Building Bridges Where Dragons Watch Over: Ljubljana The Secret City

Even though I’ve been exploring Slovenian back roads and far off the beaten track in Bela Krajina, I’m only about one hundred kilometers from Ljubljana Slovenia’s capital. I ride through scenic Metlika, get caught up in traffic in Novo Mesto, and in less than two hours, I’m in the capital.

But something is wrong with my bike. Doc is overheating again. Cruising through the city streets, it’s slow, and there’s no air circulating through my radiator. The warning light glares at me. This annoys me. I’m worried. Not again. I still need to replace the swing arm bearings, now I have to deal with another overheating problem.

It doesn’t take long to find an apartment for the night just a few blocks from the city center and Ljubljana old town. After securing my bike, I take off on food to learn about this once medieval city and the rich history and stories it can tell.

I’ve been to the most admired and visited cities in Europe: Barcelona, Lisboa, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Florence, London, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Copenhagen, and more. Hardly anyone mentions Ljubljana. And that’s fine with me. After just one day in this once Roman outpost and medieval crossroads, I realized I didn’t allocate enough time. I’ll be back. It’s rich in history, ripe with energy, rift in uniqueness, and ready to explore. Sometimes smaller means better. It deserves more than one day. I’d like to keep it a secret, so I can return and dig deeper into the experience that stung me with wonder.

Once marshland, Ljubljana’s first inhabitants lived in elevated pile dwellings. But it was the Roman’s who found the strategic geographic position of the city to be a perfect military outpost of its sprawling empire. They soon realized the beyond the military, Ljubljana’s position also provided the ideal trading crossroads to the between the Adriatic in the west, the Alps to the north and eastern Pannonian planes and Danube river.

The Roman period lasted about five-hundred years, and during the medieval period, the city served as a stopping point for Crusaders. During this period they fortified the city with walls and rebuilt the castle that sits high on a hill overlooking the city today.

In the early fourteenth century, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city. They rebuilt the town with Venetian-inspired Baroque architecture popular at the time. After another devastation earthquake in 1895, they commissioned architect Jože Plečnik to design and build several iconic buildings and bridges that today serve as the distinctive identity to the city.

To cross the Ljubljanica river that winds through Ljubljana and divides much of the old city from the modern city, I have a choice of several iconic bridges. In the pedestrian zone of the old city, I cross the Triple Bridge. Between 1929 and 1931, to stave off congestion from vehicular traffic, architect’ Plečnik’s changed the 1842 Italian design double arch bridge to include two new pedestrian bridges angled off either side of the bridge. He also added decorative lamps and massive stone balustrades. Today the bride serves as one of Plečnik’s signature designs and marks a focal point for his impact on the city’s architecture.

Ljubljana is compact, clean, and easy to navigate. I find another iconic bridge, Dragon Bridge where four infamous dragons protect the city—these dragons appear on the Ljubljana Coat of Arms and are symbolic protectors of Ljubljana. Still, yet another bridge, Cobbler’s Bridge which at one time was outside the walls of the medieval city and during that time cobbler’s would sell their wares outside the city to avoid paying tax.

Another Plečnik design is the National and University Library. Built between 1936 and 1941, and closed to the public. Plečnik based his design on the Zuccari Palace in Rome but includes several hints of Plečnik’s prone to incorporating his own message through symbolism. For example, just inside the main entrance a dark black marble staircase lined with thirty-two black marble columns takes visitors to the main reading room on the second floor. This room features massive windows that bring light into the space. For Plečnik he saw education and knowledge as the true path from ignorance to power, and as visitors climb through the darkness of the stairs upon reaching the top, they are bathed in light—rising out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of enlightenment. Construction completed in 1941 and the library was one of the few buildings not damaged during WW II.

The city features several major plazas or squares including Presernov or Prešeren Square at the heart of the town and once the entrance to the walled city. The square is dominated by the difficult to miss pink Franciscan Church at one end and the Plečnik’s Triple Bridge at the other. In the center is a monument, not to a war hero or political figurehead, but to a poet and the namesake of the square, France Prešeren. This harks to what I believe the Slovenian people’s aversion to political conflict and violence.

With just one day to wander this city and my mind preoccupied with motorcycle problems, I wind my way from one square to the next. I pass by the building home to the oldest philharmonic orchestra in Europe, the building where Josip Broz Tito delivered his infamous speech pledging the new era of socialism and communism, and the hospital where he died in 1980.

I walk through the outdoor Central Market and pass the Plečnik designed three-hundred meter long market building that runs from Dragon Bridge along the river to Triple Bridge. Soon night falls on the city, and I fall into a restaurant. The dramatically lit Ljubljana Castle looms above me as I enjoy a table at a modest restaurant under the stars while sipping a glass of a rich Slovenian red wine.

