LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - You no doubt recall that long-ago time (2006, I mean) when everyone thought Slovenia was about to catch on. Sure, it was a great place, especially on magical summer evenings in the capital, Ljubljana, streets filled with music, young lovers and only the occasional tourist gawking at the city's architecture never crumbled by war. But for that very reason Ljubljana would soon catch on, and thus would Ljubljana, which had somehow survived the Romans, Napoleon, the Soviets and more, be ruined once and finally.
That didn't happen. Why? Unlike every other beautiful city in Europe, Ljubljana (pronounced "Lee-oob-lee-AHN-uh") is incapable of marketing itself aggressively.
"Aggressiveness has been bred out of us," freelance tour guide Jan Orsic agrees with a smile as we stroll through Preseren Square, a charming, auto-free zone in the city center.
"Ljubljana is the only place in the world where the American and Russian embassies sit side by side," Orsic says, continuing to beat the drum for Slovenia's aggressive non-aggressiveness. "Even our bears avoid conflict."
We'll discuss the ursine paradox in a moment, but first, a reminder of where we are: Preseren Square, an impossibly quaint public space. The coral-colored Franciscan church, which dates to the 17th century, still stares half-disapprovingly at the art nouveau buildings across the plaza, but it appears that feud was abandoned long ago. On our way out of the square we encounter several distinctive bridges traversing the city's beloved Ljubljanica River, a charming but almost comically slow emerald waterway.
Cafes line the banks, and the barest hint of sunlight sends the city's 300,000 residents streaming to outdoor tables. That pizza you smell, by the way, is from Ljubljanski Dvor, a restaurant and take-away place; Slovenia has a western border with Italy.
"It's true," Orsic says. "Our bears are shy. That's why we still have them."
Oh, right. The bears.
"Germany used to have bears, too, but they were aggressive bears," the sort that apparently thought nothing of wandering down city streets in broad daylight and terrorizing the populace. German bears, consequently, were shot to extinction. Slovenian bears, on the other hand, had the good sense to stay in the forest. And so they have lived long and prospered.
"The ones we have left are teddy bears," Orsic says. Indeed, during our entire stay in Ljubljana, not once do we see a bear wandering down the street.
The bears are missing a welcoming city with an old town center of red-tile roofs and cobblestone streets. But Ljubljana has also made room for stunning turn-of-the-20th-century architecture by favorite son Joze Plecnik, particularly the Triple Bridge that leads out of Old Town, with its stately balustrades and stairs leading down to tree-lined paths along the river.
The "Welcome to Ljubljana" tourist guide will tell you that one of the city's mottos is "lean back and relax," but just as with the bears, you're never quite sure if nature or nurture is behind such equanimity. Thanks to Slovenia's position in the center of central Europe, Ljubljana has been in the crosshairs since before Roman times, regularly claimed by competing empires, as the Ljubljana City Museum just off the river amply demonstrates.
We descend a long, winding concrete ramp into the museum basement, where there is a decent collection of Roman sewer work (with ancient footprints made by vandals who wandered onto the job site before the construction was dry). The other two floors of the museum offer a dizzying look at the various states, regimes and empires that claimed ownership of Ljubljana - from the Romans to Napoleon to the Austro-Hungarians to the Fascists to the Communists (Marshal Tito was half-Slovenian) to, at last, independence in the 1990s.
Not to mention multiple economic meltdowns, a fact we're reminded of while staring in the windows of the city's big department store, Centromerkur. The whimsical art nouveau building near Preseren wears something of a forlorn expression these days. A long-planned renovation is on hold, and the store sits vacant, a casualty of an economic crisis that - "Actually, we don't call it a crisis here," Orsic interrupts. "Here we are used to crisis, and this is not yet a crisis."
Whatever it is, this much is clear: There are fewer Americans now. The shops on Mestni trg, where tourists once came to buy the country's celebrated lacework, sit mostly empty, as do the stores selling teran wine and the famous salt from mines near the Adriatic.
"Go ahead, try it," says an ebullient clerk at Piranske Soline, handing me a salt-infused morsel of chocolate. He confirms that the shop is selling fewer and fewer bags of salt (once the brightest star in the Slovenian souvenir pantheon) to Americans. Things aren't much better at the nearby Krasevka boutique, which may be why the proprietor took one look at me, asked my nationality, nodded, and reached for a bottle of juniper berry brandy.
"This is medicine," she says softly.
I start to laugh. Medicine. Right.
"I am serious," she says. "This is good for the stomach, good for the digestion."
