Having itchy feet is a terrible thing. Despite copious amounts of wandering around Austria, sometimes wanderlust can become all-consuming. In truth, I need a vacation. After moving from the UK to Vienna nearly two years ago, neither of us (I include my better half Lynda in this) have had a holiday together since May 2016, when we spent her 40th birthday with friends in Sweden. So we are in desperate need of a change of scenery. Just a little getaway for the weekend. So shall it be done? May in Austria is a confusing time as all sorts of bank holidays and days off can crop up. This year has brought with it a bumper crop, thanks to an early Easter. The weekend of the 12th of May has Thursday and Friday off, just in time for Lynda’s birthday. So armed with time off and the OEBB app, let’s see where we can go. As it happens, there was a special on over the Christmas break and we’ve bagged two return tickets to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. Total price for us both, €36! That’s just €9 there and €9 back each. Bargain. Sure it takes just over 6 hours by train, but it a trip through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world. So let’s get going.
Getting there is half the fun, but most of the day.
Our journey starts at Hauptbahnhof, and train number IC151. It’s an express service to Ljubljana that’s operated by Slovenske železnice, Slovenia’s national railway. For the Austrian part of the journey, the train is staffed by OEBB, switching back to the Slovenians at the border. Today, however, there’s been a problem and the train that arrives is a full OEBB service. Not a problem, and since we reserved seats, we find our place has been upgraded and we’re in a first-class cabin. It’s roomy and features leather seats and a large window. Smiling at our good fortune, we leave bang in time and settle in for a long day on the rails. It’s just before 8 in the morning and we should arrive on time in Ljubljana at just after 2. Not bad.
The train takes a route south, passing through Wiener Neustadt, Semmering, onto Graz and stopping at Spielfeld Bahnhof to change engines, then out into Slovenia. All is not well though. We arrive at Graz only to be told we need to change trains at the border. Not a huge problem, but not as direct service as we’d like, and worst of all, we have to give up our cosy cabin. We arrive at the border to meet the train from Ljubljana. There, people are swapping from that onto our old train. We re-board, take some seats and off we go across the border.
After the beauty of the Alps, the terrain changes from vast snow-covered peaks of Austria to become vast tree-covered peaks in Slovenia. There really is a vast unspoiled wilderness to see. There are towns and small cities littered along the way, but at each stop, they look so ‘ out of place’ as to be conspicuous. The exception was our first stop in Slovenia, the City of Maribor. Maribor is Slovenia’s second-biggest city, and as we pull away from the station, I spot a mall with some very familiar Austrian stores. That slight Austrian flavour follows us throughout the weekend. Much of Slovenia is unspoilt and it has a diverse ecosystem. Here and there along the journey, there are surprises. At one point we come across what looks like the ruins of a castle atop a hill in a valley. It’s breathtaking, If a little difficult to photograph. A few of the stops are surprisingly familiar, reminding me of our old home in the Welsh Valleys.
Despite the long journey, it isn’t long until we arrive in Ljubljana, ready for a cup of tea before we hit the town.
Public transport is the key to any cities first impression. Arriving at the main train station, it’s fascinating to see the kind of trains that operate around the local area. Along the way to various towns, I’ve seen some interesting trains. They’re interesting because of Slovenia’s communist past when the country was part of Yugoslavia. Slovenia was among the first Eastern block countries to demand independence and democracy, but there are still relics to be found here and there. The trains are just an example. There are modern looking trains in service, closely mirroring the S-Bahn trains of OEBB in Steiermark. But there are a few older-looking trains that look kinda fugly and more than a few that look downright strange. Those are the service trains that are definitely from another time. Walking along with the platform at Ljubljana, these old diesel-powered trains give off fumes that are the worst I’ve ever experienced. It’s chokingly dirty and the air is thick, and that’s out in the open.
Leaving the old smoker to its devices, and in need of fresh air that you don’t need to chew, we go in search of a bus into the centre and our hotel. The trains may be old, But the buses are pretty new and all feature ticketless riding. To use public transport here, you need a contactless card that you can top up to travel. We get one and load it up with enough cash for four trips. Two of us to the centre and two of us back to the station. The total, €6. Not bad. The buses are frequent and the main bus station sits in front of the train station. The journey to our stop is just 9 minutes and everything runs smoothly.
