The old and historical capital of Slovenia is a city of smiles, culture and liveliness. Ljubljana (pronounced “Lee-u-blee-a-na”… Slavic J’s are pronounced like the English letter E) is the largest city in Slovenia and its beating heart. With just above 200 thousand inhabitants, the quality of life here is remarkable in comparison with some of the other former Yugoslavian countries and this is visible on the people’s smiling faces as they walk happily about the city, as they sit sipping mulled wine at an outdoor cafe or simply as they look over the many bridges in quiet contemplation of the Ljubljanica River below. It is a place where you immediately feel welcome and comfortable and a place which you just might not want to leave.
The city surrounds a tall hill upon which stands an imposing castle. The castle looks over the city as if protecting it. This was not so far from the truth way back in the year 1112 when the first official mention of the structure was written in a document that formally made the castle (and twenty farms that surrounded it) property of the Patriarchate of Aquileia. Back in those days, the castle served to protect the city’s nobility from Ottoman invaders and peasant revolts. However, archaeological digs have found evidence that the hill where the castle stands and the areas around it have been continuously settled since the year 1200 BC. There is also evidence of a Roman Army stronghold during Illyrian and Celtic times. As most European cities currently standing, Ljubljana has a rich and diverse history that was created through wars, cultural exchange and economic strategy.
Today, Castle Ljubljana is a touristic and cultural event location. You can reach it by walking up the hill (which is no small feat) or by a glass funicular which takes you up the side of the hill, offering breath taking views of the city as you slowly (and rather softly) rise above it. The castle is very well maintained although it was not always so. In the 19th century it was a prison and the people lost all sense of pride towards it. By 1905 the once magnificent structure was used to settle poor families and it wasn’t until 1965 that the City of Ljubljana decided to invest in renovating the castle for tourism. It took the City over 35 years to complete the renovations but it was absolutely worth it. By 1990 the castle was open for business and since then it has attracted millions of tourists and hosted hundreds of weddings and cultural events. Climbing the castle tower will provide you amazing views of the city below as well the majestic Alps (yep… where Heidi and her Grandpa live) to the north. The castle houses a restaurant, a church, a courtyard, several observation decks and a two story History Museum with information about the castle and the city throughout its lifetime as well as artifacts from antiquity such as the Ljubljana Marshes Wheel which is (and this is true) the oldest wooden wheel ever discovered. It is approximately 5100 years old! Very cool stuff.
Now, if you are the kind of person who likes medieval cities and folklore, you’re going to LOVE this…. Ljubljana has a dragon!!! In fact, it has quite a few dragons.
Allow me to explain…. (you might want a snack for this one)
Legend has it, that a long time ago, Jason and his Argonauts (the real ones… not the ones from the 1963 movie) were travelling through the marshes that are now Ljubljana. They were on the run from King Aeetes because Jason, adding insult to injury, had taken the King’s daughter Medea from him as well as the Golden Fleece. Yes, it is true (or “true” depending on your view of Greek history and mythology) that Medea was in love with Jason and helped him beat Aeetes, but a father is a father and if you take his little girl away… well… he’s gonna come after you and not in the best of moods either. So Jason was running like little Forest Gump throughout Eastern Europe trying to get to Greece before his father in law caught up to him to cut off his you-know-whats.
After sailing the Danube from the Black Sea and turning left at the Sava River, they were unable to continue sailing because the Ljubljanica was too shallow for the Argo. So they took the infamous ship apart and carried it with them over land to reach the Adriatic Sea. Winter was coming (now, don’t go mixing up stories. Not the Game of Thrones winter… stay with me) so Jason ordered the Argonauts to build a small village for them to have shelter for the coming months. They would continue their overland journey once the snow had melted and Spring started.
Little did our Greek hero (and daughter stealer) know that these marshes were home to a fierce, fire breathing dragon who had made a habit of eating farmers and other idiots who wandered into it’s realm. Imagine the dragon’s surprise when he sees Jason and his Argonauts, like a bunch of tiny little Greek gyros with tzatziki sauce, putting together a village in the middle of its hunting grounds. That was enough to make any dragon angry, hungry and ready to attack. And attack it did. It came out of the marshes spitting fire over the village, cooking the tiny Argonauts like so much racks of lamb. It even took one in it’s talons to eat later. A midnight snack, so to speak.
