Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

I came across a Slovenian proverb, short and sweet, “All roads do not lead to Rome”.  For me, stopping in Slovenia on the way to Italy (and never actually making it to Rome) was the best decision I’ve made on this trip so far.  The country and its capital are small (the smallest capital in Europe, to be precise), but as I was warned, something about Slovenia and its capital that steals hearts.

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

To capture the essence of this endearing and precious capital, I think the city emblem is a good place to start.  Through my journey through Europe so far, cities have been saturated with lion statues, which symbolize many of the same traits as the dragon (strength, courage and might).  But there’s something about the dragon and the way it perches on the city’s most famous bridge, adorns manhole covers and makes an appearance of the coat of arms and even represents the local soccer team that is so much better than the cliche choice of a lion.  It’s not the scariest looking dragon, but its a little quirky, a little badass and infinitely more memorable.  Legend has it that this fearsome lizard lurked in the marshes that surrounded the city, gobbling up fish, otters, river rats and even unfortunate farming folk that crossed its path.  Its reign of terror ended after a legendary Greek hero raged an epic battle against the sinister scaly creature.  There’s more details about the grisly battle and Slovenia’s “first fireworks show” as the dragon fought to its death but in the end, killing the dragon made the mudflats an infinitely more pleasant place to inhabit.  And that’s what Slovenia initially was mudflats, inhabited by people undeterred by a little dirt.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled, Slovenia… its a fairy tale come true!

I first learned about Slovenia when I saw the popular image of its most famous attraction: Lake Bled, the fairy tale lake that contains a floating castle and is snuggled at the feet of the Alps.  This relaxing resort town is about an hour’s drive from the city center and just breathing in the invigorating air is worth the trip.  You’ll also have spectacular views of mountains and cute, white houses along the way.  There’s not too much to the town except for sauntering alongside the lake, feeding the ducks and climbing the castle… if you’re lucky, there will be a makeshift camp of medieval men who may challenge you to a hatchet throwing contest or invite you to an evening of fire celebrations.

Medieval soldiers at Bled Castle, Slovenia

Medieval soldiers at Bled Castle, Slovenia

If being Robin Hood isn’t your thing or you’ve already wandered through all the Bled woods, don’t worry, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Ljubljana.

Cafes by the river & the town hall, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Cafes by the river & the town hall, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

I pictured the capital full of charming, colorful Old World plazas, cutesy baroque churches, overlooked by a castle on a hill.  Ljubljana certainly has all of that, enhanced by rivers, bridges and cafes galore.  Despite colorful exteriors, the buildings were more worn than other parts of Europe and the peeling paint and faded exteriors made them all the more endearing.  But what I found most interesting is the city’s punky alternative vibe.  There were lots of people wandering the streets with pink hair, piercings and skateboards.  Not rocking dyed hair in a scary extreme way, more like “I think about things and I don’t need to dress like my grandma”.  The city has its share of graffiti and actually has an area dedicated to alternative cultural expression in metelkova mesto.  First built as the barracks of the Austro-Hungarian army, it has been used by the kingdom of Yugoslavia, Italian facists, German nazis then the Yugoslavian army again.  Despite authority’s initial attempts to regulate it, squatters insisted on expressing themselves in the former military barracks until the government eventually accepted it as a cultural space.  There’s artist studies, cafe bars, art galleries, second hand galleries and it hosts various events throughout the year.  This is something that I kind of explored the outskirts of but didn’t really find out about until I left, which kills me!

Metelkova Mestro, Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Photo courtesy of Michael Perry.

Metelkova Mestro, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo courtesy of Michael Perry.

In general, this area and the city represent an energetic spirit, not strangled by its small size or old school past or series of army occupations.  There’s an intelligence here, a creative thinking-outside-the-box, a kind of rebel-without-a-cause vibe which I never expected but absolutely adore.  In closing, I only spent about 24 hours in this country but it was enough to convince me, without a doubt, I need to come back!

Song of the Moment: Preko Beograda do Ljubljane– Djomla KS (Ft. Mambo King)… not sure this counts as quality music but it’s filmed in Ljubljana so you should watch the video!

If YOU want to go to Slovenia: You can get to the capital rather easily from Vienna or Budapest… Trieste, Italy is only an hour away but it’s surprisingly expensive to make the connection without a car.  In general, I’ve been using a ride share website to travel around Europe thus far and for solo travelers, it’s amazing… so much cheaper and faster than public transportation as long as you can be flexible with your plans.  Almost everyone speaks English, there’s free wifi in the bus/ train station (for at least 60 minutes) and everything is very walkable in the capital… it’s an incredibly easy place to travel around and pretty affordable too!  Someone told me “you can see all of Ljubljana in 2 hours and that includes a coffee break”… which is potentially true for a fly-by peruse of the main squares, but I promise you, you will want to spend more time here!

Views on the drive from Ljubiljana to Bled, Slovenia

Views on the drive from Ljubiljana to Bled, Slovenia

To get to Bled: You can catch a bus from the main bus station (my host recommended it over the train and it worked well for me).  Buses leave about every hour, cost ~6 euros each way and take ~75 minutes (there’s an express option if you spend an extra euro or two).  The drive is breathtaking and an attraction in and of itself!  The bus station in Bled is small and very close to everything you need to see.

If I were to go to Slovenia again: I’d consider staying at Celica Hostel in metelkova mesto, Ljubljana.   Since I had a wonderful host, I didn’t find out about it until after I left but this hostel and art gallery is a converted prison, located in the alternative cultural hub I mentioned.  The actual hostel is more of an art gallery than a budget place to stay, with custom designed rooms, murals and all sorts of artsy interiors near clubs, live music and performance art venues.  As one reviewer wrote, “it’s a great way to spend the night behind bars without the trouble that comes with it”.

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