August, 2015 - Despite having been to many different parts of Ex-Yugoslavia, I never got to visit this one country that was the first Yugoslav Republic to secede from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav Wars began here in Slovenia, which is hard to believe when you walk on Ljubljana's very clean and good conditioned streets that you usually would not expect in any of the Ex-Yugoslav countries. Luckily for Slovenia, the war that broke out here after the secession lasted for only ten days. Accordingly, no bullet holes or traces of mortars are to be found here, which in several other Ex-Yugoslav countries keep on reminding you of the ugliness of war and hate.
So finally I have made it to Ljubljana. The word already sounds kind of sweet to me. The fact that the name if derived from the word "love", the English equivalent that is coincidentally to be found in the word "Slovenia" as well, perfectly reflects the romantic atmosphere.In this city. Here you find much more stress on the themes of love and peace, making it seem ironical to me that this lovely city is the birthplace of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who compares love with a 'destructive cosmic imbalance', regarding love as 'extremely violent'. The potential of such violence becomes a very interesting object of analysis, if you connect this with Zizek's differentiation between subjective and objective violence.
Here in Ljubljana, the atmosphere much rather conveys an optimistic and idealistic notion of love. Although sounding less sweet, at least optically the relatively new and simply constructed Butcher's Bridge fits to the lovely sounding name of the city, ever since many couples began to attach padlocks on the steel wires of the bridge to symbolically seal their love. Prior to that, the Butcher's Bridge was only known as a simplified version of a once elaborate plan by Slovenia's most influential architect of modern times Joze Plecnik, whose designs from the early twentieth century have coined the cityscape of Ljubljana.
The Butcher's Bridge is only one of more than a dozen bridges that span over the Ljubljanica river. While walking along this river, foreigners will also not fail to see the Dragon Bridge, a name that self-explainingly refers to the four dragon statues that have been placed on each corner of the bridge. At first glance, the dragon symbol seems to be out of place here in Ljubljana. But for a long time the dragon has been the symbol of this city, as becomes apparent when you look at the flag of Slovenia's Capital. On the website of Ljubljana, it is stated that the meaning of the dragon is most likely connected to the martyr St. George, who according to Christian tales slew a dragon in an epic battle.
Another prominent bridge is the Triple bridge (Tromostovje), which used to be a single stone arch bridge prior to the nineteen thirties. For functional reasons, two additional bridges were added to prevent the main bridge from becoming a bottleneck. While Joze Plecnik's original plans for the Butcher's bridge were dropped, the Triple Bridge is one of the many landmarks designed by him. The Triple Bridge leads to the heart of Ljubljana, the Preseren Square.
Being named after the national poet Francis Preseren, the name of the central square only fits to the romantic atmosphere, an atmosphere that is visually amplified by the light red coloured Baroque structure on the other side of the square. The Franciscan church of Annunciation is usually the first thing a traveler will notice while crossing Tromostovje. But today most of the attention is being paid to the central part of the Preseren square, where a little "weather experiment" is being demonstrated. It is raining, but only on this one spot. The artist who came up with this idea, positioned a sprinkler above the entrance of the Triple Bridge.
The next afternoon I visit the highest point of Ljubljana. A pleasant ride on the furnicular railway takes me to the castle that overlooks the cityscape of Slovenia's Capital. Even from up here the Franciscan church of the Annunciation stands out, and so does the quadrangular shaped national library, another design by Plecnik. Nearby this building an ancient Roman site was discovered, bringing further evidence of how the Romans had settled here before the Slavs arrived, who in turn have coined the language that is spoken in Slovenia today, whereas the fact that many people in Ljubljana can speak German, reflects the influence of the Austrian Empire. This is also mirrored in Ljubljana's Baroque structures, some of which additionally remind you of the Italian influence. The appearance of the locals further reminds me of all the influences of Slovenia's neighbouring countries. On many occasions the Slavic sounds that are being uttered go hand in hand with a certain Italian elegance that is expressed in form of the local's body language, and you do not have to look twice to notice the multiracial features that the people here posess.
One thing that is missing, however, is the Turkish influence, which is another big difference between Slovenia and almost all other former Republics of Yugoslavia. While you will also barely notice any Turkish components in Croatia, Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic that was never occupied by the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th and 17th century, the Ljubljana Castle was used as baracks amid growing fear that Ljubljana could fall victim to Ottoman expansion.
One of the oldest parts of this castle is a chapel, which was dedicated to Saint George, reinforcing the view that at least one of the four dragons on the dragon bridge represents the one that was slain by the Christian martyr. When I was walking along the St. George Bay in Beirut a few years ago, I barely paid any attention to the name of the Bay, not knowing that the battle between St. George and the dragon is supposed to have taken place there. While being venerated by many Christians in the Middle East, St. George is also an important figure to many Muslims in the same region. Some scholars have concluded that St. George is the same figure that is known in Islamic eschatology as the mystic figure Al-Khidr. This reminds me of my stay in the Iranian city Jamkaran, where according to Shia legends Al-Khidr reappeared with Imam al-Mahdi at the Jamkaran well. Today, the tomb of St. George is to be found in a church in the Israeli city Lod, where the martyr was supposedly executed. The St. George Church in Lod is situated on the same compound like the Al-Khidr Mosque.
Apart from the chapel, there are plenty of things to see in and around the castle. As I take a closer look at the museums and exhibitions that are open to visitors, the woman at the reception lets me know that somebody has lost her unused ticket, kindly offering me to take it, so I can visit all the exhibitions and museums for free. After having a closer look at the exhibition of early modern torture devices, I make my way to a museum that was established here just a few months ago. Regarded as an important part of Slovenian cultural heritage, visitors can now learn more about the over one century old tradition of puppetry in Slovenia. Playing around with the interactive features helps you to understand and learn more about the different puppetry techniques. Quick facts are being conveyed audiovisually, and the staff members do a good job in assisting the visitors. Almost ready to leave, I realize that the free ticket also includes a contemporary arts exchange exhibition between Budapest and Ljubljana, where many unconventional and extradordinary artistic approaches have been put on display, artworks that often defy current aesthetical norms.
As for Ljubljana's vibrant nightlife, there is one place in particular that I would consider to be one of the outstanding hot spots in Europe, at least on friday nights. Before midnight I arrive in Metelkova, an autonomous cultural center where the Yugoslav National Army used to have their headquarters. After the secession, this place was squatted. Nowadays it is the place where you usually find a very diverse and alternative crowd that loves to party excessively. Some of the buildings in Metelkova are decorated with creepy figures and the walls are sprayed with all kinds of vulgar and naughty expressions. The party is not only taking place inside the bars and clubs. Many people have gathered outside, either sitting on the benches or occupying the playground in the middle of this area, which perfectly reflects how many of these alternative folks have remained children inside.