A February 2005 trip
to Ljubljana by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Simultaneously modern and medieval, cosmopolitan and cozy, Slovenia's capital is quickly becoming a popular destination: and rightly so!
Much of the Old Town’s present appearance (including that of the castle) owes to its reconstruction after a disastrous earthquake in 1511. Many of its signature buildings, however, such as the Magistrat (Town Hall), St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Gruber Palace, and Jesuit St. James’ Church, date to the following two centuries, when Ljubljana became an important center for both the Reformation and its suppression. This intellectual activity led to the development of a distinctive architectural style known as the Ljubljana Baroque, as well as the city’s expansion to the far side of the Ljubljanica, where important cultural institutions, such as one of Europe’s first musical conservatories, were located. One of the finest residences built in this style, theAuersperg Palace is currently being converted into the (so far) excellent City Museum.
Ljubljana’s position between Vienna and the Istrian coast led Napoleon to designate it as the capital of his Illyrian Provinces and (once Hapsburg rule had been restored) to its placement on the Vienna-Trieste railway line. Increased prosperity, the development of suburbs on the left bank of the Ljubljanica, and light industrialization followed. This newfound wealth and a developing Slovene national consciousness led to the establishment of various provincial institutions in the late 19th century, which acquired a national character after Slovenia’s 1991 independence, such as Ljubljana University, the National Museum, Opera House, and National Gallery.
An earthquake in 1895 necessitated much rebuilding, leading to the construction of the beloved Dragon Bridge in 1901 and allowing Ljubljana native Jože Plečnik an essentially free hand in designing such iconic structures as the Triple Bridge, National and University Library, and the Market Colonnade in the Old Town. His fellow Secessionists also contributed a variety of interesting buildings on the left bank of the river, and their harmonious interplay with Ljubljana’s Baroque core was not unduly disturbed by the dull socialist architecture that blights much of Central Europe.
English is widely understood, especially at establishments in the Old Town, transport stations, and historic sights.
The Ljubljana Tourist Board operates offices at the railway station, Stritarjeva (next to the Triple Bridge), and Krekov trg 10, all of which offer useful maps of the city, helpful Where To? listings guides, and bus system free of charge. The latter two offices also offer information about Slovenia as a whole. The office at Krekov trg is the best place for Internet access, which costs SIT 250 per half-hour.
Ljubljana is almost exactly in the center of Slovenia, making it quite easy to take a day trip almost anywhere else in the country via the excellent bus and rail networks.
The Ljubljana Card costs SIT 3000 and offers free admission to most museums, free transportation on city buses, and a variety of discounts at shops and restaurants. It is better value in summer than in winter (as many attractions are closed then) and is valid for 72 hours. It may be obtained at tourist offices and most hotels.
Getting Around Ljubljana: Ljubljana is best seen on foot, and indeed much of the historic center is pedestrianized. Single ride tokens for the reliable, but relatively infrequent city buses cost 190 SIT, or you can pay 300 SIT (notes only) on the bus. Many lines only run until 8pm.
Location: Despite the word "Center" (which has the same meaning in Slovene as in English) in its name, the hotel’s biggest drawback is its location 3km south of the city center, a 10- to 20-minute ride on city buses nos. 5, 9, and 13 to the Emona stop. Unfortunately, this is the closest you’ll find a reasonably priced single room to Ljubljana’s city center. The presence of a Konzum Supermarket, the excellent Pizzeria Oliva, and several shops nearby, as well as some attractive mountain views, somewhat ameliorate this state of affairs. However, if you’re planning to base yourself in Ljubljana to take day trips to the rest of Slovenia (bus no. 9 runs to the train/bus station), as I did, this location is relatively inconvenient.
