Ljubljanica River, Ljubljana

Basking In The Balkans

15th February 2013

Chris Ambrose falls for Ljubljana, Slovenia, a place he now casually describes as ‘the nicest European city I've been to’…

The timer had barely dropped a second before the button on top was slapped down once again. The speed and ferocity of the moves were in stark contrast to the relaxed chatter emanating from the surrounding tables. People meandered through Prešernov Trg – the pretty cobbled square that marks an obvious introductory point for Ljubljana’s riverside setting – whilst a sign in front of the table explained the presence of these two men in their specially-made t-shirts, and the video camera behind them. This was, apparently, the early stages of a world-record attempt for a twenty-four hour draughts match. It was an unexpected activity… but I could easily appreciate that if you were going to embark on such a challenge, there would be few more appealing surroundings in which to attempt it.

The tight network of bridges were drawing visitors across the narrow Ljubljanica river, allowing them to criss-cross between the vast selection of cafes and restaurants that create an almost agonising choice for lunchtime refreshment. The sun was beating down, causing many to retreat beneath one of the many awnings that lined up together to create a strip of shade beside the river walkway as they sipped beers or devoured homemade ice cream. Others were less reserved, and had secured spaces along the lower stone jetties, their feet dangling teasingly close to the waterline in the gaps between the little tourist boats that were mooring briefly to collect passengers.

Drawing my eye away from this picturesque scene was the steep hill behind the Old Town. A thick mound of greenery added a band of contrast between the brightly painted stone of the buildings below and the deep blue of the sky above. The distinct shape of a castle tower poked out above the trees, immediately catching my eye as a potential viewpoint.

I crossed over the river into Staro Mesto, the Old Town, where I quickly found myself in another quaint square – Mestni Trg – centred in front of the crisp, grey arches of the Town Hall. The narrow cobbled streets that disappeared off at either end of the square gave no indication of a route up to the castle behind, so I took a gamble and headed towards the northern end. After passing further whitewashed exteriors of speciality shops and restaurants, I found myself in a bustling market. Temporary stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables ran in neat lines up to the river edge, with crowds of locals scanning what was on offer; ready to snap up the day’s best pickings. I finally gave in to my stomach (having so far resisted all the edible offerings I had passed on my short meander through the city)… Skewered chicken with roasted pepper was handed to me on a paper plate, with chunky, herb-baked bread on the side and a lightly spiced dip to accompany it. It was utterly delicious, and a necessary replenishment as I set off again in search of a way up to the tower.

An unassuming back street turned out to be the route, with the cobbles soon breaking down into a narrow woodland pathway that got progressively steeper as it gradually wound around the hillside. The dense trees blocked out any sense of the rapid gain in altitude during the ascent, but this only enhanced the views that greeted me at the top of Castle Hill (Grajski grič). I paid my three Euros and climbed the final stretch up the 95 steps to the top of the watchtower that I had spied from below.

Castle Hill

The views were spectacular. The steep hill provided an almost birds-eye perspective of the city below. The bright sunshine illuminated the red tile roofs of the buildings of the Old Town, clearly marking out the sharp bend in the river in which the hill top castle nestles. Beyond the main city outline are hills that roll out in all directions; the deep greens provided by their rich summer foliage gradually fading in the distance with the summer haze. A light breeze took the edge off the high, mid-afternoon temperature as well as intermittently carrying up murmurings from the busy street scenes below.

Ljubljana Castle has been through many renovations over the centuries, and it is now a patchwork of architectural styles; within its confines are a wide variety of features and exhibitions; from a fifteenth century chapel and thick, stone fortified walls, to underground art displays and compelling interactive galleries that document the turbulent and not-so-distant history of the Balkan region. Many events are hosted within the central courtyard of the castle during the summer season, too, including theatrical displays and film screenings.

The courtyard also provides deck chairs and benches beside a trolley of shelves, on which visitors can find a selection of books: Slovenian art, history, photographs, children’s literature. Choose something to read, take a drink from the nearby café and settle down in the shade. Despite the popularity of the city there is something incredibly relaxed and calm about the feel of the Slovenian capital – both at ground level and up on the hill.

Along the river…

By evening, back down at street level, the atmosphere had shifted. The restaurants were as busy as ever, but now the crowds on the bridges were not gathered to admire the river, but to be amused by the street entertainers that were juggling fire, balancing on poles and demonstrating any other impressive tricks and challenges they could pull-off in the narrow spaces on offer. And, refreshingly, as they engaged with their captive audiences they didn’t seem driven by monetary donations, but merely revelled in the gasps and applause. The Old Town was now also drifting to a soundtrack of acoustic musicians, setting the slow, relaxed pace for those strolling beside the river.

Despite the buzz , it only takes a short wander over the cobbles before you can find a street to yourself, with just the gentle orange glow of some tastefully positioned lanterns highlighting some less populated establishments. It was in one such pleasant terraced row that I found a quaint little outlet to sample some local beverages as I let the next couple of hours slip by…

The following day I found myself back in Prešernov Trg (hardly surprising, of course, given its prominent position in the city’s geographic make-up) but now there was that ambient calm that only Sunday mornings can bring. The beers had been replaced by coffee, the ice cream swapped for cake and the live music now took the form of a distant chorus of worshippers in the neighbouring church. Only three things remained the same from the previous day: the warmth of the sun, the allure of the riverside setting, and the background tapping of the timer as the two checkers players battled on…

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