By Florianne Humphrey
Ljubljana, a city that is hard to pronounce and hard to spell but easy to fall in love with.
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a country that is possibly most famous for the picturesque Lake Bled, high up in the Julian Alps. Yet, for a geographically tiny country of only two million, it has a lively and vibrant capital city that I had the pleasure to visit on a road trip around Europe.
Admittedly, Ljubljana was a surprise as we only chose to stay there as a base for the Postojna caves half an hour south of the city. After visiting Slovakia, which still has remnants of its Soviet history, I was expecting the same from Slovenia. This may be simply because their names are so similar, and I’m not the only one who is confused.
Both Silvio Berlusconi and George W. Bush have called Slovenia ‘Slovakia’ and the ambassadors from these countries apparently meet at least once a month to exchange wrongly addressed letters. Whatever the reason behind my preconceptions, they were justly dismantled the moment we were dropped off at the Dragon Bridge, whose decorative statues need no explanation.
Architecturally, Ljubljana is incredibly varied for such a small city, mainly down to the earthquakes it suffered in recent history.
Like much of Europe, Ljubljana was under the thumb of the ancient Roman Empire and nowadays it is still connected to Italy through a shared western border. Remnants of this past can seen in the grandiose temple perched on the edge of the river.
The imposing Roman architecture is softened by the Baroque and Viennese buildings that mainly cluster around the bustling central squares, whilst the hilltop castle that presides over the city is distinctly Renaissance Gothic.
Other cities I visited in Europe were built in a single style or were broken up by steelwork urban buildings. In Ljubljana, however, it is enthralling to walk through the centre and directly experience the transformation in architectural styles across the centuries.
Of course there are some urban structures, but even these are more than just a bland hunk of corporate metal. For example, there is the municipal library with windows shaped like open books and an art-deco tower called the ‘Skyscraper’ that, at only 70m, used to be the tallest building in Europe. Considering the tallest building in Europe is now 374m, it is safe to say that this Slovenian one soon lost its title.
If you are a fan of visual arts but buildings are not your thing, there are also an astounding number of unusual outdoor installations in such a small radius. Forget the Tate Modern, take a short stroll along the river in Ljubljana and see surrealist statues from an inside out man, a cowering wolf, and Alice in Wonderland-esque amphibians perched atop the lovelock bridge.
Even quirkier, there is one side street off the main square whose gullies are filled with anthropomorphised brass faeces, to commemorate the less than hygienic Middle Ages. In Slovenia it seems all of history is celebrated, even the shittier parts.
Ljubljana’s modern streets, however, are in a far different state from the filthy medieval days. Ljubljana residents are proud that their city is the ‘greenest’ in Europe, this pride physically manifesting as an ‘eco-box’ information centre for tourists in the main square.
It is really the template for a perfect city, alive with art exhibits, outdoor libraries, street performers, musicians, alfresco bars, and artisan food markets, without the fear of stepping in chewing gum or coughing up polluted phlegm.
Ljubljana, however, has an underground urban scene that cuts through the historic elegance. Big cities such as London and Berlin are not the only places with an alternative youth subculture.
Just like Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen, Metelkova is a self-autonomous neighbourhood that emerged from a former Austro-Hungarian barracks. It is a psychedelic smorgasbord of colour that assaults the eye, with graffiti crawling up the walls and a tangled web of alien figures stretched across a balcony.
The lack of authoritative presence and the dominating number of stoned teenagers transform the district into a post-apocalyptic society where all the adults have disappeared. It is a youthful utopia where anything goes, where creativity is channelled through street art and house music and there is a free movement of speech and drugs.
It is a bold, bright, rebellious stand in this chocolate-box city and perhaps symbolises that the youth, equipped with countercultural attitudes and revolutionary ideas, are needed to overwrite the historical establishment and smash through the deep rooted status-quo.
This stark contrast between the urban neighbourhood and the beautiful city surrounding it earns Ljubljana the status as one of the most fascinating cities in Europe, as complex and unusual as its name.
Photographs: Florianne Humphrey