Slovenia's capital a little charmer

PRETTY TOWN: Boys admire model sailboats during a regatta at Koseze pond, Ljubljana.
PRETTY TOWN: Boys admire model sailboats during a regatta at Koseze pond, Ljubljana.

The expression "small is beautiful" must surely have been coined for Slovenia and its riverside capital, Ljubljana.

Look at a map of Europe (not an old one - Slovenia only became an independent country in 1991) and you'll find this neat little country tucked between Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. Its area is about half that of Canterbury.

Driving from coastal Croatia, much of it dry and stony, I find it a refreshing change to be in the rolling green countryside of Slovenia. More than half the whole country is forested. Little gabled houses are clustered together in a clearing from time to time, a church spire pokes up above the roofs, and farm animals graze in surrounding paddocks.

Ljubljana (the "j" is pronounced as a "y") almost means beloved (ljubljena). This would be totally appropriate for this charmer of a city (only 270,000 inhabitants) which spreads out along both banks of the Ljubljanica River.

We make first of all for Ljubljana's hilltop castle. It was built in the ninth century, rebuilt in the 15th and then upgraded in the 16th and 17th centuries. Afterwards it served as a military outpost and even as the province's prison before another restoration was carried out in the 1960s. The result is a bit of an architectural mish-mash.

But it has an absolutely splendid tower. After a near-perpendicular ride in the funicular, we slog up to the top of the tower via a double wrought-iron staircase. Someone in our group counts 95 steps as we go round and round. I'm too puffed to count.

From the top, we take in the stunning panorama. We can see the hazy Julian Mountains in the distance (where the skifields lie) - and nearer, dense forested slopes. Closer still is the leafy playground of Park Tivoli. Below us, we look over the winding river, the leafy squares and streets and the terracotta roofs of the buildings.

Many of the buildings are art nouveau in architectural style and decoration, a legacy from the city's earthquake history. Like other regions of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia is earthquake-prone. The first recorded quake in the city was in 1511 when much of mediaeval Ljubljana was destroyed. Rebuilding in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in pale-coloured baroque churches and mansions.

In 1895 a powerful earthquake struck again and the city had to rebuild once more. Art nouveau was all the rage in Europe at the time and many of these wonderful buildings were erected then in that style.

Ljubljana has been through torrid times in other ways. In Roman days it was called Emona, and remnants of Romanesque walls, dwellings and early churches still remain. In the 5th century Emona was sacked by the Huns. Tribes of early Slavs settled

in the area in the following centuries.

The town changed hands frequently in the Middle Ages until the Habsburgs took over and reigned for nearly 700 years, right up until the end of World War I - despite Napoleon's brief attempt to disrupt their dominance in 1809.

Ljubljana was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans during World War II. It became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia within Yugoslavia in 1945 and remained the capital after Slovenia's independence came at last in 1991.

Who would guess the city has such a turbulent past as you pause in serene and stately Preseren Square? This is Ljubljana's traditional meeting place. It's named after Slovenia's national poet, France Preseren.

I sit on the steps at the base of his statue and watch the bustling locals heading for the markets; the meandering tourists aiming their cameras every whichway; and the in-and-out weaving of the occasional cyclist crossing the square.

The square is bordered by technicolour buildings, the salmon-pink Franciscan church being the most distinctive. Both Hauptman House on the corner with its decorative painted eaves and frontage, and the nearby Urbanc Palace are colourful examples of the city's art nouveau style. A quirky sculpture on one wall represents the poet's mistress who can gaze across at her lover on his pedestal.

I cross the river on the Triple Bridge which leads off the square. This trio of bridges came about because the stone arch bridge, built in 1842, was becoming a bottleneck. So a footbridge was added to it on each side in 1932, designed by prolific architect Joze Plecnik.

Five years ago all three bridges became part of the city's pedestrian-only zone. This large central area free of vehicles is one of the delights of Ljubljana - truly a walkable city.

The large market across Triple Bridge (also traffic-free) has stalls running alongside the river, and I treat myself to a pink enamel necklace on one of the craft stalls before diving down a staircase to the fish market below. From windows all along the wall you can gaze straight into the green waters of the river.

There are several boats tied up by the river's edge and I take a cruise with a gaggle of schoolchildren and their teacher. Some boats provide an English commentary (mine didn't), but it's peaceful and relaxing on board after all the walking.

Restaurants, cafes, antique shops, galleries and bookshops line the riversides and people are meandering in and out; sitting under outdoor umbrellas eating, chatting, drinking coffee, or just gazing over the waters of the river. It's certainly a river city.

The enchantment of Bled, too, is water. Lake Bled, northwest of Ljubljana up near the Austrian border, has all the picture-postcard elements - clear translucent water (no motorboats allowed), a castle on a clifftop and a mediaeval church on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. All of this against a backdrop of the Julian Alps.

Most of our group choose to walk round the lake (it's only two kilometres long and less than that wide), while I take advantage of my hotel's offer of a free bike and cycle around it, off-road nearly all the way.

You can visit the church on Bled Island in what the Slovenes call a pletna. This is a gondola sort of craft. But beware: the boatman only allows you 30 minutes on the island before the return journey. If you want longer (and you well might) then consider hiring a rowboat.

Almost half of Slovenia is limestone, so there's another world on offer - an underground world of caves. We visit Postojna Cave, southwest of the capital. It has an incredible 21kms of tunnels, passages, caverns and halls.

We walk into the mouth of the cave and along a passageway for a bit. Then we catch a train! It's electric - with small open four-person wagons. It shoots off through low tunnels (duck your head if you're tall). At one point we pass a shaft of blackened walls, which was the result of a Nazi fuel dump blown up by partisan saboteurs during World War II.

More caverns and passageways before we alight from the train. Led by a guide we walk (with all those other people) into a fantastic jungle of stalagtites/mites, lacey limestone curtains, fluted columns, "organ pipes" and what looks like see-through spaghetti.

We pass through several halls and over bridges - one is called the Russian Bridge because Russian prisoners of war built it in 1916.

It's a staggering experience. But the challenge is to try and ignore, as much as possible, the scrum of people around you and still capture the magic of it all. For this amazing underground world is magical - just another facet of an amazing little country.

Currency: Euro.

Language: Slovene; nearly half the population speak English.

Best time to visit: June to October. Ljubljana, near the Julian Alps, does not get the unpleasantly high midsummer temperatures of Croatia and other Middle European cities. But midsummer is holiday time for European schools, so, although Ljubljana was not too crowded, other tourist regions were (such as Bled and Postojna Cave).

Getting there: Kiwis often combine Slovenia with Croatia or other Balkan countries for which connecting points from NZ can be Munich, Frankfurt or London. Croatia Airlines and Adria Airways - Slovenia's flag-carrier - fly regularly from these three airports (and others in Europe).

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