Since I’ve been blessed with the dubious gift of easily memorizing random and often useless data, I never had any trouble ingratiating myself with my geography teachers, who would let out the occasional satisfied sigh as I soldiered through the copper mines of central Romania, the capitals of lesser known states of Oceania or the many many headwaters of the Amazon river. In the long run, the only actual benefit that I am aware of is that I used to score extremely highly at all sorts of obscure geography quizzes which proliferated on Facebook a few years ago.
And, perhaps, a fascination with the karstic landscape. The karst was a big favourite with our elementary school geography teacher, who would spend endless, and to most of my colleagues, excruciatingly boring hours delving into the many manifestations of the karst. I was however smitten- in the arid world of altitudes and longitudes, the karst was a fairy tale with magic spells such as polje, dolina or ponor. (That might also be the beginning of my love for Slavic languages, but that is another story altogether.)
I was therefore somewhat comforted to find that the karst is very much real, and not very distant- the name of these formations comes from the Karst limestone plateau sprawling over the border of Slovenia and Italy. However, the internationally used denomination is the German one (the plateau is known as Carso in Italian and Kras in Slovenian) due either to the fact that when the karst started to be studied the territory belonged to the Habsburg Empire or just because science is simply more authoritative in German.
While a lot of karstic formations might not be overly inspiring to the uninitiated, the superstars of the landscape are the caves, with the Postojna cave system, measuring 24,120 metres, taking the palm. These days the cave functions as a clockwork perfect system of touristic entertainment: after a rather severe looking cashier hands you the ticket, you are ushered through a complex system of restaurants and souvenir shops to the entry of the caves, where tours start sharp on the hour. Once released from the dark underbelly of the earth, you may indulge in the pleasures of a decidedly canteen-ish restaurant- but strictly between 12 and 3, those lacking in discipline are left to chewing nuts and biscuits amongst the stalactites.
The efficiency is hardly surprising- the caves were a touristic attraction from the 19thcentury, with rails being laid in 1872, electricity being introduced in 1884 and several VIPs of the era, among them Emperor Francis I and Archduke Ferdinand, being given the grand tour of the premises. Today the tour lasts an hour and a half, with about 1.5 kilometres done on foot, and another 3.5 by train. Guides speaking several languages are provided for each group, lest some inquisitive visitor potter away into the eternal darkness. Besides admiring the eerie landscape, one can also get acquainted with the so called human fish, though they are actually salamanders whose official name is olm or proteus. The human fish moniker was given to them due to their white skin, similar to that of Caucasian humans, a result of their prolongued inhabitation of lightless places.
The village of Postojna is only a short drive away from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, which is a pretty understated affair compared to other European capitals and also suffers from the proximity of so many tantalizing attractions- it’s therefore safe to say that most people visiting the country will add the city to their tour as a side note. Which is a pity, because in Ljubljana be dragons- not particularly large or fierce ones, but dragons nevertheless.
How the city got its dragons is a slightly contentious subject: one pretty convoluted legend has it that Jason and the Argonauts slayed a mythical creature in the marshes around present day Ljubljana during their quest for the Golden Fleece, while more down to earth versions connect the dragon to Saint George, the patron of the citadel’s chapel. Be it as it may, the city centre now sports a dragon bridge arching over the waters of the Ljubljanica, which, alongside a handful of other notable buildings and churches forms the scenic core of Slovenia’s capital. Prešeren Square sports a pleasantly candy pink cathedral and the Art Nouveau building of Galerija Emporium, where you can satisfy your possible high end retail therapy needs, though I personally prefer simply staring at the entrance, because it’s a thing of beauty and costs considerably less than some designer bag in which you can hardly squeeze a lipstick and half your phone.
Secession fiends have their needs catered to by Miklošičeva street, which sets off straight from the Emporium building, while roaming around the banks of the Ljubljanica you will often meet the works of the country’s most famous architect, Jože Plečnik, such as the Fish Market or the Cobblers’ and the Triple bridges. The river side is also dotted with cafés, which had a decidedly outdoorsy Mediterranean vibe even on a rainy October evening while Stari Trg, connecting the centre to the castle, has several exciting shops of which we will naturally highlight the beer store, Za popen’t, where one can purchase a varied array of local craft beers- on a touching note, they qualify as local everything coming from the space of the former Yugoslavia.
Most travelers have probably encountered castles far more exciting than the one in Ljubljana, but yet again one has to be impressed by the marketing flair of Slovenians: every bit of the building is nicely touched up and used for some purpose, even if it’s an odd exhibition or a Puppet Museum- though, frankly, the Puppet Museum is far more interesting than initially thought and I would warmly recommend it to anyone- bar perhaps some of the scarier dolls. According to our informative booklet (Slovenians also love those and have them ready in several languages at most touristic attractions), on a clear day you can see about a third of Slovenia from the castle’s tower. However, our day happened to be a rainy and foggy one, which was only half a pity, because there’s an unexpected charm in mist rolling over the yellow and crimson hills embracing autumnal Ljubljana and that’s somehow befitting the entire city as well- you start liking it when you least expect it.