After already experiencing one night in Ljubljana, we already had a lay of the land and knew we wanted to visit the castle and take in Ljubljana history. So we built our day around that plan, noting in advance that there was a “free walking tour” on offer at 1500 (it was one of the yellow umbrella tours like we took in Lisbon).
We slept until about noon after the arduous journey we had the day before (and staying up late to watch Game of Thrones), so the first thing we did was grab coffee and pastries in the old town at a kava (coffee) bar along the main pedestrian walk on the east bank of the Ljublianica River. We saw some nice sites along the way, and knew the walking tour would later explain the Ljubljana history we were seeing.
We tried these little doughnut pastry things that the waitress recommended, and several hit the spot with a strong Americano coffee.
Feeling fueled for the day, we next decided to make for the Ljubljana Castle. Finding some stairs alongside the hillside, we followed them up until we discovered the main walking trail leading up to the castle from the south side (there was also another path on the north side).
We saw a very healthy looking cat along the way that we wanted to play with, but that wanted nothing to do with us. On the climb, we snagged some nice views of the city.
At the top, we went to the main information kiosk at the entrance to enquire about tickets and things to do. They explained very honestly that there were many free exhibit inside, like the chapel and the prison, that you can see without paying the entrance fee (which was steep) – but if you wanted to climb the tower to get a good vantage point of Ljubljana and go to the museums, that’s where the ticket came in handy.
We opted not to pay, and thoroughly enjoyed walking around and visiting the exhibits that did not require an entrance fee. We both would highly recommend visiting Ljubljana Castle in this manner, as you can easily get picturesque views of the city by walking around, to, and from the castle itself. You can also learn about Ljubljana history and the castle without paying.
The grounds were extremely well kept, and we could imagine weddings or symphony events being held there, as the ambiance blended the old with a modern preservationist, clean look and feel that was very classy.
We enjoyed the interactive sights and sounds exhibit around the penitentiary and the chapel, where we learned some of the castle of Ljubljana history. It was constructed in the 11th century, continually fortified and rebuilt up until the 19th century where it was used for mixed purposes as it is today.
We also had some fun with the exhibit in the basement of the dragons, one of the symbols Ljubljana.
We took our time walking the grounds outside and making our way down from the castle back in to the town to meet up with our 1500 free walking tour in Preseren Square.
Once in the square, we easily found the yellow umbrella and our guide, Bojan (remember, Js are pronounced like Ys here). There were about 30 people in this tour, the largest group we’ve had yet – all wanting to hear Ljubljana history. While we were waiting for the tour to start, we sat a while by Preseren Fountain and I accidentally left my glove behind when we moved over to the tour starting point. A nice old man found it, and when he saw me walking around looking for it, he approached me and asked if I was looking for it. So kind!
Bojan was an excellent tour guide – in fact the best we’ve had yet across all the free walking tours we’ve taken. Despite the large tour size, we made sure to project and bring everyone in to the conversation, considering we had had so many people from all over the world. He started by giving an overview of Preseren Square (which was unfortunately under construction) and explained the Croatina and Ljubljana history.
Ljubljana itself has been inhabited for thousands of years (since 2000 BC) by several tribes including the Illyrians,. There were also settlements during Roman times, and a military encampment was established called Emona, but nothing major due to the swampiness of surroundings. In the 6th century the ancestors of the modern day Slovenians moved in – they were considered “barbarians” at the time since they were pagan Slavs that came from the north/east. Christianity continued to take hold through the Middle Ages and the 12th century is when the city of Ljubljana was mentioned historically in texts. In the Middle Ages, Ljubljana grew in importance and by 1461 St. Nicholas Church (which we would see later) was became a cathedral at the diocese level. In 1511 the Idrija earthquake many of the buildings in the city center were lost, and Bojan told an interesting story of insurance fraud by the owner of the building on the corner, which actually escaped damage. The earthquake allowed the city to be rebuilt in the Renaissance style, bringing in architectural influences from Venice (as can be seen in many of the buildings still standing today).
You can also see the Austrian influence pick up in the 19th century when Ljubljana was under the rule of the Hapsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire up until 1918 after World War I.
Things got more interesting in Ljubljana history after World War I, when the pan-Slavic movement took hold and Ljubljana joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – only to have Italy (and then Germany in 1943) occupy it during World War II.
After World War II, Ljubljana became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, and pan-Slavic sentiment again allowed the Balkans in to Yugoslavia (which literally meant land of the southern Slavs). It retained this status until Slovenia voted to secede and gained independence in 1991 after a 10 day war in Ljubljana (much more significant fighting broke out in Croatia and the rest of the Balkans). Ljubljana became the capital of the newly formed independent country. In the communist era under the Yugoslavian leadership of Marshall Tito, Slovenians mainly encountered prosperity and peace.
We then learned the story of the national poet laureate Preseren, who lived in the 18th century and penned verses that later appeared in the Croatian national anthem. Preseren was also the name of the AirBnB room we were staying in, so it was fun to make the connection. He was well regarded in his time, but as things go for poets, was generally poor and did not come from a noble family. We he was in his early 40s, he fell in love with a young girl, Julia, who was probably around 15 years old at the time. He penned a number of love poems in her honor and even tried to woo her, but her family (and probably her as well), wanted nothing of it. In the square we can now see a status of Preseren starting across the square at a window, with a status of Julia in it. We all found this “romantic” story a bit strange, and mostly felt bad for Julia.
