Zagreb to Ljubljana – In Transit
I am absurdly excited. It’s late morning and the sun is shining over Zagreb as I attempt to squeeze through the train corridor with my huge rucksack like a tough piece of meat stuck in somebody’s throat. The train is humming in the background as the whistles and shouts of the busy Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor Train Station provide the music for my departure from Croatia. The reason I am so excited is that this train has compartments; proper old-school, doors-and-all compartments!
As somebody who grew up on a tiny island without trains the idea of actual compartments brings some of the romance of old rail travel back to life, conjuring images of Poirot and Marple and wishing that I could see in black and white to get that true film noir style.
The train departs and we are clattering through the countryside towards the border. Border crossings are a tedious and time consuming thing so if you are travelling in Europe outside of the Schengen Area then factor these into your travels, expect long queues if you’re travelling by car (as I’m writing this after the trip please be aware that because of the refugee crisis some countries have now closed their borders so check before you go).
The railway in Slovenia is a delight to travel on. Powering through a valley with a river on the left with mountains looming over and a blanket of forest covering every conceivable surface. This rural idyll is absurdly interspersed with chains of industrial plants, grey concrete mimicking the grey rock of the mountains.
Day 1 in Ljubljana – Ljubljanica River, Restaurants and Riverside Bars
As we near Ljubljana (I love the way it rolls off the tongue, it’s such a fun word to say out loud) fat raindrops break themselves on the window pane and by the time we pull into the station the city is as wet as Rapture. I head off in the direction and end up following a guy called Frazer as we’re staying in the same place.
The rain clouds make it prematurely dark so I head out for dinner with a guy from the hostel called Manuel. He’s Swiss German and speaks very little English. This coupled with my exceptionally poor German makes communication difficult but the whole evening goes well without having to resort to mime-wanking or awkwardly waiting for the bill.
Dinner and drinks by the Ljubljanica river listening to the rain hurl itself furiously at the cobblestones and taking ages to explain simple things in two broken languages is a great way to spend an evening. When you’re travelling on your own you have to just get out there and talk to people and you’ll end up meeting the most random people.
Day 2 in Ljubljana – Ljubljana Castle, Bookshops and Learning Slovenian in the Shadow of Tito
As it is no longer raining I decide to take full advantage of this and head out to properly explore. First on my list is the fantastically decorated Metelkova District. A semi-autonomous squatter community in the heart of Ljubljana it is a gaily-coloured collection of ramshackle buildings and the a vast collection of eye-popping street art. I have arrived during the day so it is quiet, perfect for me as I’m here for the graffiti but I’m reliably informed that during the evenings the district is transformed and the old army barracks buildings morph into a haven of music and hippie ideals, I wish I was staying here longer and had time to see that. The quality of street art in Ljubljana puts Stokes Croft to shame and I feel at home amongst the riot of colour and form.
From one centre of culture to another I head off towards the castle that dominates the skyline. Ljubljana Castle sits on top of Castle Hill and is free to get into and have a wander around although you have to pay to get into the various museums that are housed within the walls. Today the castle reverberates to the sound of a deliriously happy child squealing with joy as he scares the hell out of a flock of pigeons.
The day is overcast but this does not in any way detract from the splendour of the view from the castle walls. The city sits nestled in the Ljubljana basin with the Karawanks, Mount St. Mary and the Kamnik-Savinja Alps surrounding the city and providing ample opportunity for outdoor activities such as hiking and kayaking to the people of Ljubljana. One thing immediately noticeable is how green the city and the surrounding area are. Forests extend off to the horizon outside the city limits and give the impression that the entire city is a park.
Back down by the river is a great place to wander around and I’m drawn inexorably to the multitude of bookshops that line the water’s edge. Each one seems to follow the same niche interior decoration pattern by having floor-to-ceiling stacks of books and then a large amount of wall space cleared for portraits of Tito. Oh and a baby grand piano. That seems to be a thing here as well because of course it is vital to have a piano in your bookshop. I end up buying an old book on the history of English literature that is probably impossibly dull to everybody else but I find it fascinating and it has a beautiful cover. The shop owner takes a liking to me and I end up getting a free Slovenian language lesson that I promptly forget.
Without a plan my feet take me to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas and I am actually impressed. It is gorgeous beyond all expectation. I am generally extremely bored of looking at churches as I’ve seen a hell of a lot already on this trip but I this one is worth making an exception for. The Baroque interior is just spectacular, I can’t recommend this enough.
Feeling rather peckish I settle down in a restaurant by the river and some sort of curried fish with pasta which I can’t quite decide if this is fantastic or just odd. It doesn’t matter because there is a brass band playing on a boat nearby so I have dinner and a show and I’m more than happy just to soak up the relaxed vibe of this underrated and understated European gem.
Heading back to the hostel I am really pumped for a night out but end up having three hypos that evening so that puts paid to that idea. There is a lesson to be learned here; always have the medicinal ice cream when it is on offer!
Ljubljana is a fantastic city, I am slightly sad to have to leave but I am heading to Lake Bled tomorrow which I have heard is so perfect that it looks like it has been plucked straight from a fairy tale. Bring it on!