By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday
Contributing Gemütlichkeit writers, Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer, report on an excursion to the Slovenian capital. They find it peaceful, inexpensive and way off the beaten track.
Though no single event prompted our visit to Slovenia, over the past few years there have been several bits of mild encouragement: an offhand comment here; a written word or two there; a brochure, perhaps. But the final push was a full-page article in the Sunday Times of London, read over a cup of coffee in a sunny Venetian square.
The headline, "Where The Alps Meet The Balkans...An Inspiring Wilderness" certainly caught our eye, but it was the accompanying map that sealed the deal.
Venice, it seems, is not far from the Italian city of Trieste on Slovenia's very border. It would be a perfect detour, a chance to investigate something new. The fact that we were able to find a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide for Slovenia (the only travel guidebook we know of on the country) in a Trieste bookstore was exactly the omen and the inspiration we needed to pack our bags.
The new sovereign state of Slovenia, about the size of New Jersey, is a tiny wedge of a country, slipped into a pocket of land bordered by Austria, Italy, Hungry and Croatia. Though small, it has an amazing variety of topography: the Julian Alps in the northwest with ski resorts and cool mountain lakes, 30 miles of coastline on the Adriatic, broad fertile plains to the east and, scattered throughout, thermal baths and vineyards. And so many picturesque, medieval castles even the Slovenians have lost count.
And, though everybody from Attila the Hun and Napoleon to Adolph Hitler has had a go at them, Slovenian national identity has remained intact. No, it's not Slovakia, that's attached to the Czech Republic, nor is it a Balkan country. Historically the Slovenes have turned their eyes consistently north to Germany and Austria and the resulting culture is resoundingly European. More important, Slovenia is far removed from the violence to the south. When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the 1980s, Slovenia, always the most economically successful of the federation, opted out early. On June 25, 1991, the Slovenes finally declared independence and although a token effort was made by Belgrade to quell rebellion, the federal army retreated when met by resistance at the border. Slovenia was recognized as a separate entity by the EC in January, 1992, and became a member of the United Nations later that year.
Ljubljana at First Blush
And so we arrived, on a sunny day last month in Ljubljana (pronounced lou-blee-AH-nah), the capital city. First impressions are always important and ours were all positive as we entered the shiny, new train station. The tourist office was staffed by a friendly, English-speaking young woman who first plied us with all the necessary maps and brochures, then found us a hotel. Right next to her was a currency exchange office that's reported to be open 24-hours a day.
In spite of its ancient roots, Ljubljana has an aura both youthful and fresh. The first can be explained by the 27,000 students who attend university here, the second by a major earthquake in 1895 which devastated the city but provided a rare opportunity to rebuild and upgrade the facilities.
Ljubljana River runs benignly through an Old Town that's a charming mixture of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture. Above it is a dramatic 16th-century castle and below, by the river, is lively Preseren Square, defined by an imposing 17th-century church.
On the afternoon we arrived a spirited group of young girls danced to the music of a local oompah band. What was lacking in talent was made up for in enthusiasm!
The river is crossed by three bridges intriguingly named the Triple Bridge, the Dragon Bridge and the Cobbler's Bridge.
The Old City
Since it is almost entirely closed to traffic, exploring the Old Town's narrow and winding streets is blessedly peaceful. The houses along the way are either Gothic or Baroque and the squares are filled with statues and fountains.
The Cathedral of St. Nicholas is distinguished by two massive contemporary wooden doors carved by Slovene Mirsad Begic to honor the Pope's visit in 1996.
Shops are of high quality with barely a smidge of tourist kitsch. In all, a perfect area for wandering and exploring.
A visit to the daily open air food market is a major Ljubljana experience and one that provides insight into the makeup of this country; on the one hand upmarket and Western, on the other still close to the land and old ways. Open areas offer herb and craft vendors while within the enclosed portions are permanent shops selling cheeses, dairy products and mouthwatering baked goods. Opposite is another building for the butchers and fishmongers.
The produce sellers offer a bountiful variety of seasonal produce from all parts of Europe. Others sell only the produce they have grown themselves along with honey and woodland mushrooms, and wild berries gathered in nearby forests and meadows. Some have only a basket of chanterelles or a jar of currants to offer. Others sell directly from hand-drawn, two-wheel wooden carts.
In every way these are country people, the men in overalls, the women in aprons and babushkas, centuries removed from the modern youth across the river with their Armani suits and cellular phones. The contrast is startling.
Places to Eat
Food, as it turned out, was always on our minds in Ljubljana. Unfortunately, though there were a few good dishes, the quality of food and service at restaurants we tried did not measure up to the German, Austrian and Swiss norm.
The first day we settled into Daj-Dam, a sidewalk establishment just outside the pedestrian areas. After struggling with an incomprehensible menu for several minutes - Slovene is a difficult language - we abandoned caution and ordered what seemed to be the Daj-Dam platter and a vegetarian plate, three courses each.
