Located between two of central Europe's most famous addresses, Venice and Vienna, Ed Leahy says this capital city of Slovenia has come a long way.
Ljubljana legend dictates that the city was founded by Greek mythological hero Jason after fleeing his homeland with the Golden Fleece.
The arriving army of Argonauts – still no doubt pretty fatigued from their trans-European adventure, which included carrying their disassembled ship over land to the Adriatic Sea for their homeward voyage – conjured up the energy to slay the chief resident of the Slovenian marshland, the Ljubljana Dragon.
And while Jason may have founded the city, it's the Dragon's legacy that remains, since becoming the emblem of Ljubljana.
Located between two of central Europe's most famous addresses, Venice and Vienna, this capital city of Slovenia has come a long way since it was surrounded by a barbwire fence during the Second World War and occupied by both the Italian and German armies. Forty-five years as part of socialist Yugoslavia followed before the independent state of Slovenia was declared in 1991.
Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004 and is a fully paid up member of the Euro club since 2007, which makes things a lot easier for the Irish tourist as no crazy calculations are required when bartering in the local market or comparing the price of a pint.
So Dragon Bridge seemed an apt place to begin this Slovenian sojourn, one of the many bridges spanning the slow moving Ljubljanica River that meanders through the city at a pace a few notches below pedestrian.
The stillness of the river complements the atmosphere of its vicinity and the canal-like waterway proves very pretty with dark green and deep blue tones throughout.
There is a valid explanation for the sluggish streams with the river also disappearing underground in places, apparently, causing its fair share of problems in 'days of yore' when rancid butchers' meats would stink up the city.
Butchers' Bridge, like the stench, has long since disappeared and now the riverbank is shrouded with aromas of a very appealing nature as an endless string of restaurants, cafés and bars provide a vibrancy that runs throughout the small but stylish town centre.
There are several ways to explore the city with bicycles, boats and balloons, of the hot air variety, all available.
My preferred weapon of choice was the old reliable walking tour.
And despite being a leisurely ambler, prone to procrastination and easily distracted, the entire city can be covered and discovered within a day or two – including as many coffee, ice cream and burrito breaks as one person can handle.
And such a pretty city at that.
Primarily pedestrianised, the town centre is steeped in history with baroque and art nouveau architectural styles blending harmoniously with contemporary constructions.
The city aesthetics were enhanced by influential architect and Ljubljana's most famous son, Joze Plecnik, who left his own personal stamp on his hometown, making sure to pay homage to its Roman past.
Plecnik played with perspective and produced some very practical pieces, including the Triple Bridge, a pedestrian bridge, also spanning the river, which funnels the town dwellers from six streets into one thanks to his clever three-fold construction.
No city tour is complete without boarding the funicular railway that elevates to the guardian of the city, Ljubljana Castle, where panoramic views from atop the belvedere tower cannot be bettered.
The castle dates back to the ninth century and the hill was first fortified by the Celts, while the Romans also constructed a military post overlooking the city.
Other attractions to visit include the Cathedral, complete with an impressive bronze entrance depicting the history of Slovenia, which was sculpted by Tone Demsar, who even managed to include a self sculpture amidst the masterpiece. It's located on the bottom right of the door, if you can get close enough to examine, with so many tourists lining up to admire the church gates.
The aforementioned Dragon Bridge was built on the site of the former wooden Butchers' Bridge to mark Franz Josef's fortieth anniversary, while Cobblers' Bridge, another of Plecnik's practical works, was designed as a square above water.
Many more squares dominate the Old Town, with Preseren Square housing an impressive statue of the poet that it is dedicated to and whose poem 'A Toast' has been adopted as the Slovenian national anthem.
Culture and Nightlife in Ljubljana
What better introduction to a city than an open-air concert at the Plecnik-designed Krizanke Summer Theatre, as my visit coincided with American rock outfit The National's Ljubljana leg of their European tour.
Playing mainly big festivals around Europe, the warm summer air, intimate setting of the Krizanke courtyard and appreciative crowd seemed to get the best out of the band, treating the locals to an acoustic version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks to finish.
I had a pre-concert dinner by the riverside, where traditional (chorizo flavoured barley stew) and contemporary (pizza) dishes were enjoyed as a New Orleans-style brass ensemble played close by.
And with 10,000 cultural events throughout the year in Ljubljana, not to mention the 60,000 strong student inhabitants, this ever-enjoyable scenario would appear to be the norm rather than the exception.
The entire Slovenian countryside is within touching distance of the capital city, with most attractions within an hour's drive of Ljubljana.
An ideal day trip to take from Ljubljana is to head towards the coast to visit the Postojna Caves, Slovenia's top tourist attraction, which are as impressive as they are deep, a train being required to ferry you below the mountain for an hour-long trek around the ever-changing limestone interior.
The equally impressive Predjama Castle is close by with yet more caves beneath, while equestrian enthusiasts must pay a visit to the famous Lipica Stud Farm, home to the magnificent Lipizzaner white horses.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the very central Hotel Park, located close to the river and within walking distance of the city's main attractions and Tivoli Park. The hotel is an affordable, no frills, but a clean and safe, three star establishment with a young clientele. A decent breakfast was included. A relaxing outdoor café, which serves a decent menu throughout the day, is part of the hotel complex. Wifi is available and, like almost everywhere in Slovenia, is free. www.hotelpark.si.
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