Afraid of missing my train again I woke up at 6:30am to catch the 8:30am train to Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was a straight through journey. No changes. I just had to get there on time.
I slept badly. My bunk buddy snoring so loudly I thought there was an earthquake, as well as shouting in his sleep. It’s not really permissible to put a pillow over a stranger’s face, so I put it over my own instead, hoping to drown out the sound but with little to no avail.
I gathered my things and left. There was a metro stop right outside of Hostel Maverick so I didn’t have far to walk. I went to a bakery and bought some pastries for my journey, caught the metro, and in the bleary white morning light, found myself at my station with an hour to spare.
I sat on the floor with my things. A woman walked up to me and pointed at her foot, said something in a different language I didn’t understand, walked away. A man was busking not far from me. I sat and watched him. Watched the passersby watch him. Watched people watch each other.
Eventually, my train came up on the information board, the platform announced. I put on my rucksack, regretting the sleeping bag I’d carried with me so far when I’d only used it once, and climbed the stairs. It was cold, but I didn’t want to unpack my rucksack to get my jumper out. I would be on the train soon.
Naomi was meeting me in Ljubljana. It was a spontaneous trip on her behalf, a getaway, a last minute decision. I was proud of her. She’s not a spontaneous person and this was outside of her comfort zone in terms of decision making. She was excited.
We hadn’t talked about what we would do or see when we got there, but, being Naomi, I trusted that she would have already bought a guidebook and highlighted the top sites. I was content knowing I wouldn’t have to make any decisions.
She’d arrived the night before and was going to meet me off the train. I had nothing to worry about. No responsibility.
I slept for the whole journey.
As soon as I saw her I felt relief. Someone I know. Someone I can hug. Someone I can be close to.
We were staying in an Airbnb. Someone’s spare room. Naomi led the way.
As we walked through the town we came across a street food market. “I had breakfast here this morning. That stall, there,” she pointed, “are you hungry?”
Four rows of market stalls, each neatly packed next to each other, stood in a block in the centre of a square with steps leading down to it from three different sides. On two of these sides up from the steps were cafes with outdoor seating, and up the third set of steps were picnic tables in three long rows. At the bottom of the steps leading down from the picnic tables, were pallet crates that had been fashioned into benches adjacent to the food market.
Mum and Dad would love it here.
We found somewhere to sit and I left Naomi with my things as I went to find something to eat. The food was incredible. Each stall selling something different. I settled on a Turkish stall selling hot vine leaves stuffed with rice, hummus, and other vegetables I couldn’t put names to. They tasted divine. I found Naomi and sat with our things as she, in turn, went off to find us a drink. Five minutes later and she returned with two plastic cups of cold Slovenian beer.
We talked and laughed. I felt at ease.
Naomi pointed to some taps, “There’s free drinking water everywhere here, and public toilets too.”
As I looked I noticed colour coded bins for recycling, food waste, and general waste strategically positioned in optimum places. In this particular area by the food market, people were even employed to make sure that things went into the right bins, and were wearing tops that read “I keep this place in order. What’s your superpower?”
I felt as though I were in a city where every tiny thing had been thought of. As though, by virtue of being small, they were able to be more efficient. Slovenia has only been independent for twenty five years, making it a relatively new country. It seemed to be thriving. And perhaps my glasses were rose tinted, but the atmosphere was so jubilant. People genuinely seemed happier here.
I was falling in love with this place.
We wandered the stalls together looking for something sweet to eat. We hesitated at what looked like a large fire pit where a man chopped and moved around a huge piece of thick pancake on the hot iron surface. The name of the dish was Kaiserschmarren. “Where are you from?” he and his friend asked.
“Ha! Welcome to Europe!” We laughed.
“Watch your hair please,” they said, “Stand back.” Taking a swig from a bottle, his friend poured the rest of the contents over the pieces of pancake and set the lot on fire.
We had planned on going out again that evening, but when we got back to the Airbnb we found ourselves under our duvets catching up with one another. We hadn’t seen each other since my wedding. I could feel knots in my back that I hadn’t been aware of loosening. I fell asleep quickly and deeply and dreamt of friendships long passed.
The next morning we decided we’d go back to the food market and try something different for our breakfast. There had been so much on offer, we wanted to try it all.
When we arrived we found a set of different stalls from the day before. In place of the plethora of different cuisines, now stood a mass of burger and beer stalls.
Naomi ordered a horse burger, with horse bacon, in a bun made using horse fat instead of butter. I ordered what can only be described as steak with more steak. It came in a black bread roll and was utterly divine. The egg oozing out between my fingers as I took the first bite.
Some food can only be eaten in a gluttonous fashion.
“Fancy a beer?” I asked, hopefully.
“It’s a bit early for me, but you have one.”
I opted out and decided to wait.
I miss Sion. He would love this.
We walked up a side street to discover a row of different eateries and coffee shops. We meandered along, looking at the architecture. We had an idea of the direction we wanted to go in, but as Ljubljana is so small, we were happy to do it at an easy pace and see where the day took us. Combining our different travelling styles.
To put into context how small Ljubljana is, you need to first know that it is Slovenia’s largest but also its capital city. Its UK equivalent, therefore, is London. London has a population of 8.788 million. Ljubljana has a population of 278,853. Ljubljana is tiny. So tiny, in fact, that Naomi’s DK guidebook only gives one two-day option for sightseeing, because that’s absolutely all that you need to see everything in this city.
We were in no rush to do anything. We would see it all. And we would drink beer and coffee along the way.
