Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lost luggage, locals, lakes, and luck in ljubljana

Thursday 11–Wednesday 17 September 2014

Like my long, alliterative label for this post?


When I did the walking tour in Ljubljana [lyoo-BLYAH-nah], the guide kept making self-deprecating jokes about how Slovenia is such a small, new, nowhere country that no one has ever heard of and how it always gets mixed up with Slovakia. In light of this: the Republic of Slovenia is a former Yugoslav country nestled between Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Croatia to the south, and Hungary to the east.

Before we went there, the only Slovenian I knew anything about was the delightfully eccentric/incomprehensible Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who can be seen gesticulating wildly and battling Tony Jones for more airtime on Q&A here.

And if you want any more than that, you can go to Wikipedia.

Even steven

When we arrived at Ljubljana Airport, the last thing we were expecting was that our bags wouldn't be there to greet us. But after standing around for five minutes after everyone else had collected their luggage (see the video at the end of this post), it became apparent that Air Serbia had somehow managed to lose ours before the barely hour-long flight from Sarajevo. Luckily we were quickly approached by the friendly people at the lost luggage service and informed that our bags would be delivered to us at our hostel the next day. Suddenly it didn't seem so bad – we only had to go without our things for one day, and in exchange we didn't have to struggle with them all the way to our accommodation. Cha-ching!

This quick little exchange of good and bad luck would come to be emblematic of our whole time in Slovenia, which was originally only supposed to be three days, but ended up being double that.

We wouldn't have to wait long for another such reversal. We took our first steps outside the airport, me in shorts and a flanno and Til in a short summer dress, and gasped at the mild cool, which seemed Arctic after the warmth of the last week, only to realise that we'd missed the last shuttle service into the city in all the commotion surrounding our lost baggage. 

Not to worry, however, as someone was on hand to save the day: Manca [man-sa]! We were only in the first couple seconds of milling around trying to decide what to do when a short, blonde girl a couple years younger than us interjected to ask us where we were going. When we told her, she offered us a lift with her boyfriend Grega, who was just pulling in. We couldn't believe our luck, and gladly accepted. Grega and Manca were both students living in suburbs outside Ljubljana, and they were really friendly. They took us right to our hostel, which was in a bit of a dubious-looking area.   They wouldn't accept any cash for their trouble, but Manca said she might be in the city the next day, in which case we could meet up, so we said we'd buy her lunch, exchanged numbers, thanked them and said goodbye, then went to check in.

'You see how everything always evens out for me?'

The surrounds

We were staying in one of the top hostels in Ljubljana, Hostel Celica [tzel-EET-tza]. It's a really social hostel converted from an old prison in a former military area. When the military moved out, squatters moved in and never left, even when developers bought the land and tried to get them out. A compromise was eventually struck, leaving the developers with half the land and the squatters with the rest, which they then turned into the thriving, grungy arts and alternative cultural scene of Metelkova [met-EL-ko-va] Mesto, backing right onto the hostel. There's street art everywhere, wild parties with cheap drinks, bands, sculptures, and interesting people, which is obviously a great setting for any hostel. 

Right outside the hostel.

As for the hostel itself, it's nowhere near as oppressive as its former use might suggest. It was only ever a small jail used for political prisoners, so only the second floor contains cells. When it was converted, the owners commissioned one artist to transform each of the cells in their own way, which led to a fascinating variety in the decor and style of each room. Some have bunks with ladders or beds on platforms high in the air, others had flip-up beds, and one even had a glass floor with little statues beneath it. 

The spookiest part of the whole building is the solitary confinement cells, which are unlit and left in their original state below the ground floor. But apart from that, the hostel is actually light and airy and open and natural and beautiful. Most of the furniture and fittings are wooden, with the handrails in the stairwells formed out of the long, smooth, shaped trunks of whole trees. The second floor, where we were staying, was especially light and open and organic, with a very 'in the rafters' feel. Our room had about seven beds in it (some of them so close to one another as to resemble double beds), all under a cosy slanted roof. We spent that night down in the bar and the Arabic-themed chillout room, sinking a few of the local Union [OO-nee-on] beers. There's some footage of Til mucking around in the video at the end of this post.

