When we walked into our room at the Hostel Celica, which used to be a prison, a guy was lying in one of the bunks wearing nothing but his underwear (Inner Soul briefs, quite comfortable-looking). I had booked a room for three people but, as the receptionist accurately noted upon my immediate checkout, I had not specified three people and no more. Details matter in Ljubljana. The little visited Slovenian capital will not amaze you with world-class museums or megalomaniac monuments. It is not about being the biggest. Its charms seduce you more subtly, in moments, so that you find yourself liking the place more each day. This is a place to be, more than a place to do.
The Ljubljabcani are amicable but steeling this friendliness is the sense of cohesion and purpose that defines the national character - hard workers whose nation enjoyed a form of democracy as far back as the 7th century, outwitted the Serbs to gain independence after a short war in 1991, and whose per capita income is 50 per cent ahead of that in neighbours Croatia and Hungary. The Slovenes are like synchronised swimmers - paddling hard beneath the surface, smiling above. But as a casual visitor, you'd be forgiven for not noticing this effort.
Such was life one summer day at the Most cafe on the north bank of the Ljubljanica River, not far from the Dragon Bridge. You sit beneath the linden and chestnut trees, enjoying a cool beverage and browsing the International Herald Tribune. You hear church bells ding-a-linging. In the distance thunder cracks; sunshowers are coming this afternoon. It's very green here, and sometimes feels as if the vegetation were about to launch an all-out assault on the city (as Urban Logar, our guide during a city tour, said: "There are very few places in Ljubljana you can stand and not see a tree").
Around the restaurant's patio you hear Slovenian and maybe some German; but no English, no French. You look up; next door to the restaurant, plaster peels from the century-old buildings that house a yarn shop and a cyber cafe. The temperature is in the mid-20s. A man bicycles by while eating a sandwich; he's in no hurry. Two young police officers, a man and a woman, amble along, chatting like a couple in an early romance. All along the riverside is a gauntlet of outdoor spots like this one, with white awnings and brown wicker furniture that looks like it came from the One store. You could sit here all day.
And why not? It's not like there's anywhere you need to be getting. But, if you must, burn off some calories and stroll over to the Triple Bridge, the city's most famous site. It was designed circa 1930 by Joze Plecnik, a formidable architect who planned much of the city centre. The bridge is underwhelming at first but redeems itself in its details: one edge points directly to the corner of a nearby church, etc. Nearby, the national library that Plecnik designed likewise has a subtle touch: the windows are framed by concrete shutters shaped like the pages of books.
OK, it's not The Da Vinci Code, but still, "A" for effort. Ljubljana works on a small scale, even as, steadily and diligently, its country is acquiring the wealth of its western neighbours. All over the capital we saw construction; not megaprojects, but people on scaffolds fixing stores and homes. Young Slovenes are smart and industrious; it is a measure of the country's growth that the capital has become a stop for many concert tours, even though its population is only around 300,000. We saw posters for shows by Madonna, Gilberto Gil and the great David Byrne. We missed Byrne by less than a week and my advice to anyone planning a trip to Ljubljana is to check out the concert schedule at www.eventim.si to avoid such squandered chances.
The greatest danger in Ljubljana is that you become so relaxed you're inert. So if you start to feel restless, explore the even-greener countryside (which for a Canadian is like going home but not having to visit relatives). About 90 minutes by bus from the capital, in the Julian Alps toward the border with Italy, juts Triglav National Park. This is a big landscape, sylvan mass rather than urban detail. You can hike, bike, kayak, canoe, rock-climb, ride horses, etc. until your arteries explode. Bohinj is a pretty town, and cheaper than Bled, which does have a cute white church on an islet at the centre of its lake.
The countryside can be rather more rustic than the capital - at the village of Studor I saw an old woman in a frock raking hay with a three-pronged pitchfork, a scene that will not be making the EU's home page anytime soon. email@example.com