Tourists may have begun to flock to Slovenia, but people already familiar with Prague and Budapest might easily mistake its capital of Ljubljana for a lesser imitation. By embracing its countercultural heritage, the city can prove that this is far from the truth.
Prague has for the best part of a decade been the destination of choice for cheap weekend city breaks and stag parties. In recent years only its near neighbour Budapest has been able to challenge the Czech capital’s hegemony over Central Europe. In many ways, Ljubljana is Prague’s natural successor; the Slovenian capital is certainly a member of the same imperial family, coming from the tradition of Austro-Hungarian cities regenerated by EU membership after decades of communist malaise. Similar though they may be, for Ljubljana to take the crown, it must offer tourists something unique. At first glance that seems a difficult proposition given that the city looks more like a large Austrian town than a capital city in its own right.
Indeed, with only 200,000 people, the city is little bigger than York or Luton. However, its small size is perhaps its biggest selling point. Unlike Prague, Ljubljana is not completely saturated by tourists and drunk Brits. Instead, it is quiet and relaxed; the visitors it does host are mostly ubiquitous Dutch backpackers and Austrians from across the border. Nonetheless, the city become geared towards hosting tourists in larger numbers. The picturesque old town – camouflaged as Bucharest in the 1980s TV adaptation of Fortunes of War – has recently been pedestrianized, and is now filled with restaurants, bars, and cafes. There is no shortage of landmarks either: the town hall; the triple bridge; the cathedral; and the looming 17th century castle that is illuminated in green every night. A weekend break in Ljubljana would certainly not suffer confined to the old town. However, to do so would be to miss out on one of the city’s most unique sights: the autonomous, alternative commune of Metelkova.
Graffiti – fashionably rebranded as street art thanks to Banksy – comes alive in Metelkova.
Anyone who has been to Copenhagen will recognise in Metelkova an echo of Christiania. This enclave of counterculture, shaped by graffiti and the pungent smell of cannabis, has become a staple on the Danish capital’s tourist trail. It’s not entirely out of step with the rest of the city. Copenhagen is a laid-back, friendly place that has made itself the abode of hipsters and modern design; in many ways, Christiania takes that idea to its logical extreme. Metelkova, a former army barracks, is smaller than its counterpart in Denmark, but just as shabby, and much more colourful. Graffiti – fashionably rebranded as street art thanks to Banksy – comes alive here: whales and jellyfish swim across a green sea; Nikola Tesla stands in front of a glowing pair of giant eyes; there are eyeballs and naked women all bathed in bright, chaotic walls of colour. During the day it’s a quiet, almost eerie place; together with the unusual appearance makes it seem as if Metelkova has been dressed up and then abandoned by unseen aliens. Perhaps they were the Hell’s Angels impersonators cycling away from a makeshift bar on fat bikes?
Metelkova is a state sponsored – or at least tolerated – cultural area. There’s something more raw and real (and less legal) about Rog, a former bicycle factory sequestered along a side street between the old town and Metelkova. An old bike and a sign reading ‘ghetto sculpture’ lead the way to a rundown, overgrown collection of buildings filled with bizarre odds and ends: a broken down Trabant, a slightly lumpy statue of a woman with her head in her hands, and a fleshy pink gun painted over the side of a building. A message exhorting visitors to ‘stay strong and punch the police’ is sprayed over a wall, something that comes as no surprise given that Ljubljana’s authorities have repeatedly tried to have the crumbling factory demolished.
It would be sad for the city to lose this place. These places, strange and silent during the daytime, and buzzing and vibrant at night, set Ljubljana apart from other cities in Central Europe. They should be celebrated, not rejected. By embracing alternative culture, the city can give tourists something that Prague and Budapest cannot – without these enclaves it is at risk of becoming another Bratislava: a small city flush with hotels but bereft of tourists.