Ljubljana Postcard: Slovenian Native Son And A Beauty Restored
The author grew up in the city. On a recent trip back, he finds the Slovenian capital revitalized in a way he'd dreamed about during his youth.
LJUBLJANA — Two elderly men were standing a step away from Šuštarski Most (Cobbler's Bridge) in the heart of the old part Ljubljana. They looked like longtime friends involved in deep, calm conversation. Like a reflection of the bridge in front of them, which has connected two sides of medieval Ljubljana since the 13th century and was last redesigned in 1931 by architect Jože Plečnik, they seemed to be relics of the past.
The men stood in near complete solitude, with no intention of moving. They seemed to have all the time in the world. When I walked past them, I heard the taller one say: "He was a big painter." They were reminiscing, or perhaps the man who was emphasizing the importance of the painter had just learned something new about him, or about the Slovenian capital, and was now telling it to his old friend. I did not hear the painter's name but the image of those elder locals, involved in a conversation about the history of their city, struck me as an apt symbol of today's Ljubljana. Judging by the tone of the conversation, the diction, the familiarity and the awareness of both men with the space around them, I had no doubt that the subject matter of the discussion must have been about a local artist, dead for a while, but living in their memories.
During my recent visit to Ljubljana, I got the strong impression that the entire city was digging into its past and learning from it. The fragmentary encounter with two men is an illustration of this process, but so are the many young people who are eager to learn about the city splendors. "There are many new facts we are learning about Ljubljana, but there is also a new way to narrate the story of this city," said Gregor Bulc, a tour guide and former student of philosophy. I joined his tour for young Slovenians who would like to learn more about the city's history, particularly its revolutions.
The tour started in 1968, and it ended by visiting abandoned industrial and military places and turned them into social and alternative art performing centers. Some of these places have existed for decades and became part of institutionalized life here, hosting art, performance groups and social movements. This online guide, though not exact, may give you a hint of what I am talking about. While Bulc knew a lot of interesting little spots in Ljubljana and how to present them, another young man, whose name I do not recall, quite disappointingly failed to present the wider historical context of "revolutionary" events in Ljubljana.
Generally, though, tours and similar activities have become popular because of the dynamic changes in Slovenian society, which continues to search for the nation's identity. Or is it that Slovenia is trying to encode the most recent discoveries and foster pride? It might be, also, that these immersions are the simplest way to protect the small country and its city from touristic invasion. All the changes that made Ljubljana attractive and sexy have also met strong opposition from people who, in this new dynamic reality, are losing their entitlements and comfort zones. Perhaps, even, their identity.
This is, however, the image of contemporary, boiling Ljubljana with its touching beauty. I grew up in the city, and fondly remember the Ljubljana of the past, but the one I experience now is revitalized as I had wished and dreamed about. How many times did I wander through the city in my student years, in search of human life, a cozy bar or coffee shop, urban encounters, surprising events, or something that would quench my thirst for curiosity? During my socialist youth, one could not even buy a newspaper on Sundays in Ljubljana; the whole city was shut down. On weekends, Ljubljana turned into a ghost town, shop display windows the only thing to watch.
I knew them all by memory. They changed them only four times a year, with every new season. So what was left to see were the deteriorating facades of bourgeois houses, some medieval, some more recently built after the earthquake that damaged most of the city in 1895. But, 80 years after the earthquake, the Ljubljana of my youth aged again. Just as an 80-year-old body gets slow, so too did the city; it could not cure its ailments. Without makeup, the heart of the old city showed all its wrinkles and scars. Still beautiful on the inside, with many well-kept apartments still preserving the intimacy of what was left of the bourgeois lifestyle, the outside of the old houses looked abandoned, unappealing. Today shiny, vibrant and full of life, the center of the city in those years was half empty, with restaurants you could count on one hand.
It would be like declaring war on the regime.
During socialism, Ljubljana's Belle Epoque — the rebuilding period between 1896 and 1910 that introduced the architectural changes from which a great deal of the city dates back to today — was challenged and contrasted by the brutal concrete, rectangular, spartan, and purely functional constructions that served as the dormitories for the working class, the victors of the socialist revolution and the liberators of the country from the occupation of the Nazis and fascists. The new rulers of the country, our parents' generation, did not destroy the old, as happened in some other countries. But whatever was built with or created by the hands of a socialist, revolutionary man, was dropped and left aside. For them, the past belonged to a different ideology and was threatening the existence of the new regime. The entire old part of the city was therefore left to age and to decay. There was, of course, a lack of finances, but what really mattered was the choice to prioritize ideology. Nobody who belonged to the new political class would dare to spend any money on maintenance or restoration of the historic part of the city. It would be like declaring war on the regime. Ljubljana in the "70s and "80s was not only lonely but also murky. Even in its darkest times, however, we still sensed Ljubljana's potential beauty.