Rooms: The sterile, basic, clean single room was just what I expected and as much as I might have hoped for. The room contained a pair of short single beds that were not particularly comfortable, and more inexcusably (considering that many Slovenes are quite tall), rather short. While there were relatively few blankets, the room was amply heated (I could adjust the radiator), which was particularly helpful since it snowed every day during the first of my two stays! The room had remote-controlled satellite television. The plastic-coated bathroom contained a shower with decent pressure and a small sink. Soap, plastic ups, and towels (but not shampoo) were provided. The room was cleaned and the bed was made up daily.
Service: The hotel’s English-speaking desk staff, who also manage the on-site fitness club and solarium, were extremely friendly and knowledgeable. They remembered me on my second visit, and consequently, upgraded me to a rather more comfortable double room at no extra charge and consistently answered even my silliest questions about Ljubljana and Slovenia as a whole. While I did not take advantage of this, they offer hotel guests a 50% discount on their fitness facilities. Somewhat expensive Internet access is also available on site. Note that the front desk is only staffed from 7am to midnight and that they require that you pay for your entire stay in advance!
This hotel generally served my needs well, but because of its location, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re specifically looking for an inexpensive single room, as I was. If you are seeking hostel accommodation, I would recommend the central Hostel Celica rather than Youth Hostel Ljubljana, which is located in the BIT Center’s basement.
Rates and further information: http://www.bit-center.net
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 28, 2005
BIT Center Hotel
Sokol doesn’t just mean hawk in Slovene (hence the large metal bird by the entrance). It also refers to a society that advocated Slovene rights and culture under Hapsburg rule, whose members included the architect Jože Plečnik, Ljubljana’s most famous son. While the setting can’t compare with Plečnik’s masterpieces, the inn-like downstairs dining room covered in paintings depicting characters from Slovene folklore is quite atmospheric nonetheless. The cramped upstairs balcony is a little too authentic for some guests (myself among them!)
Once ensconced in either locale, I’d recommend asking your server’s advice regarding what to order unless something particularly strikes your fancy. I found the wait staff consistently helpful and friendly. Among other things, they’re particularly helpful in suggesting the side dishes to order with some of the more unusual Slovene main courses, as well as cautioning you as to which ones are most filling, which is not readily obvious from the menu descriptions. In any case, they’ll invariably recommend you leave room for the gibanica, the multi-flavored sweet pie from Prekmurje (northern Slovenia) that is the closest thing the country has to a national dish, a suggestion I’d certainly repeat to you.
My personal favorite dish is the grilled squid stuffed with karstic ham and cheese (from Slovenia’s tiny Istrian coast), although on both visits when I tried their excellent stews, I left barely able to eat much more (fortunately, having been warned this would be the case!). I’d caution you against trying the venison with berries, as when I sampled it, the tasty sweet sauce couldn’t quite hide the fact that the meat itself was rather dry and overcooked. While the various meat platters tend to be relatively expensive, by Slovene standards, and bereft of significant vegetable garnishes, several avid carnivores with whom I spoke expressed their great delight with them, so I feel confident seconding their recommendation.
Sokol is neither the best value restaurant in central Ljubljana (which boasts a surprisingly interesting dining scene for such a small city) nor the most renowned, but it’s unbeatable for an introduction to Slovene food, and for this reason, I’d heartily recommend it (provided you have an equally hearty appetite, of course!)
http://www.gostilna-sokol.com (Slovene only)
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 28, 2005
Torso D.o.o. Ciril Metodov Trg 18
386 (0)1 439 68 55
Attraction | "National Museum/Museum of Natural History"
Although many of the National Museum’s collections are currently closed, the quality of those on view at the time of my visit are more than worthy of a visit. The ground floor consists of a quadrangular hallway that houses the best classical lapidarium I have ever visited, which surrounds a glass-covered courtyard used for temporary exhibitions. It contains a wealth of Roman stone markers (largely gravestones) drawn from all around Slovenia, each accompanied by a panel reproducing the Latin words engraved on the stone together, with translations and explanatory notes in both Slovene and English. Many, but by no means the majority, come from Emona, the Roman town on the site of Ljubljana. Rather more incongruously (but quite enjoyably), an Egyptian mummy and sarcophagus are displayed near the end of this exhibit.
