From Albania and North Macedonia, my summer travels continued to Slovenia which is one of the successor states of former Yugoslavia. Like its other Balkan neighbors, Slovenia had a storied past once being part of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Habsburg Monarchy, Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc until in 1918 it formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes with its neighbors. This was renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. After World War II, Slovenia became a founding member of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, later renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Slovenia was the first republic to split from Yugoslavia and became an independent nation in 1991. I flew into the capital and largest city of Slovenia, Ljubljana (pronounced Lyoob-lyah-nah). Ljubljana has become one of the latest rising stars as a tourist destination in Eastern Europe. I chose to base myself in the capital at the 2-year-old modern Intercontinental Hotel Ljubljana which is within walking distance to the Old Town and the main sights around. It is the tallest and first 5-star hotel in the city with a restaurant helmed by a Michelin Star chef.
Ljubljana is the perfect mix of a modern metropolis and a charming small town with the Ljubljanica river flowing through its center. The new modern part of the city lies to the west of the river while the old city and castle lie on the eastern side with most of the touristy sights sitting right along the river. Everywhere you walk, you will see the Ljubljana Dragon which represents courage and greatness and is the symbol of the city. It is depicted in the Ljubljana coat of arms and also in the flag at the top of Ljubljana Castle. Legend has it that the Greek Argonauts after taking the Golden Fleece came to this area where Jason killed a monster which is the dragon represented today. Other theories suggest that the dragon came from St George, the patron saint of the Ljubljana Castle, and his slaying of the dragon in the biblical stories. The main part of town is pedestrian-only with all cars banned from this once congested center. In the center of town is the oval shaped Preseren Square with the Preseren monument commemorating Slovenia’s greatest poet, France Preseren. It is a popular meeting place for the locals and also a place for concerts in the summer. The pink Franciscan Church of Annunciation built in the mid 1660s dominates Preseren Square with some beautiful frescoes inside. Other historical landmarks surrounding Preseren Square are the Viennnese Secession-style Hauptmann House and Palaca Urbanc House which housed Ljubljana’s first department store. Also here is the Italianate Central Pharmacy which was a cafe. At the southern edge of the square is Triple Bridge which is three bridges built next to each other that crosses Ljubljanica River. Originally only the central bridge existed replacing an old medieval wooden bridge in 1842. Then in 1929, the two bridges on the sides were added and were intended for pedestrians. The Triple Bridge leads from Preseren Square to the historical old town and to the left of the famous Dragon Bridge. Dragon Bridge with its four fierce dragon statues is one of the most photographed monuments in Ljubljana. It was built in 1900 to replace the previous wooden bridge destroyed by the 1895 earthquake and was Ljubljana’s first reinforced concrete structure and one of the largest ones built in Europe. Other than the four large dragons guarding the two ends of this Vienna Secession-style bridge, there are also 16 smaller dragons decorating its span. One of the many legends here is that when a virgin crosses the bridge, all the dragons will wag their tails.
In the small historic old town of Ljubljana are two squares, Mestni Trg or Town Square and Gornji Trg or Upper Square. Located in Town Square is the Town Hall built in 1484 originally in the Gothic style and then renovated in the Baroque style in 1717. There are many cafes and restaurants in the area and is great for a relaxing drink and people watching. Also in Town Square is the Robba Fountain by sculptor Francesco Robba and decorated with an obelisk with three figures symbolising the three chief rivers of Carniola. This fountain is actually a replica with the original one moved to the National Gallery. Next to Mestni Trg is the 13th century Ljubljana Cathedral, also called St Nicholas’s Cathedral. It has twin towers and a green dome with the interior covered in pink marble, white stucco, and baroque frescoes.
Perched on Castle Hill east of the historic Old Town is the medieval Ljubljana Castle originally built in the 12th century. It is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural styles because it was rebuilt in the 16th century after an earthquake and subsequently had parts added to it such as the watchtower in the 19th century. There is a funicular that takes you up to the castle from the main Open Market on Vodnikov Trg as well as an hourly tourist train. Otherwise it is quite a steep hike up along Ulica na Grad from Gornji Trg or Reber Ulica from Stari Trg. The watchtower provides magnificent panoramic views of the Old Town, the Sava River, all the way to the Kamnik Apls in the far distance. A guard used to live up in the watchtower to warn the citizens in the event of fire or invasion as well as announcing the arrival of important guests. Below the watchtower is the Chapel of St George which is the oldest surviving remains of the castle. The original chapel was built in 1489 in the Gothic style and was where the more important citizens of town took mass. In 1747, it was rebuilt in the Baroque style and what is interesting is that the coats-of-arms of the provincial governors were part of the frescoes decorating the ceiling. With the separation of church and state, it is extremely rare for religious buildings to be decorated with secular content. I didn’t do this but many people, especially those bringing children, participate in the Escape Castle escape room type game. The goal is to solve clues and complete several challenges taking you through the castle in order to save the dragon. There is also a 90-minute Time Machine tour here led by costumed guides.
For the next few days, I arranged to have landscape photographer Piotr Skrzypiec take me around Slovenia for some sightseeing as well as some landscape photography lessons at his favorite spots. Slovenia is great for photo lovers, from its beguiling capital to the fairy-tale-like Lake Bled to Venetian seaside towns to beautiful waterfalls and alps. Stay tuned!
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