Doing time in Slovenia

Last updated 01:48 22/10/2008

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You always remember your first night in prison; the eerie shadows painted by the steel bars on the concrete floor as the night slips by, the incessant snoring of the inmate on the bunk below you, the deafening click of the key as it locks the door.

Fortunately for me I clicked the door of my cell shut and the snoring was from my girlfriend. All of this is part of the unique experience at the Celica "prison" hostel in downtown Ljubljana.

The Celica is the brainchild of a group of Slovenian artists and architects who prevented the abandoned prison from being demolished in 1993. Rather than tear down the site, they decided to let it act as a reminder of the past to inspire the idea of change in Yugoslavia.

With this in mind the hostel has been converted into 20 themed "cells" where artists, architects and designers from places as diverse as England, Finland, Serbia, Russia, Slovenia and Ireland have created their own unique interpretations of the space.

As we check into cell 107, I unlock the steel bars and we are greeted with art-deco bunk beds and a melancholy mural that is streaked across half the cell.

The intimidating painting is a pastel blue scene of floating fish, mermaids, a sleeping midget and a crying unicorn. I'm sure there is a deeper meaning behind it, but it eludes me for the time being.

As I make up my bunk I notice the mural is etched in dashes - presumably to illustrate how prisoners of old would have counted the days of their incarceration.

After a few hours confined in the cell, I'm itching to get outside again so I fumble with the keys and head down to the reception. With the rain lashing the streets of Ljubljana I'm taken on a tour of the hostel by architect and former Yugoslav soldier Janko Rozic.

Orange jumpsuits would have once filled the hallways; now the changes are immediately noticeable.

The entrance opens to an art gallery that also hosts poetry readings and performances throughout the year, part of their commitment to "transform the most closed space into the most open", according to Janko.

As we wander along the corridor it is clear this isn't a conventional European hostel with pubs and techno music.

To the east is a quiet Persian-themed tearoom where people sit cross-legged and chat over steaming chai. To the west is a traditional Slovenian inn that serves Lasko beer on tap and opens out to a sunny courtyard.

The design of the Celica is very deliberate; Janko points to the floor, which is slightly convex - a device to push people together into the communal spaces rather than into the isolation of their rooms.

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Upstairs Janko jangles his keys and opens the first cell. Number 101 is a cosy cell with warm wooden features, including a writing desk and two single beds below the window.

As part of the design, the Irish artist included a corner of a Belfast prison and has hung instruction manuals on the walls. One is a "riot suggestion guide" giving handy hints to former inmates: "If rioting breaks out sensible shoes are the best option; never wear heels."

It also adds that rolling marbles across the floor is a useful technique if you are accosted by mounted police.

Cell 103 shows a definite woman's touch. Behind the steel door is a double bed surrounded by a see-through shower curtain, a staircase to gaze out of the high window and a collection of brass door handles hanging from the walls.

Janko says these are to hang clothes from and to symbolise the different people who inhabited the cell.

This technique, which Janko describes as using "aesthetical tools to open ethical questions", is adopted by many of the artists.

Walking along the hallway like an inquisitive set of prison guards checking on our inmates, we knock on number 106.

The elderly German occupants show us their cell, designed by a Slovenian sculptor. Influenced by the Japanese knack of using small spaces, we discover a cell with a closet on the far wall, and stairs up to a reading space, a bed and a prayer corner.

The creativity in these small spaces is amazing. As we are shown cells with Wi-Fi access, Finnish architecture and clay figures embedded in the floor, I'm given plenty of ideas for my bedroom in Australia, which now seems massive by comparison.

We approach cell 107 and Janko tells me of a Russian painter who locked himself in the cell for three days to come up with a design to reflect "Slavic melancholy". The fittings were finished by a group of Serbian design students. He agrees that the result is quite confronting and unusual.

We reach the end of the corridor and Janko opens the door to the Point of Peace, a prayer room that contains shrines to the five biggest religions in the world - and an empty space for all others.

This quiet, wood-panelled room, which has a vast window opening out into leafy Ljubljana, is directly above where the dungeon used to be - another example of the thoughtful symbolism embedded in the Celica.

With the tour over Janko says goodbye and leaves me to wander back to my cell. I lock the door behind me and turn the lights off. Drifting off to sleep, I hum the theme tune from The Great Escape and dream of Clint Eastwood tunnelling through Alcatraz.

The Celica hostel in Ljubljana is a thought-provoking combination of the past and the present, providing one of the most unusual accommodation options in Eastern Europe.

When the sun eventually rises the next morning we eagerly pack our belongings and open the cell door. I must admit I'm quite happy that I can check out by 10am, leaving the keys at reception for the next lucky inmate to be locked in.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Flying to London, Paris or Vienna is the most convenient option. There are connections to Ljubljana from numerous major centres in Europe with Adria Airways, Easyjet and Wizz Air.

Staying there: The Celica Hostel is in the Metelkova district of Ljubljana, a 10-minute walk from the main train station. See http://www.hostelcelica.com/. There is a range of accommodation options, from private apartments to the infamous cells. Prices for accommodation in the cells start at EUR23 (NZ$49) a person, including breakfast.

Further information: See http://www.slovenia.info/.

- Sun-Herald

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