December 6 – 20, 2017 (Winter)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: High
When we arrived at our apartment this month, our host welcomed us warmly but was a little incredulous that we were staying two whole weeks in little Ljubljana. It’s a small capital, less than 300k people, and there simply isn’t that much for tourists to do. Normally this is a non-issue; we’re usually in a place to live first and sightsee second. “Boring” cities often end up being the most livable and our personal favorites. Not so this time. Ljubljana was charming, and a great home base for exploring Slovenia, and any other time of year we would be thrilled by the experience. But we blew through every Christmas festivity the city had to offer within hours. As we watched the days whittle away on the calendar, we couldn’t help but lament how we were missing out on nicer celebrations elsewhere. Slovenia should be ideal for a pair of hiking-happy introvert digital nomads. In December, though, two weeks is too many with better Advents so tantalizingly close.
Where we stayed
After more than half a year of amazing stays with each home better than the last, it was inevitable that one would have the dubious honor of breaking the streak. Our Airbnb↗ in Ljubljana wasn’t bad by any means, just… a bit of a let-down. The location was fabulous, just a couple blocks from the city’s transit hub and less than a kilometer from every major sight in the city. (Though to be fair, most of the city could probably make the same claim – it’s not very big.) But that same central location and value price made it popular with short-term stayers, which meant the place was much more lived-in than most. A bit grungy, lots of little things busted here and there, that sort of thing. We did benefit from a convenient grocery store right across the street (especially nice on snowy nights) and some of the city’s best quick eats in close proximity.
Though on a quiet street, we were dismayed to discover a cacophony of construction noise coming from next door. The pounding of hammers and rattling of drills dashed our high spirits on the first day, though thankfully the work was intermittent and rare for the remainder of our stay. We simply explored to escape the worst of it. Anyway, we didn’t plan to spend Christmas in Europe to stay inside all day!
The actual living space was okay – a little more cramped than we prefer – but perfectly functional. Most of our frustrations were a culmination of petty complaints. The floors creaked a lot. Lights hung too low, begging to be head bumped. And the bathroom door was an inexplicably see-through frosted glass. We ended up jury-rigging a window shade out of plastic bags and thread to preserve our dignity.
Ljubljana does have an exceptional and modern refuse collection system. Bins for various recyclables are found clustered on most streets. Garbage receptacles are right there alongside the rest, but require scanning a special card to open (presumably connected to a tax or fee).
What we did
First and foremost, we visited in December to experience Christmas in the Old Town. Ljubljana’s lights are the stuff of legend. The arrangements celebrate scientific rather than theist themes, a “fairy tale about the universe.” It was otherworldly – literally. Displays over a surprising number of streets and plazas touched on mathematics, biology, music, and a whole lot of astronomy. And nature helping out with an extra dusting of magic? It was downright enchanting.
On the other hand, once you get past the lights, there just isn’t much going on in Ljubljana. The Christmas “markets” were really just a couple of booths here and there. Prešeren Square was the focal point, with a few good spots sharing mulled wine and warm food under the galactic light show. There were some more food and beverage stalls intermixed with the restaurants on the other side of the river Ljubljanica; arts and crafts had a row a few blocks further south. And Congress Square had a downright impressive ice skating setup. But after our too-brief glimpse of Zagreb’s↗ award-winning extravaganza and with Germany’s↗ yet to come, it was hard not to feel like we were wasting our time here. Our two weeks could easily have been pared down to one without missing anything.
We made the most of it, though. Ljubljana is an easy place to love, and any other time of year would have been absolutely ideal for an extended stay. A big part of that is the incredible Tivoli Park. It’s as if the wilderness invaded the city, breaking through the outer rings and penetrating all the way to the Old Town gates. December was cold, but not so cold we couldn’t enjoy a good hike during our handful of daylight hours. The wooded trails offered some nice views of the city, but most of all they offered a surprisingly remote-feeling escape from it. Our favorite discoveries were a pair of ski jumps (quite a bit larger than we thought they’d be) and a creepy hollowed-out brick tower that sent chills up our spines. Or maybe that was just the winter air.
