Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pylons in the snow

Ljubljana, Slovenia

I noticed an eerie silence at East Croydon train station – maybe due to cold weather, maybe something else. Then H noticed trains weren't running to Gatwick; there was a bus replacement service from Redhill to Gatwick (a six mile journey). I immediately sensed potential mayhem. The train to Redhill arrived – completely over-packed with passengers and suitcases. I did some quick maths: 12 train coaches, each requiring a whole bus at Redhill. There would need to be a whole fleet of replacement buses waiting for us. Needless to say, there were none. No buses, no information, just complete chaos with hundreds of people filling the train station platform, the entrance hall and a long queue outside snaking up to the place where there were non-existent buses. By the time we made it to the entrance hall, we had an hour to go before our flight. There were still no buses, no information and hundreds of people ahead of us.

We had to make a decision – quick. H said to leave the station and find a taxi. Amazingly, not many people had the same idea, and after running halfway down a road to stop one, we shared a taxi with three others to Gatwick – at the extortionate cost of £10 each (one of the others was so outraged, he wasn't going to pay, and the driver stopped. No, no, we shouted, keep driving!). We arrived at the airport with minutes to go before final boarding, ran along the endless corridors and got on the plane with about 30 seconds to spare.

Our taxi driver to Gatwick was from Kashmir where he told me it was -15 in the mountains right now. It was hard to imagine that coldness – though we found out a few hours later. Slovenia was experiencing its coldest winter in a decade with snow a foot deep (as was much of Europe; even the UK would get its fair share). I've probably never experienced – not even in Iceland – the icy shock of coming out of the airport late at night to be greeted by -15 C. A taxi took us to our hotel in the centre of town, along the banks of the willow-lined river that winds through the city. Unsurprisingly, given the temperature, there was no one around, and nothing open. We found one restaurant, called Paninoteka, and I had beef goulash with polenta and a pint of local beer. Bliss. One of the best meals I'd ever had.

(We returned to the same restaurant a few nights later to try and replicate the experience – never a good idea. There was a different waitress; I stupidly ordered a different meal, with wine instead of beer. We were sitting on the other side of the restaurant. I don't know, nothing felt the same. And it wasn't very nice. I always say never return anywhere – whether it be a country, city or restaurant – it's always a disappointment.)

The first thing we did in the morning was buy woolly hats. Then breakfast. We found Le Pitit cafe, a charming place a little away from the river. I don't know what was happening to my taste buds but everything tasted amazing (even the tap water in the hotel tasted like it had just melted off the Julian Alps, which it probably had), a simple breakfast of eggs on toast, coffee and orange juice, tasted fresh and lovely.

Our hotel was not only perfectly situated next to the river in the centre of town (which blissfully is all pedestrianised) but next to wonderful, geeky shops: we were next door to TipoRenesansa, a letterpress workshop and shop (where H talked me into buying a lovely notebook for – ahem – €18), a couple of record shops, a photography gallery and shop, and several bookshops. Retail heaven was on my doorstep.

(Everywhere H and I have been together we invariably: 1) Want to move there; 2) Think it's nicer, prettier, greener, friendlier, more efficient, cheaper and more interesting than London/England; 3) The only good thing about London is its free museums and galleries (we never fail to forget that museums and galleries are closed on a Monday everywhere in Europe, and charge an entrance fee when they are open); 4) Being oh-so-well-travelled, everywhere reminds us of somewhere else we've been – in the case of Ljubljana, it was Helsinki meets Venice.)

Despite the -7 temperature during the day, Ljubljana is a lovely city to walk around (even nicer in the Mediterranean summers, where open air restaurants, bars and markets line the riverbanks). There's plenty of pretty Art Nouveau buildings, lovely bridges, a castle perched on top of a hill over looking the city, numerous museums and galleries including a puppet theatre, cobbled roads and a tiny population, most of which seem to be students on bikes. Metelkova is a former army barracks (like the Venice Biennale Arsenal, H noted) turned autonomous alternative arty district, holding exhibitions, events and gigs. Everything in the city is within a 15 minute walk.

Slovene architect Joze Plecnik was responsible for much of the modern look of Ljubljana (as well as Prague and Vienna), designing many of the city's notable buildings, including the lovely, iconic Triple Bridge. But architect Milan Mihelič, still alive aged 92, designed a bunch of estates on the outskirts of town and a cool 1960s petrol station near the bus station, which I took more photos of than any other building in the city.

The sloping Tivoli Park sits on the outskirts of the city and contains landscaped gardens, statues and fountains. H spotted a small creature on the edge of a lake. It looked like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. The poor thing was staring at us, shivering. Will it be okay? I asked H. It will be fine, she reassured me, and we went on our way.

We spent a day at Tito's former holiday retreat, Lake Bled. If it sounds like something out of a vampire film, rest assured it is quite the opposite: a fairytale setting with a medieval castle on a cliff, pine forests and the Julian Alps all overlooking the glacial lake, on which sits a tiny island with a chapel on it.

Not to be confused with Slovakia (which I did numerous times), Slovenia was the first country to leave the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and saw a lot less fighting (just a Ten-Day War, in fact) than its former-Yugoslavian neighbours. It created a democracy and soon joined the EU. I was slightly disappointed at the lack of Brutalist Communist architecture but the petrol station, goulash, cool shops and Art Nouveau architecture made up for it.

– February 2018 

Flickr photos here.

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