Jason, being the hero he was, decided to confront the beast and went out in a canoe with Medea. Medea knew magic so it made sense to bring her along. She had already helped him kill one dragon before by putting it to sleep (read the full story or watch the movie, it’s already getting too long for this blog post), why not see if the same trick worked again? So our “brave” hero sends Medea in first, unarmed, while he waits in the canoe. She succeeds in putting the dragon to sleep and then Jason, sword in hand, runs in to drive the cold steel through the dragon’s eye to kill it. However, turns out that dragon scales are kind of hard to puncture, so Medea (what she ever saw in this guy is beyond me) comes up with the idea to chain the dragons’ mouth shut and stuff its nostrils with the bones that surrounded its lair. When the dragon woke up, it found itself unable to open its mouth and breathe out the fire burning in its belly which continued to grow larger and larger until it burst in a fiery explosion over the village. Jason (or was it really Medea?) defeated the dragon.
The village in this story ended up being Ljubljana and the dragon became a part of its folklore. Today, it is a symbol of the city and statues of dragons have been erected throughout the streets and buildings. The most famous ones are the four dragons of the aptly named Dragon Bridge.
This bridge crosses the Ljubljanica and has four bronze dragons on each corner. It was constructed during the period in which the city belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy by a Viennese company named Pittel & Brausewetter (which is not “bed-wetter” in German, folks) in the year 1900. The dragons are not particularly large but the attention to detail is quite exquisite. The locals also like to call it Mother in Law Bridge. They call it this because according to legend, when a virgin crosses the bridge, the dragons tails will twitch. Honestly, I am not the best subject for such experiments but if you know any virgins, I invite you to test this. Please be sure to let me know how it goes and keep me clear of any tarnished reputations.
From the Dragon Bridge you can see the Ljubljanica rolling softly below and carving its way through the city. When looking west, you will see a large wall with tall spires running alongside the river to the left. Behind this wall is the Old Square (Stari Trg) where the Ljubljana Market has hosted wares, game and produce from the local people since the year 1100. To the right of the river is a long promenade with numerous cafe’s and restaurants alongside it. The perfect place to sit and enjoy a meal or a drink while exploring this beautiful city.
Architecturally, Ljubljana has an eclectic mix of styles. Some of the older Roman period architecture still stands among newer styles such as Baroque, Gothic and Vienna Secession. The city has been rebuilt a few times due to violent earthquakes in its past and each rebuild has brought with it a different style. It is very interesting to walk around surrounded by such different styles co-existing so close together to one another. A simple stroll down a single street will render so many alternatives in architecture that you would think that the whole city was an amalgam of tastes and preferences that somehow found a common home. And guess what? That’s exactly what it is!
Preseren Square (Presernov Trg) is at the westernmost end of the promenade that borders the Ljubljanica River. It is the central square of the city and connects with the medieval area through the famous Triple Bridge. Many people of all ages come here to just sit around and be. It is named after the Slovenian poet France Preseren who is depicted in a lovely statue with a Muse over his head. Curiously enough, the statue is facing the window where the poet’s love, Julija used to live. One can only imagine the thoughts in his head as he looks to his beloved’s window with a Muse holding a laurel leaf over his head. Serious? Profound? Longing? Perhaps a little kinky? All of the above?
Finally, no trip to Ljubljana would be complete without seeing the Butcher’s Bridge. It is a simple foot bridge but over the years it has become a place where couples come to declare their undying love for each other by hanging a padlock on the bridge’s steel wires. There are thousands of padlocks with different inscriptions on them. Yes, I know… the original idea comes from the Pont de Arts in Paris but it is still kind of awesome to stand there surrounded by so many declarations of love. Unlike Paris, Ljubljana is a city where love and friendliness can actually be felt in the air so, to me at least, the padlocks are much more relevant in Ljubljana than in Paris. But that’s just me. The bridge also has a number of very interesting statues that depict ancient Greek Mythology and Christian biblical stories.
As with all city travel photography trips, I recommend going light but in this case, you might also want to bring along a couple of extra lenses for variety. In this city you will not do so much walking as other larger cities and as far as safety is concerned, in Ljubljana you get the feeling that if you left a hundred bucks on the ground and returned the next day, they would still be there. I am not saying that is the case so don’t blame me for lost money, but it certainly feels that way. You will definitely want a good telephoto lens when you are up on the castle tower in order to get a good shot of the Alps in the distance and maybe even hone in on a few old buildings below. For walking around the city, a 50 mm or 35 mm lens will do the trick because there is plenty of space to get everything in your frame.
Slovenia is a very rich country with beautiful resorts, gigantic mountains, magnificent legends and shinning cities. It’s people are well educated and friendly and will go out of their way to make your stay in their country a pleasant one. Everywhere you look you will see people smiling and enjoying the day and you will feel at home very quickly among them. The city of Ljubljana encompasses all of these traits in a vibrant European ambiance. A cosmopolitan city with a lazy river that still retains its small village roots. All in all, a must see.