Ljubljana (soft j’s.) Say that fast ten times, or better yet let it roll off your tongue once, while relishing in the memories of the Slovenian Capital. Which is exactly what I do when I sit back and think of my trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia.
My daughter and I arrived into Ljubljana, which means “beloved,” via train on a warm day in May. We were able to catch glimpses of a very serene untainted country side, noting a small vineyard in almost every small farm along the way.
A ten minute cab ride from the train station took us to Hotel Cubo, our home base for the next 48 hours. We were greeted by two young but very attentive receptionists and were shown to our comfortable large room with a view of a medieval castle. Included in this moderately priced room was a stocked mini bar and a lavish breakfast buffet.
Having arrived mid-afternoon we had time to check out the streets of Old Town Ljubljana – up one side and down the other of the slow-moving Ljubljanica River. Bustling gelato stands on almost every corner. Outside cafes lining both sides of the river filled with relaxed looking customers. Antique shops and boutique clothing stores aplenty. After an espresso to pep us up a bit, it was off to a quaint little restaurant called Spazja for an early dinner.
We were seated at a beautiful courtyard table by the head chef and owner of the restaurant. Apparently our indecision of menu choices showed, as the chef asked if he could create a culinary experience for us paired with wines from the region. Being adventurous when it comes to food, we were game for a unique dining experience.
And unique, but oh so flavorful was what we were treated to: a plate of smoked horse cheeks on a bed of arugula – salty and smoky; homemade gnocchi served with a heavy cream sauce infused with nettles – hearty but soft; white fish caught locally baked whole in a blanket of salt mined nearby – amazingly only a light salty flavor done to perfection; and finished off with homemade blueberry and cinnamon ice creams – need I say more.
After a restful sleep and being fully sated at the breakfast buffet we headed out to see the town of Ljubljana through the eyes of our tour guide who grew up in the area. Within our first 100 yards we had walked by unearthed ruins from the Roman Empire, part of the 70,000 student university campus, and the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.
Then we made our way into one of the most expansive outdoor markets I have ever seen. It is open 365 days a year, covering several city blocks, showcasing the produce of the season, fresh milk and meat from local farms, and homemade wears from clothing to knickknacks. My nose was in overload sensory mode. Fresh cut flowers the likes I have never seen before; fresh-baked goods that only a grandma with decades of practice could master; produce so fresh you couldn’t help but eat as you walked through the market.
Our guide regaled us with stories, one of a local poet who had a torrid crush on a local damsel – both immortalized with busts in Old Town. He took us through a store which sold everything that could be made with salt – whether to eat or bath in – mined from the Secovlje Saltpans near the Adriatic Sea. Then it was off to check out that medieval castle.
We took a tram (aka funicular) up along a medieval wall into the guts of Ljubljana Castle, but it is up to you to climb the narrow steep red steel circular stairway up to the turret to get a view unparalleled by most cities. Ljubljana is set out into five points of a star – each one with a main road taking you to one of the four neighboring countries – Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary – and one to the Adriatic Sea. No one destination more than two drive away.
A bust of Tito, the President who reigned the region for nearly 60 years, sits in the castle museum. The courtyard of the castle is used for special public and private functions – what a great place to have a wedding! And there is a five-star restaurant that is usually booked at least a month out – I know, I tried and failed to get a reservation there.
The next legs of our tour took us to the Postajno Caves and Lake Bled – see previous post.
We finished our evening back in Ljubljana with a late night dining experience at the restaurant owned by the owner of the hotel we were staying at of the same name, Cubo Restaurant. From the moment we stepped in the door we were made to feel like regulars. The maitre’d requested the chef be allowed to create a unique dining experience for us paired with local wines. There is either a very large echo in this city or there seems to be a theme of chef inspired original dining experiences. But again, we were more than impressed with the quality and flavors of the dishes served.
Food is obviously a major player in the lives of the Slovenian people – from growing it to selling it to cooking it and to the best part of eating it. The fresh produce and meats supplied at the market find their way into many local restaurants, including the two we dined at and I’m sure to most tables in the homes of the 250,000 inhabitants of Ljubljana, to be paired with their homemade distilled wines.
I have never experienced a place with such sensory overload paired with a calming effect. The people of Ljubljana and Slovenia have it figured out – you can live life to the fullest while keeping it simple. It would be an easy existence to melt into, but for now a return visit will have to suffice.