I may not learn languages very well but I have learned how to spell and pronounce a whole slew of words that once stumped me: Cheonggyecheon, Okonomiyaki, Polizeidiensthundeinspektion. I’m happy to add Ljubljana to that list. While deceptively shorter than the others it isn’t pronounced how it looks. We were saying “Loob-lee-an-na” but that is one too many syllables. It’s actually “lyoo-blan-na.” And this is just because the J is just adding a “yew” sound. L+J is a “Lyew” sound. Maybe spelling it “Lyublyana” is easier for pronunciation.
In any case, it is Slovenia’s capital city with a population of around 280,000 (Slovenia’s population is 2 million), and it’s not really famous for anything. There’s a castle, some museums, the usual capital city stuff. Most people say it’s only worth a day trip. We stayed for four nights which was mostly because wanted to wait out Christmas time closures. Some things close early on 24th. Most things said they would be closed all day on the 25th and the 26th. The 26th is “Unity Day “the day Slovenia proclaimed independence”… in 1990. Don’t forget that Slovenia is as old as we are. They wrote the proclamation on the 26th (which makes Chris only 17 days older than Slovenia). After a 10 day war they were officially independent on June 25 1991. So 47 days older than me.
We went to the store immediately to get stuff for the 3 days of closures, then went out to see the lights. Ljubljana has the best Christmas lights. Ever. Every year they have a slightly different theme – and this year was math/science. There were planets, shooting stars, human reproduction system (yeah you read that right), math… It may sound weird but it’s gorgeous. At first you appreciate it for being gorgeous spirals and circles and then you look longer and realize, oh, that’s a DNA strand or something. You appreciate it on so many different levels. Of course not all of it is themed, there are lights which trace building facades or are draped over trees – compared to the usual icicle lights or lights-spun-around-a-tree this place is super unique.
That first night we headed to a free Christmas concert and heard the a Slovenian rendition of “Silent Night”. We bought some spiced wine and just stood around listening to it. Nothing like mulled wine and Christmas carols to finally get in the Christmas spirit. We headed home for a Christmas Eve dinner of our own design (based on what we could find in a very small grocery store) meatballs with domači svaljki – a sort of gnocchi style thing (probably meant to be fried) and some brussel sprouts. You get by with what you can. This apartment also came equipped with basic spices, so we didn’t have to use backpack salt.
Everything online had said everything in Ljubljana would be closed on Christmas day. So we took Christmas morning very slowly. We headed to the castle just because it is the tallest part of the city. It turned out to be open. It was super busy but we had nothing else going on. So we made the mistake of buying two tickets. It turns out that half of the castle can be seen for free, and the tickets only get you access to two small museums and the tallest tower. They didn’t really make this clear and it was a little frustrating to find out. We stick to museums and do free things when we can (hence being able to travel for 20 days). We ordinarily love museums but the 2 included in the price were some of the worst. It might have been bearable, but with the hordes of rude tourists pushing and shoving it became hell. The castle is very real and medieval, which means that it’s very small and the rooms are very cramped. While taking a quiet almost enjoyable break in the chapel, Mr. Ass came in demanding we take his picture. We take it. He looks at it and harrumphs, “no, see, I want it with you down looking up on me.” Chris gets on a knee in the dirt like he’s proposing to Mr. Ass and takes a picture of this complete stranger, but that STILL wasn’t good enough, “no, see the lights aren’t very good if you push this button and do this and then -”
I grabbed Chris and left. This is a public service announcement to Mr. Ass and all those b-words in Ireland (sounds like a cool band name Mr. Ass and the B-Words) It is not cool to demand someone take your picture. It is not cool to complain about someone doing you a favor. It is not cool to demand someone do you a favor in a degrading way and then complain. The more you know.
The other museum was all about Slovenian history, but it was almost too detailed to get through. I love me a detailed museums but there were around 4 pages of picture-less papers to read about each era. You had to read them on a tablet so you were hogging it standing there for 15 minutes reading some (hehem, dry) history. Again, love museums, love Slovenia but this museum was difficult. It also had 2 extremes, either reading a dry, dry history book or you could play insanely silly games. The best one was “Help President Tito [former dictator of Yugoslavia] collect flags” and you had to drive him around. If you hit a non-Yugoslavian flag he would get all upset. It seemed super unusual to be cool with a dictator enough to turn him into a video game but he was considered a “benevolent dictator.” We alternated playing children’s games and reading pages of history but eventually said this wasn’t for us.
I want to make it very clear that we loved Slovenia. It’s the best place we’ve ever been to. But we did not enjoy the castle in Ljubljana.
The one saving grace of the castle was the overlook. We headed up around 3:40 to catch the sunset
It was real nice. And we wouldn’t have been able to go up in the tower if we hadn’t paid so ??? Maybe it was worth paying to go into the free castle.
Ultimately the castle left us with more questions than we had going in – I don’t understand anything about this castle and can only piece together a few things we managed to read in the museum.
The 26th was another holiday. The internet had, falsely, said that things would be open this day (just as it had said everything would be shut on Christmas). So we had wasted the whole of the 25th waiting for things to reopen on the 26th… Only to discover that they weren’t open.
