Ljubljana is the new Prague, darling
It has beautiful buildings. It has a cafe society. It has good wine. But best of all, it has no crowds
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 07 October 2001
The piratical man drew his sword with a flourish, blade glinting perilously in the late morning sun. Stressing the quality of his wares to an outwardly neutral onlooker, he started slicing the air frenetically.
The piratical man drew his sword with a flourish, blade glinting perilously in the late morning sun. Stressing the quality of his wares to an outwardly neutral onlooker, he started slicing the air frenetically. That seemed to do the trick, as, amid a flurry of banter and back-slapping, the ceremonial scimitar changed hands. The buccaneer-type pocketed the readies, before scanning the browsing throng for another likely customer.
Ljubljana's Sunday flea market takes place on the promenade overlooking the willow-fringed Ljubljanica river. Bargain-hunters graze on the legions of stalls, pick over the arbitrarily stacked bric-a-brac, wrangle with the vendors, but usually move on empty-handed. Backchat boomerangs between the gaggle of resting retail therapists installed at the cafes, drinking tiny cups of corrosively strong espresso, and the traders. The random nature of the crowd and the ad hoc atmosphere contrast wildly with that of the previous evening, when Ljubljana's beautiful young things roamed the waterfront, parading wares of a different sort.
Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, is desperately marketed by the tourist brochures as the new Prague. And maybe, for once, the tourist literature isn't so far from the truth. Ljubljana is an exceptionally attractive city and, like Prague, it has more than its fair share of beautiful buildings plus a lively café society. There is one big difference though – no crowds. City-breakers have yet to latch on to Ljubljana as a mellow destination for some pleasant time out. Which, of course, is nice for those of us who have discovered its languid charm, if frustrating for the people who want to make a living from tourism. As one restaurateur observed, "People from Britain either think Slovenia is a war zone, or they confuse it with Slovakia."
For the record, Slovenia was the first of the former Yugoslav states to gain independence after a war that lasted just 10 days. The country did not suffer the bitter aftertaste of internecine conflict like other regions of the former Yugoslavia, nor does it have a disastrous human rights record to live down. Geographically, the country is part of central rather than eastern Europe, and its eyes have always looked firmly westward to neighbours Austria and Italy. The country enjoys considerable affluence, manufacturing Renault cars and exporting high-quality skis.
Ljubljana is the nation's political, economic and cultural hub, yet it has scarcely more than 300,000 inhabitants. Its aesthetic appeal owes much to architect Joze Plecnik, who introduced an eclectic mix of styles – Byzantine, Classical Greek and Roman – to the existing Baroque and Secessionist elements. Plecnik allowed his imagination free rein, somehow avoiding Communist opprobrium, despite the extravagantly decadent nature of some of his designs.
The Old Town, with its abundance of cafe bars, meandering streets and cobbled alleyways, is the visitor's natural haunt. Separated from the centre by the Ljubljanica river, it can be accessed by a number of bridges, all of which are visually beguiling. There is the attractive Shoemaker's Bridge, with its elegant colonnades, for example, and the Dragon Bridge, complete with quirky legend. Apparently, the imposing stone dragons that preside over it, eyes flaring and jaws agape, wag their tails when a virgin crosses the bridge. Unfortunately, this isn't a phenomenon I can verify.
Eating out is something of a pot-luck experience. Ljubljana's best restaurants are frighteningly expensive, which is surprising given that practically everything else is extremely modestly priced. Good food that will not damage the wallet therefore has to be winkled out. Mediterranean influences are evident in offerings such as grilled vegetable platters, gnocchi, polenta and excellent seafood. However, traditional Slovene food is pretty much dominated by meat. The best features are small spicy meat patties and peppery sausages, accompanied by ajvar, a tasty puree of roasted red pepper, tomato and aubergine. For true comfort food, gibanica, a sweetly scrumptious concoction of layered flaky pastry with fruit, nuts, poppy seeds and cheese, is well worth diving into. Several dishes, however, are a long way from enticing. Should you see hard-boiled buckwheat mush featuring on a menu, don't be tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt – believe me, it's every bit as grotesque as it sounds. Ditto the tripe goulash.
Slovenia has made wine since Roman times and there is a Slovenian Academy of Wine. The country's lusty reds marry well with the prosciutto-like Karst ham, and its fine dry whites rub shoulders happily with fish. Look out for the name Dolfo. The wine is particularly enjoyable and the priapic individual featured on the label could give the Cerne Abbas Giant a run for his money.
Ljubljana encourages sloth, especially when summer temperatures soar. But there are things to see for those who want to slot in some cultural activity. The Museum of Modern Art is worth a whirl as it has some extraordinary displays. The National Gallery is more conventional, housing the obligatory portraits of po-faced aristocrats. Probably more fascinating than the exhibits are its Art Deco loos.
Ljubljana Castle affords an eagle's eye view over the city's terracotta rooftops to the wooded hills that encircle it. Cruising its breezy ramparts compensated for the uphill slog to get there and the skirmish with a less than endearing ticket saleswoman. But best of all, was the lunch at Florijanu's, obligatory sightseeing accomplished. Situated at the foot of Castle Hill, this cosy restaurant provides simple but extremely appetising fare (the menu did not so much as hint at tripe goulash), along with a gratifyingly indolent atmosphere. And there wasn't another tourist in sight.
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