After dinner, I saunter along the river just a few hundred meters from the center to the Suklje Wine Bar—owned by Matija and his family who I met in Bela Krajina a few days ago when filming for the Slovenian television show. Matija’s sister Katja with her French-born husband Guillaume operate the venture.

The Suklje Wine Bar sits on the river with several outdoor tables and a handful of indoor tables and offers a wide range of wines, cheeses, cured and smoked meats, and other treats that pair perfectly with the wine offerings. Both Katja and Guillaume are scientists, and they know plenty about the science of making wine. They also know the importance of story, romance, and emotion when it comes to enjoying—and selling wine.

The place is packed, the outdoor tables are packed with customers when I arrive. So I stand at the bar inside and chat with the servers. Soon Katja and Guillaume show up and with perfect timing as one of the outdoor tables becomes free. Our conversation is like a wild motorcycle journey, winding its way from science to travel and wine and food.

The family opened the wine bar just a year ago. So far, business is good. We’re sipping a refreshing rose and nibbling on local cheese. Guillaume talks about biodynamic wine and what he feels hypocrisy that so many wineries are using it not because they believe in the idea, but for marketing. The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association defines biodynamic farming as “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.”

While there are undoubtedly passionate proponents of natural and biodynamic wines, there are many skeptics. My new friend and scientist Guillaume is one. “So you say your wine is biodynamic and you sell for more money because people like the story,” he tells me referring to the emotion and mystery connected to wine by some people. “Can you imagine selling biodynamic wheat, do you think anyone would pay more for wheat that is farmed biodynamically?” I wonder if they’d pay more for a loaf of bread made from biodynamic wheat. It’s a stretch, I don’t think so.

There’s mysticism with biodynamic practices. Farmers will buy cow horns packed with manure under a full moon. Phases of the moon dictate planting, harvesting, and to some farmers and connoisseurs, the best time to drink the wine. Guillaume thinks this is crazy. While farmers have been paying attention to the moon for hundreds of years—think Farmer’s Almanac—but the idea that tasting wines on certain days impacts flavor and experience began when Maria Thun devised a calendar based on the principles set by biodynamic founding father, Rudolph Steiner. She took it further and applied signs of the zodiac marking days when the moon enters Sagittarius, Aries, and Leo as fruit days, and when entering Libra Aquarius and Gemini as flower days and opening that wines will taste better on these days. Tasting on “Root” or “Leaf” days, when the moon moves into Scorpio, Pisces and Cancer, and Virgo, Capricorn and Taurus accordingly. But a “scientific” tasting and test held in New Zealand in 2017 proves this theory wrong.

But it is these types of theories, mysteries, and ideologies that give wine drinkers experiences they perceive to transcend logic. When you are dining in a place where the wine and food all sprouted from that place tantalizes your palate—and your brain—you have this experience and allow the notion that this is extraordinarily special. But if you buy a wine from a place where you had such an experience and take it home—it never tastes the same. Mystery, romance, and emotion trump science, common sense, and rationale—especially when it comes to food and wine. Yet isn’t that what wine buyers hope for—an experience that transcends?

Katja brings a plate of thinly sliced pork that was first smoked and then air dried, some mountain cheese, and a basked of the famous bread from Bela Krajina belokranjska pogaca. Pouring from inside the tasting bar is American music from the fifties and sixties, including Buddy Holly, Marvin Berry, Elvis, and others, while the dull roar of other guests chatting in Slovenian and clanking wine glasses buzzes the mild evening air with energy.

We talk about how so many things that we may identify as a custom, tradition, or religious rite are things that were done for specific regions. For example, hundreds of years ago people cured and smoked meats for sanitation, not for flavor. Today, we aggrandize such preparations and processes. Yet the fact remains that so many traditions are the result of purpose rather than design.

Both of my hosts are matter of fact and yet wine lovers alike. “This is a Refosco,” Katja tells me as she pours me a fruity red from Istria in the western part of Slovenia. They feel the notion of terroir is less understood in the new world than even the trend of biodynamic and organic wines. “It’s more technical,” Guillaume insists, “the earth, soil, and climate. All with little human intervention. But most people don’t get it.” The idea of terroir, that these natural elements make a difference and impact the wine to the degree that most people could identify it as a natural expression of the place.

We wind down the evening with a glass of the Suklje Blaufränkisch or Modra Frankinja made from grapes on the hillside vineyard I visited just days ago. It’s deep, viscous, and packed with fruit. I laugh and explain that due to the television crew and packed schedule, I had to leave my glass half finished. I appreciate the time now, with Katja and Guillaume just “chewing the fat” and talking about wine—this gives me a chance to savor the wine while enjoying time with new friends slowly. The perfect way to wind down a cool night in a new city—soaking in the thrill of my exploration.

The next morning I climb the hill to the castle which I find shrouded in fog and eerily quiet. I wish I could stay another evening, but someone else booked my room, and it’s time to move on.

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