That window is a remnant of the wrecking ball used in an aborted attempt to demolish the old jail.

The next day we headed out in the same clothes as the day before for breakfast at Loving Hut, which would come to be our mainstay over the next week: a cheap, delicious, nutritious vegan buffet just ten minutes down the road from the hostel.

Mmm. Ethical nourishment.

Into the city

From there we wandered into town to look around the beautiful city centre, which is a no-go zone for traffic. There happened to be a lively and enticing fresh food market on that day but we were unfortunately still too full from our Loving Hut glut to partake.

A monument to the Romantic Slovene poet France Prešeren in the central square named for him. Above him is a muse, whose exposed breasts caused much consternation among the conservative local population upon its unveiling, especially given its position right outside a Catholic church. Apparently a priest used to go out and cover her up every week before Sunday Mass so that his parishioners wouldn't have to be exposed to such filth, but the city later resolved the problem by planting a screen of trees right next to the statue.

In the yellow building on the extreme left of this photo lived the real-life inspiration for much of Prešeren's poetry, his unrequited love Julija. There's a small plaque depicting her looking out of a window (the little orangey-red shield shape you can see two windows from the left on the middle building), but they placed it on the wrong house so that the line of sight of the statue of Prešeren could meet hers.

Til standing on a small bump in the cement.

We were just walking down a street when we heard some music and a voice coming over a megaphone. From around the corner came a troupe of various kinds of circus performers, people with hula hoops and juggling balls and all kinds of doodads, gambolling and leaping about, slowly making their way through town and eventually climbing this fountain (see the video). As you do.

Later at the fountain.

The elaborate doors to the Cathedral, presided over by the beloved John Paul II.

A relief of the Crusades.

Some prominent Catholic clergymen on another of the Cathedral's doors.

A dragon on the 'Dragon Bridge'. Ljubljana is dragon-obsessed, mostly because of a myth featuring one that we'd hear later at the Castle.

Ljubljanski grad

After seeing most of the centre we headed over to ride the funicular up to Ljubljana Castle for a short tour. 

A random kangaroo drinking fountain at the foot of the funicular (see the video for some footage).

Til being a weirdo at the castle.

A pair of the actors who assumed different roles to teach us about the different stages of the castle's history. The first stage was a tiny Roman military settlement. Later a medieval soldier would tell us the legend of the dragon he slew.

A nun and a French soldier from Napoleon's occupying army.

A female prisoner.

Inside the church.

At the top of the tower.

Meeting manca

After the castle we met Manca back at Prešeren Square and she took us to a bustling Thai restaurant for a delicious veggie lunch. The plan from there was for her to show us around the city, and since we'd already seen much of it, she suggested we go walk around a nice park. But it wasn't to be, as the rain began bucketing down and we had to stop for shelter under a bridge on the way. We took advantage of a pause in the storm to head back into the city to a cafe for coffee and (vegan!) cake, where we spent the rest of the afternoon discussing all sorts of things while the rain came down in a flood.

We stayed at the cafe talking well into the evening, eventually walking home in the dark. I stopped to buy a sturdy (expensive) little umbrella that could replace the cheap, effeminately coloured one I'd had to get in China, given that it looked like I'd definitely need one over the next couple of days.

Back at the hostel we met some cool people in our room: Jiwon Lee (or Jimmy), plus two German girls, so we all went downstairs for a drink. Jimmy was Korean, and had some crazy stories about the hours they have to work at school and for their jobs. Crazy.

Losing days in ljubljana

The next morning we called the lost luggage service about our bags, which had never shown up, and were told that Air Serbia was being very uncooperative, and that they might arrive the next day. As you can imagine, we were both starting to feel pretty gross by this point, and decided we couldn't really go another day in the same clothes and without toiletries, so a shopping trip was in order. We each got a new outfit and a couple pairs of underwear, plus restocked on all the toiletry essentials. Infuriatingly, though, someone stole my brand new expensive umbrella from the bin at the front of the store, continuing this hideous neverending cycle:

Anyway, by the time we'd waited around all morning to hear back from the luggage office, had lunch, bought a new outfit, bought ANOTHER umbrella and washed what we'd been wearing before (for free, taking advantage of the hostel girl's sympathy for our situation), the whole day was gone. 

