I’m going to tell you a secret. I’ve longed to visit Ljubljana. I’ve longed to let my tongue run over the improbable syllables of its name before I even knew how to say them.
Lovely-jubbly. Longing. Lingering. Ljubljana.
Along with Timbuktu, this place stole my heart because of its name, its mystery, and its canny knack for camouflage in the face of the world wide press. Something the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelilna Jolie never managed even in the midst of the Namib Desert.
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a city that belongs to the EU. It uses euros (unlike, say, Prague, Budapest, Stockholm and London) and it sits within a stone’s throw of household names like Italy, Austria and Switzerland. It was never behind the iron curtain; it’s a fully paid-up member of NATO and it’s a shorter drive from Venice to Ljubljana than it is from Paris to Bordeaux.
Yet Ljubljana, and its country Slovenia, might as well be Atlantis as far as many are concerned. A point picked up first by Paulo Coelho, rather than my humble self, in his staggeringly powerful book Veronika Decides to Die.
This uplifting novel, despite its unpromising title, contains this passage early on:
No-one, anywhere in the world, would begin an article asking where Mount Everest was, even if they had never been there. Yet in the middle of Europe, a journalist on an important magazine felt no shame at asking such a question, because he knew that most of his readers would not know where Slovenia was, still less its capital, Ljubljana…
The final act of her life would be to write a letter to the magazine, explaining that Slovenia was one of the five republics into which the former Yugoslavia had been divided
The letter would be her suicide note. She would give no explanation of the real reasons for her death.
It was a passage – and a book – that left a lasting impression.
After all these years of wonder, my arrival in Slovenia was about as unremarkable as they come.
The original plan involved heading north from Bulgaria, through Serbia and then on to Croatia before sidestepping west into Slovenia. Bulgarian rail strikes, however, introduced a swift redirect via Venice to Trieste in northern Italy, where I picked up the trail again.
From the outside, the Trieste Railway Station resembles a stately home, dressed in columns, arches and a top tier balcony, guarded by leafy trees and lanterns. Inside seems even grander, with ornamental statues and a profusion of pink panels and even more columns.
Although it’s peace time, the Italian and Slovenian rail companies are having something of a squabble right now. Direct trains between Trieste and Slovenia have been cancelled, prompting many customers to note that “TrenItalia and the European Union have achieved what the Cold War failed to do for more than 40 years: block transport across the border.”
Luckily, the alternatives aren’t too tricky, particularly when armed with knowledge gleaned from the Lonely Planet forums. I hand over the princely sum of about two euros for a twenty minute bus journey to the small border town called Sezana.
It’s one of the most anti-climactic border crossings I’ve ever known. In that there wasn’t one.
The bus pulled up on an unremarkable stretch of tarmac and the driver gestured that I, rather than the others, should get out.
I did – and waited on the side of the road, not entirely sure whether we’d reached Sezana, and hence Slovenia, or whether I was still in Italy somewhere and needed to be walking to somewhere else.
My mangled Italian decodes a direction or two and I plod towards Sezana’s station.
If I didn’t know better, I could be in England. So could the roads, the low grey sky, the muted winter sound of birds chirping in the fields.
It’s exciting how familiar it is. Except, it’s not.
The differences are subtle but they’re certainly there, particularly when I reach the station.
I don’t know whether it’s the wild punk graffiti that laces over the carriage of each train. Or the pleasure of a lilting, rapping rhythm of a language that I can’t begin to decipher. Or the fact that at first glance this station looks so much like home and yet tastes so much of adventure.
I’m probably too old to think things like this, but perhaps it’s because it’s my first time in Slovenia.
I’m on a train towards a place called Ljubljana. And I’m a child in search of Atlantis.
To be continued…
This article forms part of the #IronRoute series, a journey from Istanbul to Berlin by train, sponsored by InterRail. Find out more about the whole project here and read the last post about Trieste and the Iron Curtain here.