It was as if she knew that later I'd be offered a plate of "deep-fried bull testicle with tartar sauce" at the Restaurant Sokol, as the waiter memorably detailed. I met this challenge calmly, you'll note, muttering something to the effect that I didn't want to order something I could eat anytime at home - meaning, of course, the tartar sauce.
Soon the waiter arrived with something called a country feast. This was a plate the menu had described as fried sausage, krvavica sausage, "dried pork chops," a buckwheat dumpling, and something else just called "roast meat." No wonder the bears are so scared. Still, the wild mushroom soup in a bread bowl was terrific, and Slovenia's best beer, a lager called Lasko, clearly deserves wider attention.
By 9 p.m., having recovered sufficiently from the meal to attempt locomotion, I made my way back through Preseren, stopping at the statue of France Preseren in the plaza. There's something especially Slovenian about the city's most important square's being dedicated not to a statesman or military leader but to a 19th-century poet whose entire reputation depends on his girlfriend's father's not allowing the pair to marry.
Having lost his beloved Julia, whose smaller statue today looks out at his from the opposite side of the square, Preseren proceeded not to demand her love or impale himself on a sword or anything else utterly un-Slovenian, but to write achingly beautiful love poetry such as you'll find in his "Wreath of Sonnets." Another victory for nonconfrontationalists everywhere.
And in 1905, when Preseren's statue was erected with a nude angel hovering over his shoulder, the ensuing uproar might have led to desecration elsewhere. The statue sat just steps from that Franciscan church, after all, and its adjacent monastery. But someone thought to plant a row of trees between the two, the idea being that the clergy wouldn't mind the nudity if they weren't confronted by it every time they entered the church. The gambit worked.
"That is our way of solving problems," Orsic says. "With trees."
On June 25, 1991, after eons of shifting loyalties, Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, an announcement that led to a 10-day war in which fewer than 20 Slovenians lost their lives. The country was at last free to imagine a future in which it would need to be loyal only to itself.
"People said this would be a chance for Slovenia to at last get the recognition it deserved. Other people thought, 'Hmm,' " Orsic says. The country switched to a free-market economy, joined the European Union in 2004, adopted the euro in 2007, and somehow, throughout the tumult, managed to stay marvelously ambivalent about tourism.
Austria to the north, Italy to the west, the Balkans to the south - at every turn we are reminded of Orsic's line about Slovenia's not needing to invite trouble, which always seemed to find the country without any help.
A Look at Ljubljana
Getting there: You can fly direct to London and then transfer to that city's Stansted airport, where flights on EasyJet to Ljubljana are about $177 round trip.
Where to stay: There are several modern hotels convenient to Old Town, among them the spartan yet whimsical City Hotel Ljubljana (Dalmatinova 15, 011-386-1-239-00-00, www.cityhotel.si/?lang/
en). Rooms start at $132 a night, including breakfast, and bicycles are available for free use. A bit more upscale is the Best Western Premier Hotel Slon (Slovenska cesta 34, 011-386-1-470-11-00, www.hotelslon.com), on the busiest thoroughfare in the city center. Rooms start at $143 a night, including breakfast.
Where to eat: The Restaurant Sokol (Ciril Metodov trg 18, 011-386-1-439-68-55) features a feast of Slovenian country cuisine (that means meat, lots and lots of meat) for about $18. A great place for cocktails by the Ljubljanica River is River House (Gallusovo nabrezje 31, 011-386-1-425-40-90). Some of the best pizza in town can be had at Ljubljanski Dvor (Dvorni trg 1, 011-386-1-251-65-55). One of the best places to sample a burek (a calzone-type sandwich filled with meat or cheese) is Nobel Burek (Miklosiceva 30, 011-386-1-232-33-92); an enormous one is $2.75.
What to do: Start at Preseren Square, in the center of Old Town, and visit the Franciscan church (Presernov trg 4), as well as the many bridges over the Ljubljanica, including Joze Plecnik's Triple Bridge and Cobblers' Bridge. Another church worth a visit is the ornate 18th-century Cathedral of St. Nicholas (Dolnicarjeva 1). Travelers interested in Slovenian art and history won't want to miss the National Gallery (Cankarjeva 20, www.ng-slo.si/en) or the City Museum of Ljubljana (Gosposka 15, www.mm-lj.si). It's worth the price of a ticket to see where the Slovenian Philharmonic plays (Kongresni trg 10, www.filharmonija.si), a grand structure dating to 1892. If it's spectacular vistas you're after, take the funicular ($4 round trip) or trudge the footpaths, but by all means make it to Ljubljanski grad (the castle) at the top of the hill overlooking the city.