Nicola Heath writes: “Why Slovenia?” people — especially Slovenians — would ask. Before the trip I would say, shamefacedly, that it had a lot to do with the cheapest available airfares over the UK April travel frenzy. Half of London was using the cluster of public holidays (Easter, the royal wedding and a bank holiday) to go abroad, and flights to the most popular destinations had spiked accordingly. Sadly for the Slovenians, their country must have slipped off the hotspot list as I and three friends could afford to go.
Post-trip I’ve revised my answer. Why Slovenia? Because Ljubljana, its capital, is a small but perfectly formed city, presided over by a hilltop castle (or grad in local parlance) which in its current state dates from the 16th century. I can’t overstate the novelty of taking my first funicular, from the base of the castle hill to the top, a journey of just one minute. The Art Nouveau and Viennese Secessionist buildings of the old city crowd along the Ljubljanica, a walled-in river crossed by a number of bridges. An antique and flea market is held every Sunday on the Cankarjevo bank of the river, and if you had any room in your luggage you could take home any manner of bits and pieces: coins and medals, vintage jewellery and sunglasses, books and records, cigarette cases and pipes, old toys and antique furniture.
It’s hackneyed, but the people in Ljubljana are unfailingly friendly. I could rephrase it and say, the people are eager to ply visitors with conversation and advice and drink, not always in that order. The second Slovenian we met fulfilled this stereotype. His name sounded something like Today, so that’s what I’ll call him. After two rounds of local beers we were just about to move on from the first bar we’d stopped at when Today, sitting nearby and obviously listening to our no-doubt sparkling conversation, asked us if we were Australian. By grace of not being English, Australians are quite popular in Europe. Anyway, it quickly turned out that our man Today was an Australiaphile. There was little we could tell him about our country. He knew of the Kimberleys, Newcastle and Coober Pedy. He deserved a passport there and then.
With Today onside our night unfolded fairly expectedly, and then ended, for me at least. At midnight I was compelled to retire, while I still had a snifter of dignity left in me. My loss, as my companions moved on to Metelkova, an abandoned communist-era military barracks repurposed by squatters, anarchists and artists, and then nightclub owners and Nick Cave fans (from my friends’ recollections), into a rundown, hedonistic clubland, covered in graffiti (as was the rest of the city). At Metelkova, there is a club for everyone. I did end up visiting, on a quiet Easter evening when the place was seven-eighths deserted. We never did see Today after that first night.
There’s more to Ljubljana than ebullient locals and nightclub wonderlands. There is a great deal to eat, and most of it meat. Cheese too. Our second day in Ljubljana we dusted ourselves off and headed to the central market, not far from Butchers’ Bridge, where we found a formidable array of produce. Fruit, veg and delicious cured meat — as you’d expect in central Europe — and cheese, which I may have already mentioned. In Ljubljana we were inducted into the wonderful world of goulash and vanilla slice.
There isn’t a shade of green that won’t be found in Slovenia. The woods that cover the hills surrounding Ljubljana are smothered in verdure; memories of Australia’s arid areas seem shocking when looking at the endless lushness of the Slovenian countryside. Further north in the Julian Alps, not far from the Austrian and Italian borders, is Bled, an alpine lake and small town of the same name that swells with visitors every high season. It is pure fairytale; a beautiful church sits on an island in the western part of the lake, and a castle, rebuilt after WWII, overlooks it all.
With a population of just two million Slovenia is often overshadowed by its larger and better known neighbours — Austria, Italy and Croatia. But it’s friendly and safe and out of the way and bound to host more visitors as the secret gets out.
Nicola Heath lives in London, works in media and travels Europe at every opportunity. She also blogs at [nicopedia].