I could hear the sound of the Slovenian National Theatre Orchestra echo down the corridors of the National Theatre. There is something incredible about the sound of a live orchestra. like a choir of sirens, it calls to something in you. It was my first day in Ljubljana, and I was about to do something I’d always wanted to do – sketch an orchestra in full flow. And not only that, I was going behind the curtains, backstage. I was going to get the chance to sketch an orchestra rehearse.
I had arrived in Ljubljana the previous night, after travelling by train from Prague, via some amazing natural scenery.
My bed for the first three nights of my Slovenian adventure was a converted military prison. The Hostel Celica in Ljubljana, once home to political prisoners, has been transformed into an artistic dwelling. The cells were individually designed with the help of local and international artists, including Anthony Gormley. Though the cell rooms have kept their barred doors and dimensions, they each have their own unique style. The prison has truly been reformed.
My cell was the honeymoon cell – as a lone traveller, you have to roll with these things.
When the sound of the orchestra waned I was shown into the rehearsal room, and took my place among the musicians. Then as the music grew again, I began sketching. And what a soundtrack to sketch by. The orchestra, led by the Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink, were rehearsing the score to the Czech opera ’Katya Kabanova’ – music by Leos Janacek. Some truly amazing music.
My time sketching at the Slovenian National Theatre was split by lunch on top of Slovenia’s Skyscraper and a tour of Ljubljana and its castle.
Ljubljana’s ’The Skyscraper’ (’Neboticnik’ in Slovenian) was built in 1933. When constructed, it was the tallest building in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. At thirteen storeys, it may be tiny by today’s standards, but that’s plenty tall enough for me. I have to admit I’m a bit afraid of heights. So sketching the amazing view of Ljubljana castle from the restaurant’s terrace on the thirteenth floor was a challenge, especially when the wind picked up, but I managed it (when my pencil tried to commit suicide, with the wind’s help, I knew it was time to go inside). The food served at the restaurant was great. And with some incredible views over the city, and the surrounding white-tipped mountain ranges, it’s the perfect spot for a bite to eat, even if you are a little wary of heights.
After my dinner and sketch on top of the skyscraper, I had a guided tour of the city centre and the castle.
Though Ljubjana’s centre is small in comparison to some cities, it has plenty of great architecture and stories – like the strange locations of the American embassy and the Russian consulate. They sit right next to each other. The Cold War spies only had to look out of their windows to see their opposite number. And the German embassy sits only a few feet away, on the other side of a schoolyard.
For some of the best architecture, visit the numerous bridges that cross the Ljubljanica river, and the nearby areas.
The final part of my tour took me to the city’s castle, which can be reach by road, foot, or by a funicular. Ljubljana castle was built in the second half of the fifteen century. Once intended as a defense against Turkish invasions, it now hosts some great views across the city from the viewing tower, an interesting video history in multiple languages, a museum and a nice cafe, from which to sketch the castle’s courtyard.
In the evening, I returned to the Slovenian National Theatre. There I had the pleasure of sketching during another rehearsal of the opera – this time it also included the opera singers and the full choir. Truly a delight. Take a look at my sketches, and then try and imagine the incredible music that I drew them to. When you visit Ljubljana, think about attending the theatre. If the rehearsals are anything to go by, you definitely won’t be disappointed.
My second full day in Slovenia began with a trip to the northern town of Kamnik. With history going back to at least the 11th century, and with two ruined castles, and a host of beautiful buildings, Kamnik is full of charm. But the town wasn’t my main destination for the day. I was just passing through Kamnik on my way to the nearby Kamnik-Savinja Alps, and one mountaintop plateau in particular. Nestled high above the Ljubljana Basin in a gently undulating plateau, rests a traditional herdsmans’ village. When you first reach Velika Planina, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just stumbled onto a set from the Lord of the Rings. Whether the plateau is covered in snow, or bursting with flowers, the distinctive peaked, grey pine-shingle roofs of the herdman’s huts give the settlement an historical fantasy feel. So, take a walk through history, gaze on the impressive alpine backdrop, and then head for the cafe – very friendly staff, and a great selection of hot chocolates and local spirits.
Velika Planina can be reached via a cablecar and then a ski-lift (my first time in either. Seeing my feet dangle over treetops was a new experience), or by foot, if you’re feeling fit.
My sketch had to be finished later, since it began snowing while I was drawing. Even the blanket (supplied by the kind cafe staff) and my fingerless gloves weren’t enough. Remember to pack warm clothes when visiting out of season. It is ontop of a mountain after all.
While strolling around the settlement, why not pick up some of their hard cheese – known as Trnic (a pear-shaped cheese, though others have compared it to something a little more anatomical). It comes with its own story. It is said that when a herdsman, who was seeing a woman, returned from a long summer tending his cattle on the alpine plateau he would bring back with him two of these cheeses, one for his love, and one for him. If she accepted the cheese, then the romance was still on. And I suppose if she refused it, it was just hard cheese (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
On my way back to Kamnik, I visited the stunning parkland not far from the cablecar station. Not only is it home to some vibrantly turquoise streams and waterfalls, it also has an unusual memorial. Tucked away amongst the trees and rocks, there is a pathway dotted with humble commemorations to fallen Slovenian climbers, whether they fell in the nearby Alps, or the Himalayas.
Now, sketching in the falling snow, and braving a cablecar (I told you I wasn’t brilliant with heights), can make you a little hungry, as it did me. So, it was lucky I had dinner arranged at the ’Gostilna Repnik’ restaurant in Kamnik. My menu included a selection of local delicacies, all of which were extremely tasty. And, as always on my trip in Slovenia, the service was great.
The following day I travelled to the Postojna Caves and Predjama Castle.
Even though I had seen photos of the caves before I arrived, nothing prepared me for its incredible size, colours and textures. Some of the stalactites look like hanging folds of almost translucent cloth. While there are countless stalagmites that appear like giant scoups of melted icecream.
There are so many vast chambers crammed with unique natural artistry – one even has hanging chandeliers (once known as the Dance Hall). Just the thought of the formal dances that must have taken place there in the past centuries, gives it a layer of haunted beauty.
Nowadays the main Concert hall (a giant chamber capable of holding 10,000 visitors) still hosts symphony orchestras and solo performances.
When you enter the 24 kilometers of passages, via the cave’s own railway (a stunning roller coaster journey on its own), you will be instantly struck by otherworldly splendour. And even though 36 million visitors have stood where you now stand, you will still be filled with the same feelings of discovery and wonder that Luca Cec felt when he discovered parts of the caves, back in 1818.
Sculptor Henry Moore wrote in the visitor’s book ’This is the best exhibition of Nature’s sculpture I have ever seen.’
And if that wasn’t enough for one day, next up was the nearby Predjama Castle. Try to imagine a massive cave entrance on the side of a 123 metre high cliff face, and then place a castle in the mouth of that cave. Yes, I’m not kidding. That’s Predjama Castle. Once home to a legendary knight, known as the ’Robber Barren,’ this 800 year old fortification must be seen to be believed. Just ask one of its previous visitors George R.R Martin.
After travelling to the Lipica Stud farm, and spending the night in their own hotel ’Hotel Maestoso’ (pleasant service and well located – right next to the stables), I set about exploring the historic home of the Lipizzaner horses.
For those who have never heard of Lipizzaner before, you may have seen footage of white Spanish horses performing impressive classical dressage. Those were most probably Lipizzanners. Closely connected with the Spanish Riding school in Vienna, they are famed for their grace and skill, and for being born black.
The stud farm began life in the 16th century. At the time the Spanish horses were considered the perfect breed. So, when the Habsburgs decided to build a new stud farm, they chose the area of Lipica, due to its similar climate to Spain.
Though my first sight of the horses, as they were waiting in their paddock, was impressive, my second sighting was heart thumping. I was taken by my guide to an entrance to a field. There I waited. I never fully understood what infantry soldiers in the past would have experienced as they faced a cavalry charge, until moments later when the earth began to thunder. The mares had been released from their paddock and were galloping on-mass down a track, towards me and the gate. In one movement they turned and thundered past me into the field. There’s no other word for it, the sound and impact of their charge blew through me, like thunder. Just like with the Slovenian National Theatre Orchestra, you had to be right there to fully understand the true power of the sound.
After experiencing their raw power, I then got to see their grace. I went and sketched one of their training sessions. As I sat in the stands of the training hall and tried to capture the fast moving creatures and their riders in my sketchbook, the horses began performing their famous moves. With proud arched necks and exact movements, they trotted at angles, and reared onto their hind legs. They were definitely showing off.
Then finally, I sat down in the farms oldest stable and began my final sketch. F Gratiosa VIII was the name of the horse who posed for my drawing. When I say posed, what I really mean is watched. Because instead of staying in the position I was drawing him, he found it much more interesting to stare down at me from beside my shoulder. His curiosity for me, and what I was doing, outweighed his desire to model. Trust me to find the one horse in the Lipica stables who didn’t like posing.
After I said goodbye to F Gratiosa VIII, I left Lipica and travelled to Piran. I spent the night in the centrally located Hotel Tartini.
Perched on Slovenia’s coast, Piran is noticeably Mediterranean. You could easily think you had crossed over into nearby Italy. And there is a reason for that. Piran has had a historical connection with Italy stretching back to the Venetians and the Romans. Even as recently as the period between the two world wars, Piran (Pirano in Italian) was part of Italy. Italian was the main language up until the mid 1900s. The area is still bilingual today.
Hemmed in on the tip of a small peninsular by Roman walls, the town’s tightly packed narrow streets remain almost untouched by modern life. There is no room for cars. Instead, the locals use handcarts to transport stuff.
If I could sum up Piran in one memory it would go like this: strolling through a maze of mediterranean alleyways on a sunny day until I reached the ocean front, where I gazed out across the sea at the distant white-tipped Italian Dolomite mountains on one side, and the Croatia coast on the other.
And there is where my Slovenian story comes to an end. So many wonderful experiences and memories.
You too can find your own memories, and create your own story. Just pay a visit to a country full of fairytale wonder and natural beauty. Visit Slovenia.
Thank you to the Slovenian Tourist Board for arranging and sponsoring my trip. www.slovenia.info #Ifeelslovenia
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