See, shop and eat is the formula for a successful city break - but not necessarily in equal proportion. Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, has all the right ingredients
You’ve got to like a place whose name means ‘beloved’, haven’t you? Even if you can’t quite get your head round how to pronounce it. Ljubljana - that's loo-blee-ahna - is the economic, cultural and almost geographical centre of pretty little Slovenia, first country to emerge from the former Yugoslavia and only the size of Wales.
Thanks to the patronage of EasyJet, which flies to Brnik airport, a 45-minute bus journey away, Ljubljana has been discovered by the hen 'n' stag brigade, and it does get busy with tourists in summer. But it’s also a perfect destination for a spring pick-me-up mini-break, especially if you can sneak away mid-week. The flight from the UK is only two hours, and you can easily walk everywhere once you get to the centre. What’s more, there isn’t too much sightseeing to be done, so you can enjoy time at a pavement café simply watching the world without guilt.
My favourite kind of mini-break has a bit of culture and a lot of me-time – lots of pottering around, nothing too taxing brain-wise. See, shop, eat…
So, what’s to see? Ljubljana, founded by Jason and the Argonauts according to legend, is easy on the eye. A twinkling river runs through a collection of red-roofed olde worlde buildings clustered round the base of a green hill, perched on top of which is a 13th-century castle fantastical enough for any fairytale. Snow-glazed peaks just a few miles away provide a spectacular backdrop to the whole scene. You can walk up there or clamber aboard the little toy train if you’re very lazy. There’s a museum, nice café and souvenir shop, of course, at the top. There are great views over the town, too, so it’s a good place to get your bearings, though to be honest, keep the castle in sight and it’s impossible to get lost.
If you want more café time, get your sightseeing done quickly on a walking tour, run by the local tourist information centre. In summer, hire a bike to whizz round on. But do pay attention to the buildings as you speed by – the city’s other nickname is Little Prague, thanks to the efforts of Ljubljana citizen Joze Plecnik, the neo-classicist architect who helped create the Czech Republic’s capital and Vienna.
Preseren Square is the heart of the city – it’s a good place to arrange to meet chums if you get lost or want to do your own thing for a while. Street entertainers, especially jugglers, musicians and puppeteers, make it a nice place to stop for a breather, too. St Nicholas Cathedral, an extravagance of gilt and marble, and the City Museum are worth popping in, and there’s a National Gallery and Museum of Modern Art.
I rather liked Ljubljana’s bridges. There’s the ornate Triple Bridge (one of Plecnik’s efforts) and Cobbler Bridge, and no prizes for guessing which mythical creatures adorn the ornate Dragon Bridge. Legend has it that they will fly when a virgin crosses over. They’re still there.
Next, it must be time to seriously shop. Ljubljana’s big shopping centres are in outlying areas, thus freeing up the picturesque bits for tourists, so there are knick-knack emporia aplenty. Head for the quaint old area for the best stop-and-browse boutiques selling silver filigree jewellery, crystal and handicrafts.
Mid-shop, you’ll need coffee and a snack, and Ljubljana has a fabulous selection of weird and groovy cafes with assorted themes including Seventies psychedelic and Soviet-esque. The gorgeously kitsch Salon is a café by day, club by night. (Ljubljana’s not a rockin’ night time town, though there are jazz, folk, dance and disco clubs. Check out what’s on at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, too.)
On-the-move sustenance includes burke, a kind of leaden cheese pasty, or pop into fabulous Vodnik Square food market (not on Sundays, when there are antiques stalls instead) for local cured meats, cakes and munchy fresh bread. Slovenian sit-down fare is hearty, thanks to the influences of neighbouring Italy, Hungary, Croatia and Austria – roast pork, veal, turkey, not so much chicken, plus pasta, pizza and risotto. Great warming heaps of comfort food are served at the many traditional restaurants.
But be warned, Slovenians also eat horse. And not only horse, but baby horse - you’ll see foal fillet on the menu. Best not to go on about it, though Slovenians are pretty welcoming. Like the Irish, they enjoy the craic, though it’s usually nothing too riotous.
Still, do try to resist the urge to loudly point out the fast-food joint called Hot Horse. Now that really is eating on the hoof…