After three cities (four if you count Pisa, where our flight back to Italy landed) in nine days, with countless transportation connections, a lot of late nights, various excessive and degenerate behaviors, finally coming back home in Florence just in time to start another week of school and work, we did what any reasonable couple would do. We went to Slovenia.
We did wait a couple of days, but then we hopped on a bus and went to Ljubjana, the capital of this exactly-as-old-as-my-students country, previously part of Yugoslavia. You might well be thinking, why did you go to Slovenia? And why so quickly on the heels of spring break? The answer is simple. We went because we could. Gonzaga-in-Florence organizes several weekend trips for students. I had talked with the Travel Learning Program staff earlier in the semester about the possibility of going on the Southern France trip (no go -- not surprisingly, that was a popular one), and they steered me towards the Slovenia trip. I guess Slovenia doesn't have quite the name recognition as France, because there was still room on the bus. So, following the rule "don't say no unless you have a really good reason," we signed up.
(not my photo -- you can tell because it is summer in this photo!)I have to admit that I was, and to some extent still am, embarrassingly uninformed about Slovenia, to the extent that I had to look up the capital and the official language on Wikipedia the night before we left. It's a very small country -- perhaps the size of Washington state? -- and Ljubjana, the capital city, is about the size of Spokane. The country is famous for almost nothing, either historically or currently. It was essentially untouched by and did not participate in the war in Bosnia Herzegovina. It was a fairly sleepy part of the Austrian empire for several centuries, and then a fairly sleepy part of the Eastern Block (I was amused to see that the closest reference to the Soviet Union found anywhere in the National Museum of History was a line about how the twentieth century was a time "of experimentation with socialization.") I did discover one endearing fact: it is the setting for Twelfth Night, (my favorite Shakespearean comedy, should that ever arise as a trivia question) as it was known as the Illyrian provinces in the Early Modern Era. I guess Sebastian and Viola's ship crashed into the, er, swamps that constitute the country's coastal area. Shakespeare never was that good with geography.
Ljubjana (the first j is silent; the second functions as an y) is an fairy tale of a city. There is a castle hanging on a promontory above the city. The city itself was destroyed by an earthquake in 1511 and was rebuilt in a Baroque Renaissance style. There was another earthquake in the 19th century, which made room for a number of truly stunning Austrian Secessionist (basically, art nouveau) buildings. In the 1920s and 30s, the public spaces in downtown, including the large market area, the river walk, and several bridges, were almost completely renovated by Joze Plecnik. His vision was only finished two years ago with the completion of the wonderfully grotesque Butcher's bridge, decorated with terrifically creepy statues of largely flayed bodies, some bronze internal organs and mutated frogs here and there, and the best, most horrible Adam and Eve sculpture I've ever seen.
Actually, the Butcher's bridge is a bit of an anomaly, because the rest of downtown Ljubjana is shockingly picturesque. Most of Plecnik's style seems to be a curvilinear yet beefy classicism, which does a surprisingly effective job of blending the Baroque and Nouveau style of the city together. The river is flanked on both sides by broad, well lit avenues lined with cafes, bars, and boutiques. An enormous and deep pink Baroque church presides over the main square, and very cool dragons guard the aptly named Dragon Bridge. And then the castle seems to float above everything. The entire city seems brand new, well scrubbed, and ready for a Disneyland Main Street Parade.
What we did not find in Ljubjana was good food, alas, although the fault may have been ours. We ate some shockingly bad pizza, some very good Slovene bread, and some otherwise fairly generic food. We both avoided the "meat cheese" the hotel offered in the breakfast buffet. Fortunately, we had much better luck eating in Bled, the resort town on the shores of alpine Lake Bled. Lake Bled is like a smaller, post-Soviet Lake Como, by which I mean that, like Lake Como, it is shockingly beautiful and surprisingly Alp-y. It showed no signs of ever having had Lake Como's money, anything approaching Como's tourist industry, or Como's chicness. But, Lake Bled does have an island with a 15th center church on it, accessible only by gondola-like row boats, which Como does not have.
On the advice of our Slovene tour guide, who was born in Bled, for lunch we tried Burek, the local answer to a hamburger. It's a sort of meat pie, only flakier. Imagine a cross between a meat-filled danish and spanikopita, except with meat instead of spinach. If what is coming to mind seems high on the grease and salt scale, difficult to eat, and pretty much destined to ruin whatever item of clothing you are currently wearing, then you get the idea. It was also really satisfying. The meat was simple ground beef (I think), but it had a subtle mix of spices -- I'm pretty sure there was some paprika, but also some nutmeg and maybe a touch of oregano -- that was really delightful. We also took our guide's advice and had a cream cake from the best sweet shop in Bled. It was good, but I don't think it was the cream cake to transform my understanding of what a cream cake could be, which is pretty much what she had promised me. I suppose it would have been difficult to meet that expectation, since I had no idea what a cream cake was to begin with. It was, at heart, whipped cream on custard with some sort of cookie base. Is that what you understand cream cake to be? Anyway, it was good, wholesome creaminess, but not exactly a revelation.
To top the trip off, the bus stopped at Postojna Caves. I've never quite understood the draw of caves as a tourist stop, but these are pretty cool. They are a Unesco World Heritage Site, which is euro-zone for National Monument, so they were extremely accessible, with a four kilometer train ride in and out and a 2 kilometer guided and incredibly well lit tour. The calcium formations really were breathtaking, diverse in color and in shape. I still probably won't go out of my way to see caves, but now because I'm pretty sure no cave will ever be as large or as pretty as the Postojna caves.