Saturday, October 20, 2007
resume normal coffee consumption
Ljubljana is such an enlightened city. They want you to ride your bike on the sidewalk.
The intersections have one crossing signal for pedestrians and another for bikes. Everyone obeys them; no jaywalking here. There can be no traffic in sight in either direction, and pedestrians wait patiently for the signal to turn. Walking around on my first day in the country, I wondered if anyone was working, since most of the people I saw were drinking in cafés. Sweet Athena, Slovenia has good coffee. Why wouldn't they, Italy is right next door. As much as I drank Turkish coffee, I never developed a taste for it. A month in Greece and Turkey can't break the tastes petrified after a lifetime of slurping drip coffee with lots of dairy and sugar mixed in. And for some baffling reason, Nescafé is alive, well, and thriving in both Greece and Turkey. Ask for a coffee in a café, and they'll assume you want Nescafé. I'll have to find a eunuch priest to divine the reason for me, it tastes foul.
Beside coffee that tastes like coffee and traffic law-abiding citizens, Ljubljana is an artful town full of gorgeous buildings and classy graphic designs. It shares a coincidental similarity with Istanbul in that both cities have been significantly shaped by key architects, albeit from different time periods — Mimar Sinan in Istanbul and Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana. Plečnik's house is now a museum, showcasing the details of his daily work life more than his architectural oeuvre. A large table in his studio has the tools of his trade arrayed on his desk, as well as personal items, like Drava cigarettes (which used to be manufactured in Ljubljana, you can learn all about it at the Tobacco Museum in the former factory), and the tennis ball for his dog. I should have asked the guide what kind of dog he had. The house can only be visited on a guided tour, but it's limited to small groups, and the girl who took us through fed us all sorts of interesting info on Plečnik, the house furnishings, and also some city history. I recommend a visit for anyone looking for something to do in Ljubljana. Even if you're not interested in architecture, it's hard to not appreciate a guy who went through the trouble of designing a chair that fit exactly into one particular place in his kitchen, next to the stove. Eat and work at the same time. His house is full of clever creations designed to function well, look good, and, usually, be comfy.
Arriving from Turkey was the biggest culture shock I've received on this trip. My last glimpse of Istanbul was people smoking water-pipes in sidewalk cafés in the middle of the night. Barely anything was moving in the misty morning in Ljubljana. Since I was in town for three days, I purchased a Ljubljana tourist card, which is good for lots of discounts, including free entrance into several museums, unlimited free bus rides, and a free, four hour bike rental. I took advantage of the bike rental on a sort of sunny day, merrily pedaling down the sidewalks in the crowded main shopping district, watching pedestrians scatter out of my way. Ljubljana is big enough that having something faster than two feet to see it was handy. I stopped for lunch at the Hot Horse stand in Tivoli Garden; I had no desire to eat a horse burger, so got one of their veggie burgers. They're basically the same as an In-N-Out Burger grilled cheese, except about three times bigger. Ljubljana has at least two horse burger joints, which I thought a little odd for such a horse-loving country; the birthplace of the Lippizzaner breed is Lipica, Slovenia. Also in the Tivoli Garden is Tivoli Castle, which has four cast iron dogs out front. Word on the street is that the guy who made them was so upset about their lack of tongues that he shot himself, but it looks to me like their tongues could just be in their mouths, not lolling out. So I'm not buying the story, even though I want to. I like the idea of an artist who is such a perfectionist that they'll do themselves in over a minor detail.
In Turkey, the evenings were getting cold enough to require a jacket, but in Slovenia it's undeniably fall and practically winter. Jackets are needed all day, and I finally busted out the cozy wool jersey I splurged on before I left. I'm looking forward to losing my Mediterranean tan, which I detest. On the third day, it poured freezing rain for half the day, so I spent my time splashing between museums and leaving puddles on their floors. I stopped in at the National and University Library (a Plečnik creation) to photograph the main staircase and vestibule, and ended up being chased out after fifteen minutes by a guard, who was too busy chatting on the phone to notice me come in. I got a few pictures, although most of them are blurry since the light was quite dim.
