From time to time, I’ve fantasized about coming from an obscure country. Perhaps this is because I come from the least obscure country in the world, but I’ve always thought that it would be cool to come from someplace that most people haven’t heard of, and have as a native tongue a language that no one else speaks.
Slovenia is such a place. I know that among the readers of this piece will be Slovenes and people of Slovenian descent who will take umbrage at my calling their homeland “obscure,” but rest assured that this is not a slur on Slovenia, but on the geographic ignorance of the rest of the world. And let’s face it, many people, particularly those who don’t live on its borders, simply don’t know where Slovenia is, or even that it exists. This may change in a few months, as Slovenia enters the European Union, but its obscurity is pretty well-established (which is probably a paradox).
As further proof—look at the people on Slovenian banknotes. Like most countries, Slovenia puts its most famous historical figures on its banknotes: Janez Vajkard Valvasor, Primoz Trubar, and Joze Plecnik (all missing some squiggles in their letters, but I do not have a Slovenian keyboard). What? You’ve never heard of these individuals? You’re probably not alone.
Slovenia does have an excuse. Up until recently, it hadn’t existed as an independent country since … well forever, really. It had been part of Yugoslavia until 1991, and before that part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Always, though, Slovenia had its own character, people, and language. And it has a capital city with a really cool name … Ljubljana, which is pronounced just like it’s spelled (if you think of the j’s as being kind of like y’s but not really).
Ljubljana is a pleasant little city, as capital cities go, and it is dominated by a castle. I love castles. Not your Renaissance fancy-house type castles, like those along the Loire, but your hulking “just try to invade” castles, with turrets and moats and slits through which you can shoot crossbows. It’s just a thing I have. I have spent many happy hours crawling around on the ruins of fortifications throughout Europe and Asia, imagining armies of clashing steel, the despair of the siege, the “thunk” of the stones thrown by the siege engines (a brief aside: at Urquhart castle, in Scotland, they have a working trebuchet, in case you’re interested).
There aren’t all that many cities around that have those kinds of castles in their center. Most of them were destroyed long ago to make the city more pleasant and less menacing, and because their military significance was, for the most part, eliminated by the perfection of artillery. Ljubljana, though, kept its castle, on a hill dominating the city. Even the city flag features the castle, plus a big green dragon. Dragons are cool too.
So, when I was recently back in Ljubljana for the first time in ten years, I decided to go visit the castle, which I had never done before.
To get to the castle you can either drive, if you have a car, or walk. If walking, you need to cross the triple bridge (more on that later), head left, then go up a small street whose name I failed to note, but you can’t miss it. Actually you can, but just ensure that the street you take is a tiny thing with a record store selling only reggae CDs. Shortly after the Bob Marley poster, the street peters out and is replaced by a footpath that climbs up the hill.
At the top squats the castle. From the outside, it’s all browns and whites, with lots of holes through which you can fire crossbows and cannons at any Ottoman armies that happen to be about. It’s not extremely large, and you can walk around the whole thing, admiring it and the commanding view of the city, except that it might be snowing on you (depending on the season). Since it was snowing on me, I went in the courtyard rather quickly.
The castle is currently being renovated, but at the level of the courtyard, most of the renovation is done, and there are many of those natty stainless steel wire hand things to keep you from falling into holes and walking on the 400-year-old vine and such. I actually like those things, they’re far less ostentatious than metal rods or other similar tourist-control mechanisms. Even the main door to the castle has been seconded by a doorlike arrangement of the metal wires and posts, which gives a very nice, airy feel to the old fortification. In fact, the whole renovation process seems to have gone very well. The buildings and towers of the castle are well restored, painted a pleasant white, and the woodwork, though simple, has been redone. The courtyard itself has been repaved where one would expect it to be paved, and little steps help you to get around.
There are also some concrete stairs that lead down. Although I expected nothing more than a washroom, I headed down them as well, because I can’t resist exploring holes and passages in old castles, and because it was still snowing on me.
Underneath the courtyard I found an Escheresque medley of steel pillars, concrete slabs and old rock, with three or four stairways, some of which seemed to lead nowhere. It took me some time to figure out what was going on, and I eventually surmised that the renovation work wasn’t quite finished and that all this would probably be replaced with walls and doors and architecture. That’s kind of a shame, because if you just dressed the mess up a little then it could serve as a kind of polar opposite to a Zen rock garden—a place to come and screw up your head.
While I was admiring it, a grey cat trotted along and looked at me. I didn’t say anything to the cat, because I was taking notes, but the cat kept on checking me out, so I ended up checking it out as well. I must have passed some kind of test, because it came and started rubbing itself against me and meowing a little. It looked like a pretty well-fed cat, and I explained that I had no food, but it stayed there all the same while I looked around. Maybe it just knows that I like cats. Cats can sense these things. I assume the cat lives there, and since no people do any more, it’s probably the closest thing to a king the castle has.
A woman came down one of the confusing staircases and stood there looking appropriately bewildered. I suppose she hadn’t been expecting to find the Labyrinth of the Steel Posts, and she tried retreating up another staircase, but that one went nowhere. The cat and I both watched her until she found the right way out. I followed her, saying goodbye to King Cat, and made my way across the courtyard to the castle tower, where one can enjoy a quaint 3D audiovisual thing that shows the history of Ljubljana via a presentation that kind of looks like a video game. After the show, you can climb up some wonderful wrought-iron spiral stairs, each one of which has the image of a dragon worked into it, to the top of the tower where you get a view of Ljubljana all spread out below. You can admire the red tile roofs of the buildings. It’s amazing how distinct different cities are when you observe their roofs. Ljubljana has nice roofs.
Ljubljana is bisected by the Ljubljanica river. The side of the river with the castle is the smaller side, although it boasts some very nice buildings and statues, and the wonderful marketplace, designed by the architect Jose Plecnik (see the list of famous Slovenes above). The marketplace is very lively, a great place to visit. In fact, you should always check out the marketplaces of European cities. It is particularly appealing from the other side of the river, though, since its riverfront consists of a beautiful arched walkway, all in white. You can hang out on the Petkovskovo Nabiezie and admire the view of the arcades, as well as the castle looming high above them. There are a couple of bars here where you may be able to find a window with a view to amuse you while you sample the local beers which are well worth sampling.
To cross the river, you can take the triple bridge—a hallmark of Ljubljana because it’s not just one bridge but three. In all other respects, and even in that one, it is entirely unremarkable. You can also take the Dragon Bridge, which is just as unremarkable, but which has four scary dragons guarding it. The dragons are very scary.
Incidentally, I finally learned what it is that Ljubljana has about dragons. It turns out that legend says Ljubljana was founded by Jason (formerly of the Argonauts, before his solo career as Prince of Corinth). According to legend, Jason fled from Colchis and the pursuing King Aeetes by sailing up the Danube and down the Ljubljanica, founding Ljubljana on the way (presumably during a rest stop). There, Jason battled a great monster, which is portrayed as the Ljubljana dragon.
So I guess that means there are a greater number of famous Slovenes than I had originally counted—they include Jason, Medea, and Hercules, for that matter, all of whom were on the Argos. I can’t help but imagine they would be pleased if they were to visit today the city they founded then.