We think that the best way to discover a new city is through its food.
We arranged a food tour of Ljubljana. Our guide and hostess was Jasmina, proud Ljubljana resident. Perhaps because of the fall season, and perhaps because of the shadow of covid, we were Jasmina’s only customers. Which was splendid for us. She led us on a meandering tour through the center of Ljubljana, using various restaurant stops to share cultural notes about her city.
Our first stop was in a fish restaurant in the lower level of the city’s riverside market. The fried fish and seafood were delicious. But this was also the introduction to the city’s transformational architect and city planner: Jože Plečnik. Most of his work dates to the period between the world wars — so quite recent for a city founded in the 12th century. He had a vision of a modern, healthy metropolis dressed in classical stylings. While many of Ljubljana’s older buildings remain, he knit them together with airy open spaces and classical details.
The work Jože Plečnik carried in Ljubljana between World War I and World War II present an example of a human centred urban design that successively changed the identity of the city following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when it changed from a provincial city into the symbolic capital of the people of Slovenia. The architect Jože Plečnik contributed to this transformation with his personal, profoundly human vision for the city, based on an architectural dialogue with the older city while serving the needs of emerging modern 20th century society. (source)
Our next stop was in a contemporary vegetarian restaurant along the main shopping street. A server placed this bland-looking bowl before us. Jasmina said, “Taste, and guess what this is.” That’s always a nervous-making challenge. It tasted earthy, a bit citrusy. Not clear what it was. The big reveal was, “Turnips!” It’s a vegetarian version of a traditional Slovenian dish called Bujta repa. More typically, it has pork as a prominent ingredient. Even as carnivores, we found this version pleasant; it would be great on a chilly winter day.
Bujta repa (said booyta repa) is a traditional dish from the Prekmurje province of Slovenia. “Repa” refers to the turnip that is used in the dish while “bujta” is derived from the Slovene verb “to kill” as this dish was traditionally prepared during the pig slaughtering season. Naturally, we didn’t slaughter any pigs in making our dish and have created a vegan spin on this interesting traditional food. (source)
Continuing along the shopping street, we stopped at this sausage stand, Klòbasarna! The young woman whose shop it is served us plates of sausage and little puffy savory pancakes. This is another typical Slovenian food, Carniolan sausage, or kranjska klobasa.
Kranjska klobasa originates from the historical region of Kranjska, once the Duchy of Carniola, a crown land of the Austrian Empire. It has the perfect meat-to-bacon ratio: at least 80% coarsely ground good-quality pork cuts (leg, shoulder, neck) and 20% bacon (back fat), seasoned with salt from the Sečovlje saltern, black pepper, and garlic. Funneling the meat mixture into natural casings forms 12-16 centimeter long sausages that are twisted into links, tied, and held together by a wooden skewer. The links are then pasteurized and hot-smoked until they reach a moderate reddish-brown color. (source)
Along our route, we stopped before this imposing bronze doorway. As we approached, it looked like some centuries-old church door. But it turns out it is only 25 years old. Its inspiration was an significant visit by Pope John Paul II. Jasmina decoded the design. It was fascinating to see a bit of the Slovenian pride about their specific Christian history.
This is named the ‘Slovenian’ door because it commemorates 1250 years of Christianity among Slovenians. The door is created as a single composition which represents a pre-Christian layer of antique Christianity in Emona, predecessor of Ljubljana, at the bottom. From the base of the door grows the Linden tree, symbol of Christianity in Slovenia, which began with the baptism of the Carinthian princes Gorazd and Hotimir, as well as two centres of Christianization, Maria Saal (St. Modestus) in the north and Aquileia (St. Paulinus) in the west. From the east come holy brothers St. Cyril and Methodius with the book of Slavonic liturgy. Christianity also derives its roots from the activity of religious brothers (capstone from Stična), this is represented by a monk in a scriptorium writing Freising manuscripts, the first text in the Slovenian language. Teutonic knights strengthened the faith and defended the territory, especially in the turbulent 16th century when invasions by the Turks started, by surrounding the churches with encampment walls (Hrastovlje). Peasants suffered because of the Turks and the gentry. This gave rise to peasant revolts, represented by a crowd with scythes, pitchforks and other tools. The rise of Protestantism, which brought books in the Slovenian language, is represented by a hand holding books, above which are shown the bishops who marked the religion of the Slovenians from the 16th century onwards, including Tomaž Hren (17th century), Friderik Baraga and Anton Martin Slomšek (19th century). Above them are crowds descending into the abyss, symbolizing the bloodshed of the 20th century (World Wars I and II). There is a hand with carnations reaching from the crowd towards the image of Pope John Paul II, who observes religious and national history through a window. (source)
At one of our food stops, Jasmina introduced us to a Slovenian favorite: pumpkin seed oil. We fell in love with it. It is a bit like a nut oil crossed with olive oil. Really lovely and distinctive taste. She told us it is great in a vinaigrette, or drizzled over roasted vegetables or soups. Slovenian pumpkin seed oil is an important addition to our pantry.