The National Gallery displays some dramatic statues and and eighteenth century paintings with a distinctly modern flair. I can't really qualify that statement with any academic argument. It's just that some of them seemed hyper-real, with vibrant colors and high levels of detail. Several portraits of aristocrats (male) had them wearing earrings, which I'm pretty sure I've never seen before from that time period. Others bordered on cartoonish, at least when it came to life forms with faces My favorite was a still life with a cat. The still life was rendered okay, but the cat had a frozen face with buggy, staring eyes. Of course there wasn't a postcard. The Natural History Museum has a nifty collection of taxidermied animals, although some of them could use a bit of grooming, perhaps a little extra stuffing, and setting their eyeballs back into place.
The narrow, green Ljubljanica River winds its way through town, and is spanned by a few landmark bridges. The Triple Bridge is exactly as described, three bridges side by side, connecting the picturesque Old Town with Prešeren Square. France Prešeren was a nineteenth century Slovenian poet, and a stanza of his poem Zdravlijca was adopted as the national anthem when Slovenia became an independent republic in 1991. A short walk away is the Dragon Bridge, four dragons guarding the two sides. The symbol of Ljubljana, legend has it that their tails will swish if a virgin walks across the bridge. At least, that's what someone at the hostel told me, it could be bogus. I didn't see any swishing, but they do have mighty fine tails.
There's a castle up on top of a hill, which is fairly devoid of anything of interest, but its hilltop location offers a good view of the town. Here's a picture of a cat that I took on the way up. I kind of like the composition. I'm not sure it totally captures the misty morningness of the setting.
For accommodation I had booked myself a dorm bed at the Hostel Celica. A former prison renovated specifically to be a hostel, it's located in an interesting little area called Metelkova, which is a bit of a alternative, artsy hotspot, established in the early 1990s by students and squatters. The hostel always gets top ratings, and I was looking forward to staying there. Some of the rooms are in what used to be cells that have kept their bars, although I wasn't able to stay in one of those. It's definitely a nice hostel, since it's been tailor-built to be one, but left me disappointed; it's as if all their effort went into making it look slick, but they forgot to give it any character. The large dorm that I slept in was a cramped affair - at one end of the attic level under the peaked roof, half the people in there couldn't even sit up in their bunks because of the sloping ceiling, and navigating through the room involved ducking under support beams while trying to not trip over beds and luggage. It would have been fine had it only cost half as much as it did, but as it is, didn't live up to the hype. Not for me. There was also a bizarre group of people there. One Brit, distinguishable by a pronounced lazy eye, and clearly on the trawl for a girlfriend, chatted up each new female lodger, including me. There was a Swede who I later found out had been there for months; I can't imagine why, a room in an apartment would have been cheaper and nicer. And the backpacker from Malaysia, who was nice enough, but with a bit of a happy puppy personality. Being sleepy quite early on my first night from traveling, I lay on my bunk listening to him hit up a German girl for travel advice for hours. "Sorry, are we keeping you awake?" Then there were the two Asian guys who never said anything, but stared a whole lot. And on the final night, the two people who had a whispery conversation at some point very early in the morning about one of their girlfriends. Plus, someone broke the hostelers code and stole some of my spready cheese. Please, do not steal spready cheese from the common fridge. You will be reincarnated as a curd. And there was no wireless there, although I found out that the information office at the train station will freely hand out two hours of wireless access to anyone. I spent a couple of hours camped out in there, absorbing train schedule information that was being handed out by a super friendly guy sporting long hair and a hairband. I'm not sure I've seen a guy wear a hairband before, but he was pulling it off with aplomb.
There is a vacant lot next to the hostel that's been decorated with some outstanding graffiti.
And this more traditional application also caught my eye, on an underpass near Tivoli Park.
So thumbs up Ljubljana. I could live there.