Slovenia – not someplace I’ve always dreamed of going to. In fact, I don’t think I’d even heard of the littlest country formed out of the former Yugoslavia until I planned a European heritage trip to Italy and Greece. I’d blocked out three weeks and with nine days left of our holiday time, I thought perhaps an Eastern European country. I dutifully purchased the Lonely Planet book on Eastern Europe and we settled on Croatia as we had heard so much about it from friends who’d visited and a number of friends whose families came from Dubrovnik or Split. Lonely Planet promised that one didn’t need to book in advance for Croatia as there were so many private rooms and apartments available, one would surely find something just by visiting the local tourist bureau. My generation was busy getting married and having babies in our twenties, so we missed out on the backpacking and hostelling experience our kids take for granted so we figured this was a chance to get a taste of throwing caution to the wind.
While we were travelling we ran into several people who said that as long as we were had nine days and were going to Croatia, we should really take the train from Venice to Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital and spend a couple of days. We pooh-poohed this idea at first – I mean, could we really be that reckless? Sure the guide book promised that Slovenia also had plenty of private rooms and apartments available and once we stepped off the train we would be bombarded with offers. What the heck?
Our train departed the Venice Railroad Station at 4:15 in a sweltering Sunday afternoon. It was a three hour ride to Ljubljana, which would get us into the capital at about 7:15 in the evening. Not exactly early, but still, with plenty of time to find a place to stay. Our train was a fifties sleek green and white diesel, four cars. Not too many people actually go to Ljubljana. We had booked first class tickets, and soon we were comfortable in a crisply air-conditioned car, chatting with a couple of New Yorkers who were also keen to check out Ljubljana before they headed home from an extended holiday. They had a room booked at the Grand Hotel, but we were on an adventure.
We traveled through the lush Italian countryside, dense with vineyards and sunflowers. Porters came through selling drinks and snacks as there was no dining car. For the first time in Europe, I encountered travel personnel who did not speak English.
We arrived at the Slovenian border on time. There was a somberness to the checkpoint, a remnant of a time when one was crossing not just from Italy to Yugoslavia, but from the west to the east. But those days are gone. Or so I thought, until the customs agents boarded the train. They were much sterner than I expected, certainly more official than any I had encountered in Europe, with grim, unsmiling faces with their shoulders slightly stooped so they hovered right over you as they demanded your passport. We handed ours over and while mine didn’t interest them, they gave my husband’s a thorough going over before stamping it. I expected that the train would start moving again, but shortly another set of customs agents boarded, even grimmer than the previous and once again demanded passports. There was some to and froing as they marched up and down the train. But then they began searching baggage. Not ours, but there were many backpackers on the train and I assumed customs officials were concerned about drug smugglers. We sat at the border for over two hours. And while I normally wouldn’t have worried about being delayed, we did not have a hotel waiting for us in Ljubljana.
At last the train departed. It was after eight o’clock and the sun had set. I could see as we ventured in the mountains that storm clouds were gathering. It began to rain heavily, accompanied by brilliant flashes of lightning and booming thunder immediately after. I think the train was travelling with the storm and at the same speed because for the next hour as night feel, we could see flashes of deep pine forest by the light of the lightning. As we approached every town I hoped this was Ljubljana. It was getting very late. What if we couldn’t find a place to stay?
It was ten o’clock we when finally arrived at the train station. As we disembarked I had a horrible sinking feeling. There didn’t appear to be a proper train station. We followed our fellow passengers to the end of the platform and down a set of concrete stairs into what might have been used as a bunker during the Slovenian capital’s 10 shelling by the Serbs. On the terrible story Sunday night, it was lined with shops closed for the night. I looked, but couldn’t find any sign of the tourist bureau.
Despite the storm, I realised we would have to venture back out and see what else was out there. We dragged our bags up what appeared to be the exit and stood in pelting rain to see what was out there. About 200 metres away we could see a large building with lights on. By the time we reached it, we were soaked to the skin. It was the station. And there was indeed a tourist bureau that had stayed open to meet the train.
I left my husband with the bags and lined up in the crowded dingy room, hoping they would have something. When I reached the front of the line I asked for a hotel. So much for a private accommodation at this time of night. Two nights. The young woman at the desk, clad in black and lime green with numerous piercings gave me a withering look, but her English was good. The only place available was the Hotel Park, which she assured me was clean and each room had a private bath. I accepted her map and returned to my husband who was feeling rather cranky and said he was sure the New Yorkers who had booked a room at the Grand Hotel were safe and warm in their room by now.
They weren’t. They were standing in front of the train station along with a dozen or so other travelers trying to hail a taxi. Like all cities, regardless of size, it is nearly impossible to get a cab in the rain. Though we tend to wait in line and accede the person ahead of us has the right to the next cab, Europeans take a more free-for-all attitude and while we knew it must have been our turn a long time ago, others kept sprinting to the cabs before they had time to stop. I decided it was time for us to behave like the locals or we would be waiting until midnight. The next cab that approached, I bolted for the door and had it open before it had stopped. The driver tried to argue with us, but I pretended not to understand as I sat down. He begrudgingly helped my husband load our suitcases into the trunk and we were off to the Hotel Park, about five minutes away. Fortunately he had a meter running and the fare came to less than five Euros.
It looked nice enough from the outside. A little bright, but we weren’t looking for five star accommodation and the sign out front indicated this was only two star. We went to the desk to check in, but the clerk insisted we look at the room first. We took the slowest lift on the planet up to the third floor and opened the fire door into the hallway. It was pitch dark. I tried flicking a light switch, but nothing happened. Suddenly the fluorescent lights flickered on and we could see we were in a former communist era dormitory. Or maybe a minimum-security prison… We found our room and opened the door – it was over 35 degrees! Flicking on the light, we found two twin beds lined up along one wall… We couldn’t afford to be picky, but they had to have something better than this? Well, yes, they sent us to the sixth floor, where the beds were pushed together, but oddly humped up in the middle. And it was just as hot.
But with another ferocious flash of lightning accompanied by a clap of thunder directly overhead, we decided maybe we couldn’t afford to be pickier than this… So we took it for two nights, being that it was getting on 11 now, no time to be looking for a room in a strange town we didn’t even have a guide book for…
That settled, we asked the desk clerk if there was someplace we could get something to eat. He thought for a minute and said that really, the only place that would be open nearby was the hotel restaurant. Oh my! Something out of the 1950s – and I’m not talking retro-chic! Yellow and red plastic wall panels with stark fluorescent lighting. The food was just as scary – I ordered an omelet which seemed the safest thing on the menu – I’ve never before seen eggs in such varying shades of grey! But we ate because we were very hungry.
Breakfast in the morning was another experience. More grey eggs. My husband had cocoa puffs with plain yoghurt… I stuck with bread and jam. The coffee… I was wishing for a Starbucks. But the place was packed. I don’t know where these people were from, but I overheard no English or other recognizable language being spoken!
But once we made our way into Ljubljana, it was wonderful. The town is so old and so undiscovered and unrestored and utterly charming and simply beautiful. Most of the visitors (I don’t think you could call the people who go there to visit tourists – there is so little tourist infrastructure.) were young people and the whole place had such a great, friendly buzz. We ended up staying an extra day because despite the primitive accommodation and dull food (we ended up having Chinese twice), it was lovely to feel so welcome and appreciated and to just wander around this beautiful little capital city that couldn’t pull off any pretensions had it tried.