Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, is one of those places that feels as though it’s been lifted straight from the pages of an old picture book and dropped accidentally into our world. Bric a brac houses scatter up impossibly green hills, little splotches of burnt orange, sunflower yellow, periwinkle blue. Ornate bridges and cobbled streets wind around the river that cuts through the centre of the city. The boats that meander up and down often carry musicians, so soft music mingles in the air with the smells of water and cooking and hot stone. The castle perches on its hill, watching over Ljubljana, its towers visible from almost anywhere in the city.
This isn’t a city that lends itself to a rushed, metropolitan city break. The pace of life here is slower. Tourists and locals alike drift gently through the pedestrianised old town, drinking in the beauty of their surroundings. At night, the restaurants along the river throw open their doors and light their candles and the people spill out onto the riverbanks, eating and drinking and dancing and laughing. It’s impossible not to be charmed.
On our first day in Ljubljana, Niall and I plan to do a walking tour of the city. Unfortunately, we settle a little too comfortably into the laid back lifestyle and end up snoozing and eating pastries in our apartment until 11am, missing the start time for the tour. C’est la vie. Luckily for us, Ljubljana old town is tiny, easily walkable from one end to the other in no time at all. We wander up and down the river, snapping photographs of the beautiful buildings and bridges, occasionally stopping to point and say “I wonder what that is. Dunno. Lovely though.”
Reader, we probably should have gone on the walking tour. But reader, we have such a wonderful morning that I don’t really have any regrets. If you’re there for the history, absolutely get yourself on a tour. If you’re just there for the pretty things, you’ll be fine just wandering.
If you’re planning to visit Ljubljana between March and October, make sure you’re there for at least one Friday. On Fridays, one of Ljubljana’s biggest squares is home to a street food market like no other. The Open Kitchen gives Ljubljana’s best chefs a chance to show off their wares at a fraction of the price you’d pay in their restaurants. Striped green and white tents fill the square selling gourmet pad thai, vegan cakes, enormous burritos, local gin, barrels of mussels, Slovenian sparkling wine. The white wooden tables fill quickly, so we perch on the steps of the square and watch the world go by. We originally wander in for lunch and end up being so bowled over by the food that we come back for dinner. Steaming spoonfuls of spicy chicken served in crisp, warm roti wraps and plates of soft, pink filet mignon piled on herb crusted potatoes…this is no ordinary street food.
Niall genuinely looks a little frightened as I unhinge my jaw like a boa constrictor and shove this entire plate of steak into it.
After lunch, we head for Ljubljana’s castle. You can walk up to the castle but I am spectacularly full and Niall politely declines my request that he roll me up the hill, so we take the funicular railway. The railway has us at the foot of the castle in a few minutes and also gives me the opportunity to make “putting the fun in funicular” jokes several more times than is really necessary. At least I make myself laugh, and I think we can all agree that’s the important thing.
The castle is an amazing building, a bizarre warren of wooden beams and formidable flagstones spiralling upwards to a gorgeous courtyard. If your other half is, for example, a geeky structural engineer, they’re sure to enjoy the step by step explanations of how the castle was restored. But don’t worry, the castle also houses plenty for us normal folks too. While we are there, we explore a National Geographic photo exhibition, a tiny little chapel, a free outdoor library and of course, spectacular views of Ljubljana.
There is also a museum of puppetry squirrelled away somewhere so if you’re into being terrified, go wild!
On our second day, we head out from Ljubljana to the very place that had caused me to book the trip in the first place: Lake Bled. Pals, I booked a holiday based on someone else’s Instagram post and I have absolutely zero regrets about it. Bled is about an hour outside Ljubljana and the bus runs straight from Ljubljana bus station every hour for about €7. If you’re planning to go on the weekend, book the bus in advance. I did not know this was a thing you had to do and end up only getting on a bus because I look so crestfallen that the nice lady calls us over when she got a cancellation and sells us two tickets on the spot. Great success.
Lake Bled is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in real life. Maybe with the exception of seeing the Northern Lights, I can’t remember many other things that have taken my breath away like this does. I literally scream on a bus when we round the corner. Never go on holiday with me, I am an embarrassment.
I feel like the rest of this post should just be photographs but this is the kind of scenery every writer dreams of describing, so I’m going to give it a go. The lake pools in front of us, glassy and impossibly, impossibly blue. If you lean over the edge, the water is clear enough that you can see all the way to the bottom. People swim alongside tiny fish and haughty swans and I am furious that I haven’t brought my bathing costume. The snowcapped peaks of the Alps stretch out in the distance, giving way to emerald hills. Bled Castle clings to the rocky cliff face on one side of the lake, on the other side, is a tiny island, housing only a church. To say that this place is like a fairytale is hackneyed. It doesn’t do it justice. And also, since In Bruges, I can’t hear that phrase without hearing it in Brendan Gleeson’s accent. But really. It is.
We take a rocky wooden pletna boat out to the island and climb the 99 steps to the church. I inform Niall that traditionally, men are supposed to carry their wives up the steps as a sign of strength and devotion. Niall tells me to piss off. I make him take a romantic selfie. He is furious.
The church houses a Wishing Bell, which you are supposed to ring three times. If you truly believe in God, your wish will be granted. As I’m not sure me and God are entirely sympatico, we settle for tossing a lucky penny into the lake and directing our wishes to the goddess of love whose temple stood on the island before the church.
You can walk all the way around the lake and also up to the castle. But we only have a few hours in Bled and I have other things on my mind. If I haven’t yet convinced you that Bled is where your soul belongs, brace yourselves. You see, Bled is home to a proud culinary speciality. One which has become so iconic that it has actually become a symbol of Bled. And that speciality is a cream cake.
Find you a person who looks at you the way I look at cream cakes. We head to Hotel Park, the original home of the cream cake and sit on their terrace overlooking the lake. The cake is a little like a vanilla slice, but twice the size and with double the cream. It is gorgeous. Go to Bled and get one immediately. Waiters fire out cream cakes at a frequency I’ve never seen: it genuinely seems like everyone on this terrace has come for the cake.
This is another excellent thing I discover about Slovenia: going for cake is a thing. It is a completely normal, acceptable thing to go into a restaurant or a cafe and only order dessert.
This is Lolita’s bakery in Ljubljana. We nip under one of their umbrellas to shelter from a sudden rainstorm and end up ordering rather a lot of cake. I eat multiple different cakes each day. Sometimes, waiters suggest specific wines or liqueurs to match the cake you have ordered. I genuinely think this may be the secret to happiness.
Cake and liqueurs at Vander Restaurant.
Slovenia is a beautiful, surprising little country and one I’d definitely like to see more of. Book yourself a flight, and make sure to pack a couple of princess dresses.