Ljubljana is an old city in a very young country. It has a laid-back ambience complete with a car-free Old Town and tourist boats lazily puttering up and down the Sava River. Outdoor cafes line the riverwalk. In addition to a thriving tourist industry, Ljubljana is home to University of Ljubljana with a thriving student population of 50,000 students.
Ljubljana hasn’t really been discovered by American tourists, but it has become a magnet for Europeans in search of a holiday or weekend getaway and for young people looking for a party. On our first evening in town there were so many people in the Old Town, we were hard pressed to find a place to eat. Despite an abundance of restaurants, we could scarcely find a free table.
We enjoyed Ljubljana but found that quite a bit of what you might want to see and know about this city can be learned in a good walking tour taking two hours or so, which is what we did on our first evening in town. You may or may not have noticed that Slovenia contains the word love. It was our tour guide who pointed this out to us. Slovenia is beautiful and has lovely Vienna Secessionist architecture, cobblestone streets, and a beautiful cathedral. But our favorite activity was strolling around, enjoying the buzzing ambience, and sitting in a riverside café people-watching.
We took a field trip on the train to visit the Skocjan Caves, some of Europe’s biggest and most beautiful caves. The trip required two hours on the train each way but was worth it to see the jaw-dropping beauty of these caves and learn a bit about their structure and discovery. The caves are one of the world’s largest underground canyons with the Reka River running right through them, making the system actually an underground gorge. Reka actually means “river” so the name is, literally, the River River. We’d never seen anything quite like these caves. They are amazing in their beauty and are also very fragile – the dripstone formations are damaged by a gentle human touch or even too much human breath in the caves.
One of the many things we learned on our walking tour was that the Ljubljana-born architect, Jože Plečnik, made huge contributions to architecture in Ljubljana in the early part of the twentieth century. We wanted to know more about Plečnik, so, on our last day in town we wandered a few blocks from the Old Town to visit the Jože Plečnik home. We were amazed that, in walking just five minutes away from the river, we lost tourist crowds totally. There was almost no one visiting the house, which made for a very nice tour experience in a small group of only six.
Plečnik was a fascinating character. He was born in the late 19th century to a wealthy cabinetmaker and his wife. As a young person, Jože failed to do well in high school, so dropped out and learned furniture making from his father. He later went to Vienna and so impressed the famous architect, Otto Wagner, with his drawings that Wagner took Plečnik on as a student and trained him as an architect. Plečnik built a name for himself, working on prestigious projects in Vienna and Prague, including work on the Prague Castle, but eventually returned home to Ljubljana. There, he bought and then completely redesigned, a house. He bought the house intending for his two brothers — one a priest and the other a doctor — and his sister and her family, to live in the house. One of the brothers lived with Plečnik for a while (the doctor), but he and Jože turned out to be incompatible as housemates. Jože liked peace and quiet and his brother was more lively and social, so Jože ended up living by himself with a housekeeper to manage household affairs. Plečnik’s house reflected his monk-like existence in Ljubljana, where he spent almost all of his time working on various projects and, later, teaching architecture at the University, finding little time for anything else.
His house was fascinating and reflected his faith in the church, his talents at both furniture making and architecture, and his spartan ways. This was our second visit to an architect’s home in our travels – the Victor Horta house in Brussels was the first – and in both cases we found these to be some of the most interesting and fun experiences we have had.