Rarely have we felt so quickly at-ease with a city as we did after arriving in Ljubljana. It was certainly helped by our beautiful, sunny apartment, and by the impeccable blue skies and mid-70s temperatures, but there was something else about the capital of Slovenia that felt incredibly welcoming and comfortable.
Ljubljana is a medium-sized city with a population around 280,000. The jade-colored Ljubljanica River cuts through the city, with walkways and cafes lining both banks, and a myriad of interesting bridges spanning the two sides. The Triple Bridge, dedicated to Archduke Franz Karl, is a primary pedestrian crossing to access the historic center, while the Butcher Bridge is decorated with somewhat disturbing sculptures such as several deformed fish, Adam and Eve walking shamefully after being dismissed from Eden, and even a disemboweled Prometheus. The Dragon Bridge is the largest span, one of the few to allow automobiles, and has four magnificent dragon sculptures at each corner, standing watch over the city. Of course, it’s not only those four that have been charged with guard duties – dozens of other dragon sculptures lurk all around the city, ensuring the citizens of Ljubljana are well-protected. Like Zagreb, there is a lot of public artwork – even down to decorating a drainage trough on one alley, where strange, twisted faces seem to emerge from the bottom of the trough.
The city is a wonderful one for exploring on foot. Over the last decade, Ljubljana has been undergoing significant modifications to promote sustainable living and ecologically-responsible tourism. Consequently, it was rewarded for its efforts in 2016, when the city was awarded the European Green Capital award – for redesigning much of the downtown areas for better pedestrian access, as well as protecting and expanding the green spaces. Lots of pedestrian streets and wide sidewalks, combined with very few crowds, provide ample room for wandering. A number of free art exhibits, statues, fountains, and various public sculptures around the city ensure there’s always something to catch your eye. We don’t typically mind paying for access to interesting places, but there’s something very welcoming about a city that showcases local culture freely, allowing the public to simply meander in and out, deciding for themselves whether an exhibit is worth donating to.
Of course, there are also lots of cafes and restaurants vying for your attention, and we stopped to eat at a restaurant called Druga Violina (“Second Violin”). It not only provided some delicious local food for an inexpensive price (and had vegetarian options), but the restaurant specializes in providing jobs and job training for people with disabilities. After our lovely lunch on the terrace, we stopped by Lolita, a well-known local dessert shop with a nearly overwhelming selection of baked goods, where we added to our extensive list of ‘Cakes Eaten in Europe.’ I’m starting to think we need a separate blog dedicated solely to dessert and craft beer.
Ljubljana Castle, built from a medieval fortress that was originally constructed in the 11th century, is just a short walk from the center of the historic district. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, it’s visible from most places in the historic district. The relatively short walk is well-worth the sights, as the grounds around the castle are free to explore, and among the extensive paths up the castle hill, there are numerous of overlooks to the city below. Like the rest of the city, there were surprisingly few people walking around the castle, leaving us to enjoy the beautiful sunshine in peace.
Places like Mongolia and Bialowieza are on our list of locations to visit again, but Ljubljana might have joined the short list of places we felt we could live. It combines a beautiful historic city with a modern metropolitan area, manages to avoid some of the dense crowds we’ve experienced in other places, and does it all without feeling too kitschy or too urban. The fact that this is all a mere hour away from the heart of the Slovenian Alps is just amazing. The Slovenia tourism motto is “WE FEEL SLOVENIA,” and we certainly felt it.
While we were at a small bottle shop in Ljubljana, looking for some local craft brews, we spoke with the girl at the counter who told us that Slovenia is home to a large hop valley, called the Savinja Valley. She said she was actually from that area, and if we had time we should drive over, as it was hop harvest season. Not only was the air filled with the scent of hops at this time of year, but apparently they had just opened a brand new “hop fountain” a couple days prior.
We thanked her but weren’t sure what constituted a hop fountain, so we looked it up when we got back to the apartment. It turns out that the (very) small town of Zalec, right in the hop valley, had raised some funding and convinced the town to match them in constructing a public “art exhibit” in the middle of a local park. The exhibit would have five taps from small, local breweries that showcased local hops. The taps rotate each month, and the whole fountain is automated through the use of a small, electronic tag on the mug. Six Euros purchases you a glass mug, which is enabled for 5 one-deciliter samples (~3.3 oz) of your choice from the fountain.
Mug in hand, I made my way to the first tap and placed the vessel on the pedestal labeled with the first beer. Much to my delight, a small dispenser immediately lowered into the cup, provided my allotted sample quantity, then retracted and waited for me to remove my prize. The beer was delicious, and as we sipped, a girl with a nametag asked if she could answer any questions. After some chatting, she asked where we were from and looked surprised when we answered, informing us that she’d been working both days the fountain had been open and believed we were the first Americans to visit. I’m planning on adding “First American to drink from the Zalec, Slovenia beer fountain” to my resume – just doing what I can to make my family proud of me.
[Note: Since we left Slovenia, a news article was published that said the fountain, which had expected to sell around 6,000 mugs per year, has sold almost 10,000 as of September 19th. Local companies are giving them as gifts to employees and business partners, and they’re already talking about adding three new taps. Seeing the size of the crowd just a couple days after the fountain opened (on a weekday no less), we figured it would be a success – but 10,000 mugs in under 2 weeks seems incredible! Na zdravje, Zalec!]