Ljubljana, Slovenia


Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, the political and cultural heart of the Slovenian nation has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet the artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn't get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it's because it's surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.
It is an important European commercial, business, exhibition and congressional centre as well as the transport, science and education centre of Slovenia. And foremost, it can offer a great bit of fun to all those folks, desirous of long, wild and restless nights

The old meets new
As its inhabitants and numerous visitors will tell you, Ljubljana is, indeed, a people-friendly city. Categorised as a medium-sized European city, it offers everything a metropolis does yet preserves its small-town friendliness. Its geographical position in the centre of Europe has determined Ljubljana as a natural meeting place for merchants and soldiers as well as - and more than once - peacemakers. The victors of the Napoleonic wars selected this peaceful city as the site of the Holy Alliance congress, which in 1821 sealed the European political geography for years to come. In Ljubljana the old meets the new; and it seems that history has spent all of the settlement's five millennia preparing it to become the nation's capital. It has managed to retain traces from all periods of its rich history; from the legacy of Roman Emona; through to the Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau periods characterised in the house fronts and ornate doorways of the city centre, the romantic bridges adorning the Ljubljanica river, the lopsided rooftops and a park reaching deep into the city centre. Here eastern and western cultures met; and the Italian concept of art combined with the sculptural aesthetics of Central European cathedrals. The city owes its present appearance partly to Italian baroque and partly to Art Nouveau, which is the style of the numerous buildings erected immediately after the earthquake of 1895. In the first half of the 20th century, modern Ljubljana was shaped by the strong personal style of Jože Plečnik, a great European architect and a local of Ljubljana. The cityscape was complemented by his modernist followers as well as by creations of the "New Wave" of acknowledged young architects. All the different facets of Ljubljana blend harmoniously into a single image.

A city of culture
Ljubljana is a city of culture. It is home to numerous theatres, museums and galleries, and boasts one of the oldest philharmonic orchestras in the world. The first music society in Slovenia, the Academia philharmonicorum, was founded in 1701. It was a vehicle for baroque music and also facilitated the development of musical production in this region. Its honorary members included such renowned composers as Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms, and distinguished musicians such as the violinist Nicolo Paganini. Between 1881 and 1882, at the very start of his career, Gustav Mahler was its resident conductor.
For the people of Ljubljana culture is a way of living and thinking and is very much a part of everyday life. Over 10,000 cultural events take place in the city every year, among which there are 10 international festivals. The inhabitants of Ljubljana and its visitors can admire artists from all the different fields - from music, theatre and fine arts to the alternative and avant-garde. In warmer months, the tables and chairs of the numerous cafés fill the banks of the Ljubljanica and the old city markets. It is here, after an almost obligatory Saturday visit to the Ljubljana market or the Sunday flea market, that the locals meet for a morning coffee or for an evening chat with friends. Whether you're taking a stroll down the Congress square or alongside riverbanks you can feel and see the atmosphere that surroungs the beautiful but yet small city centre. Today scientists are drawn to the city because of its high-calibre institutes and university, of wich especially medical school and law school are a top pick in the Balkan area, as are artists due to its world-famous graphic biennial, art academy and countless art galleries. International businessmen, economists and experts from all fields frequently attend the city's many business and congressional meetings, exhibitions and trade fairs.

A modern and lively city
The first impression a visitor gets of Ljubljana is that it is an exceptionally young city. It is home to over 50,000 students, who give it a special vibe. While you can easily get around by train or by bus, the city is small and compact enough to explore on foot. As four Slovene regions meet in Ljubljana, the city's numerous restaurants and inns offer a wide range of local delicacies, not to mention superb wines. Ljubljana did not earn the label of "the city of wine and vine" for nothing. In the past it was the wine-trading centre of the region and grapevines were planted on the slopes leading up to the present-day castle by the inhabitants of the Roman settlement of Emona. And as the saying goes: „When in Rome, do as Romans do“, when in Slovenia, get yourselves a bottle of Slovenian wine and drink it slowly while sitting in one of the numerous caffees and inns on the riverbank. The bar scene isn't as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. You can find all sorts of pubs from fancy to more dump-like places, dance your ass of in clubs like Cirkus or Top or even party on Ljubljana castle. One odd little place is Pr'Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you'll end up as part of the decoration.

In short: Ljubljana is a city that people often return to, be it because of work or because of pleasant memories of previous visits. It is similar to a number of other pleasant European cities - yet it is different - and if you want to be fully assured that Ljubljana is an interesting, pretty and friendly place then just ask the locals - they love it. And with a name that, according to one theory, means beloved, how could they do otherwise? One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it's cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won't spend anything on transportation costs. So if you're looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia.

The story of the Ljubljana Dragon

The Ljubljana dragon is part of the City of Ljubljana’s coat of arms. It symbolises strength, courage and might. It is depicted on the Dragon Bridge and on top of the castle tower on Ljubljana’s coat of arms.

The Ljubljana dragon may have its origins in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Once upon a time, Greek hero Jason and his Argonaut comrades stole a golden fleece, the coat of a golden ram, from the King of Colchis on the Black Sea. On board the Argo they fled their pursuers and found themselves at the mouth of the River Danube instead of going south towards the Aegean Sea and their Greek homeland. There was no way back, so they went on, up the Danube and then along the River Ljubljanica. They had to stop at the source of the Ljubljanica and overwintered here. They then took the Argo apart and in the spring carried it on their shoulders to the Adriatic coast, where they put it back together again and went on their way. According to the legend, on their arrival between what is now Vrhnika and Ljubljana, the Argonauts came across a large lake with a marsh alongside. Here lived a terrible marsh dragon that Jason killed after a heroic struggle. The monster would have been the Ljubljana dragon. It is said that Jason should have been the first real Ljubljana citizen.

There are two more realistic versions of the dragon story. According to the first, it was taken from St George, the patron saint of the castle chapel. On frescoes and statues George is often seen standing or riding while killing the dragon with a spear. The dragon in the legends of St George represents the ancient ancestral beliefs that the new Semitic religion – Christianity – defeated. Castle Hill was in ancient times a sacred place, where the bearers of a culture of cremation funerals had a stronghold and worshipped their god. When in the Middle Ages the foundations of today’s castle were put down, they also wanted to symbolically overcome the ancient beliefs, so they also dedicated the castle chapel to St George. Alternatively, in Slavic mythology the dragon represents the god Veles, opponent of the supreme thunder god Perun, the highest of the Slavic gods. In the Slavic religion, Perun was usually worshipped on a hill; Veles lower down, usually near a market place.

The first explanation is related to the second, that the dragon evolved from the decoration on the medieval city coat of arms that initially represented just the city walls or gates. The small animal, a decorative addition above the coat of arms, moved into the coat of arms in the Baroque period with the emergence of the tower and other symbolism in the 19th and especially the 20th centuries. The dragon was used as part of the coat of arms on numerous buildings owned by the city, and after the Second World War was used by various companies, from labels on beer bottles to the name of a torch factory or as a prize for achievements in fashion. It was even used on the packet of the well-known Ljubljana cigarettes Filter 57.