A Leisurely Summer in Ljubljana
Slovenia is one country that would not need to introduce tough measures of social distancing in the time of this pandemic though it had a lockdown. It is sparsely populated and has more than enough space for everyone even at the peak of summer. People instinctually keep themselves away from one another in times of flu and other diseases. The challenge of making people observe physical distancing is certainly way less than in heavily populated countries.
While choosing Slovenia for my first Europe trip, one of the first considerations was experiencing a European country that tourists, especially from other continents, do not flock to. Given that summer is usually packed with visitors in Rome, Paris, Venice and the other big names around, my certain inkling was Ljubjlana may not be the same. Wait, Ljubjlana? How many out there must have heard about this place, and have successfully pronounced it? Secondly, I had been savouring a love affair with the Balkan nations after the split of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. That time, as a Grade 12 student, I had learnt a bit about the country’s history and also followed Yugoslavia’s progress in World Cup Football matches. After dilly-dallying with Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and others, I swooped in on Slovenia for these reasons – Slovenians speak English well, probably better than the other Balkaners do, Lake Bled has the only natural island in the country, and being on the seaside in Piran is not much different from being on the Italian Meditterranean side. And yet another reason was – coming from the second most populated country, where you cannot escape people even in remote regions, Slovenia could offer me a taste of a different life.
I arrive at a Students’ hostel located in a quiet residential area called Svetceva Ulica, about two kilometres away from Old Town Ljubjlana. I am a bit embarrassed to find there are not many tourists checking in. Students’ groups pass by me as I make my way into the Reception, dragging my suitcase and carrying by backpack. There are cheers and laughter from university students from a nearby cafe as they celebrate some occasion. Somehow it made me think they were targeting me. A middle-aged lady guide me in and talk to me about my room and gives me a brief introduction to Ljubjlana. She informs me that Slovenia takes care of the student community in a very good way. There are student hostels all across the country to take care of the needs of the local as well as the international student fraternity. During summer vacations, rooms are also offered to tourists. Apart from backpacker rooms, they also have family suites in limited numbers.
The street outside is almost always empty, except for the hostel inmates getting across the road during lunch or dinner time to the pizzeria next door. Cars are parked in front of huge houses whose occupants hardly show up. It is different from the vendors shouting in the streets in south India and the housewives coming out and starting to haggle over potatoes and tomoatoes prices.
I walk the two kilometres to reach the Old Town. There are people now, the first picture of a European summer I copy. The Triple Bridge, a stone’s throw away from the Preseren Square, holds people in selfie style; some saunter, some merely enjoy the sun. Some sit idle on the circular steps at the foot of the statue of France Preseren, a 19th century Slovene poet whose works have been translated into different languages. Below them the muddy Ljubjlanica flows calmly, its green colour fired upon by summer’s dryness. Boats make their way up and down, carrying tourists on a city cruise. By the side of the river, the cafe tables get occupied, people chatting over food and beer. A very pronounced leisurely aura sets around me. Even at the height of summer, Slovenia cannot match Delhi’s noise and chaos even by ounces. That is the contrast I was searching for.
As the Ljubljanica is sandwiched by restaurants and medieval buildings, the atmosphere gets complete for an ideal post card Reanaissance Europe scene. People get busy on the tables on the pavements, inside the cafes and even on the platforms on the river level that can be accessed by stairs. Gelatos seem to be a big draw; with many balancing cream-filled cones on their rolling fingers, licking the edges and walking past diners and cafes. Every cafe has gelatos to offer in front with dozens of flavours that perplex the palates.
It is Monday, but there is no rush that characterises metropolitan cities around the world. I assume the lady walking in front of me is on her way to the office. Her formal attire and bag signal that. A couple of gentlemen on their bicycles that ride toward the Ljubljana Cathedral must be on their way to the workplace as well. Where is the traffic? And the jam? There are more bicycles than cars and buses on the street. As a traveller, you may tend to imagine that Slovenian life perpetually verges on a carefree attitude.
I have been told by the lady at the Reception about a weekly food festival that is held at prominent cities across the country every Friday. It is called Odprta Kuhna (Open Kitchen) where vendors exhibit and sell cuisines from all over Slovenia and around the world. The event starts mid-day Friday and goes on until late evening. This is one of the moments when the city comes alive. Tourists as well as locals jostle for space while moving around food stalls that tantalise everyone with flavours. I was largely content with popular western food during my first few days here, but Odprta Kuhna gave ideas of local dishes.
I order my first Slovenian dish confidently after admiring the picture in the menu – Idrijski žlikrofi, dumplings that originate from a western Slovenian town called Idrija. Zlikrofi is made from dough with potato filling and is consumed as a side dish to meat. I have bread rather than meat after treating myself with Potica in a nearby bakery. Potica is a traditional pastry found all across the country. There are music bands at different corners to entertain diners who get ready for the weekend, or who are already on their weekends!
I walk away from the Odprta Kuhna with an ice cream cone in my hand (to follow the local style) and get into Mestni Trg (Town Square). The enclosure like atmosphere of the street vividly brings to light the form of Renaissance architecture. The facades are quite impressive, very symmetrical in texture with identical shapes of windows and conical rooftops. There is one building with a protruding facade that is the Ljubljana Town Hall. In front of it stands the Robba Fountain with the statues of the three Gods of the rivers of Ljubljanica, Sava and Krka. An obelisk on top of the fountain base stands tall to proclaim the significance of a very cultural Slovenian monument. The backdrop of the Ljubljana Cathedral on the western side completes a medieval picture.
I look at my ice cream and ponder over its irrelevance while sitting at the foot of the Gods’ statues. Shouldn’t I have been holding a bottle of wine?