Up above the old center and bathed in blue light for the season, Ljubljana Castle loomed like a true medieval fortress. We hiked up to it on a day that began clear but eventually devolved into near-whiteout► conditions. Even so, the city looked peaceful from the ramparts, the swirling flakes magnifying the distance between us and them. Those castle walls were built for a reason, of course – defense. And maybe to house a scary dragon. Over the years they also served as a prison or garrison; now the grounds are home to concentration of museums and cafés. The history museum felt a bit light to us, but the Museum of Puppetry was just the right amount of terrifying.
The courtyard was nicely decorated for the holidays, complete with nativity and market. As the last of the day’s light slipped away, decorative bulbs sparked to take its place. We left the castle as we entered, on foot, eschewing the overpriced funicular ride. The still night, punctuated by the light crunch of the snow beneath our boots, stuck out to us as one of those intangible moments that we’ll remember from this trip forever.
We had… reservations about going some 5 kilometers into a brittle hole in the Earth. Kevin did, anyway. But Postojna Cave is one of Slovenia’s top tourist attractions, and rightly considered one of the most impressive on the continent. It was simple to get to from Ljubljana, so we decided to go for it. The descent begins with a surprisingly white knuckle train ride deep into the system. Narrow cars just two people wide whip through claustrophobic tunnels punctuated by occasional flashes of sweeping amphitheaters. Going several kilometers into the cave takes just a few minutes, drips and drops splattering down the whole way. The tour continued on foot. This section was dominated by, er, cavernous spaces as big as concert halls (and sometimes used as such). Our group climbed and descended, observing all the cave greatest hits: stalactites holding tight, stalagmites pushing up mightily, whole merged columns, ear-like draperies and spaghetti-like straws. But Postojna’s landmarks were especially weird and wild. It’s hard to express how captivated by it all we were. We tried to guess beforehand whether we’d be a little nervous about walking around with thousands of tons of rock over our heads, or whether the wonder of it all would win out. Well, wonder won.
Our trip ended with a peek at an olm, a blind albino salamander indigenous to the cave system. We exited above an underground waterfall – actually the river outside carving its way into the rock and forming the next layer of caverns for visitors a million years in the future.
Back above ground, and home in Ljubljana, we contacted the tourist bureau to arrange a tour of the Seminary Library. Because if there’s only one Baroque library in Slovenia, we are absolutely going to see it. Built in the early 1700s around the posthumous donation of three prominent book collectors, it truly is a sight. Elaborate wooden bookcases line the walls and ceiling frescoes look as if they were painted yesterday. This place benefits from its relative anonymity. Light use and consistent conditions help preserve the collection without too much fuss. The tourist office had to call over to make sure someone was willing to show us around, and we were charged just a couple of euro for the privilege. Definitely a neat spot to see and well worth the price. But don’t everyone rush over there at once!
Before we left, we made one final trip to visit the crown jewel of Slovenia, Lake Bled. It’s arguably the most photographed natural attraction in the country. And for good reason! The lake is famously picturesque, surrounded by the stunning Julian Alps and with an iconic church occupying its single small island. When we visited, the resort town on its shores was bustling with Christmas markets and celebrations. We ate a lunch of lamb stew before setting off on our walk. A wide, paved (or boardwalk) path runs the entire 6.5 km shoreline. There are no bad views. We started by admiring Bled’s own church and castle, followed by the antics of the local wildlife. Then the island came into view. We reached the most distant point as the light started to fade. Sunbeams filtered in through the gaps between mountain peaks. We made it back to town just in time to watch the lights come up to meet the night. And to catch a bus home. While the setting is splendid, it’s far from solitary. Even with temperatures dipping toward freezing we found a lot more company on the trail than we hoped. Still, we enjoyed our visit. The jewel‘s reputation is well-earned.
Food & Drink
We were close by many of the usual grocery suspects: Spar, Hofer (Aldi with an alias), and Lidl (along with their pallet of tiramisu!) all had easy-to-reach outlets. Mercator (a Slovenian chain now owned by the same company as Konzum) was most numerous. Of course we much preferred the central market. Vendors sold produce and other goods from tables and stalls in a large open lot. Meats and dairy were next door, opposite the Seminary Library. And of course highlight is Plečnikove arkade. A third a kilometer of restaurants, butchers, bakers, and yes, candlestick makers formed the backbone of the marketplace. We visited several times before we figured out how to reach the lower level and finally managed to satisfy our seafood lust.