Almost immediately, one salad arrived. Time passed. The second salad came with the two desserts and awhile later the soups and main dishes showed up - together, of course. One meal consisted of a light broth, breaded and deep fried cheese with tartar sauce, french fries, cole slaw and jelly roll with fruit and cream for 750 tolars ($5.00). The other soup was chicken noodle, followed by a breaded veal cutlet, mixed salad, fries and jelly roll at 950 tolars ($6.35).
Restaurant Daj-Dam, Cankarjeva 4, tel. 061/210-619. Major cards o.k.
Rating: Quality 5/20, Value 9/20
Never mind, we were fed and it was time to have a closer look at Ljubljana. The heart of Old Town consists of three handsome squares lined with busy shops and, much to our delight, restaurants and cafés spilling out onto the sidewalks in abundance. We happily anticipated strolling among them in the evening, finally choosing one or another according to our particular whim.
As it turns out, few of these places serve food; at least not actual meals. Instead, the choices are more or less limited to ice cream, cakes and pastries, coffee, beer and wine - with a heavy emphasis on ice cream, a Ljubljana obsession.
So, despite our initial optimism, finding a place to eat real food turned out to be a frustrating experience, somewhat reminiscent of the early days in Prague and Dresden.
Eventually we came upon Ljubljanski Dvor, a pleasant corner spot with wonderful river and castle views and, mercifully, a menu translated into English, however loosely. (Our Lonely Planet Guide did a fair job in the vocabulary section, but Slovenia could use a Marling Menu Master!)
The meal began with Slovenian country ham and melon (a bit overripe) and mushroom risotto which, while tasty, wasn't made with Arborio rice making it more rice salad than risotto. As a main course, Grilled Meat Dvor included generous portions of chicken, beef, veal and lamb served with a strong mustard and pureed red peppers. A better choice was Pepper Steak, perfectly rare (as ordered) in a brandy-cracked pepper cream sauce and served with asparagus and artichoke hearts.
With two Campari and sodas and a bottle of good Slovenian Merlot, the final bill presented in a wooden box was 8,150 tolars ($54), service included. We've paid more for less in the U.S. and in general felt the meal at $50 was a good value. At $100 it would have been mediocre.
Restaurant/Pizzeria Ljubljanski Dvor, Dvorni trg 1, tel. 061/216-555. Major cards o.k.
Rating: Quality 7/20 Value 10/20
Next we tried Restavracija Rosovz near the town hall in the main square. Recommended by the Tourist Office, it is very popular and fills up solidly after 8:30 p.m. or so, even during the week.
Passing up the ubiquitous sausage garnished with minced lard, which must be a local favorite, we tried Ostrich Soup, a rich broth with corn, peas and rice. (We'd seen ostriches grazing in a field on our excursion earlier that day.) Next, still feeling adventurous, we chose Young Goat with roast potatoes and more red pepper puree. The meat was tender and similar to lamb but a bit stronger. The house wine was an excellent Slovenian Cabernet Sauvignon served in elegant, long stemmed balloon glasses.
This slightly more upmarket meal cost 9,220 tolars ($61.46). On a second visit to Ljubljanski Dvor we shared an order of paski sir, a sharp local white cheese presented on a wooden plate with olives, grapes and fresh vegetables. It was very good. Rumpsteak 'Mirabeau' served with french fries and topped with grilled eggplant, mushrooms and, what else, red pepper puree, was ordered rare but arrived well-done. A better choice was veal medallions in white wine, chives and cream. An inexpensive liter of local Merlot (around $6.50) brought the bill to 7,810 tolars ($52.06).
After dinner we sat quietly, finished the wine and took in the scene around us. Though we were in the center of a European capital, there was the natural, friendly atmosphere of a small town, albeit one with both a cathedral and a castle. Afterwards we made our way to the Cobbler's Bridge and listened to a three-man busker band play catchy renditions of such tunes as Hey, Jude and I Don't Get No Satisfaction. The assembled crowd of students, young families and adults enthusiastically clapped and danced and sang along in English as we watched. It was a perfect finish to our Slovenian evening.
Restarvarcija Rotovz, Mestni trg 4, tel. 061/212-839, fax 061/21-28-44. Major cards o.k.
Rating: Quality 8/20 Value 10/20
As with other aspects of the Slovenian infrastructure, the hotel situation in Ljubljana is still a work in progress. Great strides have already been made. Some properties described as dismal, nondescript and in need of renovation in the 1995 Lonely Planet have been, or are being, remodeled. Most of the better hotels have nonsmoking rooms available but there is a general lack of understanding as to what constitutes a functional room for the handicapped.
All the hotels take major credit cards and can arrange parking. Prices are usually quoted in DM but you can pay in any currency. Each of the hotels we visited offered good currency exchange rates with little or no commission.
We arrived in Ljubljana by train from Trieste around lunch time in late June and, through the good services of the Tourist Information desk at the station, had no problem finding a place to stay.
On the edge of Old Town, this well-located hotel is steps away from the pedestrian street leading to Presernov trg and the Triple Bridge.
