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“We were always under someone else’s rule, so we have a strong drive to preserve what we have,” says Tevz Logar, artistic director of the experimental SKUC gallery.
Throughout the streets, you can hear virtuoso accordionists playing the oberkrainer folk tunes of Slovenia’s mountain villages (which became a key influence on American polka music through Slovenian immigrants to the Midwest).
One night I venture into the rustic-themed Gostilna Sestica restaurant, which features an exuberant ensemble of young musicians and folk dancers in peasant dress. A woman leads me onto the dance floor, where I demonstrate my utter inability to dance the polka, even with patient and expert instruction. To compensate for the ordeal, I order a plate of prekmurska gibanica, a layered mess of apples, cheese, poppy seeds, walnuts and spices hinting at the Hungarian undercurrents of Slovenian cuisine. It isn’t much to look at but is immortalized in my mind as the best dessert ever.
In fact, many Slovenians mention food when they speak of the complicated essence of their country, which owes its existence to centuries of multicultural mixing. To sum up this culinary mash-up, Ervin Hladnik-Milharcic, senior correspondent for Ljubljana’s Dnevnik newspaper, declares: “We make sauerkraut with olive oil.”
I am sitting with Hladnik-Milharcic, a bear of a man with a thick gray beard, in the plush, high-ceilinged Grand Hotel Union coffeehouse, a vestige of Ljubljana’s long tenure as an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “Every dish here was born out of wedlock,” he says, stirring his Turkish coffee, another emblem of the country’s ambiguous geography. Most people lump Slovenia in with Germany and Austria because of its high level of economic development and traditions of punctuality, hard work and emotional reserve. (Indeed, Ljubljana is nearer to Munich than to Belgrade, the former Yugoslav capital, and nearer still to Vienna.) But when it comes to coffee, Slovenians line up with the Balkans and the Middle East by serving a thick, almost sludgy brew.
Hladnik-Milharcic, who spent years as a foreign correspondent for Slovenia’s Delo newspaper, describes the whole history of Slovenia as one long process of absorbing powerful outside influences. “You know what makes Ljubljana special?” he asked. “We were never at the center of anything.” From the Romans through the Austrians and now the European Union, “we draw on what’s best from everywhere else, adopting ideas that have already been perfected.”
Local architect left his mark
This idea is reflected in the work of Joze Plecnik, the architect and urban planner who left his imprint on Ljubljana between 1921 and 1957 with more than 250 projects around town, including the striking Triple Bridge in front of the main square, the handsome market buildings along the river, and the sumptuous red brick National and University Library. As a young man working in Vienna and Prague, Plecnik favored the groundbreaking Vienna Secession design then in vogue, but when he returned to Ljubljana he honed a softly modern neoclassical look that remains timeless today. His genius lay in appropriating details from many styles, which made him a hero to postmodern architects in the 1980s and 1990s.
A few blocks from the main square I find Metelkova, a free-form community of artists and activists who took over an old army barracks in 1993. Its legal status has been in doubt ever since. “We are in the process of legalization, but it’s not signed yet,” says Miha Zadnikar, the community’s informal spokesman, who programs experimental music and avant-garde jazz at the Klub Gromka. In the meantime, Metelkova functions as a graffiti wonderland of art galleries, music venues, a gay and lesbian center, an organization for the disabled, a mobile anarchist library in an old bus and the unlicensed Yalla Yalla bar, which seemed to be the only spot in Ljubljana where people defy a ban on indoor smoking.
A visitor never tires of simply walking the city’s streets, admiring the mix of Renaissance, Art Nouveau and Plecnik’s pre-postmodern architecture. Only 60 miles from Italy, Ljubljana sports an abundance of sidewalk cafes. In 2007, Jancovic borrowed successful strategies from other European cities and designated an extensive pedestrian-only area in the old town and along the riverfront. “Every year we increase the pedestrian area and add further bicycle lanes in the city,” the mayor promises. He also launched a bike-sharing program like the ones that have transformed Paris into a biking city and been a hit in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Years ago I became fascinated with Ljubljana as the modern-day equivalent of Paris in the ’20s — a hotbed of intellectuals and artists debating big issues as they stroll the riverside by day and gulp coffee and wine at sidewalk tables by night. Now I am glad for the long wait in visiting Ljubljana. Today it’s even more like the city I fantasized about than it would have been 20, or even 10, years ago.
Minneapolis travel writer Jay Walljasper focuses on city life. He is the author of "The Great Neighborhood Book" and editor of OnTheCommons.org.