As we walked we approached a bridge shaped (from a bird’s eye perspective) like a W, known as the three pronged bridge. To our left was a statue of a famous Slovenian poet and his lover, across the bridge there stretched a row of cafes and restaurants along the riverside as far as we could see. We walked across the bridge, heading for the cafes.
“Ljubljana is known for having lots of different bridges,” Naomi said as we walked.
“How do you know?”
“Guidebook.” We laughed.
We stopped at a cafe called Lokale, sat outside, ordered two coffees.
Travelling and going on holiday are two different frames of mind: two different activities. When you’re travelling you’re constantly moving, seeing things, absorbing culture, processing, meeting new people, experiencing new things… When you’re on holiday, you break, you pause, you rest, you move slowly, you escape, you stop.
For three weeks I have been travelling and it’s been incredible, but also, exhausting.
This was my holiday. My moment in the sun with one of my best friends.
It was 20°C in Ljubljana for the duration of our stay. Because Britain is an island we have a lot of wind, whereas, in Ljubljana, it was practically still. The air fresh, but not breezy. The sun, hot. It was gorgeous. I felt my skin prickle with the heat. A second summer.
We spent the day sightseeing; Ljubljana Castle, a park, crossed more bridges, and sought out Art Nouveau architecture.
“I have found a place in my guidebook that is absolutely you. It couldn’t have a more Hope description.” Naomi flipped open her DK guidebook and found the page.
Visitors looking for a glimpse into contemporary Ljublana will enjoy spending time in Metelkova Mesto, the city’s alternative social centre that occupies one half of a large area of old army barracks to the east of Ljubljana Railway Station. Built by the Habsburgs and subsequently used by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JLA), the abandoned barracks were encroached upon by a varied group of musicians and artists in the early 1990s. The city authorities initially wanted them evicted, but ultimately let them stay, allowing Metelkova to develop into one of the most vibrant alternative communities in Central Europe. Metelkova’s buildings, covered in colourful murals and splashes of mosaic, house a number of bars, clubs, artists’ worhsops and NGOs, driving home the nonconformist message. In many ways Metelkova is the natural successor to the post-punk alternative culture of the 1980s, from which Slovenia’s civil rights movement was born. Providing a link to the past is Hostel Celica, which occupies a former military prision at No. 8. It was here that the Ljubljana Four were incarcerated in 1988 sparking demonstrations that ultimately led to Slovenia’s independence. The rooms in the former cells have been redesigned by contemporary artists. Otherwise, Metelkova Mesto is a night-time attraction – its large central courtyard is usually filled with revellers attracted by its bars and live music venues.
She was right. It sounded supreme.
We made it our end point for the day and walked down from the castle past a vineyard in the direction of Metelkova Mesto.
“Well, this isn’t what I was expecting…” Naomi shrunk a fraction.
The DK guidebook description was definitely written by someone keen to appeal to the middle class reader, but not necessarily someone interested in truly representing Metelkova Mesto. When I googled it I found a more apt description, describing it as an autonomous, alternative, artistic squat in old army barracks which had been turned into quirky bars, music venues, sometimes used as galleries and also for other events, acting as a home for Ljubljana’s alternative social groups.
It was great.
We came round a red brick wall and stood facing a complex of scruffy dilapidated buildings all facing in towards each other, centred on an abandoned, graffitied children’s playground. Vans were parked in the centre where a few people were living. The walls of every building were covered in street art, upcycled sculptures and more. It was a punk’s dream, but far from the murals alleged in the DK guidebook.
Naomi is not a punk.
She has recently bought her first house and is excitedly decorating and furnishing it to match the era that it was built in. The Victorian era. She has even bought a book on Victorian wallpaper.
“I’m out of my depth. I’m way too straight for this.” We sat on a bench and laughed.
I knew what she meant. I felt out of my comfort zone, but for different reasons.
I didn’t know anyone here. This wasn’t my place. I couldn’t confidently order a beer or strike up a conversation. I understood this place. It belonged to my world. But it was in a different country, leaving me with a sense of being out of gear, out of sync. It wasn’t just that I didn’t speak the language, Slovenian, but that I didn’t speak the language of this environment.
I could feel myself, my body language, my mind, trying to change gear, trying to find the right place to be.
We mused on our differing responses to the environment.
“I wouldn’t feel this way if I was still travelling with Stuart,” I said.
“Because I know he would be confident, and that would give me more confidence.”
I can see now that his confidence carved a place for me. I’d thought until that point that our friendship had been more beneficial to him. He had been lonely when we’d met. When I’d asked him, “Why do you even want to travel with me?” on our first night of battling our first location together, he’d said, “Because I got up this morning because of you. I’m lonely, and I like being in your company.” He had relied on me in that sense, for my enthusiasm and companionship. But now I was seeing that the need for companionship had been mutual. He craved company, to not be alone. But I had craved a role, a place to exist within.
Maybe that is my need.
Naomi and I talked about the functionality of friendships and relationships. The difference between emotional attachment, investment, and need.
I left Naomi on the bench with our bags and dawdled a bit further into the centre.
It was incredible. People had created this communal alternative space together in the 90s and it was still going now.
I walked back, “Come on, we’re going to explore.” I pulled on my rucksack and slipped my hand through hers.
She smiled and said, “That’s better. They’ll think I’m more alternative if they think I’m a lesbian.”
Tears rolled down our faces as we laughed.
Despite our hopes to grab something to eat in the area, it didn’t look like anywhere was doing food. We headed towards to centre of town and found a restaurant serving traditional Slovenian meals.
I ordered the venison goulash and Naomi had wild boar. We enjoyed food and wine, and finished the night off drinking beer back at the food market, but mostly, we delighted in one another’s company.