Thanks to my extended family, it was my privilege as a teenager in the 1970's to get to know a group of young students of architecture who ascribed themselves the allure of artists. Besides being annoyingly egocentric and loud, they were also very aggressive in proposing changes. This group of baby boomers followed the teachings of the spiritual father of Slovenian architecture then, Edo Ravnikar, who in turn was a pupil of the much more famous Jože Plečnik, the greatest Slovenian architect who gave Ljubljana its soul by effecting a wonderful transformation of the city. Not only this city, for Plečnik chose his own original artistic path and left an impact on such important central European cities as Vienna and Prague.
It was in the late 1980's that Plečnik's legacy was at last undusted, first in the form of publications and debates, and then more research. His name was finally freed from suspected dangerous liaisons with reactionary ideologies. In the last 12 years, after successful Slovenian business manager Zoran Janković became the mayor of the city, Ljubljana developed to its full potential.
Janković, who is of Serbian origin, was torpedoed by Slovenian nationalists from Mercator, a very successful chain of supermarkets that dominated the retail market in Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia. Mercator fell to disgrace after Janković was forced to leave, but the former CEO decided to run for mayor and won. Janković then surrounded himself with a team of very open-minded people who started to dig into Ljubljana's soul. Among them is Janez Koželj, the architect, who was part of the group of loud young students I mentioned earlier. Koželj, who today acts as deputy mayor, is behind it all. As Janković admitted in last year's interview for Mladina, "the person behind the entire urban redesign of Ljubljana, using various styles and urban concepts and connect them into the whole. Koželj is the happiness of this city. It will be inscribed in our history with golden letters."
During the last dozen years, the mayor's team created the new face of the city. Ljubljana built many new bridges (some of them were never-materialized Plečnik's ideas), turned river banks into walking areas, and closed downtown to car traffic to build a modern sports center. Koželj's team worked hard to extend a touch of Plečnik's legacy to the city, respecting the identity the grand architect envisioned. Koželj managed to integrate a previously isolated castle that hovered over it into Ljubljana, improve the city's bloodstream with new bridges and footbridges, and revitalize the river, now an active part of the city with its sightseeing boats and paddlers. Janković promised that in two years, after his last mandate, he intends to dive into the Ljubljanica, symbolically becoming the first swimmer of the now-clean river.
So the hill with the castle, the river and its banks, and the whole of the city are all part of the same entity with one heartbeat; the streets are full of good restaurants, drinking the good coffee is now entirely possible, and sitting in any of hundreds of garden restaurants is now an accustomed-to pleasure. You cannot but fall in love with Ljubljana. As mayor Janković says, Ljubljana no longer needs to learn from Barcelona and Vienna, because it is a Slovenian capital that is now a model city.
Airbnb is still the problem.
And yet, there seem to be some issues, as I learned from friends and locals I talked to during my recent three-week stay. The opposition to increasing crowds of tourists is growing. The 400,000 annual visitors to Ljubljana have now grown to 1.6 million. The mayor has set a goal to achieve a three-night minimum stay from every visitor (the average is now 2 nights). Ljubljana is building more hotels and residential housing, and its Airbnb business is booming as the city hesitates to tax landlords any higher.
On the other hand, real estate taxation in Slovenia is ridiculously low, which means that the income earned by renting it is highly profitable, thanks to the changes and newfound popularity of Ljubljana. As for the fact that the city is short on student homes, and that massive tourism is raising the rental prices, Janković answered with the need for a university campus, which it has never had. Here, again, Janković is right.
But Airbnb is still the problem, admitted Koželj, whom I met during the exhibition opening for the 50th anniversary of Alan Ford, quite a celebrity in former Yugoslavia. Koželj told me, however, that the city has practically finished the job, citing the major renovation of the city's two industrial complexes: a former bicycle plant named Rog and a former sugar refinery, Cukrarna, which will become a youth art center, as well as conference and administrative centers.
"We are capable to start building the additional university library, the long-awaited Ljubljana railway and bus stations immediately, but we cannot touch them because those are the central government projects," Koželj said, full of desire to put city hands on two very challenging projects. In the meantime, however, while discussing the issue with the state bureaucracy, the deputy mayor is thinking of expanding Ljubljana into the hinterland by following the curves of Ljubljanica river and improving cooperation with touristic facilities in more minor Slovenian cities. In short, Ljubljana, with less than a one billion Euro budget, is not only a better model than Barcelona and Vienna but seems to be more efficient than the Slovenian government itself. As Deng Xiaoping used to say, "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouses."