Monday, July 16, 2007

Ljubljana, Slovenia

We first decided to come to Ljubljana in 1977. We were living in Toronto and one summer weekend, we attended a ‘Caravan Festival’ organized to encourage residents to visit different ethnic neighbourhoods around the city. You could visit Greece, Italy or Portugal; experience its culture and have your ‘passport’ stamped. It was very popular and attracted large crowds. We decided to visit a neighbourhood called Ljubljana since we were told it wasn’t very crowded, and wanted to find out if there really was such a place. As we recall, everyone was very friendly, and encouraged us to visit their city and the rest of Slovenia. Thirty years later, we are here and so pleased we came.

Slovenia may be included in our Eastern Europe guidebook, but it feels much more like a Western European country. It’s less Germanic than neighbouring Austria; more reserved than Italy; and very different than Croatia. For one thing, it is an Alpine country, with very little coastline. It also seems like a much wealthier place, with the Euro as its currency.

As soon as we crossed the border, the landscape seemed to change. So did the look of the buildings. Most had planted flower boxes and the properties were neat and well maintained. We arrived in Ljubljana to find a very attractive bus and train station, with proper lockers, free toilets, and excellent tourist and train information centres. Not knowing what to expect, we had not booked any accommodation. So we set off for the old town to get our bearings, find a place to stay, and tickets for an evening cruise along the river.

This city of about 300,000 is surprisingly beautiful, with an obvious ‘creative edge’. Many of the buildings are very elaborate, having been designed in the Baroque style. There is a great deal of art both on and around the buildings, and very interesting bridge designs. One still has a wooden hoist that was used to ‘dip’ the baker into the river if he shortchanged his customers. The city celebrates its architecture with museums and special displays. There’s even a bronze model of the old city located in one of the squares. There are activated crosswalks (something we haven’t seen for a long time); and bicycle paths along most streets. It’s interesting to see how they have been designed. In some situations, there is a marked lane along the road. But in most others, a portion of the sidewalk has been converted into a one way bike lane with paint and markers. It seems to work very well and might be a good idea for Vancouver, since it is easier to paint (or widen if necessary) a sidewalk than a road.

It is a clean city, with men in white shirts and bow ties going around picking up litter, to highlight the focus on cleanliness. However, like so many European cities, many of the buildings and public walls are covered in graffiti. It’s tragic, and I really think something significant needs to be done to stop this from continuing.

At the downtown tourist centre we purchased cruise tickets and were offered an apartment in the old town at a price much lower than what we expected to pay. While we were a bit apprehensive about its quality, we shouldn’t have been. It was in a modern building with a standard of finishes higher than Bayshore! There was a large sliding door to a balcony that also functioned as a casement window. (We should use these better quality European windows and doors in our buildings.) It had a large screen TV with numerous English language channels. (Sometimes it is nice to get caught up with what is happening, although this time I unfortunately caught George Bush’s rambling speech to a Cleveland audience.) It also had air conditioning, wireless internet, and a washing machine for Sally.

One of our tasks in Ljubljana was to start the process of obtaining our Russian visas, since we have now booked a cruise up the Volga and received the necessary ‘invitation’. We went to what we thought was the Russian Embassy and were going through security when we discovered we were in the Parliament Buildings! We were directed to the embassy just down the street, but were turned away. We subsequently learned the embassy only opened on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. We could come back the next day, but we had planned to either play golf at a resort in the Slovenian Alps, or head off to Budapest.

Most of our time in Ljubljana was spent wandering around the city, enjoying the local wines and food, including burak, a fast food stuffed pastry eaten like a slice of pizza. A major summer festival was happening, and one night we saw a London musical production based on the film ‘Dirty Dancing’. It was very entertaining as we all sang and clapped and Sally thought this would be a good film for a Vogue Theatre ‘sing-along’ production. (Another fundraising opportunity for Margot Paris or Laura Swift?)

The next day, we decided not to go golfing since for only the fourth time since New Year’s Day, it started to rain. (We understand it has rained almost incessantly in Vancouver since we left!) So, at 7:40 in the morning, we boarded a train for Budapest, where we can hopefully start the Russian Visa process. I am also interested to see the city since from pictures it seems most impressive and I am often asked if I am from Hungary since Geller is a Hungarian name.. This time we have a hotel. We are booked into the Hotel Gellert, next to the famous Gellert Baths, and Gellert Hill.

The cost of the ticket for the 8 hour train trip is less than last night’s theatre ticket, since Budapest is ‘on special’! Now we can sit back and relax and hope that we will have enough time to get off for refreshments at one of the stations, since I have just discovered there is no dining car on the 29 euro Budapest Special.

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