Under an ominous sky the Dragon Bridge emits a smoldering aura like the aftermath of fiery breath from the four on-guard dragons. This fearsome beast is the city emblem, appearing on the coat of arms. Legends abound about the dragon, one being an old Slavonic belief that a dragon releases the earth’s waters, ensuring fertility. Another is based on Greek mythology, wherein Jason and his Argonauts (hero and his heroic band) after stealing the Golden Fleece encounter a dragon during their escape down the Ljubljanica River, wherein after a vicious battle the dragon is slayed by Jason. More historically believable is the legend of St. George killing the dragon with a sword – the dragon representing the ancestral paganism being overcome by Christianity.
This bridge is a focal point of the Old Town, with squares and pedestrian streets swarming with activity – canopied carts with vendors selling fresh produce, clothing, souvenirs, and fast food. It is difficult to find a seat in any of the numerous sidewalk cafes. A large university student population is apparent…ahha…which explains the street art talent – but also the not so pleasant “everywhere” graffiti, even on garbage cans.
Street entertainers are few – but have seldom seen the appreciation, participation and applauding by spectators as for this boisterous band – winners of the Butler Busker Contest.
Our Ljubljana Photo Gallery
Old Town Ljubljana is a mix of various architectural styles. Outstanding in baroque is the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. The interior is a dramatic combination of ornate wood, statues and frescos in dazzling colours made even more brilliant with gold in draping and trim.
Ljubljana is a city of hidden niches. One evening we come across the haunting site of an abandoned factory; nary a window is intact, the concrete walls are fungus and dirt encrusted along with graffiti scrawl. While musing about what it was like when in full swing, and the why and when of its current derelict state…my gaze falls upon a muted form in one of the upper windows. I poke Rick, and point – he nods. It is not quite as abandoned as we thought – a squatter or perhaps an apparition of a long-ago night watchman who still walks the floors.
The next day we are ready! A sombre sky frames Ljubljana Castle as we look upward to its lofty perch (but the weatherman says only 20% chance of rain). There is a choice of three paths from the Old Town. We take the one nearest the funicular railway, but in keeping with Rick’s stereotype of me never missing a climb – up we trek with his usual periodic comment during all climbs, “Are we there yet?”
After catching our breath at the top, we head to the Outlook Tower for a grand view of Ljubljana below. Our timing coming back down to the main level theatre is great – a film on the castle history is about to begin.
Some key points are as follows:
In 14AD the Romans founded the city of Emona in part of present day Ljubljana who more than likely used this hill as a sentry lookout, until Emona was destroyed by the Huns in 452. Fast forward to the 6th century when the Slavic forefathers arrived, building a medieval city. The first fortification castle was first mentioned in 12th century writings. In 1335 the Habsburgs took control of what is now Slovenia, demolishing the old structure to build a bigger and better castle, which as well as protecting their territory became a summer home for the happy Habsburgs. In the beginning of the 19th century the area was overtaken by Napoleon or “the big cheese” as the French would say – followed by the Habsburgs again, and this time round they turned the castle into a prison.
In 1905 the castle became the property of the Ljubljana municipality, but plans to renovate did not materialize. During WWII occupation by Italy, followed by Nazi Germany, the castle resumed its prison function. It then became an abode for Slovenia’s homeless until 1963. Since the early 70’s the slow process of planned reconstruction has been in the hands of Slovenia’s renowned architect, Jože Plecnik.
Filled with this historic overview, we venture down to the half dozen cells left from prison days – to give scope to the dire conditions of those who were locked away here. The cold dank concrete cells with minimal light are brutal. A row of heavy wooden doors taken from the cells makes me shutter.
It is next over to the Chapel of St. George (the dragon-slayer saint). We walk into a space decorated with faded 15th century frescos, contrasted with brighter wall paintings of past-Austrian governors’ coats of arms.
Another day we take in the National Museum of Slovenia with its highlight – the oldest musical instrument in the world! This flute dates back 55,000 years; once played by a Neanderthal individual. Discovered in 1995 in a cave that served as a den for bears and occasionally for Neanderthal shelter – the flute, found beside a hearth, was fashioned from the thigh bone of a young bear, the holes made by flint tools. The dating was established on the basis of radio-metrical analysis of the flute and charcoal, animal bones and teeth found with it. The significance of this find is that other flutes found in the world are dated to Cro-Magnon man – this being the first to be attributed to an earlier period.
After taking in the museums array of artifacts from the city of Emona, such as columns, statues, sarcophagi, weapons and armour, we mill around Ljubljana to see bits of the ancient wall and even foundations from a Roman house.
We head to the City Museum where we are told we will find the world’s oldest wheel. Well, it turns out it’s a good thing we took a photo of a replica in the castle museum, as we will not see the real thing – as this 5,200-year-old wheel has now rolled on to a temporary exhibition in Vienna, and from there to Germany.
Around 3900 BC Ljubljana Marshes were settled by lake dwellers. Excavations led to the discovery of the wheel made between 3350 and 3100BC. The wheel (unlike the replica) is about two-thirds whole, with a 70cm radius; the axle found with it is 120cm long and made of oak. The radiocarbon testing by Austrian experts confirm this wheel to be at least a century older than any previously found.
While walking along the river, Rick wanders towards the water for a photo op, while I check out an interesting statue about a dozen feet away. I hear a weird scraping/scrunching sound and look in Rick’s direction…but he is not where he was a millisecond ago. My eyes scan left and right…nada… then I lower my gaze waaaay down from where his head should be with his 6ft height – and gasp! He is in a hole with his arms outstretched to avoid being swallowed into a gaping maw. As I rush over, he flips his chest onto the concrete around the hole, and in a superman adrenaline spike hoists himself out of the hole. We pick up some remnants of…WHAT?! FIBERBOARD!! Rick says, “The moment I put my foot down my mind flashed ‘something is not right’, then whooomp!” He continues…as we stare down at the broken pieces 12 feet below, “Material for a cut-to-fit hole cover?…iron grating –very good….plywood –okay….FIBERBOARD – NOT SO MUCH! We hail a nearby restaurant owner so he can have someone take care of this properly, we hope – before a small child or any other person leaves as bruised as Rick….or worse.
In the final analysis, from all the hills and steps that Rick continually follows me up – he is in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old. I do note however, after this trauma he walks around manhole covers, odd shades of concrete blocks, and so forth – as his grapefruit-sized bruises turn deeper shades of red/green/yellow every day.
But – this incident does nothing to deter us from more explorations of Ljubljana or seeking out traditional foods, which brings me to…
Praise for Potica
A Slovenian teatime or a dessert treat! We check out this specialty that comes in savoury flavours like tarragon, and nutty goodness like walnuts, but when we hear the word “pumpkin” – we hand over our Euros and walk away from this small shop with our jumbo-sized Potica.
That evening we cut into it – rather crumbly but moist, the greenish mix of mashed pumpkin seeds and other ingredients in thick swirls between the rich white cakey parts. After our first bite, Rick and I just look at each other and grin – before our next big bite! It is top-rate on our scale of superior flavour and consistency. We stop at half, and tuck the rest away for tomorrow – when after not a crumb is left.
Our Ljubljana visit was great fun with lots of variety.
And the Finance Minister’s report is rosy. For accommodations, food, air-fare to get here, our stay comes to $234CDN a day!
For More Info:
Meksiko Hotel – Location is great – close to the train/bus station and near the Old Town. The newly renovated rooms have a pleasing décor; clean and comfy. Breakfast until 10 a.m. – for a bit more shut-eye. Pleasant and helpful staff. Great value!