tourist Board to learn more about Slovenia, European Green Capital 2016. More information is available here