Ljubljana, capital city of Slovenia

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.

Lavish breakfast buffet, Hotel Cubo, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Lavish breakfast buffet, Hotel Cubo, Ljubljana, Slovenia

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.

One of many bridges crossing over the Ljubljana River, Old Town Ljubljana

One of many bridges crossing over the Ljubljana River, Old Town Ljubljana

Cobblestone streets lined with antique shops and clothing boutiques, Ljubljana

Cobblestone streets lined with antique shops and clothing boutiques, Ljubljana

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.

Homemade gnocchi in creamed nettle sauce and slivered almonds, Spazzo, Ljubljana

Homemade gnocchi in creamed nettle sauce and slivered almonds, Spazja, Ljubljana

Whole fish cooked in a blanket of salt, Spazzo, Ljubljana

Whole fish cooked in a blanket of salt, Spazja, Ljubljana

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.

One of Slovenia's oldest churches, Ljubljana

One of Slovenia’s oldest churches – Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, Ljubljana

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.

Fresh food market, Ljubljana

Fresh food market, Ljubljana

Fresh milk kiosk, where each one is serviced directly by the farmer, Ljubljana food market

Fresh milk kiosk, where each one is serviced directly by the farmer, Ljubljana food 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.

Narrow stairway leading up to the open turret atop Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana

Narrow stairway leading up to the open turret atop Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana

Italian Alps off in the distance as viewed from atop Ljubljana Castle

Italian Alps off in the distance as viewed from atop Ljubljana Castle

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.

Bust of Tito, reigning President for 60 years, Ljubljana Castle

Bust of Tito, reigning President for 60 years, Ljubljana Castle

Center courtyard of Ljubljana Castle used for public and private functions

Center courtyard of Ljubljana Castle used for public and private functions

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.

How to see Slovenia in a day!

A new year brings new destinations to share. Today it’s back to Europe to share one of those proverbial hidden gems – Slovenia. A country that held no spot on my bucket list, let alone being on my radar of places I had ever heard much about. After a visit to this quaint self-contained region, it is on my ‘must revisit’ list.

I owe this find to my daughter. While she was studying abroad in Prague she came across an article in a travel magazine talking about the capital of Slovenia – Ljubljana. We had been looking for one more destination to add to our itinerary traveling back to the US after her stint in Prague. It was adventurous to pick such an unknown destination, but we were intrigued by this tongue twister city and an opportunity to travel to some place new and different.

After only a few hours of walking the streets of Ljubljana we were ready to send for our belongings and make Slovenia our new home. That may have been a bit drastic, but our stay was so magical, we delayed our departure by an extra day so we could take in as much as this little country had to offer. And little it is – about 2/3rd’s the size of Rhode Island. From atop Ljubljana Castle, that sits on a high point in the center of Old Town Ljubljana, you can see the four countries that border Slovenia – Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria.

Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana Castle, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Because our time was so limited in Slovenia and because we knew absolutely nothing about the area, we chose to use the services of a tour company.

The tour company: Exeter International – set up the perfect itinerary and had awesome communication. The tour guide: Marijan Kristovic – born and raised in the area, and went well beyond his ‘tour guide’ list of duties. We started our tour walking the streets of Ljubljana, but I will share those highlights in next week’s post. In this post I will share “How to see Slovenia in a day!”

Slovenia has only been a country since 1991, when it seceded from Yugoslavia. The Slovenian people are a proud people. They work hard at living a self-sustaining existence. Most grow their own food and make their own wine. They have one of the highest percentages of middle-class citizens in the world, with very few people who live in wealth or poverty. This is all very commendable for a country who has seen a lot of change over the years – the guide’s Grandmother has had 4 different passports in her 80+ years of life, but she has never moved.

Our first stop was at the Postojna Caves. Discovered by a farmer back in the 1800’s, there are at present three miles of the 18 miles of dark, dank, wet caves open to the public. The caves are very cool at a constant 8 degrees celsius in their natural state. There is a concerted effort to keep the influx of humans and lights to a minimum as extra heat incites the growth of harmful algae. Limestone stalactites and stalagmites, growing 1 mm every 10-30 years, line every inch of the cave. Some as thin as paper, some several stories high. It felt good to return to the warmth of the outside the caves.

Stalactites lighted from behind, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

Stalactites lighted from behind, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

The whiter the stalactite the purer the limestone, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

The whiter the stalactite the purer the limestone, Postojna Caves, Slovenia

Then is was onto one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen – Lake Bled. It is places like this that I think ancient fairy tales were written about. A quiet little lake town, on the opposite end of the country, about an hour away. Sitting high above Lake Bled, perched on a cliff, is another medieval castle. But in the middle of the lake is an island, called The Island, because it is the only island in Slovenia.

medieval castle, sitting high above Lake Bled, Slovenia

The medieval Bled Castle, sitting high above Lake Bled, Slovenia

The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

On The Island sits a medieval church. To get to the island you hire the services of the only boat company allowed to service the lake. The boating license has been in the same family for generations and the government has deemed that it stay in the family indefinitely. The hand-made wooden boats, piloted by a handsome young Slovenian, take you to the base of the 99-step stairway leading up to the church. Legend has it, if the groom can carry his bride up the whole 99-steps he is worthy of marrying her.

The medieval cathedral on The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

The medieval cathedral on The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

Handmade wooden boat waiting to courier passengers to The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

Handmade wooden boat waiting to courier passengers to The Island on Lake Bled, Slovenia

99 stone steps the groom has to carry his bride to prove he is worthy of marrying her, The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

The 99 stone steps a groom has to carry his bride up to prove he is worthy of marrying her, The Island, Lake Bled, Slovenia

In the church is a magic wishing bell, a gift from the sitting Pope during the era of the Roman Empire, to the sitting Slovenian bishop of the time. The first bell sent sank in a bad storm enroute to the cathedral, but the second bell sent survived and so was thought to be a lucky bell. If you are strong enough to get the bell to ring, you are granted a wish. It took me three good yanks, but I did succeed in making that bell ring!

The stories of Slovenia are plentiful. The sites of Slovenia are breathtaking. The people of Slovenia are private and passionate and want to keep this country a little known gem. But they are also proud purveyors of friendly service and a desire to share with others the beauty and magic of this quaint little country.

To be continued…Next week: Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.