Upstairs, a display explains that the National Museum is the successor to the Carniolan Regional Museum, which the ornately decorated Rudolfinum was built to house. Consequently, the exhibitions cover Slovenia’s history prior to the First World War (its subsequent experience is depicted in the excellent Museum of Modern History in Tivoli Park). Restoration work has limited the displays to two dozen boxes containing objects that would be ordinary except for their degree of preservation. But proving that less is more, the excellent captions (in English and Slovene) weave them together into a compelling story of the many peoples (and classes) that have inhabited Slovenia, managing to give coverage to all and precedence to none.
The Museum of Natural History, which occupies the left side of the Rudolfinum’s upper floor, is the only truly child-friendly sight in Ljubljana. The museum’s prize exhibit is a 20,000-year-old mammoth skeleton excavated near Kamnik in 1938, although the delightful exhibit of Alpine flora and fauna next door is more appealing for both the young and young at heart. Bathed in light from the large windows and the ceiling, and accompanied by recordings of rushing water, birds, and insects, its manifold displays do an excellent job of portraying nature’s glorious cacophony, although the accompanying text is largely in Slovene only.
The largest galleries, which feature a macabre display of skeletons that seem to have been imported from a 19th-century veterinary clinic and a rather more pleasant collection of stuffed birds and mammals, are rather more didactic, though less appealing. There’s no labeling in English in either room, although as children are the ones most likely to find the large taxidermy section most interesting, this doesn’t matter much. The museum’s most interesting exhibit (which includes a short video presentation in Slovene and English) deals with the so-called "human fish" (Proteus anguinus), a blind white amphibian that is the world’s largest cave-dwelling vertebrate. A thorough display of minerals rounds out this enjoyable little museum.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 28, 2005
Muzejska ulica 1
Ljubljana, Slovenia 1000
386 1/ 2414400
Attraction | "Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most)"
Contrary to popular belief, the Dragon Bridge is one of the few modern Ljubljana landmarks not designed by Jože Plečnik. Ironically, for the most recognizable feature of Slovenia’s capital city, the architect responsible for the delightful dragons, Jurij Zaninovich, was a Croatian, while the engineer responsible for the designing structure itself, Josef Melan, was an Austrian. At the time of its construction in 1901, the bridge’s supporting structure featured the third largest arch in Europe constructed according to the principles of the Melan System. This innovation did away with the need to build (and then remove) rigid metal supports from bridges by incorporating them into the arches themselves, meaning that they could consequently be built far more rapidly.
The bridge was originally named The Jubilee Bridge of the Emperor Franz Josef I (Jubljeni Most), which accounts for the dates 1848 and 1888, which appear on its south side. Interestingly, the greatest advocate for this rather imperialist structure was Ivan Hribar, who served as Ljubljana’s mayor between 1896 and 1910, one of the first ethnic Slovenes to do so. The famously punctual Hribar remains one of Ljubljana’s greatest figures because of his largely successful attempts to modernize his home city in the wake of the 1895 earthquake, but it’s somewhat ironic that the structure most closely associated with his leadership opened 3 years late. Despite the dates on the bridge, it was actually originally intended to open in 1898 to celebrate Franz Josef’s Golden Jubilee.
Hribar, a staunch advocate of Slovene culture, got the last laugh, however, cleverly ordering that the placard on the side of the bridge dedicated to the (Austrian) Franz Josef I be written in Slovene rather than German. It’s the earliest known official use of the country’s language, which was banned from schools by the Hapsburgs. Furthermore, the bridge’s grandiloquent original name never caught on, as Ljubljancani simply called it Zmajski most in honor of the sculptures. Hribar was must have been very pleased in 1919, when this change in nomenclature from a tribute to a foreign monarch to a reference to a local legend was made official, along with the Slovene language itself.
Dragon Bridge/Zmajski Most
Crosses Ljubljanica River between Kopitar and Ressel Streets
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