I became inexplicably teary as I listened to the accordion’s brassy tones. I was perched underneath a bronze statue of Preseren; Slovenia’s most beloved poet. From across the main square, his ‘Juliet’ gazed back at us. As a mauve dusk settled over Ljubljana I realised that I was rapidly falling in love…and I don’t even like the accordion.
Earlier that day my guide John had explained the supported theory for the city’s name; the Slavic origin of Lyoob, meaning to love or like. Of course, there are other opinions, but this seemed the most fitting. After all, how many capitals have you visited that honour a love-struck artist as their centrepiece? Preseren doesn’t straddle a bronze stallion ready for battle, but instead looks wistfully at his unrequited lover.
For me though, this fabled love story was merely the icing on the cake. The little time I’d spent meandering through Ljubljana’s streets and riverside cafes had thrown it directly into my top five cities worldwide. Or, as John had joked, not so much a city, as a well supplied, ideally located, amiable village.
It seemed to me that the town council had gathered to ask the question: What are a few of your favourite things? This is a place where people eat ice cream for breakfast, where sculpture, music and poetry are prolific and free: scattered throughout any meter of public space. Cars are out and bikes are in; people smile and say hello to strangers; there is no commute. Hell, even the pigeons are clean and healthy and the graffiti waxes lyrical about peace and love!
Put all this cheery wonderfulness into the context of Slovenia’s both distant and contemporary past – a country almost constantly within the clasps of unforgiving empires, dictatorships, and most recently an economic crisis – and you gain even more respect for the feel of the place. Naturally, even jovial John admitted that Slovenia, like most of Europe, is still trying to recover financially, but what I found overwhelming was everyone’s positivity.
Slovenia has certainly bounded forward since the end of Tito’s reign and the disbanding of Yugoslavia in 1991. It luckily escaped the worst of the war that ensued, due to (according to John) an overpowering majority of its people voting for immediate independence. Since then it has accepted and even embraced its sometimes-morose history, and its culture as an independent nation has blossomed. In 2004 Slovenia joined the EU and three years later took the Euro: the first former communist country to do so.
These transitions combined with an extremely friendly welcome, is why tourism is flourishing. In fact, if I was being pedantic, that’s the only possible negative I can find about Ljubljana: I worry that in the future; this small city will become overrun with hoards of unappreciative visitors hunting for their next pint of cheap Lasko lager, marauding past Preseren without as much as a glance. I can only hope that after centuries of coming under siege from more abrasive nations, Ljubljana’s unique spirit doesn’t finally fall to the takeover of mass tourism.
My parting gift was a climb to the ramparts of the city’s ancient castle. No longer needed for defensive purposes, the stone towers now take full advantage of their panoramic view. Looking down on the orderly red roofs and leafy, wide avenues, I decided that I would come back. Next time for longer, and with a bigger budget for eating. Because who wouldn’t want to gorge on ice cream for breakfast?