A direct flight from Berlin to Ljubljana, if available, takes barely two hours. But for me, making a last minute booking, the only option was to fly via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. Although I was in the air for nearly five hours and had a three hour layover, the whole experience was surprisingly stress free. It helped that the aircraft had comfortable seats, ample leg room and was not completely full. Excellent meals, inclusive of the ticket price, were served by friendly and efficient staff – provisions that have become increasingly rare on short-haul flights.
During the final leg, I thought I would find out what Turkish Airlines had to say about Slovenia’s capital. According to information on my in-flight display panel, Ljubljana is regarded as the most green and liveable city in Europe. I liked the sound of those two descriptions together – ‘green’ and ‘liveable’. For me, the word ‘liveable’ invoked visions of a city where quality of life is the primary consideration of city councils and planners.
At the airport I took a shuttle car into the city. There was one other passenger in the car, a Turkish man who had been on the same flight and was in Ljubljana for at least a month to do some work at the local university. His speciality area was researching criminal activity in art and antiquities. According to him, Slovenia has an excellent course in the field. He explained that his research involved not only art heists, but illegal reproductions, and the on-sale to wealthy European buyers of antiquities stolen by terrorist groups like ISIS. A few years earlier he’d been doing research in Japan, on the criminal activities of Japanese motorcycle gangs. It was fascinating stuff.
As we neared the centre of Ljubljana I noticed the recognisable form of Castle Hill, covered in forest, rising up high above the buildings of the inner city. Not far from the base of the hill at its southern most tip was my apartment building. I was on the fourth floor in a newly renovated space, outfitted with all the latest appliances, and tastefully decorated with the owner’s artworks. On closer inspection I discovered that all the larger appliances – the fridge, the stove, the washing machine – were made by Slovenian company Gorenje, a household name in the country and one of the ten largest home appliance manufacturers in Europe.
From the living room, a floor-to-ceiling glass door opened out onto a small balcony with a view over tree-lined streets and beyond to the lush green forests covering Castle Hill. So nice was the apartment that the day after my arrival, I booked it for an additional three nights. It is situated in a quiet residential area, close to the Ljubljanica River that snakes its way through the city and is only ten minutes walk from the Old Town and the centre.
My first excursion was a walk up Castle Hill, named after the large castle perched on top. I found a ‘secret’ overground trail at the end of my street and followed it up into the forest. It was nice to be walking up high, along well-worn paths winding their way amongst the trees. Although the weather was warm, the walk was cool and tranquil. My movement created a subtle interplay between the bright sunshine and the deep shade of the trees. Every so often there would be a break in the forest and I could enjoy views of the city below. In the foreground were the tightly packed terracotta rooftops of the Old Town, flanked by more recent apartment buildings and the gentle curve of the river. There was an abundance of green space throughout the city, as if the forests that once grew here still held prominence. In the distance were high mountain ranges; their pale blue peaks still spotted with snow and partially obscured by cloud.
Before long I encountered the impressive stone walls of the castle, rising up out of the trees and evoking thoughts of times past. Inside, its atmosphere was spoiled slightly by the ill-matching glass and steel additions of a modern refurbishment and various cafes and tourist kiosks. I fought my way through crowds of visitors to climb the spiral staircase of the clock tower, for an uninterrupted view of the surrounding city. I also visited the Museum of Puppetry, housed in one of the castle’s larger rooms. It had an extensive collection of hand-crafted marionettes made from wood and metal and representing a long tradition of puppetry in Slovenian culture.
On the other side of Castle Hill, I descended into the city centre and the Old Town. There were bustling produce markets, food stalls and lots of people in the streets enjoying the festive atmosphere of the weekend. The outdoor tables of all the restaurants and cafes were full of customers, eating and drinking in the sunshine.
I crossed the river at Dragon Bridge, admiring the four large dragon sculptures mounted on pedestals at each of its corners. The dragon, a symbol of courage, grandeur and power has become the emblem of the city of Ljubljana. Legend has it that a dragon once lurked in the marshlands to the south of the city. It was killed by Jason and the Argonauts on their way home to Ancient Greece, after stealing the Golden Fleece from the King of the Black Sea. Mythology aside, archaeological evidence suggests that people inhabited the marshlands outside the city in ancient times, living in houses built on stilts. It was in those marshlands that the oldest known wooden wheel was discovered by archaeologists in 2002. Dated at over five thousand years old, it underwent careful restoration before ending up on display in the Ljubljana City Museum, although I never got around to seeing it.
One thing that stood out for me as I wandered around Ljubljana was the lack of racial diversity. Perhaps it was particularly noticeable to me after spending so much time in London. It came as no surprise that national elections held on a weekend I was there, were won by Janez Jansa, a populist party leader with a strong stance against immigration. It appeared as if Slovenia was aligning itself even more closely with other right-wing European countries like Hungary, Austria, Poland and Italy.
In many ways, Slovenia felt like a walled garden. It was adorned with picture-postcard scenery but had a strict immigration policy designed to keep non-business immigrants out. With a population of only two million people the country felt noticeably uncrowded. Although its residents pay steep taxes, they enjoy excellent public services and a high standard of living.
After a few days walking the streets in Ljubljana, finding my bearings and getting to know the city, it was time to venture out into the Slovenian countryside. To the north of the city is a forest covered hill called Mount Saint Mary (Smarna Gora). It is popular with hikers and runners and on one afternoon I caught a local bus there and joined them in making my way to its summit. I enjoyed the much needed exercise, particularly as I planned to make some trips further afield, to Slovenia’s famous lakes and caves and beyond into the high mountains of the Julian Alps.