Dining out was just as satisfying. While Ljubljana is generally pricey by our travel standards, the fast food options were inexpensive, delicious, and probably the most memorable in ages. Just steps from our apartment Nobel Burek kept doner and hot burek on the menu 24 hours a day. For just a couple of euro we filled up cheese or spinach burek that were big enough for two meals, or doner that bested any before or since. At BTC City, Hot’ Horse delivered on a fairly adventurous premise – fast food horse meat. Adventurous as we are, we hadn’t had a similar opportunity since Lisbon↗ and jumped at the chance to partake of pony. A bronco burger made for a
filly filling start, but the steed steak sandwich was legitimately delightful. A++ would order Secretariat again.
Much of our wine this time came in the form of kuhano vino, either from the ubiquitous market stands selling it by the cup, or by mulling it ourselves. We had encountered a version that incorporated both red and white wine in Croatia and simmered up a batch at home. It turned out to be one of our favorite new concoctions. Wine is grown in several regions around Slovenia, but the reds from the coastal areas were our favorite. Refošk is one of the signature grapes of the region.
The two Slovenian beer brands are Laško and Union, both of which we were already aware of from seeing them elsewhere in the Balkans. Both were blah. Laško at least tried something different by offering a Temno, however it was also blah. For slightly cheaper blah, some stores offered generic versions of both, color-coded to each brand with red or green cans. Imported Czech beer was once again the best of a bad situation. In a particularly weird twist, they were offered in two different 6-packs, one labeled 6 (at 6x the cost of 1 can) and one labeled 5+1 free (at 5x the cost of 1 can). Why even carry the more expensive SKU?
Luckily, Ljubljana had several excellent craft beer emporiums to choose from. We found all sorts of local and imported varieties that were much more flavorful. IPAs were popular. Really, really popular. We picked out a number of tasty stouts that were suited to the season, as well as a few holiday-specific strains (though not as many as we’d hoped).
Though Uber↗ is not yet available in Ljubljana, we didn’t find ourselves missing it. The city’s compact layout made it easy to get around mostly on foot. And our apartment’s location near the central station made any transit-based excursions dead simple as well. BTC City shopping center was a short bus ride away. Tickets are not sold on board, but our host left us an Urbana card and we topped up at one of the bright green machines around the city. We could both ride on the same card; tickets were €1.20 each.
To reach Postojna Cave, we took a train ($9 each) from the central station to downtown Postojna and walked half an hour to the cave entrance. We hopped on the bus that stops right in the parking lot for an easier return leg (only $7 per person).
Lake Bled was only easily accessible by bus. They run every 45-60 minutes in the winter. Each leg was likewise between $7-9 per person.
Stuff of interest
For this stay we carried over our Croatian SIMs to take advantage of the EU’s Roam Like at Home program. Our package from T-Hvratsa (Croatian T-Mobile) worked just as well as in Zagreb and it was cheaper to top-up our existing lines there than to pick up a local alternative here.
Ljubljana turned out to be an understated literary city. The hilltop castle boasted several book exchanges (it actually translated to “Book Vanishing Point”) and the buses have little stickers on some seats reserving them for readers. Even the central square honors a poet, France Prešeren, with a statue… and naming rights to the square itself.
As has become our annual travel tradition, we saw the new Star Wars movie (The Last Jedi) on opening weekend. Though heavily-advertised throughout Europe, we managed to get tickets easily on the day after opening. The showing was in English with Slovenian subtitles so we didn’t miss a beat.
We also visited BTC City, a sprawling shopping center northeast of Ljubljana’s core. This is where we found a movie theater, along with a mega mall called CityPark, 16 mini malls, over 500 stores, a market, and an office tower/mall that also happens to be the tallest building in Slovenia. It was all quite impressive. This was easily the biggest shopping center we’d seen since the Zona Franca in Punta Arenas↗. Since we don’t actually have any room for “stuff” or “things,” we went home with a small bottle of Sriracha and a few packs of ramen. Hooray unbridled capitalism!
What we learned
When we return to Slovenia, it will be in summer. The area may be lacking in Christmas markets, but it seems likely to make up for that with outdoor activities (when the season is right). Seeing all those stunning mountains on the horizon filled us with a deep desire to leave Ljubljana.
…in a good way.