A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Notes on Slovenia

In his podcast Conversations with Tyler, Tyler Cowen always takes the opportunity to ask his interviewee for quick-fire opinions upon a range of topics. He does not ask them whether a thing is good or bad, however, but rather whether it is "underrated or overrated". In some sense there is an obvious reason for this: by declaring something either overrated or underrated, you commit yourself to disagreement with general opinion. This is an easy recipe for an interesting conversation.

In another sense, though, it is very puzzling. Why should you have to express a negative opinion of something that may genuinely be very good, merely because other people also like it? Indeed, many goods and media - Facebook being the most obvious example - a large portion of the value derived by an individual comes from the fact that others also enjoy the product. We form communal experiences around much of our culture - (most) people go to concerts and films together, and they discuss these evenings afterwards.

There is, however, at least one realm where the underrated/overrated question remains very important and that is tourism. A place that is overrated will be expensive and often disappointing; a place that is underrated will generally be cheaper and pleasantly surprising. There are advantages to famous places, of course - they tend, for example, to have rather better infrastructure for tourism (information centres, easy travel options) - but they are also more crowded.

All this is a long-winded way of expressing my opinions on Ljubljana and Lake Bled, which I was able to visit at the end of October. Both were pleasant, worth seeing, but would probably not (in my view) have merited a trip from the UK - but whereas Ljubljana is pleasant and underrated, Bled is pleasant and overrated.

That's all the summary; the rest of the post is (parts of) the trip told primarily through pictures.

We went down on a Friday, catching the train from Budapest and arriving mid-afternoon.
Some forested hills in the Slovenian countryside.
A castle, nestled into that same set of hills.
After taking our bearings and withdrawing some Euros, we headed for the Old Town. The centre of Ljubljana is Preseren Square, named after the national poet France Preseren and featuring several landmarks of the town.
A picture of Preseren Square (not by me), featuring the Triple Bridge (bottom), Statue of France Preseren (centre centre-right), and the Franciscan Church of the Anunciation (upper centre-right).
When we got there, I was amused to see some evangelical Christians. We have these in Britain of course, but in Britain they preach within an assumed Protestant context. Not so for these Christians:
"Excuse me, sir, have you heard the bad news about Mary the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ?"
After securing beds in a hostel for the night - we had a place booked via AirBnb, but this was not due to start until the next day - we went for a meal and a wonder around the Old Town.
A wind band who happened to be playing in front of the council house.

This used to be a very valuable fountain carved out of the finest marble, to the point where it became worthwhile for the city to have a permanent guard on the fountain to protect it. Nowadays the original fountain sits in a museum, while this replica has taken its place.

I'm still not certain what this building is, although I think it has something to do with the University.
The next day, we spent most of the morning wondering around the city as part of a guided tour.
One of the dragons on Dragon Bridge. This was built in 1888, partly as a celebration of 40 years that Emperor Franz-Joseph I had spent upon the throne and partly as a test of a new and experimental building material: concrete. At the time there was great uncertainty about how well it would work, hence this bridge being constructed in a relative backwater rather than in Vienna. The bridge was originally named after Franz-Joseph, but upon Slovenian independence after WWI it was renamed and the dragon statues were added.

A view of the Ljubljanica river, looking south from the Cobblers' bridge.

The very ornate cathedral.
After seeing these, we spent the early afternoon visiting the National Museum.
Apparently this brooch is supposed to be a pregnant woman.

The Divje Babe Flute. We're not entirely sure what its purpose was, but one theory is that it is a flute and therefore the world's oldest musical instrument.

Some very old jewellery.
In the evening, two of us (one of my travelling companions was running in the marathon the following day, and so wanted to avoid pushing herself) walked up to Ljubljana Castle. The castle is situated on a hill up the walk upwards is demanding, but rewarding with marvellous views of the city and the sound of music wafting up from the various clubs and bars.
Unfortunately the pictures I took up there haven't come out very well; this is the best of a bad bunch, looking out over Zvezda Park.
On the Sunday, the two of us who were not running the marathon briefly stood around to watch it start, went around the Natural History museum, and then headed off walking in the hills of Tivoli Park. My companion was astonished at the size of the park; I was less impressed at the time, but upon examining maps in retrospect it turns out to be more than twice the twice of Budapest's City Park, and perhaps eight to ten times the size of Platt Fields in Manchester, and probably a solid 30% larger than Hyde Park in London. It was the height of autumn, and the ground was crisp with golden fallen leaves.
Front runners of the marathon - unsurprisingly Kenyans #HBD

A road near the town centre, notable for the contrast between the lovely Viennese secession buildings on the left and the wor-down post-Soviet buildings on the right.

The lovely Opera House.

A hillside meadow, overlooked by a pleasant restaurant with mostly outdoor seating where we had lunch.

My lunch - the traditional Slovenian Struklji: dough rolls filled in this case with cottage cheese, spinach, walnut, and tarragon, and some blueberry brandy to wash it down. To be honest I didn't especially like these - the texture, especially, with the breadcrumb sauce on top, was unpleasantly slimy, and there was not all that much taste. Still, value of information!
Ljubljana is not a large town, and by this point we had exhausted most of the tourist destinations. Moreover, many of them would be shut for the next two days - Mondays because they always shut on that day, and Tuesday because it was the 1st November. (This extended to supermarkets, which closed unexpectedly early on Monday and did not open on Tuesday, leaving us without food for the train journey back). Therefore on Monday we caught a coach to the famous Lake Bled. The coach was overcrowded, to the point that we spent the first half of the journey sitting on the floor until some people got off.

Eventually we arrived and were greeted with some adorable views of the lake and castle.

First we walked along the lakeside. After reaching the other end and seeing that there was not much there beyond a couple of restaurants and a canoe rental, we found a path winding upwards towards the castle.

A panorama, taken from the spot where we had lunch.

At the entrance to the castle there was a Hallowe'en-themes medieval fair going on, aimed mostly at children. After a brief look round this, I went into the castle while the others, baulking at the entrance fee, decided to make their way back down.
This is some significant manuscript, or a facsimile thereof. I forget which, and also why it is significant.
 After the first half of the day being overcast, the sun came out while I was in the castle. This improved the views to be had, but made photography harder due to Bled Island lying in-between myself and the sun.

Some mountains, looking away from the lake.

 After meeting at the lakeside, we were rowed across to the island. A violinist and pianist were playing tunes, mostly Viennese, and admiring the scenery as waves lapped at the boat and the music drifted over the water was surely one of the most belle epoque experiences one can enjoy.

The first view on the island. There was relatively little there, to be honest - a chapel, a couple of shops, and a clock tower. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant enough way to spend forty minutes.

One of the buildings on the island had a display of various national costumes. Slovenia, despite its small size, has three different traditions in clothing.

After returning to the mainland and narrowly missing the 3:30pm coach back, we sat at a café where I was able to enjoy some excellent Slovenian red wine.

That was the last touristic experience of the trip - in the evening we struggled to find places to eat, I took a few photos, and the next morning we had to catch the 8:45 train, arriving in Budapest early evening.

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