The city is fairly small compared to Vienna. There are large hotel chains as well as smaller independent hotels, but we’ve opted for something more low key. We’ve booked a room in a little guest house called House Trta.. It contains one Room and one small apartment, and that’s it. We booked the room. Downstairs is a pizzeria and the whole thing sits on a quiet riverbank, just a stone’s throw away from the French ambassador’s residence, and within a two-minute walk of the centre. The room is of a high standard and decorated nicely. The TV has more tv channels than you can shake a stick at and the inclusion of a mini-fridge for keeping milk cold a godsend. Best of all, there’s air conditioning. This is a very good spot to hang your hat. Two nights is just over €168, but you’ll not find a better location
Getting out and about.
Once we got settled, it was time to hit the road and explore. Camera in hand, we headed out to see the city. First impressions are good. The river leads you into the centre, where there are a plethora of bars, cafe’s and restaurants to choose from. The atmosphere in the early evening is relaxed, yet bubbling. Along the river, we first come across an art installation. Several billboards are showcasing, various pieces of art. At one board, an elderly gentleman is deep in conversations with a young woman. The conversation is obviously to do with the art. Leaving the discussion, we stop to take a peek into the river. There are a few tourist boat trips that pass by, and we wave at the people enjoying themselves. As one boat drifts by, out of the corner of Lynda’s eye, she catches sight of what we thought was a beaver. It turns out to be a semi-aquatic rodent known as a water rat, and they’re common on the river. It makes us smile as it meanders its way upriver.
Next to catch my eye is the impressive Hercules fountain. It sits on the opposite side of the river, but given many bridges are crossing the water, it’s certainly not out of reach. In front of the fountain are a set of large steps that slowly fill with people on and off. It’s a good spot to stop and watch the world go by. Further up is a rather unusual art installation. Made entirely out of recycled PC motherboards and assorted bits and pieces, the whole thing gives a hint to Ljubljana’s Green credentials. The city is incredibly green, both in terms of recycling and other measures, to the sheer amount of green spaces available for people to enjoy.
Moving on, we come across one of the best views in the city. The cities skyline is dominated by one single thing. The castle on the hill. the castle sits proudly above the city, and it’s an impressive sight. A giant Ljubljana flag flies from the tower and I notice it has more than a passing resemblance to my own countries flag, the Welsh Dragon. Interestingly, the Ljubljana flag features a dragon as well, but ours is bigger. With the view spotted, I plan on photographing the whole thing in the blue hour, after the sun has set. Conveniently, there is a great bar 20 meters away that offers good food. We book a table for nine and carry on exploring.
Next up we find the cities central market. Today being Friday, there’s a late evening craft market alongside the local food market. The sights and smells are intoxicating. There’s a smell of fresh fish and seafood, of garlic and herbs, of slow-cooked beef and pork and of sweet desserts. Mixed in is the hubble bubble of the craft market, as negotiations go back and forth for the best deal.
The other side of the river and the main square sits, with a large Catholic Church sitting central to it all. Officially, Slovenia is a secular nation, but the Catholic Church still holds plenty of pull for its followers and there’s no shortage of pomp about the church.
The final stop for the night before we head back to our bar and food is Dragons bridge. Four dragons sit on the corners, looking for all the world to be Ljubljana’s protectors. The dragon though isn’t as unfriendly as he seems. Legend says that the dragon lived out in the swamps, but feeling lonely, he swam upriver to the city, climbing atop the bridge. As mentioned, being Welsh, I love dragons, and as the evening draws on, Slovenia and Wales seem to have more in common than you’d think.
Food is always an important part of a holiday. Be it a local delicacy or an old favourite, food is a good thing. In Ljubljana, food is something to be celebrated. For the first evening, as I’m photographing the Castle, we stop at a bar called Dvorni Bar. It’s a trendy spot with a killer view. We both settle on the burgers. I have the classic while the birthday girl goes for the gourmet option. What drew me to the burgers was the all Slovenia beef and local produce used to make them. It is not a disappointment. The chips that come with it a sublime while the beef itself is firm and tasty. This isn’t you’re average McLunch. Joining the burgers are two glasses of the local beer, Union unfiltered. For an unfiltered beer, it’s remarkable clear and tastes rather good.
Slovenia is more than just burgers though, and there’s a bewildering choice of options. I say bewildering because the local cuisine is somewhere between the meaty heartiness of Austrian cooking, with Slovenian Goulash and Roasted pork dishes, to the more Mediterranean diet, with fresh seafood, like calamari and sea bass. Add to that copious amounts of pizza available from many Italian pizzeria’s and you can say that Italy and Austria meet in Ljubljana, and it tastes great. With Trieste and the Adriatic sea just 70 km away, it’s not surprising that the Mediterranean diet has made it this far north.
On Saturday, we ate at a small restaurant away from the main river area called Druga Violina, our Second Violin in English. The food was great, a dish of Roasted pork and potatoes, plus a dessert or salad, priced at just €5.50 for the two courses. The price drew us in, but it wasn’t long until we noticed something special about the Drugs Violina restaurant. At least half it’s staff fall under the category of special needs. This is the first time I’ve come across such a place and it’s was great. The food was very good and the staff were super friendly. Nowhere was this more evident than when the heavens opened, forcing all of us eating outside to seek shelter indoors. As we sat cowering from the torrential downpour and extreme lighting (Ljubljana has almost daily thunderstorms in late spring and early summer) the mood is the restaurant was good-humoured. There was even a little sing along with the radio.
For our last meal on Saturday evening, we ventured into a restaurant on the riverfront that specialised in Japanese food called Tokyo PikNik. I love Japanese food and we were both excited to try a little here in Ljubljana. For starters, we ordered some Vegetable Gyoza (small steamed dumplings that are then shallow fried on one side and served with a dipping sauce) and some Yakitori sticks ( chicken and leek pieces on skewers, cooked in Teriyaki sauce over an open flame. Both were delicious and fairly authentic. For a main, we both had Chicken Katsu Donburi, (Crispy chicken fillet served over a dashi flavoured bowl of steamed rice and vegetables, with a little egg in there too). It was nice, and the rice was superb, but the chicken was a bit dry and really should be served with a curry sauce for the best effect. A shot of sake though was very much enjoyed as getting good Japanese sake can be difficult.
Away from the hustle and bustle of the restaurants and bars, there is an array of different cafe’s to relax in and watch the world go by. From the charming to the intriguing, there’ll be something for everyone. For us, we happened across a great little cafe away from the main tourist trail. The Flo Bistro is a little quirky. Some of the tables are old Singer Sewing marching tables, others covered in newsprint. The inside is filled with books and tiny little bolt holes where you can order and coffee and fall into a good book without fear of being disturbed. They also have a fully stocked bar and a surprisingly diverse menu of local foods. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast there on Sunday and it was delicious.
All good things must come to an end, and come the Sunday, it was time to leave this beautiful city behind. Fortunately, and despite having to check out at 10, our accommodation let us leave our suitcase there, allowing us the chance to spend the morning in the city. Straight out of the gate, we stumble on a flea market taking place along the banks of the river. It’s full of old jewellery, communist-era pins and ephemera, and even the odd Iron Cross and Nazi officer cap badges. It’s cool and creepy at the same time. Breakfast was good and a pick around the craft market for souvenirs was a treat. To finish off this weekend though, we had to take a trip on the river. There’s no shortage of boats plying for trade on the river, but for our money, the best boat to take is the Ljubineska. Hand-built from wood 7 years ago, the little boat is beautiful and a great way to see the river. The 45 Minute tour costs just €10 and features a very knowledgeable master, who can speak multiple languages. There’s even a small bar on board where you can buy a glass of Slovenian champagne. It’s the perfect way to end the trip. From the boat, we retrieved our case and headed out to the train station.
Here we hit the only wrinkle in the whole trip. There was a change in our train schedule, and our first train to Villach was now a bus. This presented a real problem as the rail replacement bus wouldn’t get us to Villach in time to make our connection. A little checking and we were advised to take the direct train home. It’s only a problem as the cheap tickets restriction to a single route you choose at the time of booking. Both guards were understanding through and we arrived back home just 20 minutes late.
How do you sum up a whole city? It’s difficult at the best of times, but with Ljubljana, it’s a city that flies in the face of what you’d expect. It’s a hip place to be, but not in a way that attracts the hipsters and the wannabes. It has a fascinating past and yet it doesn’t revel in it, and it’s vibrant and yet relaxed. It’s a city at ease with itself. It doesn’t try too hard and it doesn’t need to. Ljubljana a fantastic destination and I can’t wait to go back.