A Strange Day in Ljubljana

Slovenia’s capital and largest city seems to have a little bit of everything. We learned that first-hand on a very sunny and hot Saturday in late June. We began the day by strolling around the central market that spreads around Ljubljana’s cathedral, drooling over the fruits and vegetables, flowers, fresh meat, honey, bread, and other goodies. We bought a big bag of fresh cherries (there were mountains of them in the fruit stalls just then) and ate them as we walked. At one point, we heard a low sound of drumming and chanting behind us. Turning around, we saw a procession of Slavic-looking hare krishnas in loose robes parading through the marketplace. This being Slovenia, they were led not only by drums but by an accordion.

In Slovenia, even the Hare Krishna play accordians

We spent the middle of the day wandering all over the wonderful, pedestrianized old part of the city. Seeking a cool spot, we stopped in the cathedral and marveled at what may be Slovenia’s finest example of Italian-style art: a big Baroque painted ceiling full of saints and cherubs looking down from trompe l’oeil balconies. If it hadn’t been for the lingering accordion music outside, we might have thought we were back in Rome.

With temperatures soaring beyond what our year-round wardrobe could accommodate, we took advantage of the big-city clothing stores and bought a couple of thin summer shirts. After that it was time for an ice cream cone, a check of our email at an Internet place, and a salad lunch at an outdoor cafe by the river. (Slovenia may not have the variety of fresh vegetables that Italy does, but it grows lots of good lettuce.)

We had timed our visit to Ljubljana for the city’s annual GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual) pride festival. Since we would be missing the festivities in Washington DC this year, it seemed like a fun idea to take part somewhere else. By late afternoon, a small crowd had gathered in Ljubljana’s main plaza, passing out signs and balloons and whistles.

Suddenly, people gave a yell and pointed. The tower of the hilltop castle that looms over Ljubljana was now covered in a rainbow banner. That was our signal to set out marching through the blocked-off streets. It was a lively, festive march, with lots of drums and whistles, though no chants. There were no politics either, except when the march paused for a “kiss-in” on the steps of the parliament building. Unlike pride marches at home, which often draw crowds of spectators, no one was lining the parade route to watch. But then again, there were no protesters in evidence either, which maybe is good for a newly opening up, central European, Roman Catholic country. In all, it was just another event in Ljubljana on a day full of them.

After the march, Melissa and I wandered away from the subsequent rally (which mainly consisted of bad drumming groups, singing drag kings, and speeches in Slovenian). Searching for somewhere outdoors to eat amid the downtown Saturday night crowds, we settled on a pizza place by the river. As we ate, we heard more music. The Slovenian symphony orchestra was celebrating its 100th birthday by playing the 1812 Overture in the large plaza behind us, complete with loud cannons at the appropriate moments from up at the castle. A very dramatic dinner serenade.

Looking down the Sava River to the pink 17th century Franciscan church, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe

As if that weren’t enough for one day, not long after the concert ended, another spectacle unfolded right in front of us. This one was organized by the tourist office to celebrate the myth of Ljubljana’s founding. Apparently, ancient Greek hero Jason and his Argonauts sailed up the river and killed a sea monster or dragon or some such on this spot, thus making the area safe for city-building. The tourist office holds periodic reenactments of the great event, first on a boat on the river and then on shore in front of the pizza restaurant. So we had a front-row seat as Jason and the badly costumed Argonauts (who until a few moments before had been lounging on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes) engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a large bald man in red and green body paint (presumably the sea monster), as several cowering villagers wearing furs looked on. The spectacle ended all too soon with the vanquished monster leaping off the wall into the river in a cloud of smoke and the Argonauts packing up their cardboard spears. Time to head back to our room.

We figured that Ljubljana couldn’t top a day like that, so the next morning, we headed off to see the rest of the country.

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