The next day was mostly a write-off too, since Til woke up sick and unable to eat a thing without throwing it back up. It was at this point we decided it might be best to extend our stay in the city, especially since our bags still hadn't arrived and there was no indication of when they would!

Learning about ljubljana

After keeping Til company most of the day, I eventually left her listening to the Catching Fire audiobook just before three to make it to the free walking tour we'd been intending to do every day since we arrived. The tour mostly covered places we'd already seen, but gave lots of interesting background on it all as well. Half the city seems to have been designed by a single architect  Jože Plečnik, who had a penchant for extraneous columns and pyramids, which consequently show up everywhere.

Behind the theatre.

Inside the cathedral.

A library. The surface is supposed to evoke the protruding threads of a carpet. According to the guide it had just been finished when occupying forces moved into the city looking for a base. The students didn't want them to move into the library, which was still empty, so within a few days they managed to fill it entirely with donated books, keeping it safe.

Columns? Must be Plečnik.

Walking home. Nearby I had an incredible vegan kebab with seitan, which really managed to capture the taste and texture of that shaved beef you get in kebabs.

At one point our tourguide went off on a little rant about the financial situation of the country. Education is free in Slovenia, so ten per cent of the population is students, something Manca had also discussed with us. Both of them lamented that many people take advantage of the cheaper student lifestyle by unnecessarily prolonging their degrees to the maximum of seven years. The guide also complained that people study, for example, a degree in geography, but then can't get a job when they graduate, so they go back and do an MA, which they still can't get a job with, so they go back and do a PhD, which they still can't get a job with, so they end up becoming a drastically overqualified cleaner.

It's a farcical picture, and obviously I don't think students should be pointlessly prolonging their degrees for financial purposes, nor should universities be funded based on how many degrees they churn out. Standards should be maintained. But at the same time, the 'problem' of too many people being educated exposes a flaw in the system, not with the people being educated. Surely we should aim to have the most highly educated society possible. Surely if someone wants to be educated at a PhD level and they have the skills and ability to do so, then they should be. But of course, then you end up with more PhDs than the market knows what to do with and have to have doctors of geography cleaning toilets. So what's the answer? To tell someone, 'No, you can't expand your mind any further, we don't need anymore experts in geography, you have to be a cleaner'? A system which requires a certain number of uneducated people to perform undesirable tasks, and needs to artificially maintain that status quo, seems wrong to me. Sometimes I think we should aspire to a society where everyone spends half their working time doing a more manual labour-based job, and the other half a more cerebral one. There's supposed to be lots of benefits to light manual labor, and of course if everyone was educated to the extent that they could also do more intellectual tasks, that'd be great for society.

Mucking around with the camera in Tilly's sickbed that night.

Loving the lakes

The next day Til was feeling better, if a little shaky in the stomach, so we went back to Loving Hut for breakfast, where she had some very safe and plain baked potatoes and quinoa. A minor car accident happened right outside the shop while we were eating!

From there we took a bus out to Kamnik, where we'd arranged to meet Manca again for some sightseeing. She assured us we'd seen everything worth seeing in the city centre, but that there was lots to be done in the rest of the country (apparently it only takes two or three hours to get from end to end, something unthinkable for us Australians).

The plan was to see some of the famous lakes of the region – Lake Bled, of course, but also the less touristy and more natural Lake Bohinj. We stopped for tea on the way in one of Manca's favourite cafes, then carried on to Bohinj via Bled. At Bohinj we had a beer at Manca's old workplace, a hotel right on the water, then did a walk around the perimeter of the gorgeous lake.

We wandered around the lake until it started to get dark and I let loose a few 'cooees', as I'm wont to do (see the video), before we headed back to the car and drove into Bled for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, then dessert on the lake. After playing tourguide all day, Manca was kind enough to drive us all the way back to our hostel. Not only that but we'd been talking about how sick of restaurant food we were getting by this point, so she invited us over for a home-cooked lunch for our last full day in Ljubljana. How lucky were we to have lost our bags (which, by the way, still hadn't turned up) and meet this girl, right!? 

