Thursday, May 05, 2011

Old Friends, New Places: Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia

Sometimes life leads you to places you never imagined you would go. Unbelievably, it was almost fourteen years ago this summer that I had the opportunity to spend two months in Japan on a Lion’s Club youth exchange program, truly an experience of a lifetime and one which was instrumental in shaping my world view, instilling in me a global perspective at a young and impressionable age. Aside from the longstanding and close relationship that I cultivated with my host family during this time, other friendships were forged that still remain. In addition to the home stay, I spent nearly two weeks during this period at a summer youth camp in Tokyo, attended by other student delegates from all over the world. It was during this time that I met my good friend Blaz from Slovenia, who formed part of our clique which included others from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and the US, each of us likeminded and eager to learn from one another.
Summer Youth Camp in Tokyo, 1998 with my London-based friend Jan
and  my Japanese host family (Photo Credit: Jan B.)
Summer Youth Camp in Tokyo, 1998 Blaz (far right) and Jan (middle)
(Photo Credit: Jan B.)
Visiting the Host Family in Tokyo - Winter 2002
Host sister's wedding in Honolulu, Sept 2006
At the time I probably had only a very vague idea of where Slovenia actually was and I certainly never anticipated having an opportunity to visit my friend in his home town fourteen years later. A relatively new country by the time we were in Tokyo in 1998 (independence was achieved after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991), Slovenia is a very small, but beautiful country located in Central Europe, not in the Balkans, contrary to any misconceptions. A country of only around 2 million inhabitants, Slovenia is geographically small, sharing borders with Austria and Italy to the north and west, and Croatia to the south and is comprised mainly of snow capped mountains and lush forests on the edge of the Alps. 

Peaceful and prosperous compared to what the Slovene’s refer to as their “southern brothers” (the former nations of Yugoslavia including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo), Slovenia was among the first round of nations from the previous Eastern Bloc to gain entry into the European Union and immediate adoption of the Euro in 2004. Due to their role as a primary economic contributor in the former Yugoslavia, the economy was relatively advanced and stable and the citizens highly educated at the time of independence so EU accession was expedient and smooth. My initial impressions were that they seemed to have more in common culturally and economically with other nations in Central Europe than they do with the former Yugoslavia, united with them primarily in language and history only. Given its growing popularity in Europe and my connection there with an old friend, it had always been on our list of places to visit in Europe. 

As you know from Lily’s previous post and the unrelenting media coverage, last weekend was the Royal Wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William, so we decided to escape the frenzy in London and leave town for the four day weekend. I had already been traveling through Austria and the Czech Republic for work during the week, so I took the 30 minute direct flight from Vienna to Ljubljana, meeting Lily there. As with most of our city break trips, we decided to stay in a more comfortable flat which was centrally located in the Town Center’s Mestni Trg and within walking distance to pretty much everything there is to see and do in the city. I would say that Ljubljana is a city to experience rather than a city to go sightseeing in. Situated on a small river, the primary sights are PreŇ°eren Square, named after Slovenia’s most well-known poet, the Franciscan Church, Ljubljana Castle, Dragon Bridge, Triple Bridge, and the main Town Square and Town Hall, all of which are easily accessible on foot. Additionally, the City Museum is also worth spending a couple of hours to learn about the history of this city and its context within Slovenia and the greater region. Like everything else in Slovenia, Ljubljana is not very big, but what it lacks in size it more than compensates for in atmosphere, energy, and beauty. 
Continued investment and development by the Mayor in the city is making Ljubljana one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in Europe and for good reasons. It is easy to pass the time in the many shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants that line the Town Square and the riverfront; a city where you can truly relax and take your time. Additionally, Slovene’s are among the most hospitable and friendly people you will likely meet anywhere in Europe. There is a joke that all Slovenes know one another. While my friend assured us that this wasn’t the case he did seem to run into plenty of people when strolling around town with us and later admitted that there are likely just two degrees of separation for most people. It might not be an exaggeration as after only one day in town, I myself began to recognize and greet people I had seen previously the day before. In this way, the pace and experience is very different from other European cities which can be hectic or overrun by tourists.
I’m sure it helps that we spent most of the weekend with Blaz who was incredibly welcoming and more than enthusiastic to share his city with us. Spending time with locals always provides better insight into a place and he made sure to take the time to include us in the best of what his city has to offer, including a late night hike through a forest to the May Day bonfire and live concert which lasted until nearly 3 am. Although I didn’t understand the lyrics, the band Tabu was very good and the place was buzzing with people, food stalls, and beer stalls until the early hours of the morning.
About 40 minutes north of Ljubljana towards the Austrian border is the picturesque Lake Bled and I highly recommend it as a short day trip. A pristine lake on the edge of the Alps, with a lake church and a hilltop castle, Lake Bled is a place of exquisite beauty and is well worth taking the time to hike and explore. Our friend Blaz absolutely insisted on driving us there, but we do know that it is possible to take a bus from Ljubljana if you’re without a car while in town. Breath in the fresh alpine air, stroll the lake, hike the castle, and be sure to try the local cream cakes that the village is known for. 

Of all of our European city breaks, this was an especially unique and memorable one for me. Charming, accessible, and generally pleasant overall, our time in Ljubljana was also a chance for me to reconnect with an old friend from the past and to catch up on the years since those youthful days in Tokyo.

-- KV

P.S. Some photos from my business trip to Vienna. 

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