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Nora, a construction manager from Stuttgart, questions the need for flying when she can peacefully sleep on a train and relish in the journey. Currently en route to visit her family, we are both nestled in our designated bunkbeds within a ladies-only compartment on the Lisinskitrain. As we converse, we delight in the excitement of overnight travel, from encountering intriguing individuals to witnessing the ever-shifting landscape outside our cabin window. My purpose for this voyage is to gain insight into how Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, can be reached in a mere 20 hours from the UK, with brief but enjoyable layovers in Paris and Stuttgart.
Our conversation slows as we’re rocked to sleep from the clickety-clack of the train while it snakes around the Swabian Alps. The night passes smoothly and carefree. These sleeping carriages are as comfortable and clean as any in western Europe, with the added hospitality of super-strong coffee, croissants and personal alarm calls. In a little over 11 hours, an eclectic mix of blurry-eyed families, business people and backpackers have travelled through Munich, Salzburg and Bled, to arrive in Ljubljana.
Ljubljana is often described as a fairytale city, with its tales of dragons, its majestic medieval castle and ever-present River Ljubljanica. Within minutes of arriving, I’m ambling along car-free, cobbled streets, embodying the city’s motto of “relax and enjoy”. Chatter and laughter from busy restaurants and bars form the city’s background hum, interrupted only by the cathedral’s bells or a passing cyclist.
At one of the oldest inns in the city, Slovenska Hiša Figovec, I am introduced to local cuisine for the first time. The word “Hiša” translates to “home”, and that is exactly how I feel while I am there, surrounded by books, tapestry cushions, and inviting scents. As I enjoy the succulent kranjska klobasa (Carniolan sausage) and idrijski žlikrofi (stuffed dumplings with creamy beef sauce), I am joined by Polona, a local who works for the city’s tourist board. She shares with me the history behind Slovenia’s goal to become a sustainable tourism destination of choice. According to Polona, over 60% of the country is covered in forest, leading Slovenians to have a deep connection with nature ingrained in their DNA. This connection has played a significant role in the success of Slovenia’s green initiative, which promotes sustainable tourism and has resulted in the city receiving numerous awards, including European Green Capital.
For additional information on traveling to Slovenia, please continue reading.
Walking off my lunch, I’m drawn to the beating heart of the city, Prešernov Trg, a square where streets collide from different directions. It’s where locals covene and buskers play, and where I meet my guide, Simona. She shows me the works of architect Jože Plečnik; he is to Ljubljana what Gaudí is to Barcelona.
Plečnik’s work and way of thinking created harmonious connections between the urban environment and its people, as the city evolved into the capital between the world wars. The design of his Triple Bridge draws people across the river to the town square, while his tree-lined promenades provide the city with arteries between public spaces. Simona points out the beauty of his designs: “Look at how he planted the tall poplars to connect the land to the sky, and the weeping willows to connect the land to the river.”
The influence of Plečnik can be seen throughout the city, with several of his creations recognized as Unesco world heritage sites. His grand marketplace, located by the river, features columns and porticos reminiscent of the Renaissance era and may even give the impression of being in Venice. Though the ground floor remains a bustling fish market, the upper floors are home to lively cafes offering traditional dishes like struklji (rolled dumplings) and hearty stews.
On Saturdays, Simona shows me the open market, where people not only come to buy fresh produce but also gather as friends. In the summer, the “open kitchen” on Fridays attracts food enthusiasts and even renowned chefs. Slovenia is quickly becoming a popular destination for foodies, and I leave craving kras prosciutto and delicious cheeses like kozobrin.
Let’s follow the path of Plečnik’s poplars up to Ljubljana castle. As I take the funicular railway, I am struck by the greenery that surrounds this city, from Tivoli park to the Kamnik Alps. Upon arriving at the renovated castle, I am impressed by the seamless combination of traditional and modern elements, with exposed steel struts adding an elegant touch. Scaling the ancient walls, I join the castle’s Time Machine tour, where historical characters bring the city’s past to life. Despite not being one for role-playing, I find this tour to be the most captivating one I’ve been on in a long time. From learning about Roman innovations to understanding the Austro-Hungarian influences from a Habsburg emperor and hearing about the harsh conditions of the 19th-century prison from an inmate, I gain a deeper understanding of the city’s history. I also discover that it was Ivan Hribar, the enlightened mayor, who initiated Ljubljana’s transformation after the 1895 earthquake, paving the way for Plečnik’s contributions.
Prior to boarding the sleeper train bound for London, I take a bike ride along the river. As I pass by the willow trees, I gain insight into how Ljubljana’s history is influencing its future. Former sugar refineries and bicycle factories are being transformed into vibrant creative spaces; Cukrarna features modern Slovenian art, and Centre Rog aids artists in bringing their visions to fruition. This has reinforced my belief that Slovenia embraces its Balkan roots while also looking towards the future.
Upon the arrival of the vibrant red train at Ljubljana station, I locate my compartment and place my backpack on my bunk bed. I then proceed to search for the treat I had purchased for my trip home: prekmurska gibanica, a decadent pastry made up of 10 layers filled with poppy seeds, cottage cheese, apples, and walnuts. As I savor each layer, it dawns on me that this is the reason why Ljubljana has exceeded my expectations. I have discovered a city with various dimensions – steeped in history, enriched with culture and delectable cuisine – and one that boasts strong connections between its people and the environment.
In 2024, there will be additional train routes available for sleeper trains.
The OBB, which operates the Nightjet trains, will introduce a service three times a week between Berlin and Paris starting in December 2023. This will eventually become a daily service by October 2024. Additionally, the train’s route from Brussels to Vienna will now also include stops in Munich and Salzburg.
The “Good Night Train” by European Sleeper will now run twice a week from Brussels to Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden, and Prague starting in March 2024, and daily starting in March 2025. The company also has plans to potentially add routes to Barcelona or Stockholm in the future.
The railway company of Poland, Polish State Railway, is expanding its sleeper train, Chopin, from Warsaw to Vienna to also include Salzburg and Munich.
In 2025, Midnight Trains will begin offering its hotel on wheels service from Paris to Venice.
Traveling to and navigating within the area
Create your travel itinerary by utilizing seat61.com, then reserve your tickets through either raileurope.com or thetrainline.com. This journey includes taking the Eurostar from London to Paris, the TGV from Paris to Stuttgart, and Croatian Railways from Stuttgart to Ljubljana. Prices begin at £125 for a one-way trip in a four-bed couchette.
Buy a Ljubljana Card to enjoy complimentary rides on all forms of public transportation, such as the funicular railway, electric tourist train, and boat cruise along the River Ljubljana. For €44, you can have a 48-hour card that also grants admission to museums, a two-hour guided tour, and bike rental.
The Ljubljana Park B&B Hotel is a member of Slovenia’s eco-friendly program and prides itself as the most environmentally friendly hotel in the downtown area. Receive a 15% discount when using public transportation to travel to Ljubljana and make sure to check out the beehives located on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.
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