With its tiny, 2 million population, Slovenia is probably one of the most overlooked destinations in Eastern Europe, yet it’s also one of the most unexpectedly delightful of them all. Located where the worlds of the Germanic, Slavic and Mediterranean people meet, Slovenia proudly boasts breathtaking mountains, eerie caverns, lush countryside and historic villas.
Existing for centuries as a mere backwater of the Germanic world, Slovenia has always been a mystery to outsiders. First part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the Hapsburg Empire and finally the former Yugoslavia, it wasn’t until the fall of communism in the early 1990s that Slovenia finally emerged as a nation in its own right.
Slovenia’s identity lies in its tiny, intimate capital city Ljubljana. With a population of just 250,000 people, the city is small for a European capital, yet what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. Following its destruction in an earthquake in 1895, the capital was reconstructed in Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles that are so prominent in Vienna, with the chief architect Joze Plecnik remodeling the city in a distinct modern-classical style. Just as Bernini shaped Rome and Gaudi shaped Barcelona, so it is that Plecnik was responsible for modern Ljubljana.
Sitting on the Ljubljanica River, the city streets are lined with chilled out cafes and laid back restaurants, while a buzzing outdoor market bisects many of the city’s major thoroughfares. A truly special atmosphere can be found at the riverfront market, where Slovenes still buy produce direct from the farmers, who continue to use wooden carts to haul their produce into the town each day.
The river itself is spanned by a number of distinctive Plecnik-designed bridges. The man himself used to walk to work each day and so he made sure that he could live easily with what he designed. His favorite – and ours – the famous Triple Bridge, is a symbol of the city and a popular hangout for many of the locals. Featuring an almost Venetian style, it is a fitting tribute to the city’s location midway between Vienna and Venice, symbolizing a link between the Germanic and Italian worlds.
Encapsulating Plecnik’s distinctive style better than anything else is the Cobblers’ Bridge, a simple clean structure adorned with classical Romanesque columns.
For a more intimate encounter with the legendary architect, tourists can even take a look at his former home, which remains exactly as it was the day Plecnik departed this world in 1957. His home is filled with bric-a-brac and furniture that he designed himself, together with numerous souvenirs and ornaments from around Europe that lent him his inspiration. As you take in his intricate drawings and inspect close-up his personal items and equipment, you’ll feel as if the man himself has personally invited you over for a good look around.
Ljubljana is a fascinating offbeat corner of Eastern Europe, and one of the finest examples of the many hidden charms on the continent. With all that it has going for it, it’s a mystery to us why the city continues to fall under most tourists’ radar.