We powerwalked 25 minutes to the brewery to catch a timed entry. It wasn’t open. So we checked another museum. Nope. Finally we settled on going to an art museum- the National Gallery It was pretty nice, but small. The best part was a special exhibit to posters. The old-style posters promoting travel. Most were art-deco style and told a bigger story about Slovenia’s history than the museum yesterday. Slovenia had been divided in the war – a piece to Germany, a piece to Italy and a piece to Hungary. So some of the posters were side by side, one in German next to one in Italian.
A common theme in the posters was Lake Bled. Seeing it advertised so much definitely got us excited to visit in a few days.
We headed to the most recommended restaurant in town Figovec and walked right in without reservations. This was a huge stroke of luck – we don’t usually try to go to popular restaurants. Also on a national holiday everyone was going out to eat with their families. We were happy to get this little win with everything else being closed.
We tried to do other things for the rest of the day but got blocked at every turn with large crowds or major closures. The crowds were much thicker here than in Bratislava. Generally it was difficult to do anything. Add that to the disappointment of staying so long in a city we didn’t love, and pile on the usual-holiday-homesickness we decided to go out drinking.
Our bar of choice was Das Ist Valter, coincidentally another Bosnian themed restaurant. The restaurant is supposed to hark back to the glory days of communist Yugoslavia, so the menu is period specific, the beer is home brewed, and the TV plays a constant loop (not kidding) of the 1972 Yugoslav propaganda masterpiece “Валтер брани Сарајево / Valter Defends Sarajevo”. Our bar food (more cevapi, bread and onions) came with a cup of sour cream. Like, the same cup you’d get a large beer in, but filled to the brim with sour cream. Obviously this was a 10/10 experience.
Normally we’d feel peopled-out by now but we weren’t. So we went back downtown at 11:30 for no reason other than it was -5°C (23°F) and it felt so good to be in the cold again. We have all these jackets in Spain that we never use! So we put them to good use. Turns out there was another free concert going on downtown so we enjoyed that for a few hours and got home quite early in the morning.
Bright and early the next day we decided to hit up the Union brewery and the Contemporary Slovenian History Museum one last time to see if they were open. We decided to give it all one last chance and if they seriously weren’t open then my liver can just go to hell because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do besides Das ist Valter. Fortunately they were open. We ended up being the only people who turned out for the 11 o’clock tour. So we had the tour guide all to ourselves. There are only really two different Slovenian beers, Union and Lasko…and both are currently owned by Heineken. We learned lots of fun facts, like that they used to filter the beer with asbestos which, you know, isn’t good. Union beer is only really consumed in Slovenia (it’s only exported to 2-3 neighboring countries). And since Slovenians drink less beer in winter, the brewery only operates for part of the season. Also, Ljubljana’s crest and city history revolve around dragons – so the brewery had a cute little dragon backstory. Basically, a dragon helped lead the brewery’s owners to a fresh source of water and now lives underground keeping the yeast warm.
The Contemporary History Museum we wanted to go to was finally open. It was a tiny bit disorganized, to the point where I didn’t understand why I was looking at a human foot that had been found in a mass grave until about an hour later. But it did do a good job explaining how Slovenia came to be. It explained the Yugoslavia years only a little, and I still have questions (like about the foot).
After the museum we hit up a local fast food chain called “Hot Horse” that does indeed sell horse burgers. Made with horse. Just want to make that clear in case people think its a euphemism for “large” or “strong” or “majestic” or whatever.
We can’t pass up an opportunity to try a strange meat so we went for it. Some fast facts about eating horse:
- It’s considered a red meat (I don’t know why this surprised me)
- It’s packed with iron, protein, vitamin B and doesn’t have growth hormones, antibiotics or anything beef usually does
- Horses raised for slaughter apparently have a great life before compared to cows, pigs or chickens.
- Many countries don’t have any problem with eating horse, for example France, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, and Switzerland all do it.
Some fast facts about it being taboo
- Pope Gregory III decided eating horse was pagan (in 732) and this is probably the reason no one does it now.
- Most cultures have one food they dislike eating because they had to eat it in times of poverty (Budae Jjigae in Korea, for example). Americans had to eat horse after the Civil War and we see it as a desperation food.
- Americans love horses. We think of majestic creatures who helped Westward Expansion and pioneers. You wouldn’t eat a cowboy, Laura Ingalls Wilder or John Wayne – you wouldn’t eat a horse.
The problem with horse meat is “Horse meat is rich in glycogen, which makes it softer and sweeter.” It’s very soft and super soft hamburgers are not very good. Combine that with bad bread and out of season vegetables and we didn’t have a great horse burger experience. But, hey, we tried it and got some dinner out of it so whatever.
We obviously had a lot of problems with Ljubljana. We didn’t enjoy the castle, the museums were so-so, horse burgers aren’t great and we didn’t get to do as much as we would’ve wanted. As we said, though Slovenia is probably one of our favorite countries ever so you know the rest of it had to be good to make up for 3 ho-hum days.