I spent a glorious late summer day in Ljubljana this week, having taken the overnight train that runs through Zagreb on the way to Venice. I haven't been to Ljubljana in over ten years - it used to be a grey, provincial ex-Yugo regional town but has bloomed into one of Europe's most beautiful and trendy urban centers. The transformation is amazing - even the dull panel housing projects have been spruced up and modernised and there seems to be a cafe on every street corner, so you'll never have to walk more then ten meters to find a coffee.
I stayed at the Hostel Celica, which is located in a refurbished old prison, complete with bars on the windows. The rooms, however, have each been redesigned by different Slovenian artists, and as far as hostels go, it was definately the cleanest and most friendly I have ever stayed at. Nevertheless, I hate staying at hostels. I'm mean and crotchety, I don't want to meet lots of backpacking wiggers from New Zealand or Wisconsin and share their impressions of east Europe ("they... like... eat bacon every day!") and sleep next to a dozen pairs of sweaty socks in a room with no desk or chair to sit in. When traveling with Fumie we never stay at hostels, because a private room or cheap pension for two is generally the same price as two beds in a hostel, plus you don't have to share your room with a dozen aromatic Australians.
Up early and went straight down to the Ljubljana main market, located just outside of the old town along the river that runs through the center of town. It is mushroom season, and chanterelles are going for 16 Euro a kilo, while porcini are a whopping 38 Euro a kilo. That's a bit ridiculous - this has been a good porcini year in central Europe. I bought some fresh wild porcini at my local market in Budapest yesterday - they were a bargain at Ft 2000 a kilo (8 Euro.)
Slovenian cuisine reflects the fact that Slovenia is actually located in a cultural and climate hub of Europe: to the north you have the Hapsburgs and the Alpine influence (lots of filling dumpling dishes,) to the west the sea and the Italians (there is pizza and fried Kalamari everywhere) and east and south is the Balkans (meat grilled by people who like blood feuds.) Foodwise, that translates out to a choice between excellent Northern Italian style food and excellent Balkan fast food, usually fried up by emigrant Albanians and Bosnians. Burek, the meat strudel snack that is the world's best breakfast, was everywhere.Cevapcici are my nemisis when traveling in the Balkans: given the chance, I'll usually stick to the cevap and ignore everything else on a Balkan menu. Budapest is just slightly north of the cevap frontier: you can find it on Serb influnced menus at the Kafana, at the Jelen Bisztro at Blaha Lujza, and at the Castro, but cevap is street corner food. In Balkan terms, a civilized place means you never have to walk more than a hundred paces to find a cheap, freshly grilled tube steak sandwich prepared by somebody who is quietly scheming to eliminate the members of a rival family over some minor breach of tribal etiquette. Yummmm!
Apart from the food, Slovenia manages to include at least four different climate zones in the space of a country small enough to fit on your desk. You can go skiing in the high Julian Alps near Bovec, and in forty minutes be eating ocean fish beneath the palm trees along the Adraitic sea. I usually visit Slovenia for the trout fishing. Although the season is still open, I didn't have the time on this trip to wet my line, but on the trip home the train line ran parallel to the Savinja River, which was like having trout pornography streamed into my brain all the way home.Yes, I'll be back, possibly next May. The problem with fishing in streams that flow from Alpine mountains is that the snows melt in June or July (usually the best months for trout fishing) making the rivers flow deep and high, and wading is not only difficult, but dangerous, especially if you are fishing with Claude Cahn, whose fishing style combines the grace of fly fishing with the recklessness of base-jumping. The Slovenes deal with high water by tying huge weighted streamers and nymphs, things that seem like feathered matchbox cars just to get a few seconds of decent drift, and the whole sport gets reduced to a mechanical excercise in nymph fishing using barbless bricks. Of course, the fish are huge. My largest trout ever was a rainbow I caught in the Sava Bohinjka with Claude a few years back, before the age of digital photography...The small Slovene regional towns are worth a visit: any one of them would be a world heritage site if located in Austria or Germany, but in Slovenia cute, well preserved walled towns with a castle overlooking a bend in a river are a dime a dozen. My favorite, by far, is the aptly named Ptuj. Not, in fact, named after the English onomotopoetia for "spitting", this is the oldest city in Slovenia, settled during the Iron age by Celts and known to the Roman as Poetovio. I think this has got to be the most distinctive place name I've come across in Europe, rivaling such towns as Bastardo, Italy, and Fucking, Austria.