Our train arrived into Ljubljana in the latter part of the morning. The trip was not too long, so we were not too weary by the time we got off at the small station. The short walk to our Airbnb took us through the business and retail district, a lot of grey and blocky buildings arranged along one main road. The sight was made drearier by the overcast skies, the chilly sting of hesitant drizzle, and the emptiness of the streets. The place we chose was in a building by the Ljubljana Drama Theatre on the fifth floor, in an apartment shared by an elderly lady and her son. We made our introductions and then left our things in our attic room before setting off towards the river. We wanted to see the Ljubljana we saw in the pictures.
On our way, we strolled through the Congress Square. It was wide enough to have a green space within it that had tall trees, lush grass, and white benches. The Museum of Illusions and the University of Ljubljana were on our right as we walked, pretty buildings from which we were distracted by a little gazebo at the square’s end. We turned left there, walked past a bookstore, and a couple of bistros, and then turned right towards some stone steps that led down to the river.
The Ljubjanica flows through the heart of Ljubljana. It is long, but not very wide, and by its banks are colourful buildings of similar heights and styles, with more green trees and plants to frame the spectacle like a bouquet. There are boats that languidly move along the relatively still turquoise water, with people sipping wine or taking photographs under white umbrellas. Modern metal statues are placed sporadically along the stone paths, figures that looked to be composed of frozen waves or melting wax.
Our first impression of central Ljubljana was awesome; not the Vienna kind of awe, but one more akin to an encounter with a more natural, unexpected beauty. From the Ribja bridge we took a left towards the tallest structure we could see, a pink church with oxidised steeples and it was there that we saw the handsome Triple bridge and the busy square of Prešeren.
When we got to the Dragon bridge, a white bridge protected by impressive dragon statues, we sat on some steps to soak in the newly escaped sun rays. I smelt fresh mint in the air so I sniffed around to see if anyone was making tea, or was selling fresh herbs. I couldn’t find the source until I spotted some mint growing wild in some of the stone crevices nearby. I plucked a leaf or two to give Maddy a whiff, but just as I was about to pop one in my mouth she swatted it from my hand and pointed to a dachshund peeing close to where I first found the leaves. Embarrassed, I left the mint I plucked on the step beside me and motioned for us to leave. Maddy didn’t notice me the first time because she was too busy laughing.
If you follow the Ljubanica river far enough in the other direction, the river widens and the number of buildings and people get sparser. It was quieter there: with only the soft sounds of birds chirping, the rustling leaves of overhanging trees and the odd bit conversation that got louder as people got closer and softer as they went further away. We spent a lot of our time by this stretch on our first day; just a peaceful space where people seemed to relax under the shade, read a book or cuddle their partners when the breeze got chilly. Some sat in circles singing songs, and we met another group training for river rescues.
Maddy spotted an otter while we lazed, swimming to us in the river. A few people stopped and pointed at it as they passed, others in boats tried whistling to draw its attention but it stayed unwavering in its course. Its little head hovered over the water as it swam, going about its business, seemingly oblivious to all the fuss. He swam up to the river bed, got out for a quick moment, and then jumped back into the water to go merrily on his way; it was not like any otter we had ever seen before. He seemed to bring everyone’s spirits up just by existing, a cute, slightly plump animal that wanted a little sun but didn’t find any. We later learned it was not an otter at all but a kind of river rat that was not even indigenous to Ljubljana. It was introduced a while ago, and a lot of the locals do not like them. Fortunately for the rat, we were all a bunch of tourists excited to meet it.
Maddy and I stopped for some ice-cream and had a little snooze under the suddenly appearing noonday sun. While Maddy napped on the grass, I waved at people in boats and read some Wodehouse despite the breeze swishing my pages. I remember turning a lot of pages but not reading all that much. I wondered about living in a city like this, small, mostly quiet, and I remembered that this was Slavoj Zizek’s city, and how odd is was that such a cynical yet exciting man could come from such a pretty, modest place. Maybe it was not so modest, and my first impressions of the city were wrong and there is a radical underbelly that I would never see. It is possible.
When I closed my book and Maddy awoke, we walked back towards the main part of the city. We peeked down lonely streets, into open windows, and inhaled deeply while passing a bakery on the eastern side of the river, in the Old Town. In the bars we passed there were people talking about ice-hockey, making out, and arguing about politics over large frothy pints of beer. The riverside restaurants were starting to fill up when we finally turned towards home, but we still managed to find a table by the river’s edge and order some charcuterie and cocktails. The meat was good and the drinks cool and fresh. We soaked in the excited atmosphere as more and more tourists and locals alike, inundated the weekend streets; instruments played, people laughed and sighed, and we started to feel the beating heart of gorgeous Ljubljana.
The city was so much more than we expected, and we could not wait to see more of it.