I said it before, I’ll say it again: Hostel Celica is seriously the best hostel I’ve ever been to. I *REALLY* wish I had some more time to stay – both in Slovenia and in this hostel specifically.
When I returned from my day at the caves I’d intended to spend an hour just going through photos before hitting the sack. But the plan changed when I stepped into the lounge and heard a fantastic live band performing right in the middle of a rowdy young crowd. Apparently many of the faces around Hostel Celica at night are actually guests staying elsewhere – they just come by in the evening because it’s so much fun. On this particular night, people were literally spilling out onto the outdoors courtyard – it felt more like a jazz lounge / restaurant / bar / hookah bar than a budget lodging.
I’m loving Slovenia, and I’m adoring Hostel Celica 🙂
I’ve now spent 3 nights and 2 days in Slovenia, but haven’t seen a thing of its capital city. Today that had to change.
After spending the first few hours of the morning catching up on blogs, I started with a quick 5-minute stroll down towards the river. It sure seems like every European city is centered around a river (or series of canals), doesn’t it?
My positive impressions of Slovenia almost immediately spiked through the roof. Ljubljana is one of those places that without question has “that magical vibe,” the vibe which calls out to me, “Get an apartment, stay here, experience life as a local! You’ll like it, I promise!”
Despite being a capital city, Ljubljana somehow maintains a pleasant small-town feel – a stark contrast to Budapest, which felt exactly like a big concrete capital. I’m not exactly sure why I’d envisioned it as another raw, urban capital city – but the reality couldn’t be more different. Like most of Slovenia, Ljubljana is set amongst the backdrop of the Julian Alps – giving it a very green, hilly, beautiful look.
It’s also extraordinarily tourist-friendly, with clear signs to all the hotels and hostels, most streetsigns doubled in English, and almost everyone speaking English conversationally. I’ve found it quite easy to figure out, and so far everyone I’ve encountered has been very willing to help.
(I should mention that I have nothing at all against big cities – in fact, I often prefer them. But somehow in the case of Ljubljana, it just felt…I dunno…different. Come for a visit, preferably during the Summer, and you’ll see what I mean 🙂 )
Ljubljana’s central hangout district is composed of relaxing little walking promenades, small green parks with children playing in sandboxes, countless restaurants and streetside cafes, and bridges running back and forth across one central canal. Many of the roads are pedestrian-only, including the main town square, a multi-way intersection that converges at a famous “triple-bridge” spanning the river. Though it was a weekday afternoon, the square, Prešernov trg, was full of arts and crafts tables where groups of children made collages out of elbow macaroni, college students studied at umbrella-covered coffee shops, adults sipped wine on outdoors sofas lining the river, and even a stage with live musical performances. It was a scene I might expect during a national holiday, yet it was a random weekday afternoon – not even during summer vacation. Could the city really be this cool?
As I continued across the river I came immediately to the beautiful Old Town district, over which looms a tall green hill topped off by the city’s centerpoint: Ljubljana castle. As I write this post on my cellphone roaming around the city, I’m pretty sure Ljubljana has in fact become my favorite stop on the trip so far.
After strolling around Old Town’s cobbled walking promenades and enjoying the music of the various street performers for an hour or so, I returned to the main square to meet up with Ajda, a local friend who I met in the hostel in Rotterdam.
(Note: in Slovenian, “j” is pronounced like “y” – so Ajda = Ayda. Likewise, the name of the city is pronounced “Lyu-byah-nah.” Many words are actually quite similar to English, i.e. Gallerija, Policija, etc.)
For an hour and a half we sat at a cafe by the river chatting about life here in Slovenia, and she provided some really interesting insight. For starters, Ljubljana feels like a small town because it actually is a small town – the entire country of Slovenia has only 2 million people (barely more than Kyoto), with the capital somewhere around 200,000. That’s less than half of Hirakata, the “small town” between Kyoto and Osaka where I first lived in Japan.
Everything in the city is accessible via bicycle or rollerblade, and most things of interest take place in or around the main town square. Ajda was telling me how she feels like everybody knows everyone else, so when she goes out she’ll almost always run into a friend or see someone she knows – as long as she’s in the central area.
Furthermore, life here is astonishingly inexpensive (especially considering they’re on the Euro). When I first arrived in Slovenia I was under the impression that it was a costly place to live and travel, but this is actually not the case. Only the major tourist attractions – i.e. caves and castles – are ludicrously overpriced, something many of the locals aren’t very happy about. But the cost of life itself – and correspondingly the average income – is remarkably low. People typically earn around 700 euros per month, and you can easily get an apartment in the center of the city for 200. A cup of coffee at a streetside cafe is barely a euro. The only reason my hostel costs so much (I’m paying more for a bed in a 7-person dorm than I’d paid for my own private room in Budapest) is because it’s the most famous one in town; even the locals know about it, and sometimes go to hang out. Other hostels can cost as little as half.
Finally, she told me that because Slovenia is so tiny, nearly 98% of Ljubljana’s student population leaves the city and returns to their hometowns over the weekend – thus the typically busy nights out in America, Friday and Saturday, are two of the slowest in Ljubljana. By far the best are Wednesday and Thursday, when clubs and bars are filled to the rafters. Perhaps that’s why the city felt so alive despite it being a weekday afternoon.
Anyway, we sat and chatted for awhile until I had to say goodbye and rush back to the hostel for a 2pm tour of the “jailcell bedrooms.” Unfortunately, since I didn’t make my reservation until the night before my arrival I wasn’t able to stay in a cell myself – I was in a dorm room, similar to a typical hostel. The daily free tour was my chance to get a glimpse at the only part of Hostel Celica I’d yet to experience: its history as a prison.
Wow, this place is even more remarkable than I thought! Every little thing is so deliberately designed by the “head architect” – more than you can imagine. From the the slope of the floors to the tiled sinks in the hallways to the row of apple trees outside – everything tells a part of the story. Likewise, each and every cell is completely unique – each telling a mini-story of its own, from the one designed like a traditional Slovenian household to the one designed like a photo gallery to the one that reminds guests of a famous old schoolhouse that once burned down. When in Ljubljana, drop by for the 2pm tour. It’s well worth the $0 price tag 😛
During the tour, I picked up one more interesting little tidbit about the country: its tourism industry is remarkably young. Hostel Celica has only been opened for about six years, and it was the first in all of Slovenia. I have a feeling that Slovenia may just be one of those hidden gems that’ll have a sudden boom in tourism (and corresponding boom in changes) sometime in the near future – so if you want to see it, the time is now.
Of course I could be wrong, but hey, it’s already happened in Croatia – and that’s right next door.
My intentions after the tour were to hang out and continue catching up on blogs, but after just a brief taste of the city – and my conversations with Ajda – I felt like I couldn’t waste another minute. I rented a bicycle and headed out once again.
It’s not even that there’s really so much to do in the city, it’s somehow just the vibe in general – I wanted to soak up every bit of it. When I left on this trip I was sure that my favorite city would be either Belgrade or Odesa. But after Ljubljana, I’m not so sure.