10 September 2008

Day 9: Ljubljana–Bled–Kočevje

I fell asleep on the drive back to Ljubljana last night and awoke to find myself at Ljubljana Castle, the medieval fortress perched over the city. I'll have more to say about it later in this post, since we went to it during the day, but the quick tour I had of it at night made it seem tremendous and spooky; ancient walls hollowed out and lit with modern lights and decorated with modern art exhibits (the castle was sacked and much of it destroyed long ago, thus the intensive re-decorating). From the road, I could see a gorgeous vision of the nighttime cityscape, with spot lights illuminating the old churches. Maja's mother then drove Jason and I down into the old city center (again, this is something we saw during the next day, so I'll describe it later) and we walked along the file of cafés that line Ljubljanica River; the old architecture of the city is breathtaking in its beauty. I have never yet seen a city like Ljubljana, with the blend of German, Italian, and Slavic influences. The architecture is Baroque and similar to the style of Salzburg, which is because much of the city was destroyed in a 1511 earthquake and was then rebuilt in the current Renaissance style. Although the city has been attacked many times over its long history (originally as a Roman fortress, Iulia Emona), the center has remained largely intact with the original buildings.

We stayed at Vladimira's apartment, and this morning first went to her office where she has planned a surprise for Maja on her birthday: a notice of her birth and destiny inserted into the front page of newspaper from the actual date she was born.

In the morning, we set out for Bled (pronounced closer to blayt), a lake that is the most popular tourist destination in Slovenia. A medieval castle sits on a high perch over the water, and a famous church is located on an islet on the lake. The castle stood here by at least 1004, when the German Emperor Henry II deeded Bled to the Bishop of Brixen. In the 19th century, Bled gained a reputation for its sanitorium founded by Swiss hydropathist Arnold Rikli. Bled is now a tourist-mecca, filled with hotels, cafes, tours, and weddings. (Many Americans and Europeans choose to marry at the small church on on the island. Afterwards, the groom must carry the bride up the steps to the castle—quite a hike from where I am sitting.)
We went into one of the restort hotels around the lake, Grand Hotel Toplice, and ate the traditional cake of Bled, which translates to "creme slice," and looked through enormous half-circle windows onto the lake, the castle, the islet with its church, and the Alps. Tour boats move across the lake, but power motors are not allowed. During the winter, ice-skating is popular on the lake. By the way, Maja went to high school here, making it much much more scenic than my high school on Palms.

We returned to the city, and then I had my chance to go to Ljubljana Grad (Castle) in the daytime. In fact, I am at this moment writing while sitting on the topmost tower, the entire city spread below me and only the dragon flag of the Ljubljana above me.

Ljubljana Castle started its life as a Roman fortification, and in the twelfth century the medieval castle was the seat of the Margraves, the Dukes of Carinthia. Carinthia was absorbed in the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire and the castle was destroyed then rebuilt in the current configuration with its towers in 1495, and served to defend the southern Empire from the Ottoman Turks. The current damage to it stems from the Napoleonic Wars. It would eventually serve as a hospital and then a prison. The city renovated the castle in the 1960s to make it a cultural center.
The mix of the old and the new is bizarre here, since the castle is fortified with extensive steel and glass and pieces of modern artwork. A tight winding metal staircase with an image of Ljubljana's dragon (the city symbol) on each step winds up to this tallest tower. This flag tower is actually the most recent section of the castle, constructed in the nineteenth century. Right now I am facing east, according to the metal compass points on the floor of the tower.

I dislike the presence of the modern art in this medieval masterpiece, but it is a cultural center, so oh well. The many-tentacled metal cube in the courtyard is darn distracting.

I wandered through some of the lower levels of the castle, probably where prisoners were kept during the castle's time as a prison. Like the fortress of Salzburg, a funicular railway runs back down to the town center, so Jason and I took that route back toward Prešeren Square, the center of the city. We passed over one of the city's famous monuments, the Dragon Bridge. The Dragon is the symbol of the city, and St. George is the patron saint of Ljubljana.
Poet France Prešeren is Slovenia's national writer, and his statue in the square allows him to always gaze toward the apartment of his beloved Julija, his unfulfilled love (all poets gotta have one; you hear me, Beatrice?). This place is also called "Three Bridges" because of the three short bridges that cross over into it. Creative name, I know.

Now I had a chance to walk down the Ljubljanica River in the daylight and stop at one of the many pizza places... and the one we picked had an enormous selection. I also discovered that radler exists here, served in a bottle using Union beer. (As of yet, I have no opinion between Laško and Union. I probably never will, given my general ambivalence about beer.)
I am now writing from the base of France Prešeren's statue, looking across the line sun-figure that marks the center of Ljubljana. I snapped photos of many of the conflicting but stunning architectue that surrounds the square. Like most European town centers, it teems with criss-crossing bicycles and tourists, there's the sound of someone wheezing on an accordion, and an open-air cafe is a few feet away. I wonder if Prague feels like this.

We met up again with Vladimira and ate at a restaurant where she ate the most elaborately prepared lobster I have ever seen. It looked ready to dance away. I drank some excellent Slovene silver champagne.
We took the bus back to Kočevje, and although it dropped us onlz a brief walk from Maja and Stane's house, it still gave me the illusion I had been dropped down in the middle of a Slovenian field at midnight. Jason told me that a short walk in the wrong direction would put me in the forested mountains with the bears.

Tomorrow night it looks like we are going to go to a swing dance event in Ljubljana. So once again, Thursday night comes around and I get to go swing dancing.