The perils of kamnik

The next morning Til and I went into town to find one of the traditional Slovenian desserts we'd been hearing so much about to take to Manca's house, then took the bus to Kamnik. 

Me realising my pencil doesn't fit in the spine of my new notebook.

We got there a little early so we could spend some time walking around the town, as Manca had suggested. The town was very cute, but what we hadn't expected was that Manca had actually been slowly gaining our confidence over the past few days in order to lure us to Kamnik and sacrifice us to their screaming hordes of ...




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My favourite gif ever.

Well not really, obviously, but Kamnik was crazy. Absolutely infested with bees. Everywhere. We'd turn down a street to get away from one swarm and then there'd be even more down that street!


Later we deduced that they must've been attracted to the remnants of sweets and alcohol in all the bins from a celebration that'd been on that weekend.

We managed to escape the bees by climbing up a hill towards a little castle, which we were disappointed to find closed, even though it was supposed to be open year-round. Weary from the lingering effects of her illness, Til plopped herself down while I decided to jump the stone wall and climb into the poorly fortified grounds from the other side of the hill for a stickybeak.

After that we descended back into the non-bee-infested side of town for a quick wander before heading back to the station to get picked up by Grega.

Pretty old wall in Kamnik.

Luxury lunch and further escapades with manca

Manca lives in a tiny village in a verdant valley a little way out from Kamnik, with an incredible view of the mountains and the sound of a rushing brook nearby. She of course is totally dismissive of all this, having lived there all her life, the same way Til and I are about the beaches and mountains in Wollongong, but for a pair of outsiders it was pretty breathtaking. We exposed ourselves as true cityslickers by gaping at the bounteous, fruit-laden apple trees growing all over the place, just lining the streets and filling the backyard. 

Manca's apple tree.

To our delight, Manca had prepared three incredible courses of delicious, healthy vegan food, which was so welcome after all our travels:

After lunch we spent a while hanging out at Manca's drinking coffee before going out to a nearby spring for a look around and a drink. We tried a local shandy called 'Radler', which tasted great.

The spring.

Bee that got stuck (temporarily) in my bottle.

That night Manca invited us along to hang out with Grega and some of his friends in the cool shed out the back of their place and watch them jam. They were all good on the guitar, even though they said they weren't, and a couple of them were amazing. We had a couple of singalongs too, and eventually the night devolved into them calling their Slovenian friends and passing me the phone to enact English-speaking prank calls, which was good fun.

After that Manca and Grega dropped us off in town (again!) It was our last night in Ljubljana and all week I'd been keen to check out Metelkova, but it just hadn't happened. I'd been talking about going all day, but it was kinda late at this point and Til was dead tired and still recovering from sickness, so I ended up going in on my own. It wasn't a particularly busy night, but I still met some people and had a good time at the weird, cheap little squatter bars in there and didn't get back till five.

The last day

After a few hours sleep it was no fun checking out the next morning, as you can imagine, and we went for our last and very much needed Loving Hut feast before meeting up with Manca and Grega one last time – they'd offered to help us buy our tickets to Salzburg. We went and had coffees and a chat until it was time to say goodbye.

In case you got this far, Manca and/or Grega: THANKS FOR BEING AWESOME.

After that it was time to check the final two things off my list that'd been on there from day one: taking the free tour of the hostel, where we learned about the history I outlined at the beginning of the post, and seeing Metelkova Mesto in the day time, two things you would've thought we'd do on the first day, but there you go. Metelkova was as cool and crazy as I'd expected in the light of day:

In a weird little art gallery (see the video).

This guy looks directly into the chillout room of the hostel, and every time I'd look up out the window I'd momentarily think someone was staring at me.

We went to the train station and boarded our cushy German train to Salzburg. And that was it! Our protracted stay in Ljubljana was finally over! It'd been a great week, and a good lesson in going with the flow. If we'd freaked out about our bags or stuck rigidly to our initial plans, there's no way we would've had such a good time in the city and with Manca and co.

And in case you were wondering, Til's bag did show up at some point before we left, but mine never did. I called them every day and they could never tell me where it was or when it would be delivered for sure (they thought at this point it might be in Turkey?), so I was still alternating between my two outfits. I'd have to wait until Munich to get it back!

And here's the video of our Slovenian travels: