The first thing we noticed about Ljubljana–the capital and only big city in Slovenia–is that practically everyone in the entire town seemed to be under 30! Streams and streams of energetic, good-looking young folks appeared everywhere we went. It looked as if once the Balkan Wars were over and Slovenia was an independent state, they all started having babies. With a well-ranked university and its current (succesful) drive to be named the Green Capital of Europe, Ljubljana now has a real ”scene” and is a magnet for young folks from all over the Balkans, and, indeed, the world. Oneof the big plusses for us about this situation is that all of them speak perfect English! The older folks, if you can find them, not so much.
I have two anecdotes that explain why we came here for a short visit (for a write-up of our previous positive time in Slovenia, see my blog, 10 April). When we lived in Vienna in the 1980s, our landlady (who had been an exchange student at Bryn Mawr in the 1950s) introduced us to her father, a fine old gent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When we went on any trips, he regaled us with historical information about all the places we visited, and always used the German names for the cities now in other Eastern European countries. At some point, he began talking affectionately about one of his favorite towns in the old Empire, which he called Laibach. For a long time, I had no idea that Laibach referred to Ljubljana! Now we have learned that Laibach in contemporary hip circles is the name of Slovenia’s hottest band.
Anecdote no. 2: When we were living in Australia, we were sometimes invited to events at the Austrian Embassy. On one of these evenings, we met a delightful woman who was the cultural attache from Slovenia. She gave us the hard sell on Ljubljana, telling us about all the extremely avant-garde art events taking place there. This was in about 1998, and I have been intrigued about the place ever since. Since we had a gap of three days between our time in Trieste and our last week in Vienna, we decided to stop over in Ljubljana, only an hour’s drive from Trieste.
I was already aware that the town (its population is about 200,000, which means it’s in between being a big town and a small city) had some extraordinary examples of Sezession architecture, and was delighted to find that these buildings exceeded my expectations in number and quality. My favorite was the extraordinarily colorful Cooperative Bank Building (1921), now a governmental law office across from the Grand Hotel Union, that was designed by Ivan Vurnik, student in Vienna of Max Fabiani and founding head of the University of Ljubljana’s architecture department. He, along with his Viennese wife
Helena, worked to create a Slovenian national style–it was Helena who incorporated these brightly decorative folk motifs into the facade and painted the entire interior with similar colors and designs. (The current inhabitants of the building would not allow interior photos).
This building is just one of many in the Art Nouveau quarter, most of which has been made into a pedestrian zone and which runs down to the main square, Prešeren Square, named for Slovenia’s national poet France Prešeren (1800-1849). The center of town was bustling with cafes, bars, shops (mostly franchises), and a very with-it atmosphere.
It was on the street leading up from the square that we found our most folkloric moment. A street musician in traditional Slovenian dress was playing a little pan pipe kind of flute. We threw some coins into his bag, which made him so happy that he wanted to pose with George–because, as he pointed to it, they shared the same kind of mustache! He then began playing his single-stringed instrument. The folklorist meets the folklore!
Along with all these charming buildings and comfortable pedestrian zones, Ljubljana also makes much of its native son, Jože Plečnik, an architect who I always associated with Prague but who actually worked in the latter part of his career in Slovenia. He created here some extraordinarily interesting structures. His National and University Library, built between 1936 and 1941, looks nearly Post Modern to me, with its facade surface of varying textures and colors of stones, and its elaborate interior iconography using light symbolically to depict the idea of ”Knowledge overcoming Ignorance.”
As late as the 1950s, by which time Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, Plečnik took on the restoration and renovation of the Križanke complex, a monastery and church group belonging since the 13th century to the Teutonic Knights. I have never seen such an integration of old structures with new as Plečnik carried out here. He kept as many of the original features of the complex as possible–the Church is now home to the Ljubljana Festival which runs all summer. The architect then added new carvings and bridging elements. And since this was Tito’s era, the very Catholic Plečnik was obliged to include at least one hammer-and-sickle motif.
Ljubljana also has one of the most stunning urban parks we have seen: Park Tivoli, which is big and beautiful, and filled with interesting buildings and gardens. We had here in the Palace building, which is now the International Center for Graphic Arts, one of the best cakes we have had on this entire trip.
And the city is GREEN!!! When one thinks of the fact that as little as 20 years ago, the place was only recovering from war and years as a rather neglected part of the old Yugoslavia, its transformation into a vibrant, completely up-to-date, indeed ultra-hip and friendly town, is more than impressive. Here’s how the city explained its change when it won the Green Capital Award: http://www.greenljubljana.com/
Since Ljubljana’s most beloved monument is its Dragon Bridge (see above), the Green Dragon image has now been incorporated into all of its marketing and advertising. But with their forthright and sardonic attitudes, the Slovenians don’t overdo the kitsch, so we found the dragon symbol rather charming.
The Slovenian character may best be explained as the outcome of their tumultuous past. This placard, found at a display in the City Museum, sums it up best, I think:
With that kind of history, one has to take a rather sardonic view of life.