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Spotlight on Ljubljana, the “beloved” city

Spotlight on Ljubljana, the “beloved” city

Marie Lecocq & Janusz Groth - 2008-11-06

The origin of the name Ljubljana is a subject of some discord amongst historians. Nevertheless, the pleasant nickname of “beloved” wins everyone’s approval. It is true, the Slovenians love their capital and readily compliment it. Three aspects of this charming European city – a western doorway to the Balkans – allow us to discover an atypical city, which has managed to synthesise all its cultural influences.

A few improvements and a dash of marketing: here is the new Ljubljana
 
It is just a few months since Dunja, a former student, returned to settle in the Slovenian capital, after spending some time abroad. Her first impression? “The city has changed enormously, but above all, the transformation has been fast”, she says, still astonished.
 
Works, improvements, car parks: behind this big building site is one man, the very popular Zoran Janković. This talented businessman, after getting the Mercator supermarket chain back on its feet again, was elected mayor of Ljubljana and is now concentrating on giving his city a public image worthy of the name.
 
A stone’s throw from the triple bridge and Pešeren Square, in the heart of the now pedestrian historic centre, Mestni Trg Square – where the bell tower of the town hall rises up (one of the local postcard images) – is having a facelift. Robba’s baroque fountain has been restored to its former dazzling whiteness, even if… shhh! “It’s a copy: the original has been transferred to a museum”, confides Dunja. No matter, the objective will soon be reached: Ljubljana must become a tourist “destination”.
 
No need for an underground in this city, which can easily be covered on foot. Besides, the bus transport system is very good. Visitors – “increasingly numerous”, we are told – don’t appear to be falling over each other on the mouse-grey cobbles of Pešeren Square and the quays. After an August day spent roaming the streets of the little capital, an impression emerges: peace and quiet definitely still reign in this city where, quite simply, life is pleasant.
 
A little tradition, even so!
 
Like everywhere else, the euro has pushed prices up, but in Slovenia, the quality of products is a serious matter. Moreover, the Mercator supermarkets, which have spread in the city – thanks to the mayor – have launched a big campaign to promote the consumption of Slovenian products.
Erika, a training centre teacher, has always lived in the capital. Here, she asserts, “people like to eat healthily, and the fast-food restaurants aren’t doing so well.” It’s certainly true – we hardly found one McDonald’s in the city centre and, at lunchtime, there were no crowds. The pleasant quayside terraces are, however, universally popular. It is particularly in the evening, after office hours, that strollers begin to flock here and liven up the place.
 
Laško or Union?
A little later in the evening we discover another more lively city, beneath artificial lights. Phew! We thought it had been a little too quiet. Over a beer, Erika tells the amusing story of a gastronomic rivalry between Laško and Union, the two national brands of beer. The former comes from the east, near Maribor, the rival city. The latter from Ljubljana – the one that people had to drink out of sheer chauvinism, in the old days, if they came from the capital… even if, in secret, they sometimes preferred Laško. Today, this dispute is no longer relevant since both beers now belong to the same company. More than being just about beer, it was also about water – Oda water for the production of Laško and Zala water for Union, names that one still finds on many Slovenian tables.
 
Green Ljubljana…
 
Erika is very familiar with all the nooks and crannies in town that are worth a visit. For her, it goes without saying, Ljubljana is a very pleasant, dynamic city, where green – the city’s symbolic colour – predominates. She regrets only that real estate has become so expensive. It is difficult nowadays to afford a house with a garden near the centre – of which there are still many!
 
In this country, even in the capital, the tradition of the vegetable garden has managed to withstand the invasion of Mercator and its main competitor, Tuš. A short distance from the centre, you already have one foot in the countryside. It is becoming increasingly clear why these people are in love with their city! The climate, which wavers between Mediterranean and continental, has quite a lot of sunshine and heat, but a refreshing setting of greenery protects the city.
 
The castle occupies a place of honour on its verdant pedestal and, in this small capital, you are never very far from Tivoli Park, in the west of the city. For about twenty years, the Green Ring – a promenade that circles the whole of Ljubljana – has become a favourite place to relax. The “Pot”, as it is commonly known over there, is none other than the old German control barrier dating from the Second World War.
 
… is it as demure as it looks?
 
With regard to nightlife, the Slovenian capital is certainly no Ibiza! “Except for the restaurants, and the bars of the historic centre, places to party are virtually non-existent”, explains Rok, an epicurean of Ljubljana and another one who adores his city. Events? The jazz festival, of course, which lasts all summer long and is held in an incredible venue, the Križanke – an ancient monastery, built along the river Ljubljanica, which has been remodelled through the ages, notably by the inescapable Jože Plečnik.
 
There are indeed a few trendy spots, but “you have to be in the know”; Located in the northeast, Ljubljana’s artistic area is called Metelkova: this alternative interdisciplinary centre, promoted by the local council, occupies old military buildings and offers a different face from the refined city centre.
 
Trubarjeva Street, tucked away in the area around Pešeren Square, has not yet undergone the same renovation as the neighbouring streets. One imagines that just a few years ago, this is what Ljubljana must have looked like: beautiful, worn façades, giving a slightly decadent look to the architecture. Numerous well-established and charming little cafes are to be found here.
 
A good compromise!
 
Even though he is a fan of the great outdoors – the mountains are nearby – Rok does not envisage living anywhere other than in this city for the time being.
 
When you ask him what his favourite Slovenian specialities are, he replies “štruklji”, a Slovenian version of apple strudel, “potica”, a walnut cake, or “gibanica”, a Serbian cheese pastry. A Slovenian restaurant? He hesitates, “not really.” In reality, here people readily combine Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian cuisines in a warm Balkan atmosphere.
 
As for the Viennese secessionist architecture, it reminds you of the proximity of Austria and the Germanic influence, and the numerous Italians are a reminder that the Peninsula is not far away: a synthesis of cultures that give a unique atmosphere to this city on a human scale, which is neither too big nor too small.
 
In short, Ljubljana is a city made for those who like a good compromise!

The origin of the name Ljubljana is a subject of some discord amongst historians. Nevertheless, the pleasant nickname of “beloved” wins everyone’s approval. It is true, the Slovenians love their capital and readily compliment it. Three aspects of this charming European city – a western doorway to the Balkans – allow us to discover an atypical city, which has managed to synthesise all its cultural influences.

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