We also heard some explanations of the architecture throughout the city, influenced and designed heavily by one person in the early 20th century – Jože Plečnik. He literally left his mark everywhere, and is honored to this day by all Ljubljanans as the founder of modern Ljubljana’s identity.
The church in the main square is a church of lesser importance (originally painted red since it was part of the Franciscan order, but now faded to pink) – it’s called the Church of the Annunciation. The interesting story we learned about this church is one from the time of the installation of the Preseren status in the square. A naked Greek muse statue was placed above Preseren in the square directly in view of the church (you can see it in the picture above), which offended the church and led to a shroud being placed on her every night by the church officials. It was subsequently removed by the public before every morning, in a fun cat and mouse game. Eventually this led to a tree being planted by the church in the line of sight between it and the naked statue.
After the main square, we walked over to the bridges and learned the history and Bojan took us through:
- Triple Bridge – originally one bridge that became three with the advent of the automobile to allow for two pedestrian bridges as well as mechanized vehicles on the original bridge.
- Butcher’s Bridge – which in recent times has been named the most romantic bridge in the world due to padlocks recently showing up. This bridge has a number of bronze sculptures including a Satyr, Adam and Eve’s retreat after eating from the tree of knowledge, and Prometheus. The common theme was knowledge and knowledge sharing, which is a key tenet in Ljubljana (no punishment now occurs for eating from the tree of knowledge 😉).
- Dragon Bridge – Dragon’s are the protector of Ljubljana, and were featured in the Greek myth around Jason and the Golden Fleece. They also were part of the legend of St. George and the dragon. This bridge was built in 1901 and is an example of the Vienna Secession style.
We then finished up the tour by St. Nicholas’s cathedral, near the city market. After a brief explanation of the market, the tour group took a 5 minute break for bathrooms and coffee. We opted for Burek from a food truck, since we were hungry, tired, and freezing (and it had just started to rain). Burek is phyllo dough stuffed with meat, vegetable and cheese and is found throughout the Balkans and Anatolia. It hit the spot, as the wind we encountered was bone chilling.
We rejoined the tour group by the cathedral as Bojan recounted the history of Slovenia (which he had previously already taken us through) on the ornate, bronze cathedral door.
The tour continued to a limestone fountain made in the Italian style that had to continually be rebuilt every 10 years or so, since limestone is porous and is the antithesis of water. Bojan drew parallels to the Slovenian way of life, and how they enjoyed redoing things slowly over and over again. DaVinci would have been proud.
The final vignette shared with us was about one of the festivals that Ljubljana is famous for – Dunking Devils. It commemorates punishment enacted in Medieval times towards bakers in old town who cheated their customers by giving them less bread than the standard weight allotment. The Punishment back then was one of shame – dunking the offending baker several times in a cage for all to see as onlookers threw rotten fruit and vegetables at him. The festival is a re-enactment in it’s 10th year running.
We horsed around a little at the dinosaur girl sign, which we giggled at for the second time on our wanderings.
The Ljubljana history tour concluded in the main square, containing the philharmonic where famous composers got their start (even Beethoven). This was also the square where all the protests begun, and where Marhsall Tito (“benign” dictator of Yogslavia) gave a speech that was notable for bringing a perfectly sunny day to thunder and lightning as he began speaking, only to follow with sun and calm when the speech completed.
After the Ljubljana history tour (which we tipped 40 Euros for), we went back to the AirBnB to get warm and to regroup before dinner. We decided on a more traditional Slovenian place for the evening called Slovenia House – Figovec that was more in the new town than the old town. It was quite crowded, so we sat at the bar, and ended up striking a conversation with an American, Steve, from Las Vegas who was in casino technology. Steve was in the process of relocating his family to Ljubljana for a job he accepted a year ago with a Slovenian gambling company that specialized in technology, and he was recruiting for product managers! He of course was looking for product people that had a software/hardware integration background rather than pure software, but he was really interesting to get to know, and we all mutually enjoyed the food, especially the goulash.
Brendan also tried the buckwheat, which was literally bulgar wheat and water, with fried lard. He also had the loparnika, which was a Slovenian vegetable lasagna with cabbage, beets, carrots, and sauerkraut.
For dessert, we shared the specialty of Ljubljana, called Prekmurska Gibanica. It was a complicated layered pastry that was government sanctioned as far as which locations were able to make it, and this one was brought in from elsewhere in Slovenia. Bojan has previously introduced the concept of this cake to us when we were in the local market, explaining that when the current Argentinian Pope Francis met Melania and Donald Trump, he asked Melania about whether she was feeding him too many of these cakes. Apparently, the Pope grew up with Slovenian caretakers in Argentina, and likely enjoyed this dessert frequently.
The rain had stopped so we enjoyed the walk home. All in all, we had a lovely day learning Ljubljana history, albeit cold and rainy towards the end. We were looking forward to warmer whether in Split, which we would drive to via Plitvice Lakes the following day.