Ljubljana: Why Slovenia’s Cool Capital Needs To Be On Your Bucket List

Ljubljana
Sean McLachlan

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet this artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn’t get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.

This is the first photo I took in Ljubljana and it sums up my impression of the place: family-friendly, lots of culture and a few surprises. Like why there are all those shoes hanging up everywhere.

To get oriented I took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour, which lasted a bit more than two hours and was hugely informative. A local university student named Neja led us all over her city’s historic center and gave us a great introduction to Ljubljana and Slovenia. She even explained the shoes. University students throw them up there at the end of term. The “shoe wire” I photographed is right next to Cobblers Bridge but apparently that’s just a coincidence. There are several wires adorned with footwear all over town.

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The historic center is a delight for anyone who likes colorful architecture. Vienna Secession, a central European take on Art Nouveau, was big here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and colorful examples flank the river that runs through the center of town. There’s plenty of Baroque buildings too along with an unfortunate scattering of concrete Communist monstrosities. Apparently living and working in an attractive building was thought to be symbolic of capitalist decadence or something. Fortunately most of the worst examples of Communist ugliness are outside the historic center.Architecture isn’t the only culture you’ll find. Ljubljana is a great place for drinking and dining. Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that I’ll cover later in this series. The city’s restaurants offer a wide sampling of other cuisines too, especially Italian. The bar scene isn’t as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. One odd little place is Pr’Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you’ll end up as part of the decoration.

Like the nightlife, shopping is not too extensive but still worth checking out. Antique and bookshops abound, and the farmers market next to the Triple Bridge by the river is worth going to for local delicacies such as wine, honey, mead, fruit and produce.

Most visitors head on up the hill overlooking town to see Ljubljana’s castle, the nation’s most popular attraction. Slovenia is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and has lots of great castles. I’ll be talking about them in my next post.

The city has several good museums. The best is the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum with its large collection of folk art and interactive displays about life in traditional and modern Slovenia. Numerous video panels feature interviews with Slovenians young and old about everything from contemporary views on religion to being a World War II partisan. It’s a really good way to learn more about the people you’re visiting.

An even better way is to hook up with the local Couchsurfing community, which runs weekly meetings open to all. I went to one and had a great evening learning about the country, sampling various unusual liquors and ending up with more invitations to go out that week than I had time to accept. As I’ve mentioned before, Couchsurfing is more than a free place to stay, it’s also a ready-made community welcoming you with open arms.

One thing that struck me again and again while meeting Slovenians was their repeated assertion that they are distinct from the rest of former Yugoslavia. There’s a common saying here: “Yugoslavians are brothers in blood, cousins in language, and foreigners in culture.” One said his nation was different than the rest of the former Yugoslav republics because it had spent many years as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The civil war in Yugoslavia is still fresh in people’s memory, even though Slovenia managed to avoid the worst of it. One university student, too young to have many clear memories of the war itself, almost broke down in tears as she talked about it. The war hasn’t left scars; it has left open wounds. I haven’t been to any other parts of former Yugoslavia but I imagine the emotional damage of the people there must be far worse.

Despite a harsh past and a troubled economic present, Slovenians seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Parks and cafes are full and people take long strolls along the river. Through most of their long history, Slovenians have been ruled by other nations. Independence has given everyone new hope.

One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it’s cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won’t spend anything on transportation costs.

So if you’re looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia, and check out the rest of this series for more information.

This is the first in a new series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Like Castles? Go to Slovenia!

Roadside America: Eaglemount Rockery

We executed a U-turn that was both dangerous and illegal because I’d seen something that looked like a paper-mache stegosaurus dining on the corner of a tin-roofed shed. The cartoony dinosaur was not a figment of my imagination and the shed was a replica of a pioneer era jail building. Eaglemount Rockery, an odd little property just south of Port Townsend is home to a number of creations – sculptures of Native Americans, a mini White House made from beach stones, some totem poles, a concrete Mount Rushmore and so many more oddities.

The current owners purchased the property from the “artist” in 2003 and have been lovingly restoring the work. It’s free to visit (though when I was there, there was a donation box) and if you simply can’t get enough of the place, you can rent one of the little overnight cottages. I couldn’t quite make sense of the place, and the little handout I picked up was of very little assistance, but that didn’t stop me from wandering the grounds in a state of bemusement for an hour or two.

Eaglemount Rockery is on Highway 20 on the left hand side as you’re heading south from Port Townsend. Watch for the roof nibbling dinosaur; you really can’t miss it.

[Photo Credit: Pam Mandel]

Museum Of Craft And Folk Art In San Francisco To Close

Museum of Craft and Folk ArtSan Francisco’s Museum of Craft And Folk Art has announced in a press release that it will close its doors forever on December 1.

Museum officials said, “Sustainability in the current economic climate, with reduced funding for the arts, was a significant factor in the decision.”

The museum tried to put a brave face on the announcement by highlighting its past achievements. It was founded in 1982 in San Francisco at a time when artists carrying on craft and folk traditions were generally overlooked by the art market. The museum was instrumental in changing that, the release said.

The closure is scheduled to coincide with the end of its current exhibition “Fiber Futures: Japan’s Textile Pioneers.”

There is no word yet on what will happen with the museum’s collection. The museum is the only one of its kind in northern California.

The global recession has hit museums and the arts particularly hard. Many museums are scaling back exhibitions and reducing hours. I’ve written before on how Greek museums are facing the economic crisis. They’re not alone. The Edgar Allen Poe Museum may have to close, and a Dutch museum is selling part of its collection to survive.

[Photo of guitar/record player from the museum’s collection courtesy Marshall Astor]

Grandma Moses’ Early Home Among Buildings Added To Virginia Landmarks Register

Grandma Moses
The Virginia Landmarks Register has just added 17 properties to its list of important sites. One of them is a home lived in by Grandma Moses and her family before she became famous as a folk artist.

The c. 1850 brick farmhouse in Mount Airy in the Shenandoah Valley was home to the painter in 1901 and 1902. While her stay was brief, it is the best preserved of any of the homes she lived in in the area. Grandma Moses only turned to painting when she was well into her 70s, yet she became world famous and her simple yet evocative folk paintings, such as the one pictured here, remain popular today.

Some of the other properties that have been added to the register include an African-American cemetery dating to the Civil War, the late 18th century Galemont farm in Fauquier County and a one-room schoolhouse in Springfield that operated right up until the 1930s.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]`

Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder


There’s something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it’s the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity’s works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.

Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine’s high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.

Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.

Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with “crystal” chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.

%Gallery-158467%The guided tour takes intrepid travelers on a 1.9-mile route through various tunnels, rooms and even an underground lake. Constantly descending, the group makes their way through dozens of decorated rooms. As this video shows, it’s an unforgettable experience. Also check out the photo gallery for some excellent images of this odd attraction.

The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.

Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.