It's pronounced Loobliana

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Today was my first (and unfortunately only) full day in Ljubljana. I'm not sure why I only booked a day, but I imagine I was probably thinking I'd have time to see some of the city the first day not realizing how long it would take to get all of the way there by train. I could easily spend two or even three days in the city without trying hard to find interesting things. Tomorrow's hotel is just outside of the city, so I may come back into town for a bit.

So, you say you've never heard of Ljubljana, and you're wondering what there is to see there at all? Ljubljana is Europe's "Biggest Little Capital". (Okay I just made that up. Sorry Reno.) It's the capital of Slovenia, which became and independent country for the first time in 1991 when it separated from Yugoslavia.

As Slovenians keep telling me, Yugoslavia was technically outside of the Soviet-bloc area (Tito and Stalin didn't get along), and so even during the Cold War, it wasn't as hard-core communist as other countries in the area (at least that's how they remember it). Slovenia was the first ex-communist country to adopt the euro. Ljubljana doesn't seem too different to me than any of the mid-sized, Western European cities I've been to. Of course, I've only been in the touristy areas, but it's definitely a nice place to visit.

I started my day with a guided walking tour of the old town. The old town centers around "Castle Hill" and consists of a several squares, a few streets, and a handful of bridges. Medieval Ljubljana had three squares. They were surrounded by a wall, which connected them to the castle. Within the bounds town wall, an internal gate separated the rich area of town from the poor and was closed each night. According to our tour guide, another charming medieval Ljubljana custom was to have a public dunking of the town's baker in the river if the bread wasn't properly prepared.

Ljubljana was hit twice during its recorded history by major earthquakes. The first was in 1511. The second occurred in 1895. After the second earthquake, the buildings in the old town were rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style. Because of this, Ljubljana has a great collection of Art Nouveau buildings. A large majority of them have been restored, and those that haven't yet are probably on a waiting list. According to our tour guide, the mayor started a campaign to renovate the city. There was some restoration in progress while I was there, but it wasn't too annoying.

The other big architectural impact on old town Ljubljana is the work of Jože Plečnik. He is not only the most famous Slovenian architect, but also ranks among top European architects. Apart from his designs in Ljubljana, he worked on important buildings in both Vienna and Prague. Our guide described his style as minimalist and full of symbolism.

Between WWI and WWII, Plečnik was given many commissions in Ljubljana's old town and surrounding neighborhoods by the city. When the existing bridge to Prešernov square became too crowded, he proposed adding two extra spans, creating Ljubljana's famous "Triple Bridge". (Okay, it's famous if you've heard of Ljubljana...)

Another well-known work of Plečnik's in Ljubljana is the National and University Library. It was partially destroyed during WWII, but has been rebuilt in the original form. Ironically, the damage occurred when a German plane crashed into the building. This is ironic because Ljubljana was far from the major fronts with little heavy industry and did not suffer a single (intentional) bombing attack.

The communists considered Plečnik too religious, so he was prevented from completing his plans after the end of WWII. Fortunately, illustrating one of the differences between Yugoslavia and the Soviet-bloc, he was allowed to continue work on non-government-sponsored projects (not that there were any big non-government projects in a communist country) rather than being sent to a labor camp somewhere to die.

After the tour ended, I did some walking around on my own. I went by the open air market, the Dragon Bridge, the small remaining section of the town's Roman wall, and stopped by a few of the churches.

Although most of the old town architecture is Art Nouveau, the churches are strongly Baroque. They were built after the triumph of the Counter-Reformation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in a purposefully grand style in order to proclaim the power of Catholic church over Protestant and presumably either survived the earthquake or were rebuilt in the original style. Although, in the case of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas (Stolna Cerkev sv. Nikolaja), the cupola could not initially be constructed as envisioned because there was no one in the area at the time who knew how to build one. I don't know why they couldn't get craftsmen shipped-over from Italy. It took 5 years to complete the majority of the cathedral, but 150 to get the proper cupola attached.

Outside of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation (Marijinega Ozanenja), in Prešernov square, a stage had been erected for a festival celebrating Ljubljana's status as UNESCO's World Book Capital 2010. One of the acts happened to be going on as I walked by, so I stopped to watch. For the show I saw, two people sat off to the side of the stage reading a page at a time from child's book. After they read each page, a troupe of adolescent dancers would perform. I couldn't tell if the dances were supposed to have something to do with the story or not. The dances alternated between modern-style with pop music and ballet-style with music from Tim Burton movies. It was a fun little show along the level of a high-school musical.

At night, the professionals took the stage, and it was amazing. I'm not a ballet expert, or even casual attendee, but if there's something like "contemporary" or "post-modern" ballet, that was the style of tonight's show. The dancing and the music were enthralling, and there were also some cool effects. When it started, there was a mirror at the back of the stage and a single ballerina was lit from behind, but there was no light hitting her from the front, so you could only really see her by looking in the mirror. There was another scene with two male dancers (ballerinos?) dressed in black, carrying a ballerina who was wearing white. I don't think the ballerina ever touched the ground. It looked like she was dancing and flying at the same time...

And before I wrap this up, I've got one last entry in the Slovenia is much more reasonable than Switzerland category. I bought dinner for $7. The only reason it cost $7 instead of $6 was because I couldn't bring myself to ask for one euro back in change from the waiter in order to leave a skimpy, European-size tip, so I left 20%. Fortunately, he seemed happy, rather than insulted by my American largess, so it was good.

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