Slovenia: Places to Explore

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Ljubljana

Slovenia’s small but exceedingly charming capital has enjoyed a tourism renaissance in recent years, with easier access from larger European countries bringing in a dramatic influx of visitors and helping the country earn its status as one of the top urban destinations in Central Europe.

The city center is immediately captivating, with one of the most beautiful small urban areas in Europe. Part of the charm is doubtless the crystalline Ljubljanica River that winds its way through the Old Town, providing a focal point and the perfect backdrop to the cafés and restaurants that line the banks. Partly, too, it's the beautifully restored baroque and neoclassical houses that line the riverbanks, streets, and many squares of the old city. There are few modern additions and those that have been added are frequently the work of internationally recognized architects. Meticulously designed pillars, orbs, and obelisks lend the city an element of whimsy and a feeling of good cheer that's immediately infectious. And part of the credit goes to the Ljubljaners themselves. It is a young city, with an average age of just over 30, and despite the obvious attention Ljubljaners have given to restoring and preserving the historic center of the city, it has a youthful and forward-looking atmosphere.

In truth, Ljubljana has always viewed itself as something special. Even when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, the city was considered a center of alternative music and arts. Contemporary art enthusiasts still recognize Ljubljana as an important center of cutting edge creativity.

The heart of the Old Town dates back centuries. The earliest settlement was founded by the Romans and called Emona. A section of the walls and a complex of foundations—complete with mosaics—can still be seen today. In the 12th century, a new settlement, Laibach, was built on the right bank of the river, below Castle Hill, by the dukes of Carniola. In 1335, the Habsburgs gained control of the region, and it was they who constructed the castle fortification system, part of which is still there.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw an increase of baroque architecture, strongly influenced by movements in Austria and Italy. Walk along the cobblestones of the Mestni trg (Town Square) and the Stari trg (Old Square) to see the oldest part of Ljubljana, with its colored baroque town houses and Francesco Robba's delightful Fountain of the Three Carniolan Rivers.

But don’t overlook the part of the old city on the left bank of the river. The Breg Embankment, the beautiful New Square, and the French Revolution Square, with its monument to Napoléon, stand witness to the rich history of the city.

For a brief period, from 1809 to 1813, Ljubljana was the capital of Napoléon's Illyrian Provinces. In 1849 Ljubljana was linked to Vienna and Trieste by rail and the city developed into a center of commerce, industry, and culture, with the opera house, national theater, national museum, and the city’s first hotels coming into existence.

In 1895 part of the old city was devastated by an earthquake. The reconstruction work that followed was carried out in a style reminiscent of the Viennese Historismus and Secessionist architecture. Many of the imposing buildings that line Miklošičeva, such as the Grand Hotel Union, date from this period.

After World War I, with the birth of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Ljubljana became the administrative center of Slovenia. Various national cultural institutes were founded, and the University of Ljubljana opened in 1919.

Much of Ljubljana’s architecture from the period between the two World Wars is the work of Jože Plečnik (1872–1957). Born in Ljubljana, Plečnik studied architecture in Vienna under Otto Wagner and was an important member of the Viennese Secessionist School. It was Plečnik who added many of the decorative touches to the city's parks, squares, and bridges. Some of his finest projects include the Triple Bridge, the open-air market on Vodnik Square, the University Library, and the plans for the Križanke Summer Theater. Although Plečnik survived World War II, he fell out of favor with government officials, since his Roman Catholicism conflicted with the ideologies of the socialist state under Tito.

The Tito years saw increased industrialization. The population of Ljubljana tripled, leaving many agrarian villages all but abandoned, and vast factory complexes, high-rise apartments, and modern office buildings extended into the suburbs.

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