Slovenia's Secret Makes a Splash

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 5th April 2006.

It’s hard work going to Ljubljana for the weekend. You have to keep explaining to people where it is. “The capital of Slovenia…in the mountains next to Italy…south of Austria…on the Adriatic. It’s lovely.” But they can’t envisage it, a place they’ve only faintly heard of that sounds disturbingly like Lubyanka, Moscow’s notorious KGB headquarters.

Which is a shame, because Ljubljana might just be the most engaging small city I have ever visited. In the long, hot summer, its friendly inhabitants, swelled by a university population of more than 55,000, take to the streets. From April until October, the banks of the slender river Ljubljanica , the city’s lifeblood, are packed with animated pavement cafés, their tables and umbrellas spilling into courtyards and right down the middle of the beautiful cobbled streets of the Old Town. There’s music everywhere, from busking accordionists to chamber groups, and the exuberant festival of street theatre is just one of many that takes place each year in this culture-rich capital.

Even during the dullest months, Ljubljana has enough jauntiness to make a short visit well worthwhile. Cosy indoor cafés come into their own, serving vast cups of frothy coffee, viscous hot chocolate and slabs of wickedly fattening cake.

But it’s the Mediterranean-style summer, and the four weeks from early December to early January, that are the optimum times to discover Ljubljana’s refreshing, little-known charms. I’d been before in autumn, and loved it, but nothing prepared me for the magic of Christmas time.

“It’s done for ourselves, and for no one else”, our acquaintance Martin told us, as my son and I gazed at the transformation of an already-beautiful city into the sort of traditional Christmas wonderland that in Britain exists only on an old-fashioned advent calendar. “It’s not for tourism or business, it’s for our own pleasure, just like the pavement cafés and festivals in summer. We have an Italian appreciation of¬ la dolce vita, but at the same time we have a strong work ethic, like our Austrian and German neighbours.”

It was already dark when our taxi deposited us in the centre of town. High above, Ljubljana Castle, dramatically lit, stood on its steep, thickly wooded hill, which was draped with Christmas lights like ropes of pearls. In Presernov Square, the city’s dainty heart, a huge fir tree was smothered in tiny white lights, while beautiful decorations in the shape of shooting stars and heavenly bodies were suspended overhead. All around, buildings and trees sparkled with lights in the crisp, cold air, and along the river stretched a long row of Christmas stalls selling sweets and gifts. Even the city’s statues, boarded up in winter to protect them from damaging frosts, were wrapped in red foil and tied with huge silver bows to resemble giant Christmas presents.

Stepping inside the pink baroque Franciscan church we found more Christmas trees and fairy lights, and on the altar a lavish nativity scene, the stable surrounded by mountains and desert, even a mini fish-filled lake.

Back in Presernov Square, where a statue of Slovenia’s most revered poet gazes poignantly at a small bust, placed at an upper window, of his real-life muse and unrequited love, the stage was set for an evening of music and song: for three weeks around Christmas there are free open-air concerts here each night, despite the cold, with a big celebration on New Year’s Eve.

It doesn’t take long to get to know Ljubljana. Its pleasures are small ones, its delights low key, but its air of freshness and innocence (it’s remarkably clean and almost crime-free) makes them all the more rewarding. “We don’t even have swear words in our language, we have to borrow foreign ones,” says Martin. “‘May you get kicked by a hen’ is as bad as it gets.”

Next morning we headed back to Presernov Square with its mix of baroque and art nouveau buildings, crossing the picturesque Triple Bridge to explore the large and lively market. We paused for a snack in the café next to the fish market, housed in a graceful curving building by the great inter-war architect Plecnick, responsible for so much that is pleasing in Ljubljana, including the Triple Bridge and the magnificent, highly individual University Library. After admiring the modern bronze doors of St Nicholas Cathedral, we strolled along the cobbled street of the Old Town, lined by fine baroque houses, which curls round the base of Castle Hill. A short walk beside the river, and we found ourselves among the market gardens of the village-like Krakovo district. Here Pri Scofu, with its bright colours and daily changing menu (try the octopus salad and risotto) makes a great place for lunch, and nearby, Plecnik’s House (Karunova ulika 4) paints a sympathetic portrait of a modest visionary.

Walking off our lunch with a stiff climb (there’s a little tourist train too) we reached the immaculate, whitewashed 16th century castle (with 12th century roots), where an enlightening 3-D film tells the story of Ljubljana from its earliest days. The much-vaunted panorama from the top of the clocktower revealed a ring of snow-capped peaks – the Kamniske Alps – but also a swathe of dreary suburbs straggling right across the plain. Clearly this was a far larger city that we had imagined when exploring its toy-town core. We almost wished we hadn’t climbed up.

Down below again, the human scale of the place, with hardly a jarring note, quickly brought back the magic and the small pleasures, such as a cosy evening boat trip along the decorated section of the river, and mulled wine and roasted chestnuts in Presernov Square. Then it was time for Tosca (superb singing, creaky sets) at the intimate, doll-like neo-Renaissance Opera House, where £20 buys you a seat in the stalls or a box.

While there are plenty of characterful restaurants and gostilnas (inns) in Ljubljana, the same cannot be said for its dull hotels. If we couldn’t have atmosphere, we decided to have fun instead and opted for the Domina Grand Media, a ten-minute taxi or shuttle bus ride from the centre. Described as ‘one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world’ with a luxurious oriental–style health and beauty centre and a casino, it could have kept us occupied for hours. Each of the huge and rather elegant bedrooms has a ‘media platform’ with wall-mounted plasma screen and access to films, daily newspapers, dozens of TV and radio channels, email and internet. But for me, the hotel’s greatest draw was its free (to guests) international telephone calls. “Hi there,” I sang out a dozen times to friends and relatives around the world “guess what, I’m in Ljubljana in a hotel where you can make free calls…”

“Where did you say you were, Ljub…?”

Essentials

Getting there

Easyjet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) fly daily from Stanstead to Ljubljana from [cost to be checked before publication]

Staying there

The smart, spacious, superbly equipped rooms at the Domina Grand Media Hotel ((00386 1 588 2500; www.dominagrandmedialjubljana.com)

cost from £125 per night; a mid-range room costs £160. Lunch at Pri Scofu ((Recna cesta 5; 00386 1 426 4508) costs around £12, while dinner at Pri Vitesu (Breg 18; 00386 1 426 6058) costs around £20. In this pretty restaurant, choose from a dining room filled with oil paintings and polished sideboards, or a homelier one with vaulted ceiling and country furniture; don’t miss the ginger soup. As for cafés, Zvezda in Wolfova ulica (wonderful ice cream too), Le Petit Café in French Revolution Square and Macek in Krojaska ulica are amongst the best.

What it costs for two

Two nights’ stay £320

Meals £76

Transfers and taxis £34

Opera £40

Cafés £10

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