On a mid-Sunday afternoon, under cloud covered skies, my train pulled into Ljubljana Railway Station (Železniška postaja Ljubljana). I was supposedly back in the Balkans, but I knew that Ljubljana was not viewed with the same disdain or fear as Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo. The breakup of Yugoslavia brought immense suffering and loss of life to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but not Slovenia. In their secluded mountain redoubt blessed by good fortune, the Slovenes had enjoyed peace and prosperity. The halcyon years had begun in the early 1990’s and did not abate until the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Even when the government’s finances faltered, Slovenia was easily bailed out of trouble due to the small scale of its economy. This was a nation that had been blessed by fate. As the capital, Ljubljana, was the main recipient of this good fortune. If only people could learn how to pronounce its bizarre name.
Speaking In Slovene – Pronunciation Game
Ljubljana, the name does not exactly roll off the tongue. There is scarcely a more unpronounceable name of a European capital city. A close English friend of mind and Cambridge educated historian, found it good fun to pronounce Ljubljana incorrectly, calling it Jubel-jana. He always enjoyed having a good laugh at the Slovenian capital’s expense. There are many fun ways to pronounce the name incorrectly. These include Lou-lana, which sounds like a kind of 50’s dance number, L-yub-jana, good for throat clearing and L-jub-L-jana, how a small child might give directions. For the record, Ljubljana is pronounced lyoo-blyah-nah. I had to learn and practice the correct pronunciation until I could say it with some degree of confidence.
It is a pity that the name Ljubljana puts so many people off. If only they realized that it means beloved. This is a beautiful meaning for a name and if pronounced correctly it sounds elegant and exotic. Much better than its German derivation, Laibach. I would probably have never made a special trip to the city if it had not been for a Slovenian friend of mine. I had met her one summer while she worked at a job on the high plains of western South Dakota. She was trying to improve her English, which I considered excellent. Slovenes are polyglots, which is understandable when one realizes that the entire nation has a population of only 1.9 million, the same number of people as live in Nebraska. My friend was often given to comparing the cosmopolitan nature of Ljubljana with the wind swept, dried up frontier town she was stuck in all summer. Visiting Ljubljana, I would soon realize why she longed for home.
Close To Perfect – Mitteleuropa & the Mediterranean Meets the Balkans
It is not just the name that makes Ljubljana so different from other European capital cities. Size wise Ljubljana is tiny by the standards of European cities. With only 290,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana fails to rank in the top one hundred of Europe’s largest cities by population. Though located in the Balkans, it is not really of the Balkans. It is closer to Venice and Vienna, Munich and Zurich than to Belgrade. As I would soon see for myself, it had been influenced as much by Mitteleuropa and the Mediterranean as by the Balkans. My first impression of Ljubljana was as a place where people enjoy life. There was a pleasant spaciousness and provincial charm about the city. The early spring storm clouds hovering above the city were no match for its sunny disposition.
I soon found my hostel, Vila Veselova, where I had booked a private room. Vila Veselova was a two-story villa that felt more like a mansion when judged by the usual standards of a hostel. Calling it a villa certainly sounded much more glamorous. The exterior was painted in a fresh coat of ochre with burgundy trim around the windows. The villa looked like something that would have been built in Austria-Hungary. Ljubljana or Laibach as the Austrians called it, had been one of the nicer cities in the old empire. Sure enough, the villa turned out to be a century old. Upon arrival, I was looking forward to some Slovenian hospitality, having no idea what that meant. Of course, the girl who checked me in turned out to be Polish. Nevertheless, I was happy with my spacious room.
The location of Vila Veselova was close to perfect. The neighborhood was home to several embassies. It was just a five-minute walk to the Old Town. Across the road was Tivoli Park where I could go for a run in the morning. Once I got settled, it was time to take a walk. I have never been able to contain myself when first arriving in a new city. I feel an uncontrollable urge to visit some part of it before the day comes to an end, no matter the hour or weather. My excitement is akin to Christmas morning, when as a child I would run down the stairs to find a multitude of gifts laid out under a sparkling tree. In this case, the gifts of Ljubljana’s Old Town were laid out beneath the night sky. It made me feel like a child once again.
Eye Catching – Watching A Whole New World
There was hardly anyone on the streets. I had this charming cityscape of Mitteleuropa mostly to myself. I went window shopping on a whole new world. I stood outside restaurants and watched Slovenes downing glasses of rich red wine and eating sumptuous meals. I quietly walked through the winding streets and spacious squares of the Old Town, listening to muffled voices and high heels clicking across cobblestones. I spent much of the time strolling around Congress Square (Congresni trg) and the star shaped park laid out at its center. Around me were architectural confections of Baroque, Classicist and Neo-Renaissance design coated in an eye-catching array of colors. Here was the heart of Ljubljana, quietly beating on this one night. It felt as though I had entered a magic kingdom of reality rather than fantasy. The kind of moment that I will spend the rest of my life missing.