It was thoroughly remodeled in 1991-92 and again in 1996.
Our room, #518, was a typical double/twin of moderate size with attractive watered-silk style wallpaper, modern ebony/mahogany built-in furniture and good, firm mattresses, topped with duvets or comforters.
The bathroom had a large tub with an excellent hand-held shower attachment as well as a shower curtain - an accessory frequently lacking even in expensive hotels. There was lots of hot water, a hairdryer and thick towels in three sizes.
Most of the 171 rooms are individually air-conditioned and have mini-bars.
Breakfast is a full buffet with cereal, juice, several breads, a cheese/salami plate, salads, spreads, jams, etc. Chafing dishes held fried eggs, scrambled eggs, sausages and folded crêpes.
Within the hotel is a bar, a pastry/coffee bar and several shops. Two full service restaurants are currently being renovated and are due to open next year.
Hotel Slon Best Western Slovenska 34, 1000 Ljubljana, tel 061/170 11 00, fax 061/217 164. Singles 149-187 DM ($82-$103). Doubles 214-244 DM, ($118-$135)
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
Grand Hotel Union
The city's most physically attractive hotel, with both Baroque and Art Nouveau exterior elements, the Union is behind the Franciscan Church and near Presernov trg. It is also where the big names stay - Pavarotti was due in the day we left.
The 160-room hotel was built in 1905 and seems to have been in a constant state of remodel ever since. There are guestrooms in both the old and new wings but we found those in the old section to be far superior. They were more recently updated, much larger and more stylish with a cheery decor, good lighting. All are air-conditioned and have minibars and security safes.
Bathrooms have tubs, good showers, hair dryers, lighted magnifying mirrors and plenty of towels.
Breakfast is a large buffet which can be taken in the Union's garden terrace in nice weather.
The original lobby in the old part is under renovation and, with a massive white marble staircase leading to the rooms above, promises to be stunning.
There is limited underground parking.
Grand Hotel UnionGrand Hotel Union, Miklošičeva 1, 1000 Ljubljana, tel 061 1254-133, fax 061 217-910. Singles 155 DM ($86), doubles 215 DM ($119), executive rooms 245-400 DM ($135-$221). All prices include breakfast buffet.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20 (assuming recently remodeled room)
Contiguous to the Grand Hotel Union and, in fact, shares the same management and some facilities.
Built in 1979 (in a style familiar the world over), until recently the Holiday Inn was the only hotel in town with air-conditioning. Not surprisingly it is geared to business travelers with suites and conference rooms and computer hookups.
The 127 well-appointed rooms are arranged around a central atrium, have all the usual amenities and some quite decent artwork. For a good view of the castle, ask for room #610.
There's also an indoor swimming pool, sauna, fitness center and solarium on the premises.
Holiday Inn, Miklosiceva 3, 1000 Ljubljana, tel. 061 1255-051, fax 061 1250-323. Singles 210 DM ($116), doubles 290 DM ($160), executive doubles from 330 ($182). Breakfast buffet included.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 11/20
If you yearn for a taste of an old-style hotel from the communist era, the Hotel Turist would be a good bet. The exterior is bleak, the lobby is dismal and, frankly, we didn't have the strength to actually look at the rooms. They are, however, cheap-and doubles run about $75.
Visas: Not needed.
Currency: Tolar (SIT) = 100 stotins. Currently approx. 150 SIT = $1
Credit Cards: Major cards accepted at many establishments.
ATMs: Not currently available
Slovenian Tourist Office in the U.S: Tel. 212-682-5896, fax 212-661-2469. Available on specific request: hotel list, Ljubljana brochure, and several prepared itineraries.
Kompass, a Slovene travel agency, prepares itineraries for groups and independent travelers, including air tickets, hotels, rental cars and the like. Phone 800-233-6422.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Slovenia Travel Survival Kit by Steve Fallon. Lonely Planet Publications, $13.95. To our knowledge this is the only guidebook available that deals exclusively with Slovenia. It was published in 1995 and already much of the information is out-of-date due to the rapid changes taking place. Knowing this up front, the guide is still extremely useful and highly recommendable.
Tourist offices: TIC-Tourist Information Center, Stritarjeva St. (next to Triple Bridge), tel. 386 61 1330 111, fax 386 61 1330 244. Weekdays 8 a.m.- 7 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. -5 p.m.
Information Desk at the Railway Station, tel. 386 61 133 94 75. Open daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m, June -Sept.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Oct.-May.
Request a map and a copy of Ljubljana Where? in English. It's an excellent reference with a short city history and an orientation walking tour as well as specific details about museums, shops, parking, pharmacies and the like.
Guided Sight-seeing Tours In English: Two hour walks to the most interesting city sights. October 1 to May 31-Sunday at 11:00 a.m., June 1 to September 30-daily at 5:00 p.m.. Starting point is Tourist Information Center in Stritarjeva Street.
Open Air Food Market: Vodnikov trg. Daily except Sundays and holidays. Summer 6 a.m.-6 p.m., winter 6 a.m.-4 p.m.