After a few more stops, we finished the tour at the top of Ljubljana’s first “skyscraper,” with a total of thirteen stories. It’s called Nebotičnik, which means, well, skyscraper. In its heyday it was a big deal:
The skyscraper was built on February 21, 1933, by order of the Pension Fund. It was designed by Slovenian architect Vladimir Šubic. At the time, it was the tallest building in Central Europe and, until World War II, also the tallest building in the Balkans. (source)
From below, on the street, the top floors glowed blue, looking quite chic. Jasmina escorted us up the vintage elevator. We emerged onto a brightly lit café level — I mean, really brightly lit, like an old-school Chinese restaurant. Worn mid-century chairs and tables were scattered around, like in a college dorm common room. But everyone was relaxed and in good humor. And we were served cake, so no complaints!
This is a popular sweet and savory cake, Prekmurska gibanica. The flavors of the version we were served were a bit like mincemeat with some cream cheese.
Gibanica or layer cake is one of the old festive and ceremonial Slovenian desserts, which originate from the region along the Mura River. The oldest written recipe dates back to 1828. This sweet Slovenian food is under European protection and is regarded as one of the national gastronomic delicacies, due to its flavor, ingredients and a unique recipe. Prekmurje flat cake can be sweet or salty, and it is made of strudel dough layers and layers of many fillings. The classic gibanica is made of nine layers with fillings like poppy seeds, raisins, groundnuts, and steamed apples. (source)
At the beginning of the tour, we were all formal and a little stiff. But as we spent time together, we became chums. At one point, as we walked past an outdoor produce market, she said, “May I ask you something personal?” We said, “Of course. What do you want to know?” “Are you married?” We said yes, and then she talked about her gay friends, about the changes and challenges of accepting of all sorts of diversity in Slovenia, and her hopes for a tolerant future.
We asked her a personal question as well: “For you, what does it mean to be a Slovenian?” She paused, and then said that it’s complicated; she doesn’t feel Slovenian. This surprised us since she had been talking with affection about the food and traditions of this country. She explained: The world of her parents was Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was a part before its disintegration in the early 1990s. They came from different parts of Yugoslavia, met, married, and settled eventually in Slovenia. As superficial visitors, this was a little startling to us. Our brief exposure to the country showed us modern highways, people open to visitors, the euro as currency; Slovenia currently holds the semi-annual presidency of the European Commission. But just barely behind these appearances live deep memories of very different times: Communist Yugoslavia, Tito, politically united Balkan states, the fall of the Soviet Union. Amazing to have all this revealed in the person of such a young cosmopolitan woman.
The next day, we walked around central Ljubljana a bit more. We enjoyed the streets and cafés along the river Ljubljanica.
We took a closer look at the magnificent dragons at each end of the well-named Dragon Bridge. The Dragon is a special symbol of Ljubljana.
The Ljubljana dragon is by far the most recognisable symbol of our capital city. From the Baroque era onwards, the dragon is a part of the city emblem. The dragon symbolizes courage, grandeur and power. It appears on car registration plates and buildings and it stands majestically on the Dragon Bridge. It is also present in various heraldic signs. The city flag brandishes the dragon as well. To fully understand its role in the city symbolism we must know the legend of the Ljubljana dragon and its origin.
The legend of Jason and the Argonauts: The origins of Ljubljana dragon can be traced to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason was a Greek hero who stole the Golden Fleece from the king of the Black sea. Jason and the Argonauts fled on a ship called Argo to the mouth of the river Danube, instead to the Aegean Sea. They soon reached the Ljubljanica river. Since it was winter, they decided to camp near the spring of the Ljubljanica river. Near Ljubljana, they came across a large lake and a marsh where a swamp monster lived. Jason heroically fought this monster (or dragon) and finally killed it. Jason was supposed to be the first citizen of Ljubljana.
The dragon of the legend of St. George: In addition to the legend of Jason, the dragon also appears in the story of St. George, who was known as the patron of the castle chapel. St. George is often depicted in frescoes riding a dragon or killing it with a spear. The dragon symbolizes an ancient faith of our ancestors, which was later overcome by Christianity. (source)
Last stop before getting in the car to head north to Lake Bled was, of course, more food. We enjoyed a very tasty meal at Restaurant Julija.