Towns / Cities Visited: 141
Countries Visited: 23
Steps Taken Today: 19,894
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,651,614
As expected, the light shining in through the curtainless hostel window had us stirring early, but not nearly as tired or grumpy as we had preempted. Despite the fact we were sequestered to a tiny former prison cell, we had slept surprisingly well. Bundling out of bed, we readied ourselves, had a quick bite to eat, stored our luggage to pick up later, and stepped into the sun to explore.
A short walk into the heart of the city found us arriving at one of the city’s major landmarks: Dragon Bridge. Like much of the architecture in the city, the bridge dates from the time of Habsburg rule here, being completed in 1907 to replace the original wooden bridge which was damaged by an earthquake at the end of the 19th century. Although it was originally dedicated to Emperor Franz Josef, its name was changed when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. The bridge itself is not hugely inspiring, being a fairly under-embellished, reinforced concrete structure, but its charm comes from the majestic bronze dragons which stand proudly to guard each end. The dragon has always been a symbol of Ljubljana, and legend has it that the city was first founded by Jason, of Greek mythology fame. It is said that he fought and killed one, which dwelled in a large lake in the marshlands here, as he journeyed back to Greece after stealing the golden fleece from King Aeëtes. Regardless of the fact it is simply a myth, the dragon has remained a symbol of the Slovenian capital, being used on the city’s coat of arms even in medieval times.
Crossing the bridge, we made our way to our main attraction for the day: Ljubljana Castle. This castle is located, yep, you guessed it, atop a hill overlooking the city. Its history mirrors the majority of castles in Europe, in that there has been a defensive structure perched here for thousands of years; as far back as 1200 BC, some archaeologists believe. The first forts were built by the original settlers of Slovenia, which were then taken over by the Romans as they conquered Europe, who were in turn replaced by a long succession of royal rulers. The first castle was erected here in the 11th century, but the wood and stone structure was almost completely rebuilt in the 15th century when the country fell under Habsburg rule. It was expanded in the following two centuries as it was designed to defend against the Ottoman Empire. In the later centuries, when the Ottoman threat had subsided, it served many uses, including: an arsenal under the French army, a barracks and military hospital as part of the Illyrian Provinces, and as a prison in the 19th century. The city eventually purchased the castle in 1906, but it took until the 1960’s for serious restoration work to begin, and they weren’t completed until the 1990’s, when Slovenia had finally gained its independence.
Reaching the castle would once have been an arduous task; however, modern conveniences have gifted today’s visitors with a funicular. Use of it comes as part of the entrance fee, and, as such, we purchased our tickets, hopped onto the funicular, and were up at the castle in no time. The interior layout is typical, with the buildings hugging the walls, and a large courtyard filling the inner space. Despite its medieval exterior, the refurbished interior appears far more modern, with plenty of glass facings on the cafe, restaurant, and gift shop, although there are still whispers of the past here, like the 16th century well. Many of the buildings are used as conference and events spaces, but there are a number of museum exhibits to visit here as well, and it was into one of these that we headed.
Given Slovenia’s deep tradition with puppetry, it was unsurprising to find a puppet museum tucked away here. There are a large array of different puppets on display, from more traditional characters like Pinocchio, to more political figures like Hitler. The exhibition takes you through the history of puppeteering in Slovenia, as well as the creation of puppets, and different techniques for their use. In places it is hands on, and you are able to pop behind a booth or two and try you hand at it yourself. It was a fun way to start our visit, and being the only guests wandering around for the most part, given the early hour, we had plenty of laughs together without feeling as though all eyes were on us. It was nice to be able to be our own silly selves, without strangers eyes triggering our introverted inhibitions.
Moving on, we found ourselves going down into a vaulted cellar which is home to an exhibition on the city’s much loved symbol itself, the dragon. With this mythical beast being a favourite of all three of us, we were excited to get stuck in. Beginning with the history, it was fascinating to read about how intertwined dragons are in the fabric of humanity, having a special place in mythology the world over; from Asia to Europe, Africa to the Americas, every culture seems to have its own, even if they vary in shape, size, and ability. There is a in depth look at the tale of ‘St. George and the Dragon’, who is regarded as one of Christianity’s more well known saints. Although I was familiar with his name, and the fact he is said to have slayed a dragon, learning the full story of his deeds made me somewhat skeptical of just how pure the saint’s heart was. I mean, kudos to him for coming to Silene in Libya and slaying the dragon who was terrorising the people there, but, call me old fashioned, it seems a little bit too much like blackmail to only kill it once the people had converted to Christianity.
The later parts of the exhibition holds a collection of preserved snakes and even a crocodile, and looks into where the myths may have originated, as well as the magical properties dragons were said to have as a beast, and its parts when used in alchemy. There is also a fun, hands on, logic puzzle in the style of medieval alchemy, which we happily solved before leaving the cellar.
All smiles, but a little peckish, we headed back into the courtyard, and across to the cafe for a little morning tea. Settling in, we ordered some of their enticing cakes and a hot beverage each. With hot chocolates being a little hit and miss the world over, we were surprised and pleased with what arrived at our table. A hot chocolate so thick it was bordering on the consistency of custard. The cakes were equally as delicious, and we left happy, if a little hyper from all the sugar.
