Ljubljana (pronounced Loo-blee-on-uh) is a great little city. It’s pretty, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s accessible, it has personality to spare and it’s relatively off the tourist grid. In a lot of ways, it feels like a mix between Amsterdam and downtown Manhattan, but way more relaxed - and much smaller. People are stylish in a cool, comfortable ‘Eileen Fisher meets H&M with a healthy dose of Camper’ way. On a Sunday in the summertime, it’s impossible not to feel like you’ve been invited to a neighborhood party, one part garage sale, one part talent show.
The main draw on Sunday is the flea market, which is set up along one side of the Ljubljana River, which runs right through the city. It’s got your average cool-European-market oddities: coffee grinders, Soviet memorabilia, purses, postcards, dolls that are naked, limbless and otherwise defaced.
Other vendors sell artwork and handicrafts: paintings, etchings, jewelry, wooden bird whistles and puzzle cubes. Last time we were here, in October 2008, people browsed while munching on chestnuts in brown paper bags. This time, they held ice cream cones. I didn’t see many transactions occur, but that's probably not the point. It feels like culture and community are prioritized over commerce.
Absolutely everywhere, there is live music. Somehow, all of the street performers are positioned just perfectly enough to own a piece of the airwaves. As we walked just out of earshot of one, we began to hear another. At one point, though, opera music blasted out over everyone and everything. These four young women, who sounded as perfect as any recording, made their way down the river harmonizing. As they floated, crowds hushed and heads turned. It was really beautiful.
Away from the main, riverside stretch, the streets are quieter. Graffiti creeps into the scenery, covering the walls of closed boutiques and kebab shops. Quirky, dare I say “funky,” buildings pop up here and there, housing a museum or gallery or library. There are more fountains and statues than you can count - and cafes. So, so many cafes.
Of course, this is Slovenia, so there’s a castle looming above it all. The fortress is an odd place to visit, with super modern structures and a sleekness that takes away some of the charm. Ljubljana’s funny like that – you can be gazing at the old architecture and then stumble upon a plug-in station for electric cars. It’s like they’ve cherry-picked the very best parts of each century.
Just as we reached the commercial district and newer, uglier buildings rose up to create a whole new skyline in the distance, this tractor pulled up to a red light. No matter that the urban space is gorgeous or that 50% of the country’s population reside in cities, Slovenia is a country intrinsically tied to nature and signs of a rural way of life are never too far away.
When we returned to the Old Town after dark, the ‘block party’ was still going on. The perimeter of the river was aglow with table top votive candles. It felt like one big garden terrace. In fact, it’s really difficult to tell where one cafe ends and another begins, making identifying the proper waiter something of a challenge. The live music hadn’t completely ended, but had a bit more competition from radio beats emanating from empty bars. Why sit inside when you can sit outside? We thought about how awful it must be to live right on the water, with all the noise down below. But that’s the best part about Ljubljana, I think. The waterfront isn’t prime real estate as much as it is public space, open for all to enjoy. Especially on a Sunday in the summertime.