LJUBLJANICA RIVER / LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA / JUNE 2016
On falling in love with cities and the stuff of myth and legend.
We arrived in Ljubljana by bus with no expectations, having never visited the city before and so booking a last-minute trip. The weather on that day happened to be fairly miraculous, as it tends to be on Fridays in early summer. We dropped our luggage off at our AirBnB – a fantastic loft space improbably tucked into the back of a commercial building – and set off on the short stroll into town. After several minutes, we reached the Ljubljanica, an especially picturesque river that winds its way through the city, spanned by numerous footbridges and flanked by pastel red-roofed buildings. Cafes and shops lined the water, and on this afternoon it seemed nearly everyone in the city was savoring an al fresco meal at the same moment. Lots of people were cycling, trees spilled over the banks into the river, and the air felt fresh and unpolluted.1
A short walk later and we found ourselves in a cobblestone square, watching a busker dip a long set of rings into a soapy bucket, coaxing out enormous bubbles that a crowd of children chased ecstatically. Whether or not you love a city is often a snap decision, influenced by numerous amorphous factors, much like the decision to love a person. As we sat on a step near the town hall, enjoying the utopic scene along with dozens of other smiling passersby, I knew, less than two hours into our stay, that I loved Ljubljana.
Ljubljana is not a secret, of course – after all, it is Slovenia’s capital and largest city. But it is compact, clean, beautiful and historic, so it has the feeling of one, as if you’d magically stumbled across a place from a fairy tale. This is no coincidence, given the city is steeped in a particularly monumental legend: story has it that Ljubljana was founded by the mythical Greek hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts. According to the tale, after stealing the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts fled and wound up in marshes near a large lake at the source of the Ljubljanica. Their plan to get home from there involved disassembling their large ship in the marshes, carrying it to the Adriatic Sea, and then reassembling it and sailing back to Greece. Only they hit a slight hitch: the marshes were already inhabited by an enormous and fearsome monster (read: dragon). Being a Greek hero, Jason fought and killed the beast. The dragon has since become a mascot of sorts for the city, adorning its coat of arms, its flag, one of its bridges, and the crest of the local soccer team (NK Olimpija Ljubljana).
Perhaps the legendary feeling also comes from Jože Plečnik’s architecture, scattered throughout the city. “Plečnik’s Ljubljana”, as his body of work in the city is called, was an attempt by the architect to model Ljubljana on ancient Athens. This wholesale transformation occurred within a single era (1920s – 1940s), making the Ljubljanica River a focus point for the city, and connecting new urban spaces through similar architectural elements. The overall effect is subtle but cohesive. While walking around you constantly notice classical elements – the balustrades on the iconic Triple Bridge; tall columns on other bridges; obelisks in open squares; and the bounding arches of the Central Market halls by the river. Each little nod to history cements the feeling of Ljubljana as a place of myth, the kind you might find accidentally, but for which you would slay a dragon just to stay a little bit longer.