Next we meandered into probably the most original part of the castle, its church. Like most of the castle, it has gone many renovations over the centuries, but its current state dates back to the 1700’s. It may be neither the biggest, nor the brightest church around, but its painted vaulting is rather unique. You see, when the church was overhauled from the Gothic style to the Baroque, it was decided to decorate the ceiling with the colourful coats of arms of the provincial governors. To decorate a sacred place of worship with the fancies of secular culture is almost unheard of, and yet it sits here nonetheless. Looking up at the paintings, you would be forgiven for assuming you were in a great hall; yet when you look back down, the image of Christ on the cross, and paintings of St George, to whom the church is dedicated, remind you that this is still, at its heart, a house of God.
By now, it seemed appropriate to make our way onwards and upwards, towards the viewing tower. Firstly though, we briefly ducked into the old penitentiary, which is located close by. Here there are replica solitary confinement cells, as well as the remnants of the bone buttons the prisoners used to make, and a fair amount of information about what life imprisoned here was like. In short, not particularly pleasant.
Wandering to the base of the viewing tower, we began our ascent. On the first landing there is a video on the history of the castle, and I must say its quality and content was some of the best we’ve seen when it comes to demonstrating the changing face of a castle. With our education complete, we scurried up to the top, being spat back out into the daylight. This tower, although now simply used by visitors wishing to admire a stunning view down over the city, was originally used for fire signalling, and was the residence of the fire guard, who would set off a cannon should he sight a fire in the town. As you bask in the sweeping views, its easy to see why this spot was selected for such a purpose. The old town portion of the city, like so many others in Europe, is a sea of red brick rooftops, stretching out until they finally meet up with the less endearing concrete structures of later years.
Coming back down to earth, we took the opportunity to visit an exhibition on Slovenia through the ages: a fascinating, if a little dense, look into the country and its people, including a number of artifacts, and a goodly amount of text about the enormous struggle they went through to finally be free of foreign rule after hundreds of years. The people of this country fought fiercely for their independence, and were the first to break away from Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. Given that they were, for so long, the plaything of distant rulers, it is easy to see why historic places like this castle, hold such significance to the people here; it is proof, not only of the fact that so many different rulers have come and gone, but more importantly that they survived every one.
With most of the castle explored, we simply took a little extra time to venture past the old cistern, and beyond the walls for a short stint to admire the master stonework that protects the interior, before riding the funicular back down to the heart of the old town.
Peckish once more, we wandered until we found ourselves amongst an open air market, and quickly headed over to a few food trucks to source a quick bite to eat. With a chicken burger, which was somewhat lacking in its advertised crispiness, in hand, along with a rather mismatched collection of chips and wedges, we sat down to eat in the sun.
Fed, we walked down to the riverside once more, making our way along until we reached another of the city’s famous bridges: the triple bridge. Unsurprisingly, it is made up of, you guessed it, three bridges; inspired naming I know. Its a pretty enough bridge, although not hugely exciting. However, it does converge on an open square, to the side of which sat a little ice cream stand, that we took the opportunity to swoop over to.
With not much left planned to fill in the latter half of the afternoon, we decided to simply take a stroll over to the Tivoli Gardens, which sit to the west of the city centre. Clear blue skies and gentle sun meant that our walk though the warm autumnal coloured trees was lit by dappled rays. We crunched over the rich amber of fallen leaves, and breathed in the tranquility until our legs wearied, and we made our way back to our hostel. After all, we had a train to catch.
Our bags collected, we trundled to the station, bidding farewell to Ljubljana before taking the short journey to our next temporary home, only an hour away: Postonja. Alighting the train, we were faced with a rather challenging walk to our hostel, mainly due to the ridiculous stairs we had to lug our suitcases down to get from the lofty perch of the station, to the town below. We eventually arrived, only to find that the double and single rooms we had booked, were actually two triple rooms consisting of bunk beds and a single bed, all of which seemed to be similarly uncomfortable. A little dejected, we reminded ourselves it was only for one night, and headed out to scrounge what groceries we could from the tiny nearby supermarket. When we came to make dinner, we realised we probably should have inspected the kitchen a little more closely first, as, like far to many others we had been to, it was seriously lacking in equipment; most notably, any form on functional cook’s knife. Determined to make dinner regardless of the challenges, my mother and I managed to muddle through hacking apart vegetables with butter knives in order to make what could only be described as a very rustic chicken soup.
As I attempted to nestle into the blankets atop the uncomfortably firm mattress I found myself on, and find an amicable spot to rest my head amongst the lumps in the pillow, I sought to escape the rather grim reality that sleep would likely be fleeting this night. Allowing my mind to wander, I pondered the history of dragons once more. It seems almost mystical in and of itself that the legend of dragons, or something very much like dragons, has permeated into almost every culture and land. For a world that has never been able to agree on whose customs, gods, or beliefs are correct, it seems almost amusing that the one thing we all managed to agree on, at one point or another, was that a mystical reptile existed and/or continues to exist. The fact that these beliefs sprung up, even in isolated societies free from external influence, speak of an almost primal instinct to associate the reptilian form with magic.
Perhaps it is because reptiles are so ancient, and often so entirely unchanged by the passage of time. Perhaps it is because their innate abilities differ so vastly from our own, from cold blood and scaled skin, to venom, egg laying, and even the ability of many to live semi-aquatically; they are a natural marvel, especially when biological science was sparse or void for the majority of human history. Perhaps it is simply because we needed a story to tell our children to explain the otherwise inexplicable dangers of the wilderness or the night. When evil needed a face, it was easy to give it one wholly dissimilar to our own; one with fangs, and claws, and wings, one whose only warmth came in the form if destructive fire, one who was intent on stealing our riches and our lives. Despite it all, dragons remain in our hearts both as something to fear and revere equally: a joint history which unites us all, even when nothing else does.